I flagged two questions for being insulting to a whole people, one regarding Russia, the other one regarding Arabs. Both were declined, stating there was no evidence to support it.

a) What would do more to advance the status of women? The first one was describing "18th century Russia" as "a very backward, 'traditional,' unequal society" with subservient women. In the discussion the person who asked the question stated that adding Russia to specify the "backward society" was not his approach but a community edit. So due to his answer I can understand the rejection of the flag although I would like to see a change making it less offensive.

b) How to create a foreign legion? The second one which isn't at all related to the setting just using it as a arbitrary fun making background is based on a racist movie making fun of Arab societies and is asked from an insulting profile. You will find detailed reason in my comments to that question.

In a comment to another (kind of) related Meta question @monicacelio said it is borderline but doesn't violate the rules:

"it's pretty clearly a parody of the negative stereotypes of the Arab world. Now the Arab world has produced people who caused that stereotype, which is why I said 'borderline'. The question doesn't meet the definition of offensive that would warrant its removal; that said, I can see how people could be offended by it, so it would be better if the author could tone it down some. Not because it's violating the rules, but because it's polite to try to reduce unintended strife."

While I understand the first decline I do not understand the second. Especially as these stereotypes are not produced by the Arab people. Even the dictators were not as they are only able to stay in place because of military training, military supplys, weaponry and money provided by states of the European Union and the USA. The Arab Spring showed pretty well that these people did not want the dictators but failed in the end due to the strong (western supported) military.

So in short my question is - where is the border between a hypothetical question and an insult of a people or racism?

I'd be glad if you could especially explain what flaggable racism, rudeness or abusiveness means this forum.

I read somewhere in Meta that Worldbuilding is considered a worldwide forum. Worldwide includes Russians, Arabs, Indians, Chinese etc. I am aware of the the problem that the drawing of borders could result in alienating some persons. While I do not want that I would like to point out, that exactly those actions also alienate other people. So if in any of the two obvious possibillities people are alienated what do we do? This is not about good and evil. This is about how we are interacting considering it to be a forum of people from many different backgrounds and cultures, from many different parts of this world and with many different peculiarities.

Please forgive my spelling if there are errors.

As a foundation about what we are talking here I would like to recommend the Wikipedia Article about Anti-Arabism, especially the part about Western Media: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-Arabism#Western_media

Please note, that Anti-Arabism seems not to be an issue in Russia (I am open to differing sources though). Therefore I am focused on the Western involvement in North African / Middle Eastern politics and economies. Doesn't mean anyone else is not involved there or "we" Western people are the only source - just that we are an important part of the source.

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    $\begingroup$ downvote, suggest edits and move on. there is no border. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 17:03
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    $\begingroup$ Hint: there is politics and historic forum here. Maybe you should discuss there your opinions concerning misgovernance of Arab countries. Because it seems that you first contrfactually blame everything on West, and later mark those disagreeing with your politically loaded claims as racists. $\endgroup$
    – Shadow1024
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Shadow1024 Please read the Wikipedia article about Anti-Arabism before you are disposing the question as contrafactually or irrelevant. I can also provide you with scientific texts on the relevance of this question but I think that article is a good starting point. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 19:23
  • $\begingroup$ "While I understand the first decline I do not understand the second. Especially as these stereotypes are not produced by the Arab people. Even the dictators were not as they are only able to stay in place because of military training, military supplys, weaponry and money provided by states of the European Union and the USA. The Arab Spring showed pretty well that these people did not want the dictators but failed in the end due to the strong (western supported) military." - One border that should be clear here is NOT Political propaganda. Why did you not include RUSSIA's involvement? $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2017 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ You see, I am part of the Western World, precisely Germany, so I am focused in self-criticism. I don't know much about Russian society and I cannot tell wether they have similar problems like we do. What I am describing is a problem in our countries. That does not mean that other countries like Russia might or might not have similar problems. I just don't know and their participation does not change the argument. Please correct me if I am wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 17:11
  • $\begingroup$ You are asserting the problems are because "provided by states of the European Union and the USA" and repeated "The Arab Spring showed pretty well that these people did not want the dictators but failed in the end due to the strong (western supported) military." The Muslim Brotherhood, armed, financed and supported by Russia. An intolerant group that is not representative of all Arabs or Muslims. Iraq invades Kuwait, stealing art, treasure, killing people etc. Armed, Backed, Financed by Russia. Syria gassed and bombed its own people, Armed, Backed, supported by Russia. How is it you do not ... $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ ... Not know these things, yet know enough to denounce "Democratic Forms of Governments AND/OR Western Civilization". We could go back to the 50's and 60's if you want. Had I made your assertion, I would have referenced BOTH sides not just one. I would NOT have made an assertion that the only people being oppressed were those by Western Governments. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2017 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ The Arab Spring didn't fail in a lot of countries. It succeeded in overthrowing the leaders in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia and in some areas that it failed, for example Iran, the governments portrayed themselves as anti-western. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2017 at 20:08
  • $\begingroup$ List of authoritarian regimes supported by the United States: <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…> As most of my sources are German I'll need more time to show you some English texts about the European involvement. (Iran isn't Arab by the way) $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 23:32
  • $\begingroup$ I find most other countries and societies offensive, but this is the internet, I don't let it bother me on here $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 3:56

