In January 2010 I drove twenty-five minutes across Vancouver to the University of British Columbia’s main library, with the goal of crushing an opponent in a Wikipedia edit war. The battleground was the entry on T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia). I won that war. As a consequence, I consider myself the world’s leading living expert on Lawrence’s sexuality.

[Note: This is posted alongside Wikipedia Pain, which is about the issues of truth and expertise in Wikipedia editing, in an effort to share what the process feels like from the inside.]

Why Lawrence, anyhow? My Dad, an Alberta farm boy, became a Professor of Agriculture, and spent most of his career in the Third World, much of it in Lebanon and Jordan. As a result, I spent my youth there, with plentiful opportunities for touristing all over the Middle East, including many of the spots that appear in Lawrence’s monumental war memoir Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

I ran across Seven Pillars in college and devoured it, from time to time thinking “I’ve been there!” While it’s full of camel charges, train-bombings, and other Ripping Yarns, it’s a difficult book, not a light read at all. But I enjoyed it and was left wondering who this guy was. So in the course of time I read Lawrence’s other works, some biographies (there are many) and especially, the collected letters.

Lawrence was an avid correspondent, sending letters almost like we do emails, multiple times most days. I suspect that a whole lot of the Lawrence biographers got the idea by reading the letters and like me thinking “who is this guy?” You might want to do a little Lawrence reading.

Conducting archeology on my blog reveals that I apparently noticed Wikipedia in 2003 and had started contributing to the Lawrence article by 2004; in that year I also wrote “Maybe the Wikipedia is a short-lived fad, maybe it’ll get better, maybe it’ll get worse, but I was surprised that nobody pointed this out: The Wikipedia is beautiful. It’s an unexpected and unexplainable triumph of collective creativity and of order over entropy. I hope it lasts a long time, and those who criticize it Just Don’t Get It.”

At that time popular opinions of The Encyclopedia That Anyone Can Edit ranged from a headshaking blow-off of the idea’s obvious craziness to active fear and hostility. British technology journalist Andrew Orlowski once referred to Wikipedians as “Khmer Rouge in daipers” (sic). I became a partisan, wading into the ring against figures as eminent as Bob McHenry, former Editor of the Britannica, who compared Wikipedia to a public toilet: “you can’t be sure who was there before you.” I enjoyed rolling out my rhetorical and polemical cannon and firing back. From December 2004: “One thing is sure: the Wikipedia dwarfs its critics.”

It must be said that back then, the critics had a point. Those of us who waded in early often found entries about major subjects of history or culture which were a stinking mess. Lawrence was one such; a farrago of conspiracy theories and thinly-sourced fantasies.

Sex! · In particular the section about Lawrence’s sexuality, a subject much discussed by his biographers and occasionally in the popular press. The amount of time I’ve put into making this fact-based would probably be regarded as ridiculous by most sane people. [Would they be wrong? -Ed.] [Pretty sure. -T.]

I have plenty of by-and-about-Lawrence books on my shelves and had read more or less every published letter, which I thought gave me a fair claim to knowing him better as a person than your average Wikipedia editor. By dint of dogged incremental citation-backed edits, I was making good progress by 2009 at introducing order to the chaos.

Edit! · Editing Wikipedia involves regular, often intense, disputes about what should be said. These take place on the “Talk” page that is associated with each article. For a contentious entry, such as Lawrence’s had become, the Talk page can become huge, much larger than the entry itself.

In these disputes, the criteria that matter are “notability” and “verifiability”. To be included, a subject must be notable, i.e. worth mentioning. When is something notable? If, and only if, there are mentions of the subject in multiple credible mainstream sources. Further, any assertion must be verifiable, i.e. there is evidence to establish that the claims in the material are correct. Both criteria are addressed by providing citations from Reliable Sources.

On the subject of verifiability, Wikipedia says to the world: Any material that is not verifiable will eventually be removed. That tenet gives a warm glow to those of us who live on the Internet and care a lot about truth and untruth.

The subject at hand was homosexuality. First, had Lawrence been gay? Second, what was his attitude toward gay people? Remember, this is a man who died in 1935; in his lifetime, homosexuality was publicly much disapproved-of and in fact specifically forbidden by law.

