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The freedom to think, at /r/AskFeminists
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I spotted recently that I’ve not blogged for at least two or three yonks, and that it’s high time I wrote something. I’ve been meaning to branch out to political theory, and now turns out actually to be a good opportunity. I’ve taken an interest in feminism for some years, partly as a branch of my socialist exploration, but also from the perspective of working within the male-dominated space of technology, and wondering what social changes might create more opportunities across the gender gap. We’ve had some good discussions over on Meta Stack Overflow, and as a technology company their internal thinking seems to mirror the generally progressive trend of the industry generally: we need a equalise the playing field a bit more for people who’ve experienced systemic disadvantage.

I’ve participated in various online communities over my internet lifetime, and my latest home for a variety of interests has been Reddit. I’ve rather liked the semi-anonymous format: no profiles, no complicated social networking account creation, just set up a username/email/password, and then build a list of interesting communities in an organic fashion. I started over there to promote a technology project, but soon I found a home at /r/AskFeminists, which is primarily an “ask me anything” channel for non-feminists to ask questions, and perhaps secondarily, for feminists to discuss things with each other. This forum is a mix of hostile anti-feminist diatribe, neutral enquiries in good faith, and learned and academic feminism, and as long as one is careful not to overdose on the occasional helping of toxicity, it is fascinating and educational experience.

I’ve therefore been posting there for a couple of months, engaging with feminists and anti-feminists, both to promote the ideal of a slightly less gender-discriminatory world, and to better solidify my own practice. It turns out that, despite not having focussed on feminism before, people with similar views to mine mostly like what I write. My approach is not particularly unusual for this section of the political spectrum: it’s sex and gender positive, pro-trans, pro-choice, intersectional, leftist, and is looking for practical solutions to fixing up the quirks of history that created the discriminations people face today.

I have, however, been left with a nagging feeling that the discussion platform is only as good as its oversight. I started this worry in an intriguing discussion about whether one had to be pro-choice to be a feminist: I learn that in this space, taking a view that is not wholeheartedly pro-choice isn’t met with criticism, it’s just deleted – completely verboten. Even though I am firmly pro-choice myself, I wondered how many feminists who take up the shades of grey between for and against had been banned from this community, and thus how representative the space is of unregulated, real-world, feminist opinion. Put another way, how are we to know all the answers if some of them are not allowed?

Undeterred, I forgot about this, since it was merely a blip in an otherwise calm sea (as calm as internet political spaces go, at any rate). I noted too that moderators, who must keep at bay all manner of appalling misogyny, are taking on a thankless task, and are nearly destined for burnout. But we had another incident, in which I was discussing how gender dysphoria should be treated differently to racial dysphoria (since people change their gender but not their race) and this was met by an interesting gender-critical objection. As the discussion proceeded, I noticed one of my interlocutor’s posts had been “shadow deleted” (i.e. it looks fine to them but is deleted for everyone else). Only a moderator can do this, but thankfully the poster managed to repost their input (which was respectful, and was a useful part of the dialogue, even though I ultimately disagreed with it).

On Sunday, things got worse. A new female member of the community, who presented as a new feminist on her learning journey, and with an account indicating a frank history of depression, was booted within a few days. This was, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back: was it that she’d said sex work could be empowering? Was it some other post that I didn’t see? It turns out we are not to know: she messaged me to continue a conversation, and explained that not only she’d been banned, but that attempts to contact the moderator had resulted in her being put on mute.

My intervention

I thought that it would be worth speaking up at this point, but my biggest dilemma was: how to do that without mansplaining that a women’s space was doing it all wrong? A tricky one for sure, but in-for-a-penny and all that; I’d committed myself now. So I wrote this post in the main sub, and the moderator in question issued a terse reply that didn’t shed any light on moderation policy, nor offer any reassurance about future accountability. In fact, it was removed in short order, but I was permitted to repost it to the meta sub (/r/Meta_Feminism).

Sadly, my having the temerity to disagree resulted in electronic Armageddon: after dodging a hail of frogs and being plunged into days of darkness, I found myself banned from the main sub. I then updated my meta post to explain I’d been banned, with the (in retrospect) rather predictable result that I was banned and deleted from there too. I added an addendum to one of my last conversations explaining my ban, which resulted in the ultimate internet pestilence: my whole post history was removed from the sub. All 239 useful, pro-feminist, pro-trans, pro-choice, anti-bigotry, PC, Party committee approved, on-message messages, all rendered invisible.

