Both readers of this blog will be sufficiently aware of my position on free speech to be able to work out what I think about the news that six people are to be prosecuted for staging a racist ‘Grenfell’ Bonfire Night.
The group made a model of Grenfell Tower and set it alight, then posted pictures on social media.
Anecdoche — I stumbled into this word recently. It defines that condition when everyone is talking, and no one is listening. I see people expressing very polarized, angry views. I see people speaking from hurt, from fear and from hate.
For a moment I was slightly shocked that I had only just learnt the word now. It’s so useful and apt for the way online discourse (and indeed, political discourse in general) seems to unfold right now that it should be in common use.
It turns out that the word is a deliberate neologism, an invention of the Dictionary is Obscure Sorrows, a creation of John Koenig. Here’s his version:
a conversation in which everyone is talking but nobody is listening, simply overlaying disconnected words like a game of Scrabble, with each player borrowing bits of other anecdotes as a way to increase their own score, until we all run out of things to say.
While it’s great to be able to express this concept, it’s also slightly annoying, because the word does not mean what one might expect it to mean. Anecdoche is clearly a portmanteau of ‘anecdote’ and ‘synecdoche’.
An anecdote is an account of a personal experience, usually retold to make a point or reveal some truth;
Synecdoche is a part that stands for the whole. “Send me fifty swords” to mean, “send fifty people armed with swords”.
So an anecdoche could be a single story that becomes a stand-in for, and accepted truth of a particular issue.
This would be a useful word to have because this sort of thing happens all the time in political debates. It’s particularly relevant to transgender activism, which appears to have been reduced to a single, unhelpful question, over whether trans women should be able to use women’s toilets and gym changing rooms. The issue is way more complex and interesting than that.
Darkness. Brazil elects a proud fascist. A gunman murders eleven people at a Pittsburgh synagogue. The EU is becoming unsafe: authoritarians are on the rise in Italy, Hungary, and Poland; Journalists have been murdered in Malta and Bulgaria. All around the world, politicians, the press and the people are asking themselves how and why things have declined so quickly and catastrophically.
Icing is a medium of expression. I think often of this marvellous interview with the musician Todd Trainer (drummer in Steve Albini’s band Shellac) with the music journalist Holly Day:
Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.
Trainer’s album covers, with their naïf cursive, are a thing to behold, and I wonder if there are other modern artists working in the medium. There are probably similarities in technique to art made from neon tubing, as practiced by people like Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin. And since icing is very much a craft, it is surely ready for a Grayson Perry subversion. Continue reading “Gayer Cake”
In debates about reproductive rights, a crucial concept is over ‘when life begins’ and when a complex collection of human cells starts to have a moral claim. Some people say this must be the ‘moment of conception’. Others talk about ‘viability’, when certain senses come online; or they talk about the moment of birth.
For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.
The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the the exhibitionopening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.
Listening to Carol Anderson talk about her book One Person, No Vote on the Ezra Klein Show podcast; about voter ID laws and other measures that actively prevent black people from voting; about gerrymandering and electoral college distortions that allow the party that loses the vote to win the election…
Watching Brett Kavanaugh testify to the US Senate Judiciary committee; where he refused to answer or evaded questions; where he perjured himself; and where his white male colleagues apologised to him for having his honour questioned…
… I found myself thinking that American democracy is on the decline. That it may even be irreparably damaged.
Jim Waterson of the Guardianreports a bizarre story of legal reputation managers at Schillings sending threatening letters to booksellers and independent book shops, in an effort to stop them stocking a book about an (allegedly) corrupt banker.
I’m quoted near the end of the story, expressing my dismay:
Robert Sharp of English PEN, the free speech campaign group that co-founded the Libel Reform Campaign, said the decision by Low’s lawyers to target booksellerswas deeply worrying. “This is surprising, concerning and sets a terrible precedent,” he said. He argued that by focussing on the synopses, “the effect of these legal letters is to short-circuit the legal process, by putting booksellers in an impossible position”.
On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation. The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.
The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.
Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.
Following a catastrophic fire on 2nd September, the extent of the cultural loss at Brazil’s National Museum is becoming clear:
Folks, there’s nothing left from the Linguistics division. We lost all the indigenous languages collection: the recordings since 1958, the chants in all the languages for which there are no native speakers alive anymore, the Curt Niemuendaju archives: papers, photos, negatives, the original ethnic-historic-linguistic map localizing all the ethnic groups in Brazil, the only record that we had from 1945. The ethnological and archeological references of all ethnic groups in Brazil since the 16th century… An irreparable loss of our historic memory. It just hurts so much to see all in ashes.
—Cinda Gonda, translated by Diogo Almeida, about the fire at Brazil’s National Museum.