When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest

The idea of human rights being valuable in themselves doesn’t wash with a lot of people. Instead, they want to see a practical benefit to rights. Seeing horrible people benefit from the same rights as the rest of us undermines people’s support for such rights.

I worry about this a lot.

This attitude is particularly apparent this week due to the horrific knife attack in Streatham, which mirrored the awful murders at the Fishmonger’s Hall in December. In both cases the perpetrator had been released from prison following a conviction for terrorism, and so now there is discussion about retrospectively changing the release and parole procedures for such criminals. Continue reading “When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest”

Offence and Intent

There have been a several incidents recently where a person has caused offence by their actions and language, and been accused of racism. Roger Scruton said that Chinese people were like robots, Danny Baker tweeted a picture of a chimpanzee, Priti Patel used an antisemitic dog-whistle, Louise Ellman faced deselection on Yom Kippur, and Alastair Stewart quoted Shakespeare.1

In each case, when a complaint has been voiced, other people have chimed in to say that the offence caused was unintended.

But this only fans the flames of the row. Those who have taken offence (or those who are offended on their behalf) claim that the intent of the person giving offence doesn’t matter. Rather, our moral judgments should be based on the effect it has on those on the receiving end of the words or actions.

This makes me uneasy. I don’t think that our moral judgments can be based only on how it affects those who are the perceived target. I think intent is indeed part of the moral equation.

Here’s a thought experiment. Continue reading “Offence and Intent”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart

Free speech furores now happen on a weekly basis. The latest iteration concerns the ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, who has stepped down from his duties following some regrettable posts on social media.

At the centre of the controversy is a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which he posted during an argument with activist Martin Shapland. It includes the line “His glassy essence, like an angry ape.” Shapland is black, so the post attracted accusations of racism (comparing black people to apes is an undeniable racist trope).

In that respect, it echoes a controversy last year, when Danny Baker posted a picture of a chimpanzee and likened it to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby Archie (who, like his mother, is mixed-race).

The Stewart resignation caused consternation among his fellow journalists. All the comments I saw paid tribute to his career; and many said that the offence taken at his tweets was misplaced.

This was similar to my own, initial reaction. It seemed to me that the outrage was overblown. The Isabella quote from the play talks about humanity in general, rather than describing an individual as monkey-like.

However, reading comments from other people online have made me rethink that position. Those who saw the discussion unfold in real-time say that it was not just a single Shakespeare quote, but a mean-spirited and out-of-character pile-on. And when someone else wryly drew attention to the ‘ape’ slur embedded with the quote, Mr Stewart posted an emoji in response, suggesting he was aware of, and indifferent to, the offence he might cause. Continue reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart”

Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence

Over the years, the exercise of free speech by cartoonists has been a recurring theme on this blog. All the way back in 2006 I discussed the infamous Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands Postern, and of course the output of Charlie Hebdo has been examined and defended on several occasions. Meanwhile, the free speech of cartoonists around the world is often something that English PEN has to defend.

Continue reading “Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence”

Why Political Correctness is the Opposite of Orwell’s Newspeak

George Orwell

Yesterday I fired off a Twitter thread about Orwell and political correctness. It was my good fortune that the author Dorian Lynskey (author of a ‘biography’ of Nineteen Eighty-Four) chose to retweet it, which meant a few other people did too. I thought I might as well set out the thread here, as a service to those of you who still prefer an artisanal blog post over commodified, disposable tweets.


I see people are discussing George Orwell with regards to ‘political correctness’ and ‘wokeness’ which they regard as ‘Newspeak.’ I think that’s a mistaken analogy. #

First, political correctness (and it’s modern iteration, wokeness) are, first and foremost, pejorative labels for inconvenient political ideas. There are far more people who claim to be “anti PC” or “not woke” than there are people who positively claim either label. #
Continue reading “Why Political Correctness is the Opposite of Orwell’s Newspeak”

Discussing #NoToLangleyFeeders with Alexis Conran on TalkRADIO

Yesterday evening (25th January) I was pleased to be invited on to Alexis Conran’s TalkRADIO show to discuss the #NoToLangleyFeeders campaign. Continue reading “Discussing #NoToLangleyFeeders with Alexis Conran on TalkRADIO”

You Should Watch And Share My #NoToLangleyFeeders Videos

In recent weeks I’ve become involved in a campaign against some proposed changes to admissions policies at a pair of local schools. You can read all about the issue on the campaign website, Fair Access Admissions for Langley Schools, and the @KeepLangleyFair Twitter feed.

