Chelsea Manning and Wikipedia

There has been a heated debate these past two weeks on the English Wikipedia (and many other Wikipedia language editions as well) over what to call the article that is about Chelsea Manning, the army private who sent bushels of documents to Wikileaks, who was convicted to a very long sentence for doing so, and who, a couple of weeks ago, announced that her name henceforth was Chelsea.

Originally, Wikipedia editors seemed to be doing the right thing in response to this latest announcement; the article was almost immediately moved to a new title and the feminine pronoun adopted. An enormous, sprawling debate ensued, full of policy interpretation, investigation into other news sources, and editors exploring questions of gender. Many of the comments, to our community’s shame, were transphobic, though many others were not. The debate was split, and it was closed with a move back to the original name — the name that Manning has asked the world to stop using. Many of us, including me, found this outrageous and horrifying, and the debate rages on.

In a post published today, Adrianne Wadewitz and I tried to analyze and break down the debate on the English Wikipedia, as much as a 300-page debate can be quickly analyzed. We both felt that it was important to try to show the inside of the sausage factory, while there was public interest in this discussion. I think, with my Wikipedia researcher hat on, that it’s a fascinating and historic debate, one that will be written about for some time to come, and one that shows off the strengths and flaws in our community.  The post is here, and I hope that especially if you are unfamiliar with Wikipedia’s talk page culture, or if you haven’t followed the debate, or if you simply don’t have time to wade through the discussion, that it proves enlightening:

As a researcher, and long-time explainer of Wikipedia to the public, I am fascinated. But let me be clear: as a human being, as a long-time Wikipedia editor, and as a trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation, I am saddened and shocked that our community made what I consider to be the wrong decision on a matter of human rights. I have faith that the debate will come around, that we will work our way kb by kb to the right answer — which is that Chelsea Manning’s name and gender is a matter for her to declare, no one else, and that as a reporter of what is reported to be true in the world, Wikipedia must reflect this choice.

I have been in many discussions in my ten year career on Wikipedia about epistomology and sourcing, about the role of an encyclopedia and what neutrality entails. These questions are not — or should not be — up for debate here, though. This week, we stumbled.

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2 Responses to Chelsea Manning and Wikipedia

  1. Phenom says:

    No, wikipedia got it right. For now. Activists need not edit

  2. obi says:

    “Chelsea Manning’s name and gender is a matter for her to declare, no one else, and that as a reporter of what is reported to be true in the world, Wikipedia must reflect this choice.”

    Wikipedia DID reflect this choice in the lede; it just did not – for now – reflect it in the title – (whose purpose is to aid the reader, not to proclaim the official identity of the subject.)

    Now, let’s take your argument further. Are transgender people the ONLY ones who get to determine the title of their Wikipedia articles, or can others as well? Do countries get to choose what they’re called (Cote d’Ivoire vs Ivory Coast) – or are you just fine with offending a whole country? What part of that is not outrageous or horrifying? Do ethnic groups and indigenous tribes get to choose their article titles? Or, do we follow how reliable sources refer to them – even if they are old colonial names that those groups detest? Should we continue to shackle them with their past because a country or ethnic group is not *technically* a BLP (even though such groups are composed of living people, who are equally capable of being offended or hurt or even victimized by violence as our friend Manning?), or because the weight of sources referring to them still tilts towards the name they detest?

    There was recently an editor, storming around trying to get various first nations tribes and categories renamed to align with the wishes of those groups. In several cases, he failed. No blogs were written, twitter wasn’t aflame, Jimbo didn’t weigh in, and WMF members didn’t write long ponderous blogs on how white editors are !voting to determine the name of brown peoples. Ask yourself, seriously, why not?

    I think it’s because the media loves a good sound byte, and then everyone piles on board. No-one would care much that a small tribe X in Canada prefers to be called Y and finds the name X offensive – that story doesn’t go anywhere. But Manning comes out as a woman? This was a media moment made in heaven.

    It’s a slippery slope. I’m all for self-determination, but you have to sign up for more than just trans* self determination.

    So much ink has been spilt on this one little name — that in any case wikipedia MAY take a few weeks to change since reliable sources are going that way — whereas I’ve never seen the WMF or twitter or academe go after the other massive “violations” of naming sovereignty that we regularly undertake. What gives? Many participants on the Chelsea side of this issue seem to only care about trans* issues, not about the right of other real things in the real world to determine the real name of their articles – which is itself a violation of NPOV.

    The much vaunted Encyclopedia Brittanica, often compared with Wikipedia, just switched their entry on Manning… today. Why are we so impatient, and why do you discount the consensus method when the results don’t go your way? If the same conversation happened but the admins ruled differently, you would all be congratulating yourselves on how the wikipedia community came together and did the right thing.

    Another example – David Berkowitz, convicted killer, would like to go by “Son of Hope” (since 1987). Is it up to him to determine his name, or is it up to reliable sources? Can we expect a new blog post from WMF on how wrongly his article is titled for the past two decades, since it goes against his wishes and earnest spiritual conversion? Cat Stevens is another famous and oft cited example.

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