Dialogue

The brief conversation I had with the moderator has now been deliberately vanished into the memory hole, so is no longer available for people to read online. I therefore offer it here for the public record, so that a conversation about moderation and accountability might be had without fear of unwarranted deletion. This followed under the post that I copied to the Pastie link above (reordered by conversational thread for readability):

Me [quoted from post]: are we not here to have discussions and to have our views challenged?

Moderator: No one can claim to be a feminist while opposing abortion rights. This would make a mockery of this subreddit.

Me: It would not categorically do anything of the sort. Sure, if a right-wing US Christian evangelical posted some material here it would be very clear that they have no overlap with feminism at all. But I have had two separate conversations in the last couple of weeks about people who stand up for women’s rights from unusual parts of the political spectrum (outside of Anglophone and/or Left perspectives). If someone ticks the “permitted views” list except for abortion, then you would not call them a feminist, and depending on the case, others might do the opposite. Why does your view carry such weight, except for the accident of circumstances that gave you moderator buttons?

Me [quoted]: Today I was in conversation with an ex-sex-worker who was taking a pro-sex work position in our conversation (she identifies as a feminist).

Moderator: I don’t know who that was. In general, plenty of people can claim to nominally be a feminist, while endorsing retrograde agendas.

Me: I think the sex-work thing was a red-herring, and that she was banned on this thread [link supplied].

Moderator: I am not following you. The person deleted their comment in that thread, whoever that was.

Me: May I PM you her username so you can take another look, given her explicit identification as a feminist elsewhere?

Moderator: Not interested.

Me: Also, it looks like my post has been removed from the /AskFeminists front page. Did you do that, and if so, why?

Moderator: Meta topic. Read the sidebar.

Me [quoted]: [I am worried that my own posts] might also accidentally step over an “acceptable” line.

Moderator: Arguments can be discussed freely. Though anyone participating in bad faith (including people who endorse regressive agendas while claiming to be feminists) are acting against our rules.

Me [quoted]: Last week I made some pro-trans remarks and was soon engaged in decent and interesting conversation from a gender-critical feminist.

Moderator: Fuck transphobes. That’s all that’s needed to be said.

Me: That’s not a mature or helpful response. My interlocutor was fine with swapping pronouns but not fine with swapping bathroom usage. I disagree with his/her assessment but they were plainly espousing feminist principles – just not ones we agree on. And, meanwhile, there is no accountability for a shadow deletion – thus far no moderator has owned up to it. So, given that the above is “not all that needs to be said”, I should appreciate a kinder and more expansive response. I acknowledge that, as things stand, I am not owed anything, aside from social rules of decency and understanding that occasionally it is correct to call upon.

Moderator: Disagreement over our transphobia rules is not something we tolerate.

The last line concluded our brief and fruitless dialogue, and my extensive ban was applied at this point. My admittedly subjective interpretation of the above moderation is that it was hostile, excessively prescriptive, lacking in accountability, and that the ongoing misuse of such powers are harming dialogue in the main sub. Such was the real and frustrating nature of injustice that I was willing to speak quite plainly at that point, edited into my meta-post:

I have been an active, feminist participant in this forum for these past few weeks, sometimes receiving the top-voted post in a topic. I am proudly pro-choice and pro-trans, and I am not advocating for anti-abortion nor transphobia, but I do want to know I am contributing to a platform where my participation is not threatened by arbitrary or Stalinist moderation. I suppose, now, I have my answer.

Anyone who remains implacably opposed to my speaking out is free, after a fashion, to reverse the nature of causation to claim that my ban was for insulting behaviour that hadn’t happened yet. But, therein lies the rub for any moderator: accountability sometimes means admitting you just got it wrong. It means keeping the tone positive and amenable. It also means defusing a disagreement rather than engaging in persistent brinkmanship. It means respecting the community you are serving.

It is possible also that someone might (incorrectly) spy a subtle ruse from me to inject transphobic or anti-abortion perspectives into a sub that opposes these positions. This is far from being the case: I am looking, ultimately, for the freedom to think. I am pro-trans and pro-choice having understood the alternatives, not because they were censored from me. Broadly, I think we need to extend that agency to our readers too.

