My community has a world-wide user base, so there is quite a range of perspectives in play. Sometimes when one of them flags something as offensive I look at the content in question and I don't see it -- but nobody can see all perspectives and maybe I'm filtering this through my cultural/racial/religious/geographic/age/etc privilege and don't even know it. One the one hand, maybe I have a hyper-sensitive user and nobody else would be bothered; on the other hand, maybe this is offensive and I should take that seriously. How should I go about figuring out which it is?

We're supposed to conduct most of our operations in public, but private channels are available. Flagger identity is private, so I can't just ask the person in the public chat room to elaborate. Options that I can see are:

  • In an appropriate public venue on the site, say that we received an offensive flag and ask for broader input -- please add your flag (if it's offensive) or tell us why it's not offensive. This has the effect of drawing people's attention to the post, which -- if it's offensive -- might not be welcome. On the other hand, it engages the community in resolving the question.

  • Privately ask the flagger to explain. This gives him an opportunity to explain but I'm still, in the end, just taking one person's word for it, so I have to decide how credible his explanation is.

  • Ask the flagger to bring it up in public. This has the same effects as the first option, but also places a burden on the user. He raised the flag privately, maybe because he doesn't want to speak up publicly or maybe because it didn't occur to him to do so -- and I don't know which.

  • Trust that a user who's willing to take the effort to flag something offensive, assuming this user doesn't have a bad track record, probably knows something I don't, so I should accept the flag and delete the content.

  • Seek out a relevant expert. If someone tells me that this post is highly offensive to a certain class of people, find a member of that class whom I trust and ask for input. That sounds like it could be a lot of work -- also time-consuming, and meanwhile the possibly-offensive content remains on my site.

What is the best way to proceed when confronted with an offensive flag I don't understand?

I am looking for answers that have actually worked for people who've dealt with potentially-offensive content. I'd rather avoid speculation.

  • 2
    Without providing an answer, another option to consider is seeking out a neutral third party and asking their opinion. While similar to your "relevant expert" option, it provides a different perspective than someone of the potentially insulted class.
    – Andy
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 0:53
  • 1
    I'm not writing an answer because (as requested in the question) I haven't been in a position of authority in this situation, but as a user who has raised that flag, I'm not happy with the answers here. The reliance on "average" point of view will chase away minority/diverse opinions that can make your platform more engaging. In addition, someone subject to Particular Offensive Slur regularly is not likely to be willing to educate you on their own time when you could google it.
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 0:55
  • @Zaralynda There's only two answers as of this moment, one of which is mine, which doesn't recourse to the "average" point of view at all. Maybe you skimmed? And it seems you're conflating notifying a moderator what the offense is with why it is offensive: how is a moderator to know that the reason a comment is offensive if it's a slur they don't even know is a slur? There's a difference between saying, "FYI X is a very rude word for Y ethnicity," and trying to educate someone why racism is wrong, or why it might be deleterious to their forum, or etc. Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 3:18
  • @Zaralynda P.S. It's not that I'm unsympathetic that it can be exhausting to even explain what about something is offensive. I've got a humdinger on my desk right now, and I've been trying to figure out for the better part of a week how to report it to the relevant parties such that they have the faintest notion why I'm complaining. Because its super non-obvious. But that's why I feel pretty confident they're not ever going to figure it out for themselves, so if I want them not to do that any more, well, if not me, who? Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 3:27
  • @Codeswitcher you didn't say average, but offensiveness standard of the community, which is really the offensiveness standard of the majority of the members (if not explicitly defined otherwise). My point is that the point of view of the community you WANT to have should be considered more than the PoV of the community that you currently have, otherwise you'll never get to where you want to be.
    – Zaralynda
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 16:04

2 Answers 2


I think it helps enormously to remember that, in reality, comments aren't offensive, people are offended by comments. Or put another way, offensiveness is not an objective property of a comment that somehow can be determined through objective means. The only offensiveness a comment has resides in humans' subjective experiences.

Which means, I'm sorry, you're gonna be stuck talking to people.

If somebody flags a comment as offensive, there are two basic possibilities:

1) They were offended by it; or

2) They were lying about being offended by it (say, they wanted to get the commenter in trouble for reasons of personal animosity).

(There's also, "#3, Hit 'flag as offensive' by mistake" and "#4, Hit 'flag as offensive' because your platform doesn't have a 'miscategorized' button and user couldn't figure out what else to do" and a few other weird edge cases.)

So let's assume the best: somebody flagged something as offensive because, darn it, they were offended.

The question before you at this moment is not "Is this actually offensive." Yes, yes it is: they told you it was. They were offended. So it is offensive, to at least one person.

No, the questions before you are: "Am I okay with this person being offended?" and "Might other people be offended, whom I also care about not being offended? And if so, how many of them?" And closely related, "Whose definition of 'offensive' am I going to use?"

I'm reframing it this way, because it opens up some possibilities that the "offensiveness is an objective property of a specific instance of speech" forecloses.

For one thing, you don't have to tell the flagger that they were wrong if you decide not to moderate the comment. You can tell them (should that be what you decide), that you appreciate that it was offensive to them, but it was not offensive to you, or not offensive by the standard of the community, so you are not moderating that comment.