6 Answers 6


I'm going to post this separately, because:

  1. My existing answer was about one of the cases brought in the question, while this is a more forward-looking answer.

  2. And therefore I don't want to confuse the voting, especially because people have already voted on that first answer.

I don't think we want to restrict what real-world history, countries, or peoples questions can be related to. Questions, however, need to be asked in a constructive way, and the more sensitive the subject is, the more careful you need to be.

Historians, anthropologists, economists, and many others already study and analyze events of our world. Some of those events were (and are) unpleasant or worse to people directly or indirectly affected. Yet society as a whole has not said that studying or talking about those subjects is off-limits. Not studying them could even be the greater danger, trading discomfort now for lessons forgotten later.

Writers, game designers, and others sometimes set their works in current, historical, or alternate-timeline realities. And they need to be able to do research, so that a game or story placed in 19th-century Russia or 12th-century Persia or 1930s Germany or China during the Cultural Revolution feels right. We should not block off whole parts of Earthly reality merely because there is the potential for people to get upset.

But how you ask a question is really important. Historians and other analysts generally take a detached, clinical approach. While we're a creative bunch and creativity can be fun, asking a question "in persona" when the topic is sensitive can lead to trouble. I really don't want to see a question about the crusades that starts out "So, I'm Pope Urban II and it's far past time to reclaim the holy land from those (insert insults here)...", even if you think that's something he would have said. Feel free to write your story or your game module that way, but try to keep in mind that the audience here on Worldbuilding is really broad -- geographically, culturally, politically, and religiously.

In general, you should assume that the closer in time an event is to the present day, the more likely it is that somebody reading your question was directly affected by it. And even if it was more distant (like, say, slavery in 19th-century America), remember that ripples of major events are felt for generations after. If you were having dinner with an affected person instead of typing on the Internet, would you talk about the event in the same way?

Questions about sensitive matters are welcome. Try to ask them respectfully and sensitively. And if the sensitive point is actually tangential to your question (you just picked an example, but you could have picked others instead), then try to be flexible if somebody raises the issue or edits your question. Questions that are actually about sensitive matters are welcome, but don't use a hot-button topic to sensationalize your question.

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    $\begingroup$ The important note "detached, clinical view". Thanks Monica. $\endgroup$
    – Green
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 3:26
  • $\begingroup$ I completely agree - thanks for this thoughtful and differenciated answer! $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:38

Thank you for bringing your concern to meta. This is a conversation that should take place with the whole community and in more space than that afforded by flag text or comments. (That comment you quoted here? I had 0 characters left.)

FYI, two different moderators independently handled your two flags.

I handled the flag on the "Arab" question, and I was conflicted. The question is inspired by a movie (which I have not seen) which itself sounds like a nasty parody. That makes it hard to separate whether the question is offensive. I came down on the "no" side, but I thought about it for a while first. I don't like the question (and downvoted), but I couldn't see cause to remove it under our guidelines.

What decided it for me is that what the question seems to be parodying is the leader, not the whole people. And while the question is over the top, we have seen examples, including (but not exclusively) from the Arab world, of military leaders, rigged elections, a false sense of being "beloved" by the people, oppression of those same people, suppression and fear of foreign ideas and people, and tight control over every detail of people's lives.

