We know how “cancel culture” works. Someone accuses someone else of an offense against proper behavior. An online mob follows, denouncing the target. That person is humiliated, loses status and perhaps a position, and is compelled to apologize tearfully. The technique is far older than the Internet. In Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, Dr. Basilio proposes using the technique to get Count Almaviva out of the way.
It doesn’t always work, though, even with the aid of Twitter. Sometimes the accuser is clearly in the wrong and — more importantly — the intended victim has a good reputation and responds factually and calmly. In some cases of this type, the accuser comes across as an untrustworthy bully. This is what happened when Stack Exchange tried to swat Monica Cellio aside.
Stack Exchange, Inc., is the owner of Stack Exchange, Stack Overflow, and Super User, sites where people can post questions on a topic and post comments or answers on other people’s questions (or their own). Registered users can upvote or downvote questions, replies, and comments. Moderators are unpaid volunteers.
On September 27, 2019, Stack Exchange revoked Monica’s moderator status on all forums. Her offense was commenting on a proposed policy change. She had not received any previous warning that she was violating the rules; that’s understandable, since she wasn’t.
Here’s my understanding of what happened. I’m focusing on the event which led directly to her removal and not the back history, which could get very long.
On September 18, a Stack Exchange director posted that a new rule would be adopted for the sites, saying that people must use “preferred pronouns” and would not be allowed to “avoid” them, even by not using pronouns at all. Monica asked some questions about this, such as how “avoiding” pronouns would be defined and identified. On the same day, a moderator commented on an old answer of hers and called it “bigoted.” This accusation seems to have been an isolated incident.
Sara Chipps, the director of Public Q&A, asserted publicly that “we revoked privileges for one Stack Exchange moderator when they refused to abide by our Code of Conduct (CoC) after being asked to change their behavior multiple times.” Stack Exchange later confirmed that this referred to Monica. It’s doubly inaccurate. There was, as far as I’m able to determine, no violation and no repeated requests to change her behavior.
The timing of Monica’s removal was unfortunate, coming immediately before the start of Rosh Hashana. She is an observant Jew, and her communication was limited during this period.
She said that Stack Exchange’s actions “border on libel and are likely at least defamation.” She attempted unsuccessfully to get a meaningful response. Finally, she started a campaign on GoFundMe to raise legal fees. This campaign was deactivated at about the time she reached a settlement with Stack Exchange, which included limitations on her ability to comment on the matter. As a libertarian, I consider libel and defamation actions a tool of last resort, but I contributed to her campaign as an expression of personal support.
As Monica put it:
In TL [Teachers’ Lounge, a chat room for moderators] and now in answers here and elsewhere, Stack Exchange employees made vague statements implying that I oppose inclusion and respectful behavior, which is false and adds insult on top of the injury already done. I suspect a profound misunderstanding is at the root of their behavior, but all of my attempts to resolve it have gone unanswered. It feels to me like the company prefers a scapegoat to a resolution.
If I had done anything to violate the Code of Conduct, I would apologize and try to make it right or bow out. I didn’t violate this important code (and especially not the code currently in force!), and I find it especially offensive that I am being accused of behavior that is not welcoming, inclusive, and sensitive when these are things I strive for in all of my interactions on the network (and elsewhere).
The community response has consistently been with Monica, as shown by upvote and downvote counts. Even when it announced a settlement with her, Stack Exchange attempted to portray itself as the wronged party. As I’m writing this, its statement has a net 1,476 downvotes. It said:
Stack Overflow and Monica Cellio have come to an agreement. We believe that Ms. Cellio was not acting with malicious intent. We believe she did not understand all of the nuances and full intent and meaning of our Code of Conduct and was confused about what actions it required and forbade.
We acknowledge our responses to her requests for clarification were not satisfactory. The verbiage in our Code of Conduct could have been more explicitly detailed about what was expected.
In recognition of the mistakes that led us here, we invited Ms. Cellio to apply for possible reinstatement on all six sites following our new reinstatement process. Ms. Cellio expressed concerns about the new process and has not applied.
Let’s look at this a piece at a time. (1) The issue is not whether Monica was acting with malicious intent, but whether Stack Exchange was. (2) It implies that there was some unspecified provision in the Code of Conduct which forbids questioning how proposed policy changes would work, and that it’s only her “confusion” that prevented her from recognizing it. (3) They expect her to come groveling back and she hasn’t. I wonder why…
The settlement itself wasn’t disclosed to the public.
This affair provides lessons to anyone who finds themselves targeted by a smear campaign. The two most common mistakes are to beg for forgiveness and to descend to the accuser’s level. The first response confirms the claim and encourages the accuser. The second — using mockery, name-calling, exaggeration, and the like — makes you look as bad as the accuser to a neutral party that doesn’t have previous knowledge.
Take the high ground. Trust your friends to support you.
On another occasion, when I defended a fired member of the 75th Worldcon staff against bogus accusations of harassment, a stranger on Twitter told me I shouldn’t choose that hill to die on. I replied that I didn’t expect to die, and I didn’t, not even metaphorically.
Some accusations are true, of course. But we should give the accused the benefit of the doubt and examine the available facts. If we think the accuser is wrong, we should say so and give our reasons. Likewise if we think the accusation is true and have something of value to add. Each person who does this brings us away from a “cancel culture” and toward a culture of reason and justice.
Full disclosure: (1) I’ve known Monica online for many years and consider her trustworthy, and I contributed to her GoFundMe campaign. (2) I used to be active on several Stack Exchange discussion boards. I have deleted my profiles in protest.