Do we need more direct action than debate on inclusive spaces?

Does oppressive speech merit censorship? We explore this question on reddit.

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As the recent /r/anarchism drama slowly dies down, we keep having discussions on the merits of the various courses of action we’re considering. I just wrote a lengthy reply on the issue of “aggressive censorship” on the subreddit that I thought was interesting enough to share ((I think I’ll start doing this more. My blog remains silent while I write essays over in reddit. Perhaps I can hit two birds with one stone)).

The background here is the ban of a Men’s Rights Advocate (MRA) who started hanging out in /r/anarchism making civil but strictly anti-feminist comments. He continued doing this for a while and many people expressed how annoyed they were by his presence, especially since it coincided with the subreddit being linked from others ones, and thus waves of the classic redditor (which takes casual sexism to new heights) started coming in and upvoting this MRA’s comments. His multiple derailments led me to give him a warning and after discussion among the regular members of the reddit once he outright refused to stop this behaviour, we decided to ban him.

The following is one of the discussions that followed

db0: The problem is not that he’s wrong, but that he’s derailing discussions left and right and is unwilling to stop. I had no problem with him being wrong. I have a problem with him being disruptive. And even though it doesn’t bother me especially, I’m a privileged person in this situation so this doesn’t mean much. His attitude is still creating an atmosphere which is alienating to the people we’re trying to attract, such as women.

humanerror: Personally, I’m highly distrustful of aggressive censorship in the name of attracting alienated persons. I recognize that the intentions behind it are good, but I think it’s essentially wrongheaded and counterproductive. I don’t think making this place into a walled garden where everyone has to walk around on tippy toes for fear of giving offense will succeed in attracting anyone. If an alienated person comes and encounters alienating speech, I trust they will also find that speech downvoted to hell, and probably a dozen other users calling the speaker an asshole. If anything, I expect that that’s the kind of display that would make an alienated person feel welcome. Because they really are welcome, and we don’t need moderator action to make that true.

db0: I was on the same boat, but by reading more about it and talking to such oppressed classes, I can now understand their view better. While it’s OK for us to ignore such comments until they are downvoted, or to rationally argue against them; for such oppressed classes, every instance of casual misogyny hurts and every instance of a privileged comrade treating it as if it’s worthy of a rational response, is giving it credence, and hurts.

We don’t rationally debate things such as holocaust denial (unless we’re just looking to waste time) for example, because to do so would assume that they are not ridiculous to begin with. Of course, we don’t feel the need to ban holocaust denialists (anymore) because everyone knows they are ridiculous and laughs or insults them out of the room. Same with monarchists or pro-slavery people. But sexism, racism and others like them, are still very much accepted and preserved by a large number of people, who are actively maintaining oppression through them to this day. This sheer amount of conscious or casual support means that those ideologies get some serious backup always, and unless we act to marginalize them, this place will not be an inclusive space. The oppressed classes will feel as oppressed here as they do elsewhere. Perhaps marginally less so because there’s more outspoken critics of oppression here, but as we get more and more lurkers who skew votes and swamp us with comments, this organic anti-oppression cannot keep up.

humanerror: I think as a general rule we should be extremely tolerant of sincere dumbasses. Participation in this community is an ongoing learning experience for all of us, and some of us are always going to be further along than others.

db0: Again, I agree, but only as long as those dumbasses are not stubborn. People should understand that this is an inclusive space and act accordingly, by accepting some of the same premises we all do. To give you an extreme example to signify what this means: An accepted premise is equal voting rights for all. If one were to come here, being a sincere dumbass, and ask, “but why do women deserve to vote?” and keep asking this on every democratic decision we’re making and refusing to drop it, then this is derailment.

You may think that they would obviously be ignored which is true in this example, because those premises are now widely accepted. But there’s other premises, such as those of modern feminism, that aren’t, and for feminists, challenging them is as frustrating as the above question. And yet non-feminists do no see this because of their privilege. The extreme question I posted above was considered a “valid” one a 150 years ago or so and this is what made it frustrating to first-wave feminists of that time.

This discussion is still ongoing along with many others like it. What is your perspective on this issue?

