Reddit Needs a Definition for Violence

By Adam Clark Estes on at

Reddit’s new chief alien, Steve Huffman, announced a vaguely worded set of new content guidelines the other day. The general takeaway? Bad stuff is bad and should be banned. The subtext? If Steve Huffman says stuff isn’t bad—like racism—it’ll be tolerated. Come again?

Case in point: Coontown. This racist Subreddit celebrated yesterday when Huffman quite boldly declared that the twisted community could continue to exist on Reddit. In the same reply, he clarified that Subreddits that “cause harm to others” could (or does he mean should?) be banned:

Reddit Needs a Definition for Violence

This is not going to end well for new CEO Steve Hoffman. Here we are at Steve’s debutante AMA, where Redditors are asking tough questions about new moderation rules that aim to resolve the site’s on going crisis, and the brave new leader declares that racism doesn’t cause harm to others. That racism isn’t a form of violence. When racism leads to violence, the Redditors at Coontown celebrate. After the mass shooting in Charleston recently, one Coontown user declared, “The only good nigger is a dead one.”

You can read through the many thousands of comments in the discussion about Reddit’s new content policy, but it’s a deafening debate over what constitutes abuse, harassment, and—in a more nuanced fashion—the nature of violence.

Here’s a simple suggestion: Reddit needs a definition for violence. It needs to set one itself.

Violence is a word that doesn’t fit neatly into a dictionary. It’s a word that conjures up the darkest moments in both human history and our own lives, flickers of news reels from fiery wars overseas as well as that schoolyard fist fight you lost when you were ten years old. But violence is hardly limited to explosions or bloody noses. In the World Health Organization’s definition of the word, violence is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community.”

Now let’s re-read the new Reddit content guidelines. The two bullet points detailing what types of content is now banned are especially relevant:

• Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people

• Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviours intimidate others into silence)

It’s important to note that Huffman does not specify “physical harm or violence.” His wording is vague here, but it shouldn’t be, because it’s enabling destructive communities like Coontown to exist. I don’t recommend you ever visit the Coontown Subreddit, but it takes less than a second to realise that this entire community is devoted to the abuse of a group of people. The page is flanked with racist imagery, including but hardly limited to a Confederate battle flag-themed cursor and a founder named “GreatApeNiggy”. One group of moderators call themselves “BURN BABY BURN” and a banner at the top reads “The niggers and cuck shills will be out in full force these next few days.”

Is this free speech? Sure. Is it violent? Absolutely.

Here you have an active community of racists who band together to discuss how they’d like to kill black people and share opinions like “Slavery is literally the best thing to happen to current African Americans.” If this collective aggression isn’t the intentional use of power against a group of people—and thus isn’t violence—I’m really not sure what is. Reddit’s new leadership is weakening their stance because they fail to define the word.

In a reply to Huffman’s original comment blessing the Coontown Subreddit with “reclassification,” user supcaci provided a lengthy and well worded explanation of how backwards the policy is. She wrote:

In an interview to the New York Times earlier, you said of Reddit, “We have an opportunity to be this massive force of good in the world.”

If you think hosting the speech of subreddits like coontown, even caged in the basement of Reddit, makes you a force for good in the world, you really misunderstand who they are and the effects their speech can have. …They’re not just saying, “I hate these people.” They’re watching people die and celebrating it.

They celebrate when parents are killed with their children in their arms.

They celebrate when black children die.

They celebrate when black infants die.

You can click the links. They all work, and they’re all awfully violent.

Again, the argument that racism is violence boils down to our understanding of power. For Reddit—a site that’s both billed itself as an opportunity to be “a massive force of good in the world” and denied being a “bastion of free speech”—to embrace racism is to enable violence. Some might even say that Reddit encourages it. You can look beyond the Coontown example to the controversy of Subreddits like /r/fatpeoplehate. Reddit eventually banned that Subreddit “based on their harassment of individuals.” But for some inexplicable reason, the hate speech on Coontown is allowed to stay.

This doesn’t make sense. It’s hardly surprising that Reddit remains tone deaf in the face of loud criticism, but it’s also 2015, a year when even the former Confederate states are acknowledging how racist speech and racist symbols incite violence. If you can’t ban a group of users that celebrate the deaths of an entire race of people, what can you ban?

Image via Reddit