Exploring community opinion

Now that this community has chased off a brand new feminist whose first taste of it is downright hostile, and having been thrown out myself, I am receiving private messages from other folks who have felt the moderator’s hefty (albeit unwritten) rulebook themselves. Some of these folks are banned already, and others are still contributing whilst measuring their words carefully. So I propose, if people are willing, that a discussion is had below. I myself would like to post again in AskFeminists, but not at the cost of worrying whether my opinions are in line with the latest pamphlet from the Judean People’s Front.

I confess, incidentally, that I am rather spoiled. One of my other online homes, Stack Overflow, is operated by Stack Exchange, a community of forums with elected moderators – how nice it would be to bring that format to Reddit! There is full accountability for every decision, and zero opportunity for a moderator to claim a discussion space as their own personal fiefdom (high visibility tends to promote moderation best practice anyway, and mod decisions do not often need reversing).

So, if you are a Redditor and self-identify as a feminist, and would like to express your opinion on this topic, feel free to comment below. You are welcome to use your Reddit username in your post, or not to, as you choose, and if you wish to maintain your privacy, a made-up email will work just fine. People are very welcome to contact me if they wish (PMs to halfercode) and, of course, nothing I receive privately will be published without permission.

Any discussion below might include, but is not limited to:

  • What experiences have you had of /r/AskFeminists so far, good and bad?
  • What improvements to moderation would you like to see in this sub?
  • Have you ever felt the need to measure your words in a public post in order to avoid censure?
  • If you have been banned, was a full explanation provided, and was this reasonable in the circumstances?
  • Have you stopped participating voluntarily as a result of disagreeing with moderation you have seen or experienced?
  • Are there topics that you’d like to cover on this sub, or answers you would like to give, but cannot because of moderation rules?
  • How should “good faith” be measured in the context of a person self-identifying as feminist?
  • To what degree should references to anti-abortion or non-insulting radical gender perspectives be permitted?

As you’d expect, moderation here will be very lenient, and frankly I don’t expect to have to snip anything. /AskFeminists moderators are very welcome to post here under their Reddit usernames, and I would ask that everyone else maintain a constructive tone towards them so that a practical solution can be found. It is possible, of course, that the current moderation regime is “best” for feminism even if a few of us are disgruntled (or even if it is just me). Indeed, there may be substantial support for the current moderation approach, and if so, let’s hear it.

At present, it is my intention for this post to live forever, in case it is useful in the future outside of its immediate purpose. For example, if someone receives an unwarranted ban, they’d be welcome to post an account of events below.

Finally, I think most long-term members of /AskFeminists care about this community, and want the best for it. Readers are therefore welcome to send this page to others, in order to secure the widest possible feedback.

My suggestions

In line with the questions I have posed above, here are some changes that I would like to see. They are just my personal views offered as food for thought, and really what ought to be implemented depends on what the membership wants.

  • In my experience most bad-faith and insulting interactions are posed from throwaway accounts. Where a ban is being considered for obviously main accounts (e.g. 1K+ of comment reputation) a “three strikes” rule should be operated. I would expect that deliberately disruptive questions would rarely be posted from such accounts.
  • Absolute free speech must reign in the meta channel. If someone wishes to question what counts as feminist for the purposes of (a) adding top-level feminist responses, or (b) adding feminist responses outside the top level, they should be permitted to do so (of course, if a question essentially duplicates an existing discussion, then the poster may just be given a link to the existing similar conversation).
  • Where a ban is applied to an account that is from a self-identifying feminist, a ban reason must be supplied. I don’t think this will increase the moderation burden significantly: hostile questions and throwaway accounts will generate most of the work at present, and I am not proposing a change for those.
  • It must be significantly harder to receive a ban in the meta channel than it is in the primary channel. The reason for this is to produce some visibility and accountability for significant bans.
  • If a disgruntled long-term member wishes to leave a moderation complaint in the meta channel, it should be left as a permanent record for anyone to read at their leisure. If a member wishes to blow off steam and slam the door behind them, they should be permitted to do so here. I would not propose that this offer is extended to accounts created for the purposes of mischief or disruption.
  • I should like to see a meta discussion about how non-bigoted gender critical material could be allowed in the main channel. I would not be able to lead this as it does not reflect my approach, and it may be that after a free and fair discussion the community would not in favour of permitting this anyway. To be clear about my own view, I randomly selected a blog linked from /r/GenderCritical and found it to be overtly offensive and homophobic. However, if someone is basing their feminism on a perception that gender is immutable (e.g. that part of being a woman is a lifetime of female socialisation) then perhaps someone could show how such views could be expressed respectfully (and such that transgender people could join into the discussion).
  • Users who are the subject of a ban must not have their entire message history removed from the sub unless a moderator could justify a deletion for each post individually. The deletion of a person’s entire post history is the opportunity to distort history, and progressive subs should have nothing to do with such policies (for hopefully obvious reasons).
  • I have recently been made aware of bans that have been applied whilst the moderator is participating in the same discussion. My view of moderation best-practice (outside of Reddit, at any rate) is that a moderator who takes part in discussions whilst moderating the same may be experiencing a conflict of interest (one cannot have a level discussion with someone who is able to delete or ban them). I would like to see some guidelines about this discussed in Meta.