For another, it clarifies that there isn't one offensiveness. There are many standards of what is offensive. There are communities in which you may express any racist idea you like so long as you don't swear when you're doing it, and use "polite" language, and it passes the community's standards; there are others, in which you may swear up a blue streak but disrespecting someone's heritage is grounds for a boot. There was a notable and rollicking community I once belonged to in which verbal aggression up to and including telling someone they were an idiot for thinking what they did was perfectly fine, but telling someone that there was something they couldn't say would bring the wrath of the board down on your head.

So the question is, when you get a mysteriously flagged comment, not "is" it offensive, but should you also find it offensive, in your capacity as a moderator. And the answer to that has to start with what the offensiveness standard of the community is.

And if it's a matter of privilege, if the reason you didn't realize that something was offensive by the terms of the community, was because you didn't recognize a dog whistle, a stereotype, an old bit of slang, then somebody -- presumably the flagger -- needs to let you in on it. Which means you have to ask them. You might then say, "Oh my goodness, I had no idea that's what that meant! That's offensive by the standard of my board, so I will moderate that ASAP!"

Alternatively, someone may flag something as offensive that, when you talk to them, you realize is offensive in some way your community's standards of offensiveness doesn't recognize as offensive. That may also be a matter of privilege. For instance, somebody may flag something as offensive because it's sexist, and upon having it explained to you that it's sexist, and seeing the merit of that argument, you may find yourself reviewing your community's standard for offensiveness and going, "Well, gee, we've never had a policy that held sexism is offensive". At which point you have the question: "Well, should we?" And maybe that's the point at which the community's standard of offensiveness needs to broaden.

And that then becomes the question "who gets to make policy around here anyways?"

If the forum is yours, and you're the benevolent dictator, that person is you. And you get to decide what standard of offensiveness you want to have for your forum.

It's a lot easier to do that when you're picking criteria for offensiveness on the utilitarian basis of what makes for the most congenial forum in your opinion then trying to scry offensiveness as an objective property of reality.


First, and most specifically if this is a Stack Exchange community, it is important to see what the policy is on offensive flags:

Even if a post is a bad post for some reason or another, it is probably not offensive. The Offensive flag is meant to be used only in extreme cases, like hate speech, or abuse. For example, if a user posts obscene images to the site, that should be flagged as offensive. But if someone says something bad about your favorite technology, that probably doesn't apply. As a rule of thumb, if you can't justify something as being hate speech, or abuse, you shouldn't mark the post as offensive. Instead, you should down-vote the post. When you decide to flag a post Offensive, you will get a warning dialog. Take this time to decide if the post is really offensive.

Some Background Information

Wikipedia attempted to define this in a failed proposal. In this proposal they noted, as you did,

All world cultures have certain taboos regarding certain subject matter, and how those subjects may be portrayed (if at all). However, views and feelings on these matters vary so widely from culture to culture, within each culture, and from period to period, that there is no universal agreement as to what is "offensive". There is also no agreement or substantive evidence as to what information may cause concrete, objective harm to society or individuals, nor any agreement as to what is age-appropriate for people to read or see. Many cultures have attempted to shield certain information from access by children, from women, from certain races or social classes, or from all of those groups at various times in history.

"Offensive" has made it to court cases too. For instance, reporters have been sued for "offensive" material. In those cases,

courts have defined offensive conduct as that which is “so unwarranted” as to shock or “outrage the community’s notions of decency”

If it's been the the courts and it affects freedom of speech, there is a good chance the Supreme Court has made a ruling as well. In this case, we have the Miller test. It was developed in 1973 in Miller vs California. In this case, the definition of obscenity changed from that which is "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that that lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value." With this came the "Miller Test"

  • Whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards", would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value The work is considered obscene only if all three conditions are satisfied.

The first two prongs of the Miller test are held to the standards of the community, and the last prong is held to what is reasonable to a person of the United States as a whole. The national reasonable person standard of the third prong acts as a check on the community standard of the first two prongs, allowing protection for works that in a certain community might be considered obscene but on a national level might have redeeming value.

How do I handle this potentially offensive post?

Without ever calling it the "Miller Test", my community developed a process very similar to the first two prongs of the Miller test. It is important to note that it depends on the "average" person - not the person that is most easily offended or the person that never gets offended. It also depends on what the community defines as offensive. This means what my gaming community finds offensive may be completely different from what a professional work place discussion board finds offensive.

The important thing, though, is that the community can and will shift in what is considered offensive. Open communication between the administration and the users helps to keep the "definition" of offensive on track. We handle this via public discussion of specific events that someone found offensive. This allows the rest of the community to chime in with their "Yay" or "Nay" votes. It provides a bit of transparency to the sometimes oblique duties of moderation. The other nice thing about the public discussion is that it forces people to explain why something offended them. It provides a context around their offense (be it cultural, gender based, class based, or any other reason for their offense).

Now that I have perspective on what the offensive comment means, do I believe the average person would also find it offensive if they knew the context as well? If so, I remove it. If not, I provide a little bit of education to the user and explain that by community standards, this doesn't appear offensive. I encourage them to participate in the on going discussion about what is and is not offensive. Perhaps they will be able to explain their offense and get the community's support as well. Additionally, if the user has a history of flagging stuff offensive that is not, it is probably appropriate to explain that offensive is for "extreme cases". It is not for getting a moderator to remove a post that they disagree with.

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