The question does not, to me, read as a slam on the Arab people, or even every Arab leader throughout history. It doesn't even read to me as a slam on a specific person (where we might then consider whether it's a personal attack, which isn't ok); the combination of details doesn't (AFAIK) work for any one country or person.

But I'm a white western Jewish woman, so maybe it's there and I can't see it. I hope the community will provide feedback.

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    $\begingroup$ For the record, Admiral General Aladeen is the main character of Sasha Baron Cohen's The Dictator, a comedy film presenting a satirical parody of the world we live in; for in the end the ruthless dictator finds out that the international community is not opposed to ruthless dictators as such, but only to uncouth ruthless dictators; he learns to play by the rules, organizes free elections, and becomes President Prime Minister Admiral General Aladeen, a respected head of state. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 18:06
  • $\begingroup$ Dear Monica, I know that you did not take it easy like some other voices here do. And thats what I want to thank you for although I've got a different opinion and different experiences about the rudeness of used stereotypes which are used in a diminishing manner. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria I just saw this after posting a separate answer (since this one is more about that question while the other is more general and forward-looking). It took me a while to work out how to say it; sorry for the delay. $\endgroup$ Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:58

I don't think there should be borders. Perhaps we don't like a particular person's spin on things or their underlying opinions come through and then perhaps we would like to be able to ban them on this principle. However whenever you create a generalised restrictive ban like this there are always others who might want to create a commentary on such a world to make a point.

Whenever you draw a hard line you cut off some people with valid ideas$^\dagger$. You have to ask yourself whether that line is worth drawing. As it is none of us are terribly offended and disagreement can be shown without starting an argument by downvoting.

$^\dagger$ Not valid ideas about racism but a valid story idea - a commentary on equality by building a world so ridiculously not equal. Sometimes a caricature of an idea or misconception can show us its ridiculousness by the emphasis. I'm not saying that was the case in the ones you pointed out, only that it is a possibility.

  • $\begingroup$ You see - I am not talking about hard lines. Each case is different and should be regarded individually. But still - if in certain individually considered cases members of a people are so pissed of that they leave the forum or don't even join after they saw it containing insulting posts - what do you do? You just accept that these people were alienated? $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:25
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    $\begingroup$ There is no obligation to accomodate everyone. If they're offended by what's regularly written in this SE Í think they're a poor fit. Now if people write racist things like "So my main character is as unmotivated as an African" we've crossed a line. But if they write "Stoneage people like the Maya's" they're factually correct as they never mastered metallurgy. Even if stoneage sounds primitive. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:48

The way I understand it this forum is about making fantasy verisimilar. I am sorry that you believe that fantasy must have boundaries; please take into consideration that the questions are not the complete works of art, and you really should not judge a work from an individual detail. For beauty may well arise from the imitation of ugliness: when you ask to set boundaries you implicitly forbid any kind of distopy and of satire, and indeed any complex story, because they must, by their nature, describe that which is ugly, unjust, unfair or undesirable; limiting fantasy to what is beautiful, just, fair and desirable makes for dull (and most likely perishable) stories.

There is no border between acceptable fantasy and unacceptable fantasy, for in the dark and unforeseen recesses of such a border is born the division between goodthink and crimethink; we must strive to preserve the freedom of thought. Die Gedanken sind frei: "Thoughts are free, who can guess them? They fly by like nocturnal shadows. No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them with powder and lead: Thoughts are free!" (Translation from Wikipedia of the lyrics of a famous anti-totalitarian song.)