In the longer term, it would be ideal if we could find a way also to:

  • Permit long-term members to shape the posting guidelines on an ongoing basis.
  • Discuss the possibility of elections for moderator positions. In case anyone smells a giant rat, I would not be interested in putting myself up for election! 🙂 However, we are lucky enough to have some extremely knowledgeable contributors, so we would not be short of capability.

Useful feminist subs

I have been kindly sent a list of subs for people who would still like to participate in feminist discussion, but who cannot for whatever reason continue to post at /r/AskFeminists. I’ve not tried these myself, but do give them a try. I believe they are sex-positive and trans-friendly:

Separately, my attention has been drawn to a sub discussing a long history of moderation issues at /AskFeminists and /Feminism – it looks like I am late to the party! That makes my own post less urgent than I first thought, but no matter – it may still be helpful.

5 Comments to “The freedom to think, at /r/AskFeminists”

  1. Vanitypridelust says:

    Awesome post! Sorry it took me so long to come back around it.

    I provided submissions and comments on /r/Feminism and /r/AskFeminists for a few solid months and then was banned on BOTH subs for a comment chain on /r/AskFeminists.

    The post was asking “Why does feminism despise Christianity while singing praises to Islam?”

    I commented: Can you give examples of both (a) Feminism despising Christianity and (b) Feminism being in love with Islam? I haven’t encountered this before. I have seem feminists supporting taking refugees in, if that’s what you’re referring to. And feminists supporting women in Islam to follow the Quran’s teachings directly rather than the male interpretation because IRL the Quran does not support oppression, jihad, or any of those things. Muslim society and Islam are two different things.
    I also haven’t really seen feminism either for or against Christianity so much as particular Christian teachings (which vary from form to form of Christianity – Catholicism and Lutheranism, for example, are very different in ways despite being similar and both being Christian religions).

    Mod: Comment removed. Don’t post bad faith content – there is nothing in that article that addresses how women are treated as second class citizens in Islam. I suggest you be more careful about what you post in here in the future.

    Me: I posted it because it shows how the Quran is often misread and how female scholarship of it is important? I didn’t realize it was a bad faith comment at all. I’d really like some feedback on what was wrong about it because I’m pretty confused.

    Mod: There are vigorous efforts to relativize misogyny in Islam/Quran, and show that it is all a matter of interpretation. Some facts of misogyny in that ideology are unavoidable, see the issues of inheritance and testimony. Claiming, therefore, that Quran is compatible with feminism is either ignorant or in bad faith.

    Me: I wasn’t claiming that it was 100% compatible with feminism, just that there has been feminist support for female scholarship/interpretation of the Quran. Which there has been.

    Mod: While conveniently forgetting to mention the parts that are unavoidably misogynistic…? That’s not quite good faith, is it?

