#Gamergate and political correctness

It’s been a while since I’ve logged anything here about political correctness, a concept I believe to be much maligned and in need of defence. This quote from Deadspin a summary of the #GamerGate controversy neatly summarises a dynamic that exists all over the politic discourse

Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority.

This rings true to me, but of course its a problematic analysis. No-one of whom this is said is likely to believe it is actually about them. And even if they do, they are bound to believe that it is simply another example of media bias or snide liberal condescension. This is the problem with ‘culture war’, the paucity of common ground and the disbelief that the other side is acting in good faith. These kinds of debate scare me.

#Gamergate, by the way, is the hashtag around which a modern, online culture war has arisen. The Deadspin link above gives a good, quick summary. It’s interesting that for people not online, or rather, people not on Twitter… or rather, people who do not follow social media and gaming accounts on Twitter, will have absolutely no idea that the controversy is even happening. I think its fascinating that there could be such vicious and virulent arguments raging—arguments that may become defining moments for many people—to which the rest of the world is utterly oblivious. I know offline, plenty of communities and countries experience disasters and wars to which the rest of the world remains ignorant, but what’s interesting in this case is that your neighbours and co-workers could be foot-soldiers in this war, and you might never know. In that respect, there are similarities with the #McCann controversy discussed previously: I had no idea the controversy even existed.

Brenda Leyland and Twitter Storms

This is an emotive and controversial subject so it’s worth reminding ourselves of my standard disclaimer.

On Thursday, I was interviewed on Sky News about free speech on social media.   On Sunday evening, it emerged that the woman confronted by Martin Brunt in his associated report had been found dead in a hotel in Leicester.  At the time of writing details about the circumstances of Brenda Leyland’s death have not been made public.

This development raises all sorts of new questions about the conduct of the media, about discourse on social media, about the targetting of other social media users by online vigilantes, and about mental health issues.  I will not try to answer them here, but I will raise a couple of points I think are pertinent.

First, the entire Twitter history of Ms Leyland’s @SweepyFace Twitter account can currently be viewed and downloaded via GrepTweet  (or here as a .txt file).  There are over 4,000 tweets in the account and all of them appear to be about the McCanns… or rather, about #McCann, the ongoing “he said, she said” debate between pro- and anti- tweeters.  Browsing through the tweets, I see none that I would describe as threats or abuse.  The tweets do not directly address the McCanns, who are not on Twitter.

Related to this: its unclear which, if any of these tweets were in the dossier sent to the police and seen by Martin Brunt.

Second, it is incredibly sad and ironic that the death of a woman acused of trolling should mean that the Sky News reporter who exposed Brenda Leyland is now the subject of a Twitter storm.  This week I have often thought of this message from legal blogger Jack of Kent which sums up the situation perfectly:

Discussing McCann Twitter Trolls on Sky News

Last week I was invited into the Sky News central London studio to discuss free speech and ‘trolling’ on social media.  The segment had been prompted by a report by Sky journalist Martin Brunt into a ‘dossier’ of alleged abuse of Kate and Gerry McCann, the parents of missing Madeleine.

During the discussion I made the distinction between tweets that were abusive or threatening on the one hand, and others that were merely ‘offensive’.  I cited the Crown Prosecution Service guidelines on when to prosecute, and also warned at the development of ‘privatised censorship’ where different ideological groups use poorly-worded laws to threaten each other with prosecution.

A viewer recorded the segment off the TV and uploaded it to YouTube.

Continue reading

A modest proposal to improve the tabloid press a notch

Alan Hemming has been murdered in Syria. What a disgusting, inhumane act.

Few of us have much faith in the tabloids to show much restraint in these situations.

However, Stig Abel, Managing Editor at The Sun, says his paper will not glorify the killing and will instead focus on celebrating the life of a kind and decent man.

Continue reading

Fear of a ‘legal chill’ over Scots defamation law

Twice in a week, yrstrly is in the papers.  This time its the The Herald, where I say things not dissimilar to the article I wrote in July.

Robert Sharp, of freedom of expression group English PEN and the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “The worrying gap between protections in England and Wales and Scotland is allowing a chilling loophole to exist and this is especially concerning after Scots voted to stay in the United Kingdom.”

The internet, and in particular social media, means that defamatory statements published in England, for example, could almost certainly be deemed to have been published in Scotland. So somebody who believes they have been defamed online – in, for example, the electronic version of a newspaper, story can now choose where to sue.

Mr Sharp added: “We have every respect for Scots law and understand that it is not the same. But as long as the loophole exists, the chill exists. As long as we have the UK, we can say that if somebody has a reputation in England that can be tarnished, they have a reputation in Scotland too. This is a real constitutional issue and we hope Scotland will adopt a defamation act quickly.”

Read David Leask’s full article on the Herald‘s website.

Condemning Censorship in the Maldives in the Guardian

Today I am quoted in the Guardian, blasting the Maldives‘ ridiculous new law that insists all books be passed by a board of censors:

At English PEN, head of campaigns Robert Sharp called the “sweeping new law” a “disaster for freedom of expression in the Maldives”.

“The parliament should be acting to expand the space for freedom of expression, not enacting laws that will stifle debate and dissent,” said Sharp. “These new rules will also damage Maldivian culture.  How can Dhivehi authors flourish when all novels and poetry must pass a board of censors?  Maldivian literature will stagnate under these new rules.  We hope the president and the parliament of the Maldives will think again.”

