I am a mod on a rather growing satire subreddit and I want to know how strict should we be with racist comments.

What reasoning is there for acceptable levels of racism in satire?

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    +1 - although the question is valid in and of itself, I'd add another +1 for "What is the accepted level of racism?" :P – mechalynx Sep 26 '14 at 10:38

I would say that there is no accepted level of racism.

The problem on the internet is that people will take what you type out of context, even if that context is satirical and it will cause problems.

I am assuming that as a satire site people will want to poke fun at racists and racism. It should be possible to do that without actually being racist yourself. If you can't do that then you're not really being satirical - you're just being racist.

The same applies to sexism etc.

  • What about satirical depictions of racists - best depicted by them using racist slurs? – SF. Mar 11 '15 at 8:48
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    @SF. It's difficult, but if you're poking fun at racists it should be possible to do so without actually being racist. – ChrisF Mar 11 '15 at 8:56

I want to start with the understanding that your beliefs and morals are your business. I can't tell you what to believe or how to act, nor can I tell you how you must run your subreddit. Part of how Reddit works it that you are the final word on how the subreddit works and behaves, which will balance against if the userbase grows or gets pissed and leaves (I'm assuming you are the top mod).

On Reddit (and I imagine other similar platforms), your policies can affect the kind of user that will join and enjoy your sub. There's a quote from someone that goes: "Any community that gets its laughs by pretending to be idiots will eventually be flooded by actual idiots who mistakenly believe that they're in good company." In this case, if you are okay with racist comments and posts, then the consequence will be that some actual racists will start joining your sub and contribute to that. Whether you want that or not is your decision.

If you don't want that, then you should work on banning racist comments. AutoModerator is a good tool to find them. But, make sure to establish the rule before enforcing it (new sticky post is a good option). You don't want to surprise the users with a new rule that you stuck onto the sidebar without announcing, that's a good way to annoy the userbase.


Humor must always punch UP not DOWN.

Kaoru Negisa blogged

Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying.

Molly Ivines, on Mother Jones, writes:

The kind of humor Limbaugh uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. We should all laugh more at our elected officials--it's good for us and good for them. So what right do I have to object because Limbaugh makes fun of different pols than I do?

I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless--none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it's profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

A. Lynn blogged about satire specifically:

Satire that works is clever and engaging because it deals with really serious content, BUT makes you think about it in a new way and doesn't make vulnerable people the punchline. It's not regurgitated racism, sexism, etc. It, instead, points a finger at the the powerful and the oppressive systems.

I really can't say it better than these writers. There's no room for racism, even in satire.

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    Except that isn't what the OP is talking about I don't think. As I understand the OP's question, he is talking about using racism in satire to make fun of racists. One established form of satire is to take it to the extreme level that makes it mock the person doing it a little. This would make it punching up as the first author describes as it is going after those who are oppressive. – AJ Henderson Oct 7 '14 at 4:33
  • @AJHenderson It still doesn't work. One relatively recent example of what you're talking about was Colbert's satire of Dan Synder's actions. It still offended many folks and is not acceptable. The joke would have been punching up if it referred to white folks, but not a minority. – Zaralynda Oct 7 '14 at 14:29
  • I wasn't claiming that such satire isn't offensive to some, but that doesn't mean that it is actually racist itself. Offensive and racist aren't the same thing and people have different sensitivities, which is what this question is about. The OP is aware that such satire will be seen as offensive to some, my point in my comment was simply that the arguments you site don't apply if the racism is being used satirically to attack racists since it is attacking an attacker. If offending some people is the only criteria, then communication is near impossible as just about anything may offend. – AJ Henderson Oct 7 '14 at 14:38
  • @AJHenderson I do not see how using a slur to refer to Asian folks punches UP at Dan Synder as you claim. – Zaralynda Oct 7 '14 at 14:41
  • I'm not familiar with Colbert's satire to know if it was used well or not. I can't check it out now, but I will later. I don't really want to get in to a debate here, but as a different example, lets assume that racism against some group was still widely tacitly accepted, taking it to the satirical extreme that would make it uncomfortable to people who simply don't think about it has a valid role in attacking and forcing thought on the subject. That is the role of satire, to challenge notions by taking them to their absurd conclusions, either through context shift or scale. – AJ Henderson Oct 7 '14 at 14:44

This would depend entirely on the standards of the community. Most online communities keep a pretty low tolerance of racism even in satire, but there isn't a right or wrong answer for a community other than whatever community guidelines that community chooses to set.

It is important to remember that tone doesn't translate well through the Internet and some people aren't good at recognizing sarcasm and satire, particularly since satire often tries to ride the line between serious and sarcastic very closely.

My recommendation would be to avoid it, certainly outside of any context that isn't blindingly obviously satirical, but it is probably easiest just to avoid it altogether that way you don't end up with a "how far isn't obvious enough" question that is hard to deal with.

Also, keep in mind that even though using racist language and racist scenarios to fight against racism isn't racist in and of itself (as the intent is to promote equality), it is still generally offensive. Unless it is being offensive to try to make a difference, it is probably ill advised. Similarly, it's probably best to use the least offensive subject that can still get the point across. (For example, since white's don't have the same kind of history of prejudice in the western world, they make a good target to be used in satire of racist situations, but that might not work for all satires.)


I think that, while others have covered the fact that you can't accept racism freely and not expect racism to become commonplace (outside the realm of satire), I think you can deal with this using a meta-rule (a rule for how rules are applied) that can deal with any kind of offensive satire or joke:

If the satire/joke is really really good, let it slide and perhaps add a moderator comment explaining that this is the case. The meta-rule isn't bent, because it can be clear that it's up to the judgment of moderators. Another way to phrase this would be:

When a post is strongly effective in its humor, its offensiveness may be overlooked at the discretion of the moderators

I also like to call this the "good kind of trolling rule". Sometimes, people come up with stuff that is really good, but breaks the rules (in the general sense). A meta-rule that allows for these, but does not encourage them is, I think, the ideal. You can still have some "punishment" for lack of a better term, just to make it clear (like banning a user for a day or something). The underlying concept is, "if you can make a joke that is really good, we might let it slide, but do not expect to not be punished for breaking the rules". You can also think of it as the user exchanging their rule-breaking record for a good joke, that might be breaking the rules (in this case, on what is offensive).

edit - it may be ok (and this is highly speculative) to have racist satire be completely out of the question unless posting in a specific thread that exists solely for the purpose of said satire. I used to participate in a forum that had a single section where moderation was not applied - all the randomness went there, providing a release valve for those who wanted to break the rules. In there, anything could be posted (including 200 pages of "this" posts) and the rules where a lot more lax. But outside that section, the rules where stricter and more normal. You can do this if you're worried applying the rules too strictly might turn your crowd conservative to the point where anything becomes potentially rule-breaking or people start complaining and reporting on even innocent satire because it might be considered racist.


"At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas. Freedom to speak one's mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty; but essential to the quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole. In the world of debate about public affairs; many things done with motives that are less than admirable; are nonetheless protected by the First Amendment." - Author Unknown

With that said...instead of censoring comments on reddit from being viewed by anyone...Individuals should have the right to block users whose comments they deem offensive. It should be an individual choice....the way you can block users from your facebook or any other social networking site.

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