The campaign is parochial in the best sense of that word. It’s a hyper-local issue and those involved coalesced quite quickly into functioning units working on media, policy, and logistics. We were able to do this because of the existing community infrastructure already in place: WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages for various school Parent-Teacher Associations, plus the fact that we see each other every day at the school gates. Continue reading “You Should Watch And Share My #NoToLangleyFeeders Videos”

Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige

Over on Twitter, the Daily Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges asks a question: has Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, been the target of specifically racist press coverage? Or is it just the double-standards in way the press writes about her, compared to the Duchess of Cambridge, that has led people to conclude that Meghan is the victim of racism?

The answer to the question appears to be ‘no’ – there has not been any mainstream media coverage or commentary that deploys racist tropes or epithets. Continue reading “Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige”

Algorithms and Radicalisation

I’ve been busy recently—work, study, Christmas—and haven’t felt a huge urge to write anything here. So let’s round off the year with some old fashioned web-logging: the mere bookmarking a story on a subject that feels emblematic of the entire decade.

A discussion about a pre-publication research paper with some shoddy methodology leads me to a New York Times article by Kevin Roose, published in June this year, chronicling one young man’s journey into alt.right radicalisation. A key insight:

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

The impact of algorithms on our psyche and society has become very apparent in the last few years. The power to determine who sees what and when can change moods and swing elections. But discussing the issue this week, Roose and other data journalists present some important caveats. The algorithm isn’t everything.

The only thing I’d add, coming at the issue (as I do) with an eye on freedom of expression concerns, is that the way the algos affect our interests is not in itself a bad thing.

We’ve all fallen down algorithm-induced ‘YouTube Rabbit Holes in our time, and when the subject is not political, the way that the system steers users away from mainstream content and into the back-catalogue the results can be delightful. Last night, for example, I watched a load of astonishing videos of ballet performances. I know nothing about ballet and cannot now remember how I happened upon them (perhaps I clicked on a link on someone’s blog?) but it’s possible this could be the start of a deep and consuming interest that we would usually applaud.y

Even political ‘radicalisation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that ‘radicalising’ people to fight for racial or gender equality (say) or to become environmental activists, is actually desirable.

The issue, as ever, is not with ‘radicalisation’ per se but ‘violent radicalisation’ or (as the Commission for Counter Extremism recently suggested) with ‘hateful extremism.’ Algorithms that serve us relevant content are useful tools for many that can be misused by a few. Or, as Kevin Roose and Becca Lewis point out above, algorithms don’t radicalise people; people radicalise people.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t intervene to temper the algorithms. Just that the challenge for tech companies and governments is not one of banning, but of balance. This will be the task of the next decade. Let us hope that by 2030 we will have reached a fair settlement.

Trump’s Particular Style of Bullshitting

Donald Trump

Over on Twitter, CNN journalist Daniel Dale highlights Donald Trump’s “speaking mistake”…

Donald Trump has a particular style of bullshitting. He will assert something, and then qualify it with a “maybe” or a “probably.” Politicians the world over will obfuscate and mislead, but the way Trump does it is particularly noticeable. Its almost like he is a child, play-acting at being a politician.

Each of these qualifications — the “maybes” and the “probablies” — has a profound grammatical effect on the sentence. They render the assertion he has just made meaningless. But in the flow of a speech, the audience (and annoyingly, the journalists) don’t always pick up on the trick.

I’ve come to realise that this is the President’s way of trying to give himself plausible deniability for each lie. Those equivocations are Donald Trump’s ‘tell,’ the vocal quirk that betrays the fact that he’s just making shit up as he goes along. Every now and then I bookmark examples.

Continue reading “Trump’s Particular Style of Bullshitting”