    Me: I was trying to determine where OP saw feminism “loving” Islam, and was expressing the things that I did see support for and asking if those things were what OP was talking about.
    [Quoted comment that was removed]
    Meaning there has been a history of male interpretation used to create a misogynistic, oppressive environment (in Muslim society), but that there are parts of the Quran that are actually quite in support of women and the importance of women and that female scholarship is challenging traditional interpretations. I still don’t see my statement as being made in bad faith.
    I in no way deny that there is misogyny present, and it wasn’t my intention to downplay that there is. I didn’t mention it because I figured it was assumed and because it was not relevant to what I was indicating – which is that I have not seen feminism particularly for or against religion in general but that feminism does support the exploration of religion particularly through female scholarship and interpretations.
    Perhaps my wording could have been more careful, and for that I apologize.

    Mod: > I in no way deny that there is misogyny present
    Strange, this is the first time you say it here though.
    > Perhaps my wording could have been more careful, and for that I apologize.
    Yeah, in the future, tackle standing problems, instead of pointing out possibly solved issues. You wouldn’t want to be apologetic towards misogynistic ideologies, would you?

    Me: I’m not even sure what this means. All I did was ask OP for clarification, point out some arenas that I saw support for in feminism, and point out that feminism isn’t typically for or against religion so much as specific aspects of religious teachings.
    I feel like you’re purposefully misunderstanding me at this point, so I’ll just leave it at that.

    The next thing I knew I had been banned from posting to /r/AskFeminists and /r/Feminism. Attempts to message the mod teams resulted in me being muted. I tried to contact mods individually and came to find that the ones who weren’t this particular mod or their alt account were either inactive or too low-level to assist.

    I really enjoyed my time on the communities because it challenged me to form more specific ideas and to change some of my previously held notions, but because of an Islamophobic (read their post history – anything about Islam is flagged, banned, or removed for “promoting regressive ideologies” which I think is really shitty to Muslim feminists) dictator, there’s no place for me there anymore.

  2. Why can’t women have groups men don’t feel the need to invade, understand or meddle in?

    I resonate with a lot of things you have said about yourself in the first paragraph; being a leftie; pro-choice, pro-rights; but I can’t help but feel largely male-gender identifiers should support where it is needed, but not feel the need to inject themselves into special-interest groups like the one mentioned or give them publicity that was not asked for.

    I’m actually only 2 years into paying active attention (reading and listening mostly); and I’ve found I get more out of resisting the urge to talk, type or respond unless asked to directly.

    I Can’t say I always manage that, but I always feel less friction and more understanding by hanging-back, taking it all-in than trying to become a participant. Perhaps it’s this you are experiencing and resisting.

    Would it be possible for you to consider removing the platform and or the name of the place you asked and removing people’s personal information?

    • Jon says:

      Thanks for your thoughts, Lewis.

      Is your concern that I am at risk of talking over women in a feminist space? It is a legitimate worry on the left, but I don’t think it applies in this case – there are two or three subs full of complaints about /AskFeminists moderation, and most of it comes from female feminists (and I’d assert it is they who should be listened to – some of them will be longstanding activists, and not just ‘keyboard worriers’ like me!).

      Hopefully I can make the case that I am not seeking to, err, invade or meddle! :-p

      Regarding personal information, there are indeed some passing references to moderation cases from this sub, but I sent the article to those people privately first. I would have made any edits they requested, but they were all happy with it.

      I don’t see the value of removing references to /AskFeminists – wouldn’t that defeat the point of the essay? What is your view about the quality of moderation on this sub?

  3. Jessica says:

    I agree with your problems except the thing about being pro-choice. If someone isn’t pro-choice, they’re not a feminist. This is the kind of issue that is fundamental to feminism, and accepting pro-life people as feminists only dilutes feminism. Of course there has to be space for differing opinions, but feminism has a meaning. If someone thinks women are biologically inferior, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be treated nice, and claims to be a feminist, they’re not a feminist. The same is true of pro-life people.

    • Jon says:

      I agree with you, insofar as I personally think feminism and pro-life perspectives are incompatible. However I am also of the view that to have a living practice of feminism – or indeed any ideology – we must be willing to hear opposing perspectives. I am also wary of being prescriptive – there is no central committee for feminism, and the “leading lights” are forever lobbing rocks at each other.

      Of course, there is also a need to consider some themes “decided” for the benefit of social justice – opening up a discussion space for pro-life views on the grounds of free speech may be regarded, on balance, as a regressive move. Tricky!

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