  • $\begingroup$ Are there no borders between acceptable and unacceptable fantasy? It is like music - many people say there is only taste. But there actually is music as well as novels which support hatred against certain groups of people. Some of them are even illegal in some countries. You cited German history, so you probably know that supporting any kind of violence against groups is illegal nowadays. Even writing some things is illegal: Like denying holocaust. So - is there no kind of unacceptable fantasy whatsoever?! $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ Why should there be any unacceptable fantasy? We must be able to explore all the corners of the human mind to learn from it. Including the dark terrible places we can sink to. Now denying history (holocaust) is a very different thing. But writing a story where it never took place is fine. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:42
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    $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria: There are indeed subjects which may not be discussed because discussion of such subjects is legally or socially forbidden. In all places and at all times there were subjects which were not allowed to be discussed. At all times and in all places there were brave people who dared to discuss forbidden subjects: but I am not that brave. That being said, the cultural and social history of Russia is not such a subject, not even in Russia; and as regards Arabia, what are we do when Arabia voluntarily projects the image of a land that time forgot? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:50
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Is it truly voluntary? Iran is a great example. In late 50s UK and USA have overthrown elected government, to protect UK oil companies. Iranian government was considering nationalisation. Roughly 20 years later, UK-installed despot was overthrown by joint effort of seemingly everyone from communists to theocrats and everything in-between. This led to internal political war, to decide who should lead. Theocrats won this war, and are in power until this very day. A lot of what you see is a result of western colonialism or more recent neo-colonialism. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech: Persia and Arabia are different worlds with utterly different histories. History did not begin in 1950: there was a long history before and there is a long and unknown history still to follow. For example, Persia had been at war with "the west" (first with the Greeks and then with the Romans) for more than 12 centuries when the Arab conquests put a temporary end to this rivalry in the 7th century CE; and when we say that Persia had been at war with the west for 12 centuries what we mean is that for 12 centuries they had been in close interaction with many short violent episodes. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP You are completely right that they are not the same but we are talking here about western stereotypes. And at least in Germany majority of people hardly know the difference.<br>And you are also right, that the picture of backwardness of Arab cultures and countries didn't start in the 50s. There is actually a scientific term about that: Orientalism. Edward Said described this thoroughly in his book from 1978 (while I'd recommend the newest edition after 2003 as it also deals with the criticism after the first publishing). <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism_%28book%29> $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:45
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP For most of the recorded history, it didn't matter who was the king, it was all the same for subjects. Concept of state which actually exists for the people instead of being ruler's personal playground is relatively new (roughly 2 out of those 12 centuries). Conquering kingdoms and turning them into fiefdoms changes exactly nothing for the commoners, while transgressions against nation states weight heavily. As such, events like those which sparked "banana republic" have much stronger impact. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 23:18

In my opinion, you have concatenated multiple questions into one.

Questions are:

What edits to questions/answers of other users are allowed?

your actual question:

Where is the border between a hypothetical question and an insult?


Can facts be considered an insult?

and finally:

When fact stops being fact?

As you pointed out, "Russia" was added, and it was not part of original phrasing. While Tsarist Russia WAS generally backwards compared to western Europe (feudalism and absolute monarchy were feeling well under Tsars, ideas of Enlightenment had harder time taking ground for various reasons) it actually wasn't in the field of woman rights. Tsarist Russia was European par of the course in this regards.

Personally, I heavily dislike entire concept of editing questions and answers of other people just like that, without necessity of approval of >>original author<<. It doesn't matter how much reputation you have, you are different person and you will have different lines of thinking.

Facts should never be considered insults, if someone is offended by truth, it's his/hers problem.

However in this case situation is different. Calling Tsarist Russia backwards in this context is a manipulation, this claim latches onto fact that Russia was feudal longer than rest of Europe to push false statement. AS such, this edit should have never been made for 2 different reasons - it changes context to something author didn't say, and it's false.

As for your main question, I don't know. It is a fact that phrasing insult as a question is a very effective move, but I'm not sure this is a case on this site. This is mostly a debating move used to win over audience by publicly insulting opponent while keeping ability to deny having insulted anyone. I don't think it applies here because there is no clear "opponent" to be attacked.

