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Reddit needs to stop pretending racism is valuable debate

Free speech doesn't mean you have to take something seriously

Reddit's executives are still walking a thin, shaky tightrope as they update the site's content policy. Today, CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman posted a small update on Reddit's new moderator tools and rules for policing the site's worst communities — which could spell one of the biggest shifts in the site's history. He stayed to chat about what the changes would mean.

And the inevitable question came up: "How do you feel about hosting what may soon be the biggest white supremacist forum on the internet?"

Horrible, actually, but I don't think you can win an argument by simply silencing the opposition.

Another user pointed out a seven-year-old comment in which Huffman said that "we've always banned hate speech, and we always will." Huffman followed up:

While my personal views towards bigotry haven't changed, my opinion of what Reddit should do about it has. I don't think we should silence people just because their viewpoints are something we disagree with. There is value in the conversation, and we as a society need to confront these issues. This is an incredibly complex topic, and I'm sure our thinking will continue to evolve.

This is a problem.

The problem isn't necessarily with allowing hate speech on Reddit. Policing large communities is an extremely complex topic — just look at the fight over showing breastfeeding on Facebook for an example of heavier moderation backfiring. As in real life, good (or okay) speech can easily become collateral damage when you take down bad speech, especially when automation or large networks of moderators come into play. Whether or not this applies to Reddit is up for discussion.

The problem is that Huffman doesn't frame the debate this way, and neither do many other people. By some very common logic, networks like the racist "Chimpire" aren't bugs in the system. They're valuable dissenting opinions that will help us settle important issues. So allowing r/CoonTown to exist isn't just a principled decision, it's one with practical benefits. That's not only dead wrong, it's fundamentally antithetical to valuable debate.

There's a place for confronting issues head-on. Social progress happens when people are willing to accept scrutiny of beliefs they took for granted — dismantling religious arguments against gay marriage was an incredibly valuable exercise. But to turn those conversations into real change, there has to be a point at which we consider the question settled and move on. Climate change is real. Vaccines do not cause autism. Dark skin does not make someone literally subhuman. At some point, "debate" isn't a good-faith act, it's a stalling tactic to protect the status quo.

At some point, "debate" is just stalling to protect the status quo

And unfortunately, no question is ever settled on the internet. Its sheer size guarantees that however ludicrous or harmful a belief, there's probably a community that will foster it. The internet has democratized all kinds of opinions, making a single person's blog as accessible as a New York Times editorial. There's no way to conclusively "win" an argument with 3 billion people. This is okay when you're talking about, say, the best way to board an airplane or the four-corner simultaneous 24-hour day. The evidence comes down on one side, but keeping the debate open is relatively harmless — at best, an interesting thought experiment. Nobody makes you hear the opposition out before you set your one-corner alarm clock.

But when the issue is whether one gender, sexual orientation, or race is inherently inferior to another, it's not an abstract question. Calling for an "argument" or a "conversation" means demanding that women or queer people or people of color defend their own humanity. Whether or not they do it successfully, it's a draining and demoralizing exercise, dragging a centuries-old struggle back to its starting point. Is that energy really worth deploying against the "official chimpout advisory guide" and r/WatchNiggersDie?

Defending your own humanity is not a harmless intellectual argument

To be clear, we are rarely talking about rigorous scientific research into health and intelligence, or CDC surveys about black communities, or any of the other standard slippery slopes. We're talking about forums that argue from the assumption that the vast majority of black people are halfwits or violent criminals attempting to exterminate the white race. They add nothing to our understanding of race, crime, or social organization. Their main function is to shift the Overton Window far enough that non-murderous racism seems moderate.

Committing to absolute, hands-off openness will eventually mean defending speech that is truly worthless and harmful. Not a "dissenting viewpoint" or "opposition." Not vulgar speech that creates something new. Speech that you are willing to accept even though the world would probably be better off if it were silenced. It's fine to decide that this is worth the cost. It's ridiculous to pretend we should be grateful it exists.