Read the whole article on the Guardian website.

Schrödinger’s Scotland

scott-monument

Today the people of Scotland voted on whether to become an independent country. The polls closed about an hour ago.

Don’t let the silence of this blog on the issue fool you into thinking I was not interested in the campaign. Far from it. I’ve been following the battle as closely as work and family life will allow. Despite exhibiting the Englishman phenotype, I have Scottish ancestry (coal-miners of Fife, poets of Edinburgh) and of course lived, worked and loved in Scotland for many years. It always felt, and still feels like my country.

So I’m a natural unionist, and the promotion of division, separation and the creation of a new barrier (however conceptual) makes me feel sad. That said, many of the arguments for independence are beguiling. There is something enticing about a political tabula rasa. Talk of building a nation is inherently constructive and delivers an endorphine shot.

I’ve picked probably the most useless time to post a blog on this issue. The polls have closed so I cannot persuade anyone. And yet none of the vote tallies have been reported so there is nothing to analyse. Its funny to think of all those marked ballot papers, piled and yet to be counted, and consider that the result already exists as a fact of the universe, even if no-one knows what it is yet. Schrödinger’s Scotland: is it independent or not? We have to open the box to find out.

“Nothing to hide, nothing to fear”? Two Retorts

One of the most pernicious, lazy and irritating arguments for mass surveillance is “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear”.  I’ve dealt with cursory responses to this before: “Why do you have curtains, then?” is the best short response, in my opinion.

But behind the glib cliche is a more subtle argument.  Politicians, in arguing for surveillance, seek to reassure us that the powers they seek (and have recently awarded themselves) would never be used against ‘ordinary’ people.  They hope that we have forgotten Paster Neimoller’s ‘And Then They Came For Me’ poem… or that we assume it does not apply to us.  They want us to believe that their power of surveillance is so they can keep an eye on other people.  In this manner, the public consent to more powers, and barely notice when the security services abuse these powers to attack the free press.

Here are two sophisticated arguments against even responsible governments having mass surveillance powers.  First, the philosopher Quentin Skinner, in conversation with journalist Richard Marshall.  I quote at length without apology: Continue reading

Our Human Rights

Last month, the essential Labour Campaign For Human Rights (LCHR) launched Our Human Rights.  Its a campaign to highlight how the European Convention of Human Rights, and the British Human Rights Act, have helped ordinary citizens get what they need and deserve from the state.

Too often, human rights laws seem distant from the ordinary person.  They are portrayed by those hostile to the concept as being little more than a tool for terrorists and illegal immigrants to game the legal system.  As I have written before, speaking about human rights only in terms of the most extreme cases does not persuade the ordinary voter of their importance. Continue reading

The Tricycle Theatre, the Jewish Film Festival, and Cultural Boycotts

Last week the Tricycle Theatre caused controversy when it asked the UK Jewish Film Festival (which it was due to host in November) to return a grant made by the Israeli Embassy.

Given the present situation in Israel/Palestine … The Tricycle cannot be associated with any activity directly funded or supported by any party to the conflict…the Tricycle will be pleased to host the UKJFF provided that it occurs without the support or other endorsement from the Israeli Government

This has been met with widespread criticism.  Hadley Freeman in the Guardian says “don’t tell me what to think about Israel.” In the Spectator, Nick Cohen says its anti-semitic double-standards:  what other community but the Jews are asked to pass a political purity test?

There is one aspect to the debate that is missing from the reports and opinions that I have read, which is that members of Palestinian civil society have called for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel until it complies with international law.  With this in mind, I am not sure that charges of double-standards are quite accurate.  The test of ‘consistency’ is not whether the Triclcyle Theatre (or any other boycotters) accept money from other governments… but whether they heed other international boycott calls, from other embattled groups.

Having said that, I find this point diffcult to ignore:

In general I find the idea of cultural boycotts to be unsettling.  Artists are likely to be some of the most open and liberal people within a society, and it seems counter-productive to break-off dialogue with the very people who will be the vanguard of change in social and political attitudes.

In this case, it is clear that the UK Jewish Film Festival is curatorially independent of the Israeli state, and in fact shows films that are critical of the government and its policies towards the Palestinians.  To fund dissident voices is a curious form of propaganda!

However, some might say that propaganda is precisely what this amounts to: by supporting dissent in the cultural domain, the Israeli government can claim that it supports diversity and free expression.  Meanwhile, it continues to enable the construction of settlements in the West Bank…

Perhaps now is precisely the wrong time to take a stand?

Here’s a counter-intuitive thought: perhaps now, in the midst of the Gaza crisis, is precisely the wrong moment to make a boycott gesture?  Israeli violations of international law have been taking place for many years, and the BDS movement is in response to the settlement building in the West Bank, not the Gaza intervention.   Yet only now has the Tricycle Theatre chosen to make an issue of the Israel’s Embassy’s financial support for the JFF.

With our domestic law-making, we often fall prey to a Something Must Be Done attitude at moments of crisis, ignoring more routine and less spectacular injustices.  Perhaps it would have been better had this debate taken place at a time when Gazan civilians were not being bombed by the Israel Defence Force.