I wonder if a question that touches on 'uncomfortable' topics should be deemed as 'Not suitable for this site' and closed as happened to this question about readily accessible drugs that can be used for suicide.

I do understand why people may feel uneasy since it is the first question of a new person and it asks about an 'easy' solution for commiting suicide. However, in form it satisfies the requirements of this stack: This question is specific and does have a set of definite answers that fulfil clearly stated requirements. The questioner also states why they are asking for this information.

Personally, I feel conflicted seeing community's reaction, especially when very similar questions were asked without much problem in the past. It seems that the first question was closed based on feelings and doubts about the new contributor's intentions rather than the question's suitability for the site. I find this problematic for several reasons:

  • questions are not evaluated objectively but based on the reputation of questioners and emotions of established members of this community;
  • new contributor's are discouraged from further participation;
  • general discouragement of questions related to 'uncomfortable' topics.
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Out of curiosity: according to you what in that question cannot be found with an appropriate query in a search engine? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Mar 27 at 3:22
  • $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica For me, the hardest part would be the accessibility of drugs. It is not hard to find a drug or a combination of drugs that can produce desired effects. However, since I am not a medical worker I have no idea about the hospital procedures and access to drugs. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Mar 27 at 6:07
  • $\begingroup$ Related: A proposal to finalize the “are real world questions on-topic” debate $\endgroup$ – VLAZ Mar 29 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin: "Hospital procedures and access to drugs" vary very much from place to place and from time to time; what would work in New York in the 1930s wouldn't work in London in 2020. (And anyway they are not hard to research.) But the question was obviously asked without doing any research, as if this site was the querent's personal free research service. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 31 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP It is rather presumptuous and uncourteous of you to state that 'the question was obviously asked without doing any research'. Please check the comments to that question - once asked about previous research the questioner replied with their findings and their specific difficulties. Please also note that the main point of my original post is that some questions are closed based on feelings of unease that the community members experience rather than the question's merits. IMO, that question should've been edited and improved, not closed. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Mar 31 at 22:19

The question was actually closed as "not about worldbuilding", which is the literal truth. They're not asking, say, under what circumstances hospitals are still using salvarsan which your character needs to give himself arsenic poisoning. They're asking about mundane actions in the real world, and that brings in all the usual discomfits that discomfit the easily discomfitted. Some object to asking what would really have happened if Hitler had been the Queen of England, and that at least has one contrafactual.



Again: same answer, different topic!

"Uncomfortable topics", like any other topic, are part of the human experience, and part of the non-human sophont experience of a worldbuilder's imagination. They are thus as fair game as any "non-uncomfortable topic".

We have to distinguish here between matters of an individual's emotional response ("I feel uncomfortable about this") vs matters that are universally and objectively unacceptable. When approaching difficult questions of this kind, we as community members must, of course, be respectful of other people's emotions; but neither can, nor should, nor even ought, the community let the emotions of others get in the way of our purpose here. Also, members who do respond emotionally to some topic --- and we all do at some time or another! --- need to realise that our emotions do not dictate what content can or can not be presented here. As individuals, we need to wrangle with and control our emotions so that they will not control us and so that they will not be allowed to control others' experiences here in this forum.

For example: a question regarding an alien civilisation who engages in adult-child sexual relationship as a mythic progression from innocence to adulthood will undoubtedly give some people the willies. However, this is a perfectly valid question of worldbuilding.

Now, if the question centers on a character who is seeking where, in the real world, they can find some young boys to coerce into such paedophilic relationships, that's not a good question. On the face of it, like the suicide drug question, this one is clearly "story based", as it too seeks to develop a character's choices within a plot, rather than address any kind of worldbuilding issue.

As we know, the matter we deal with in this forum specifically, is the "nuts and bolts" of worldbuilding -- Laws of Nature and their application, how things like devices and machines work within a given set of constraints, how large scale entities like cultures or religions or groups of people might act or react within a given historical context. In contradistinction, the choices that an individual person or character might make within their narrative arc within that broad historical context are off topic here. Along with a story's plot development, the development of story's characters belong in Writing. We're happy to seize the third pillar of storycraft, setting.