  • $\begingroup$ I like your differentiation regarding the Russia topic. And it is this move what I am talking about. Only with a little difference: in the cases I am worried about the opponent is not part of the discussion but rather a general opponent. Since 9/11 the whole Arab world is regarded the evil of the West. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Denouncing Arabs in public media is usually accepted since then and taking the role of defining who "we" white people in the western world are (not oppressing women or homosexuals, not forcing women to were a scarf, not living under a dictature etc.). In scientific communities of (at least) Southern America and Germany this effect is called occidentalism. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ Hi, @Olga. I agree with some of your remarks against negative stereotypes of Arabic and Muslim culture, but I think that some are a little extreme, such as "Since 9/11 the whole Arab world is regarded the evil of the West." There are those who do regard Middle Easterners that way, but there are many more who don't. For instance, a recent attack involved one man with anti-Islamic views, but others who defended those he threatened. It's not the case that there is total hatred of the Arab world; it's that a small minority shouts louder. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868 Mod
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Well, you are of course right, that this is not the case for everyone. I should have made that clearer. Thanks for pointing that out. <br>But I would indeed say, that it is not a minor group shouting loud. This group exists and they are "true believers" of hatred. But I experience the subconscious enmity to be much more common especially among those people who claim to be the political mid (relying on a theory that there are left wing and right wing extremists. which are quite similar and the big neutral mid who has nothing to do with it. In my experience those people reproduce this alot. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 0:01
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    $\begingroup$ @OlgaMaria this isn't really the right place for an extended thread, but just to check one thing: you are aware of the hatred that eminates from parts of the Arab world, right? We both know that the majority of Arabs aren't hateful; can you grant that the majority of westerners also aren't hateful? In all groups, the loudest extremists can give the impression that they represent a larger group than they do. The answer is to stop judging groups by stereotypes -- all groups, not just favored ones. But also don't pretend that problem behavior doesn't exist; of course it does, in all groups. $\endgroup$ Commented May 30, 2017 at 2:20
  • $\begingroup$ This is what I meant - the people I am talking about are not hateful! They often say so and I believe them. In my experience many of them just have false impressions about Arabs. An example: A white western person sees a man and woman (both looking like being Arab) she is wearing a scarf. Their interpretation is often: "She is being oppressed by her husband to do so." Next sentence often is: "Here we don't do that." Now especially the first sentence is usually wrong. I've got many friends wearing heǧāb/scarf. Noone of them is forced, some even do it although their partner isn't religious. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ Often they are not even looked at or looked at with pity or their partner is looked at with enmity. Not because they hate Arabs but because they think s.th. like: "Poor oppressed woman!" In the same time this kind of reaction draws those women deeper into religion, as in this society they feel like them being the only persons who take them serious and respect them like autonomous individuals with their own mind and choice. So I think you are absolutely right: We should be careful about our interpretations and depictions of the "other" no matter to which group they belong. $\endgroup$
    – Olga Maria
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 10:35


The question has nothing to do with who caused what issue, or who is a hypocrite, or how country x would be a paradise if not for those bad y people. The discussion should be about if the question is offensive, why, and if it is acceptable. Anything else is too many degrees away, and ultimately useless.

Is the Aladeen persona relevant to the question?

If you want to ask a question couching it in a specific world is useful, picking a parodic world like Aladeen's keeps it based in a real like world, but in a hypothetical country. Asking from a fictional character itself may avoid issues caused by asking as a real person such as Gaddafi, Hussein, Castro, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc.

Something of note, is that Aladeen is the head of a resource dictatorship.
While resource dictatorships have existed in many different locations, many of them have fallen into the areas under Muslim influence. (The Caliphate expanded Islam to a large area, which just happens to contain a lot of mines and wells).

You could contrast this against the various Caribbean dictatorships, but then that would obviously take a Caribbean style. You could take an African Warlord or Dictator, and that would obviously have African influences.

So having him be the leader of a perceived Middle Eastern country should not be an issue for just portraying such a country. He does not go out of his way to meander out of character and sticks mostly to topic.

The question itself is a legitimate governorship question given from a character in the vein of The Glorious Leader or El Presidente.

Should Questions from bad people (Persona of questioner not the actual SO user) be banned?

Do we really want to ban questions just because it comes from a distasteful persona. A Ghenghis Khan, Hitler, Napoleon type persona?

Just because a question is voiced by Hitler, I do not believe we should ban it. Unless he is explicitly asking how the best way to fit people into cattle cars to ship off, it shouldn't be an issue.

Do you want to ban something for simply being distasteful?

Controversial should not overly limit creativity. As an example, murder is viewed as bad by most societies and religions, and glorifying it should not be desired. Yet, just because a story contains it, should not be the sole criteria for throwing it out.

Asking a question of how a Jack the Ripper character may fit into a world should be fine. Asking questions as Jack the Ripper, should mostly be fine (Something along the lines of how to avoid a pre-industrial police force or something). Writing a detailed narrative of how he eviscerates and/or rapes his victims is not desired.


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