Political questions

(English) This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

Certain controversial issues on Wikimedia projects are basically "en:political questions" that, theoretically, would be more expediently settled by policy, but end up being left to other forums to decide, repeatedly, on a case-by-case basis. Logically, it would seem that having a more unified debate on certain standards, in a centralized and highly visible place that would allow for continued and focused dialog, might be a more productive course of action. But instead, we end up debating certain points over and over in discussions that are closed after a few days and archived in a way that makes it difficult for them to be conveniently found, systematically analyzed, and responded to after the debate has run its course.

Notability is essentially a political question. It would be much easier to decide certain deletion debates if the community could have provided more guidance on what is notable. For instance, if we were to stipulate in policy that all gubernatorial or Congressional candidates obtaining 5% or more of the vote are automatically notable, and those who have never met that threshold, absent other factors, are automatically non-notable, it would resolve many deletion debates. However, the inclusionist/deletionist debate continues to rage, and the community has only been willing and able to agree on (and enact as policy) a few aspects of notability. For instance, the policy notes that anything that's not verifiable is probably not notable either. But the rules are often hazy on what verifiable subjects, exactly, are notable; and those matters have been left to AfD, etc. to settle on a case-by-case basis. Note that political questions are different than matters that the community has deliberately left open for flexibility's sake or a desire to avoid instruction creep – these are subjects that we simply got tired of arguing, or didn't want to open that can of worms to begin with. Rather than edit war on the policy pages and beat the subject beyond the point of death on the policy talk pages, as policymakers we finally washed our hands of it and said, Let's leave that part blank and let the deletion debates decide this.

Accordingly, it's inevitable that deletion debates will include some political wrangling about what we should consider notable. It is no accident that deletion debates have become the de facto battleground of inclusionism vs. deletionism – we set the situation up that way by leaving our policies vague. Therefore, we should not discourage such polemics, unless the particular situation is one that is clearly covered by the rules. (And even then, there are certain situations when we will need to ignore all rules for the good of the encyclopedia; but we need not state that explicitly everywhere.)

Community-building activities in userspace and Wikimedia project namespaces are another political question, albeit perhaps more clearly defined by policy (including en:WP:NOT, en:WP:UP, etc.) than notability issues. We have never really defined what "fun" activities will be permissible. The community seems ambivalent about the subject, torn between competing desire to not drive away productive editors and not to become a free web host. Accordingly, guideline pages have settled on vague terms of what is acceptable and what is not, leaving it up to the community to decide what "gets in the way of building an encyclopedia." MfD is notoriously subject to ILIKEIT and IDONTLIKEIT arguments for this reason. It seems badly in need of some clearer standards; even if they were draconian, at least it would help avoid the disappointment people experience from spending many hours creating a page they think is okay, but ends up being declared unacceptable based on arbitrary, non-policy-grounded impressions voiced in a five-day debate. It is also possible that a charter for userpage freedom would emerge from an in-depth policy debate. But enacting conclusions on such contentious matters formally into policy or guidelines is a political hot potato that most people would rather not pick up and handle for prolonged periods. We tend to avoid dealing with it until someone forces the issue by putting a page up for deletion; then there is a brief flurry of controversy, abruptly terminated by the end of the deletion debate. And the discussion starts from scratch with the next similar deletion debate.

One of the downsides to deciding recurring but similar matters on a case-by-case basis is that it can lead to a political minority getting the upper hand. By dividing the discussion into hundreds or thousands of isolated mini-debates covering particular cases, they can divide and conquer the majority. In a policy debate with wide participation, the discussion will more closely reflect the consensus of editors. But in an infinite series of deletion debates, editors of a certain viewpoint (especially if they are not metapedians by nature) may simply get worn out by attrition and eventually vanish from the scene, reappearing only when a subject directly touching them becomes the topic of debate. Decision making on the subject thus begins to rest with a self-appointed group of relatively consistently actively involved users. Unless an organized effort is made to counter this effect, it is possible for a minority to advance its agenda simply by slicing the majority into small segments and dealing with each one by one. This might be called the "Martin Niemöller" effect:

At Miscellany for Deletion, they came first for Esperanza, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t an Esperanzan;
And then they came for the Association of Members' Advocates, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Members' Advocate;
(etc., etc.)

See also