I thought I had the facts on my side. Whatever Lawrence’s orientation, there was no evidence of consensual intimacy with anyone of any gender, and he repeatedly and explicitly denied, in private correspondence, any experience of sex.

On the other hand, his writing includes multiple warm, approving remarks about male/male sexual relationships. So I thought the case for “celibate and tolerant” was pretty well open and shut.

War! · But then I found I had an adversary.

“Factuarius” – the handle of another active Wikipedia editor – came to fight. For reasons opaque to me, Factuarius was pretty convinced that Lawrence had been gay and/or disapproved of homosexuality. He was able to assemble citations where people had alleged relationships between Lawrence and one or another male person, but this was well-plowed ground; biographers had found an absence of evidence for the relationships and reasonably convincing reasons to doubt their having happened.

Factuarius decided that Lawrence’s having disapproved of homosexuality was the hill he was going to die on. He triumphantly produced two citations that supported his position, declared victory, and told me to stand down.

The first was “Khondakar Golam Mowla, 2008 p. 258”. The book is The Judgment Against Imperialism, Fascism and Racism Against Caliphate and Islam: Volume 1. You can buy it from Amazon for $36.49 as I write this. It turns out it is self-published at “AuthorHouse” and that its Foreword denounces, among other things, “Ataturk, a secret Jew”. The tone generally follows from there. I pointed out to Factuarius that I could go to AuthorHouse and generate a book claiming Lawrence was from Mars.

That left him hotly defending his last reference, a Lawrence letter cited in “Homosexuality and Orientalism: Edward Carpenter's journey to the east, P. K. Bakshi, Prose Studies, Volume 13, Issue 1 May 1990, pages 151-177, Routledge”. Seeing no alternative, I made that drive over to the nearest big University research library.

It took a while to track down Prose Studies, whose dusty and clearly-unvisited volumes occupy quite a few shelf-feet. It was founded in 1977 and the Internet tells me it’s still publishing. I really don’t know what this journal is for or what effect on the world, if any, its existence is designed to achieve. [Arrogant, much? -Ed.] [Trying to be polite. -T.]

Sure enough, the article about Edward Carpenter was there in the May 1990 volume. I read it. I photographed (badly, with a 2010 phone-cam) the title and index pages to prove that I had done so. The article mentioned Lawrence twice, suggesting in an off-handed way that he was an example of English fascination with homosexuality and “the Orient”. But there was nothing there that looked like Factuarius’ citation.

Victory! · I was left happy for multiple reasons. It is a wonderful thing that research libraries exist and preserve academic journals for their own sake, whether or not any human will ever consult their pages. It was pretty cool playing scholarly sleuth in the quiet passages of the library. Best of all, Factuarius retired silently from the fray.

Which was actually a pretty minor scuffle by Wikipedia standards. There is a hilarious page entitled Wikipedia:Lamest edit wars, which I recommend just for fun. It even categorizes them. The first-appearing category is “Ethnic and national feuds”, featuring the titanic struggles over the ancestries of Frédéric Chopin and Freddie Mercury. So far, none of these has metamorphosed into a real actual nation-against-nation shooting war, but I’m not saying it couldn’t happen.

Eventually I took the trouble of collecting every citable fact about Lawrence’s sexuality that I could find in all the known published resources – online search in the Gutenberg Project and various other sources helped. I published them in a blog piece entitled Sex and T.E. Lawrence, which has been useful in subsequent (much less dramatic) editing disagreements.

Finally, I gave a talk at a social-media conference sometime in the 2000s entitled Editing Wikipedia in which I had great fun relating this episode, and I think the audience did too. In particular, reading out spicy passages illustrating Lawrence’s real kink – there’s strong evidence that he was a masochist. For example, in later life, he paid to have himself whipped “severely enough to produce a seminal emission”.

The effect, at the end of all this was that material that was not verifiable – an assertion about a historically-notable person’s viewpoint on a particular issue – was, as it should be, removed from Wikipedia.

Also, pursuing the truth can be its own reward.


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From: Tudorminator (Jun 21 2024, at 06:51)

Funny and well written. Thank you.


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