Reddit (sorta) censors Atheism

The Atheism subreddit has been deliberately excluded from appearing on the front page and the default choices for Reddit. Unfortunately, the excuses given don’t convince.

How the Reddit bar looks like after the change in the algorithm
How the Reddit bar looks like after the change in the algorithm

Well, this is disappointing. It seems that Reddit has decided to practically hide the Atheism subreddit from public view. I may be posting late about this, since other have already started covering this controversy, but I might as well throw my two cents for all it’s worth.

Initially I noticed this yesterday night when rumors of this started popping up all over atheism. Initially it looked like a conspiracy theory but very soon the facts of the matter started coming up through investigation by redditors. Soon after, as the facts could not be denied anymore, an official explanation was posted. Needless to say, it failed to convince.

As other noticed as well, the argument is pretty weak. The reddit admins don’t think that Atheism is legitimately on the top and thus instead of fixing their algorithms, they decided to hide it instead. Now except from the fact that this looks very much like a quickly cooked up explanation, it does also raise the question of why this impression was had by the admins. The official take is that the Atheism reddit is not really so popular because of its controversy it rises to the top unfairly”. Which immediately raises the question “Why is this unfair? Why is the old algorithm deemed wrong just because it managed to reward controversial reddits with more popularity?”.

I don’t think an easy answer can be given to this, as it will be simply based on the developer’s perspective, which then as others pointed out as well, makes it a de-facto censorship. If the developers don’t believe that Atheism deserves to be on the top, then any way they modify the algorithm for choosing the top reddits will be deemed bad unless it can push Atheism down. That is, the measure of success depends on /r/Atheism not being on the top!

Nevertheless, although we can speculate on the developer’s motives, a charitable interpretation demands that we consider that it is, in fact, their site and their design, and as such they get to decide what makes a good algorithm. However there are still some unanswered questions.

First a modification is exactly what has happened. The algorithm was modified accordingly and Atheism was pushed down to the 16th position. However the deliberate exclusion of Atheism from the front page and from the top-bar selection of subreddits (visible to unsubscribed users) is still a concern as it points to the possibility that Atheism is still being deliberately excluded even when the algorithm puts it outside the front page. If the concern was simply about the trolling going on when an article from Atheism hit the front page, then why is this necessary?

Personally, even though I am not a big fan of /r/Atheism, mostly because my sentiments on it are similar to this guy, and even though I consider the whole ordeal a tad overblown, I have still removed reddit from my adblock whitelist as a minor sign of protest and I’ve messaged the admins with my disappointment of their handling of this situation.

I believe things would have been far better if the admins had posted in the subreddit with the problem they face, why this is, what they were thinking of doing and asking for feedback. They would then have immediately seen the feelings of the community, how popular or not it would be and most certain of all, they would have avoided all this controversy and negativity which is the explicit result of them changing things under the table without telling anyone.

Such an act starts to raise questions about motives and honesty on the part of the reddit admins, something which can be lethal to a site which is practically run by their community and thus based on the community’s explicit trust that they are not being manipulated for commercial or political purposes. Signs of underhanded tactics like this, done without informing anyone harm this and as such harm reddit itself. Which other reddits are being hidden under the table? Which other opinions are not considered “popular” enough to deserve the spotlight as already implemented? Will the algorithm be modified again if a marginal reddit like Anarchism suddenly rises in popularity and ideas the owners don’t espouse start being promoted to the front? Probably not, but the acts of the admins have put such uncomfortable questions on the table.

This is in fact a great sample to show how authoritarian decisions by those who are considered an enlightened minority (ie those who are assumed to know what is best for everyone) can diverge with a very considerable number of those they are deciding for. The backlash is only so large in reddit (as opposed to dictatorships or republics) because of its democratic nature and community participation but the same rules apply to all such authoritarian decisions. Most, if not all of this would have been avoided if the decision had been taken with the participation of the community they decide for. Not only that, but the solution implemented would have possibly been far better.

As it is now, I can only hope that the reddit admins have learned a lesson, even though their current actions don’t point to that direction. At best, next time they decide to modify their code with such an explicit purpose in mind they will inform and consult with the communities affected. At worst they will keep in mind that doing such acts in secret can backfire and possibly invoke the Streisand Effect.

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