Tag Archives: wikipedia

1984, the PC version

These past couple of days I’ve been following a news story in a different way: I’ve been following the Chelsea Manning story via Wikipedia’s talk page, watching each and every little change being debated, and I have to say that the whole thing has been highly entertaining, not to mention that it has been a fascinating and enlightening experience. What is an encyclopedia to do when the subject of a fairly major entry suddenly switches pronouns?

Let me be clear about it, I respect her decision, and I also think that her expressed preferences should be taken into account and given a considerable amount of weight, but at the same time there is no getting around the fact that rewriting her biography to reflect the fact that she is a she is problematic to say the least. That the name should be changed seems to me like a matter of respect (especially because the use of redirects ensures that anyone looking for the information will find it regardless of what the article is called), and the fact that the introductory text should be adapted to reflect such a major change is undeniable, but by trying to modify the entry as a whole we create a situation in which all of a sudden all those little illustrative anecdotes, descriptions and quotations no longer seem to fit. Do you edit what others have said in the past to reflect the new reality, or do you respect those quotes, even if the end result is that you wind up with a text that, truth be told, at times doesn’t seem to make much sense?

I have to admit that more than once the debate reminded me of 1984’s newspeak, but of course I think part of the problem is that this whole incident has shone a spotlight on some of the problems inherent to the way in which the world has been transformed when it comes to LGBT issues, on the fact that we are still trying to work the kinks out of the system… and on how far we still have to go before common usage catches up with those changes and we wind up with something remotely resembling a standard that can truly be described as neutral. As things currently stand it seems to be impossible to even address the issue without making some sort of statement… whether we want to or not. At the risk of being accused of mixing my dystopias, it’s a brave new world out there, one that seems to have come without a user’s manual. In fact, even as I write this I find myself struggling to avoid a word that keeps coming to my mind, a word that is necessary to make sense of this whole mess, and that word is ‘he’.

No, I am not trying to make light of the situation, and I understand why that little pronoun suddenly becomes so problematic, but at the same time there is such a thing as taking things too far, and equating a pronoun with a slur (a position that some of the most extreme voices in the transgender community almost seem to advocate) makes no sense, at least not in this particular instance. Wikipedia is supposed to be an encyclopedia. As such it should be factual, and there is this whole thing about how we can’t change the past… which is precisely what that entry seems to be trying to do at times by rewriting things as if to make it look like hers has always been a woman’s bio.

If you ask me, the solution is simple (not perfect, but simple): we should do exactly what Chelsea asks us to do in her letter:

I also request that, starting today, you refer to me by my new name and use the feminine pronoun.

If we take that request literally, and then use it as our starting point, we come to a situation in which there is no need to rewrite the past as such, and while her entry will probably wind up being modified substantially to incorporate the latest developments (as well it should), this approach doesn’t require us to do it at the expense of accuracy, readability and reliability.

UPDATE: and the title of that entry is back to Bradley Manning, not that that has made things any more coherent as far as the content of the article goes. Honestly, with redirects being what they are the name is not going to make much of a difference when it comes to users looking for that particular bit of info, but it seems like there are two camps that are determined to have an all or nothing outcome. Personally I would favor renaming the entry to something like Bradley/Chelsea E. Manning, and being done with it, but I do realize that that may contradict some of wikipedia’s policies.

Making sense of the past… or at least trying

ARGH! Today I was doing some research on a battle between the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire –that would be the Battle of Ajnadayn, if you want to get technical– so I went to see what Wikipedia had to say about the whole thing. I got the basic outline of what happened (sort of) and I also got the coordinates to its exact location. Those place the battle in question what is today Israel… the problem is that one of the things I needed was the name of the ancient province, not that of the modern country. I mean, we are talking seventh century here and by then the old and familiar Syria Palestina had been subdivided into a number of ever-shifting  Syrias and Palestinas, but as a result of what I fear was a hyper-zealous attempt by some ‘editor’ to edit ‘Palestina’ right out of history somewhere along the line, the actual name of the ancient province was not included… do I even have to say that I found the whole thing incredibly frustrating? (okay, to be fair, it could also be that, in light of those ever-shifting Syrias and Palestinas someone just threw his/her hands up in the air and decided to play it safe by sticking with a good, old-fashioned set of coordinates).

Now, if that had been the extent of it, it wouldn’t have been that bad, but to make matters worse that particular article had a few other fun issues. For instance there are also some references to a general by the name of Theodore and others to one by the name of Theodorus, and it is not clear entirely clear whether or not these refer to the same guy (given that they seem to play the same role I am inclined to believe that they are one and the same, but the problem is that while the article claims that ‘Theodorus’ was killed in this battle, the entry on ‘Theodore’ has him dying a couple of years later… as for ‘Theodorus’ there is no entry on the guy at all). Let’s just say that trying to make sense out of that one turned out to be a fun way to spend an afternoon!

Oh well, Wikipedia is still a wonderful resource (let’s face it, most places don’t even mention the fact that there ever was such a thing as a Battle of Ajnadayn), and I am  most definitely still a fan, but this time around I have to admit that it left me scratching my head.