Wikipedia strives to state widely accepted facts — or at least those with reliable sources that can be verified. The question of what constitutes a fact, though, is never clear cut and at times is unavoidably political. Two debates from Wikipedia in recent weeks show how even the simplest of factual debates can explode.
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The man Wikipedia credits with inventing the term “alt-right,” Richard Spencer, has posed something of a challenge for the online encyclopedia. “His right to hold his viewpoint and express it is the same one used to malign it,” one Wikipedia editor said on the entry's “talk page” – a discussion forum that exists for every Wikipedia article.
The comment highlights how Spencer’s blatantly neo-Nazi outlook and firebrand racial politics have tested Wikipedia’s attempt to maintain neutrality – one of its five founding “pillars.”
Another user challenged the editors of the Spencer entry to defend their choice to describe him as a “white supremacist” in the article’s first line. “I make no apology for his political views but the fact remains that this is NOT how encyclopedias are written,” the user wrote. He noted that “Spencer has stated that he rejects the label of white supremacist, and prefers to describe himself as an identitarian” – a euphemism for white nationalism’s brand of identity politics.
First written in 2013, the Spencer article has been scene to much debate. As Wikipedia lets its readers edit its content, supporters and detractors have duked it out through the article’s text, as well as on the “talk page,” which everyone has access to. So much so that veteran Wikipedians were forced to place restrictions on the site’s famously unrestricted editing function, locking the article under a special “protected” status.
“When the subject of an article is an American White Supremist (sic), then that is EXACTLY how an encyclopedia article should begin,” one editor wrote, defending the opening line. “I don’t think anyone here is maligning Spencer. ‘White supremacist’ is not a slur,” another quipped.
A compromise was suggested: Spencer would be described as someone “who espouses white nationalist views.” But someone quickly shot this down: “Someone who espouses white supremacist views is a white supremacist.”
The debate was further strained by Spencer supporters’ attempt to discredit sources usually considered valid on Wikipedia. “The New York Times along with The Washington Post and CNN are extreme propaganda outlets and not reliable news sources,” one Spencer supporter wrote — an example of how Wikipedia is increasingly becoming an arena for the far right’s demonization of the mainstream media and the so-called war on facts.
The fact that Spencer has invoked “Nazi propaganda and denounced Jews” was something both sides managed to agree on, at least for now. (For full discussion)
Are Jews white?
The page “American Jews” and the question of their racial identity also caused a storm on Wikipedia this past month, with editors fiercely debating the issues of U.S. Jews’ “whiteness.” The debate focused on the question of whether U.S. Jews are white or whether they only identify as white, but quickly escalated into questions of identity, privilege and race in America.
The debate was sparked by what Wikipedians call an edit war: a succession of competing edits by users who disagree about the truth. In this case, the edit war began when the line “The overwhelming majority of American Jews identify as white” was changed to: “The overwhelming majority of American Jews are white,” by a user called Bus Stop.
“None of the sources say that most Jews *are* white, only that they identify as white (and are often perceived as white). There is a fine distinction,” one person wrote. “As far as I am concerned, you can define your own identity as you choose,” added Newimpartial, the main opponent to the change.
“That most Jews are white is an objective fact they identify as white because they are white,” Bus Stop retorted.
“The section is talking about identity, not pigmentation,” Newimpartial said, with another editor noting: “I would assert that nobody is white (they’re more of a pinkish color). Whiteness is a country club to which most Americans of predominantly European descent belong, including Jews.”
Reflecting a fundamental debate among world Jewry, another noted: “Not all Jews identify with their recent diaspora host countries, for obvious reasons. This is where much of the Jewish ambivalence around ‘whiteness’ comes from.”
Bus Stop fired back, apparently attempting to take identity politics to task by pushing its logic to the extreme: “In order for there to be ‘ambivalence’ about whiteness there has to be whiteness in the first place to be ambivalent about — or are black people also ambivalent about their whiteness?”
The debate quickly shifted from the issue of self-identification to that of white privilege and even race in America.
As one user put it: “The term ‘white’ largely means ‘European’ Jews historically have been and continue to be in large part considered to be non-European. The term ‘white Jews’ should definitely not be used — given that Jews’ tribal origin is Semitic. The ‘white’ identity juxtaposed in front of ‘Jews’ ... only reminds Jews of European enslavement, exile, dispersal, genocide, and further persecutions.”
The prevailing sentiment swung in favor of identity, with proponents noting that “‘race’ is constructed.”
The article currently describes American Jews as identifying as white and not being essentially white, and even notes academic research into the alleged ambivalence. But this debate is likely to continue to rage, both in Wikipedia and the outside world. (For full discussion)