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.
And now for some pedantry. Today I read two articles that both made the same definitional error.
First: In his new (and by all accounts, important) book Breaking News, Ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger writes:
The germ of the idea had come from the Iraq war and the press’s role in aiding and abetting a conflict based on what now we would call fake news.
Second: In a powerful memoir of his time surviving and fighting in the Warsaw ghetto during the second world war, Stanisław Aronson writes:
The city was full of refugees, and rumours were swirling about mass deportations to gulags in Siberia and Kazakhstan. To calm the situation, a Soviet official gave a speech declaring that the rumours were false – nowadays they would be called “fake news” – and that anyone spreading them would be arrested. Two days later, the deportations to the gulags began, with thousands sent to their deaths.
Both writers take the term ‘fake news’ to mean ‘government misinformation’ but that is most certainly not what the term means. ‘Fake news’ is a very particular type of falsehood—that perpetrated by the media.
We don’t need a neologism for government misinformation. We already have a perfectly good word for that: Lying.
This week, two Reuters journalists working in Myanmar were found guilty of breaking official secrets laws and sentenced to seven years in prison. Officials from the British Embassy in Yangon attended the trial and report that there was scant evidence that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had done anything wrong. They have clearly been imprisioned as a means of silencing their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.
I wrote about the convictions, and how (I think) the campaign for their release should be run, in an article for the New Statesman.
A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.
There’s an interesting passage in Peter Kimani’s Dance of the Jakaranda about the conspiracy of silence between those who are abused, and their abusers:
One unspoken rule about warfare—some Indian traders instantly recognized this as warfare—is that neither the victim nor the villain is willing to tell what truly happened afterward; the motivation for the former being to minimize the degree of hurt and loss, which intensiﬁes at every bout of recollection; the explanation for the latter being to disguise the full extent to which one’s humanity is diminished by brutalizing others. So the trail of blood left on shop ﬂoors was wiped away silently by the women who had lain there spread-eagle—the stream of tears sufﬁcient to wash the drops of blood away—while traders who had lost entire life savings kept under the mattress denied losing more than the day’s collection. Either way, the books were balanced: in one strike, lifetime gains were wiped out, while the inﬂicted pain left scars that would last a lifetime.
The ‘we’ in that post were the Remainers. I recommended we refrained from moaning about racist, insular Brexiteers and instead adopted a conciliatory attitude. To accept that a bad decision had been made but then endeavour to make withdrawal from the EU work.