Both of these queries are dodgy for a variety of reasons, but the topics themselves --- suicide drugs and paedophilic societies --- are perfectly on topic here. Your question has already been answered when we had the whole torture row a few months ago. You might consider a review of that topic to see how we should approach "uncomfortable topics"!

  • $\begingroup$ Could you elaborate on 'seeks to develop a character's choices within a plot, rather than address any kind of worldbuilding issue' in relation to that question? $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 1 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin -- Hopefully that clarified! Essentially, anything that has to do with the development of a specific character, in the case of the original query, the fellow seeking the suicide drugs, makes the question off topic because the question is nòt about suicide, is nòt about drugs in and of themselves, is nòt about hospital or facility protocols. The question is ultimately "which drug should I pick out of the multitude of possibilities", and that's why it got closed. $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Apr 2 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Are you saying that a question like 'what would be the best material for aquaponic tanks on a space station' is off-topic? $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 2 at 17:19

The simple answer is "no," but few things on this site are simple...

In the broadest sense, the purpose of this site is to help an author (of a story, an RPG, or for whatever reason) develop the "infrastructure" of their story. Stories do and should include topics that make people uncomfortable, whether for the low-brow purpose of entertainment or the noble purpose of questioning the human experience for the purpose of improving the race as a whole.

Having said that, we know that there are limits. The Stack Exchange Overlords have already said that there are arbitrary and undefined limits to how much violence and/or gore they'll tolerate on our site. (We cannot host gruesome depictions of violence, the [torture] tag has it and needs cleaning up). Whether we're facing the reality that people not covered by SE's Terms & Conditions may use the site (e.g., young children) or facing the reality that the subject being discussed is massively personal to an individual, that can't, in and of itself, be enough reason to not ask a question. Were we to allow that, we would quickly discover that no questions can be asked — because just as there is a sucker born every minute, there's also at least one person out there who is guaranteed to be offended by any particular question.

Therefore, there's a difference between what can be asked and how it should be asked

So there is an issue of prudence that we, as a community, expect from users. Querents are expected to ask their questions with a sensible level of professionalism and maturity. This is not the place where people should be getting their proverbial rocks off reading about taboo material. But, as despicable as any one subject may be to any single individual user, it should be the place where someone can ask about any and every aspect of the "infrastructure" of their story.

Before I continue, let me express my belief that this is a two-way street. It is both the querent's responsibility to write a well-asked question, and OUR responsibility (meaning, "everyone not the querent") to help the querent achieve that goal. I'm a fan of closing badly asked questions so quickly that a clap of thunder can be heard — but I am not a fan of excluding (closing, deleting, etc.) questions that can be edited to meet our expectations. If you, the patient reader, are the kind of person to prefer whining or complaining about a question, please consider becoming someone who instructs users in the art of asking better questions. It's so much cooler to "teach the world to sing" than it is to stifle the act of singing.

Hey, you keep using "infrastructure..." wat'cho talkin' 'bout Willis?

This site is NOT an open forum for asking any old question that is refused on every other Stack. We are NOT the dumping ground for any and every question. We do have a purpose and it's reasonably well defined in the Help Center. But, to be brief, it's this:

Worldbuilding.SE exists to help people develop and consistently use the rules and systems for a fictional world of their own creation wherein an infinite number of stories can be told.

Worldbuilding.SE does not exist to help people build their stories, meaning we do not host questions about circumstances, plot, scenarios, or character actions and/or choices.

Having said that, I agree with @MikeSerfas' answer in that the OP of the referenced question was not asking a question about the rules and systems of their world, the "infrastructure" of their story. They were asking a question that was purely circumstantial. Therefore, I agree that the question was closed as "not about Worldbuilding."

But I also agree with @Elimtilas that questions about the rules and systems of a world wherein suicide (or any other "uncomfortable" topic) can occur are intrinsically on-topic.


Nevertheless, I expect such questions to be asked with a sincere overabundance of decorum — because there are plenty enough people in the world who have been deeply hurt by the consequences of suicide, and this site should and must be above causing them more harm just because someone wants to include the topic in a story.

And I believe this to be true and a requirement for any querent asking about any subject that may be deemed objectionable, inappropriate, or uncomfortable. Go ahead and ask your question, but have the good sense to ask it in a way that minimizes offense. If for no other reason than because the Stack Exchange Overlords are watching... always watching...

  • $\begingroup$ So, is a question like 'what would be the best material for aquaponic tanks on a space station' off-topic? $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 7 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Hello @Otkin. Off-topic based on this meta question? No. I can't imagine that your example question would be considered "uncomfortable" by anyone. Off-topic for any other reason? That depends on how it's asked (did you mean to post this as a comment to my latest Meta question?). How-to-implement-tech questions are a gray area that are often accepted as on-topic but are also frequently closed for lacking necessary information (like a worldbuilding context, which your example has). Note that "best" (or any other superlative) is almost always a flag for closing a Q. (*continued*) $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 8 at 3:52
  • $\begingroup$ "Best" is always subject to the story, which means you would be required to provide every detail about the story supporting the idea of "best" lest the Q be closed as too-story-based. A question is always better asked with appropriate detail: "Given the following detailed list of requirements and the following detailed explanation of the time, technology, and circumstances surrounding my space station, what materials could be used for an aquaponic tank?" The best answer would be the one that achieved your goal while meeting your conditions. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 8 at 3:55
  • $\begingroup$ What is the fundamental difference between 'what drugs fit this set of specific requirements?' and 'what materials fit this set of specific requirements?'? $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 8 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin The latter is asking for help developing a technology within the context of the rules of the world. The former is asking for the circumstances of a scene. If you're worried about the inconsistency with which rules are applied to question closure, I can't help you. There are far too few people who bother to educate themselves about the site's rules and culture and far too many questions that need processing through review. Inconsistency is simply a fact of life (and you're not the first, nor will you be the last, to worry about it). $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 8 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ Are you sure that my drug question is purely 'asking for the circumstances of a scene'? $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 9 at 0:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Otkin Yes, I do. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 9 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ If you are, you are more biased than I expected and any further discussion makes no sense. Thank you for your time, though. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 10 at 0:09
  • $\begingroup$ I once stood where you are @Otkin. I questioned years' worth of site development. Wondered why rules existed. Complained when my questions were closed. The difference between us is my years of participation here in Meta learning the history, examining the boundaries, and testing the limits. Walk in my shoes, and the shoes of all those who preceded you. Then... and only then... will you be competent to judge. Cherish the journey. $\endgroup$ – JBH Apr 10 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ You disappoint me again. Your statements are based on false assumptions that you have not verified. Moreover, your argument is fallacious. $\endgroup$ – Otkin Apr 17 at 2:40

... asks about an 'easy' solution for committing suicide

This is extremely problematic for many people because the difference between someone asking for a quick and deadly poison to kill themselves and to kill someone else is just how sneakily someone asks the question.

Personally I am not in favor of asking (much less answering) question that ask for detailed advice on real world ways to kill anyone in a context that could equate to murder.

Also note from a legal point of view (and like it or not we live in a world bound by legality) the site and even individual members could be help legally responsible for advice they give in regard to this. It is not, IMO, appropriate to ask these questions.

Examples which seem very dubious to me include :

  • Questions asking for tasteless common poisons
  • Questions asking for the most painful forms of torture
  • Questions asking for chemistry of explosives - e.g. how to make explosives

It's different if you are asking for military-related questions, but even there explicit advice on "how to" is surely irresponsible. Asking if e.g. an assault-type weapon design is practical for some context is one thing, but asking for advice on how to construct homemade weapons is another.

We, as a community, need to accept that what we say can be abused and should act responsibly in terms of asking, answering and, when needed, closing questions that could be endangering others. Questions may be framed as WB questions, but a dose of cynicism won't hurt the site.

I think it is also naive to suggest that what is published here will not influence children. All questions and answers on the site are publicly accessible without age limitations. We cannot make everyone happy with respect to their particular cultural limits, but surely there are things it is just grossly irresponsible to publish.


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