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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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
As the destruction and death persists in Gaza, we should be thankful that creativity has not yet been suffocated. Incredibly, authors continue to write through the bombardment.
According to an email from Ra Page, director of Manchester-based Comma Press, which recently published a collection of short stories from writers in Gaza, “all of the Book of Gaza contributors are writing away like crazy, whilst they have power.” (Eighty percent of households in Gaza currently have only up to four hours of power per day as Israel has badly damaged the Strip’s electricity infrastructure.)
The news is hideous. 298 people died when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over Ukraine, apparently by pro-Russian separatists. Meanwhile, almost as many people have been killed in Gaza by Israeli air strikes, in response to Hamas firing rockets into Israel.
In both cases, the news reports emphasise the number of children killed. It’s a common journalistic practice that we take for granted, which is actually quite curious.
What is being communicated? Is it that a child’s death is somehow more tragic, because they have not had a chance to properly experience life? If so, what about all the dead adults who have still not achieved their potential?
Today the Prime Minister and his Deputy announced ‘emergency’ legislation to legalise the mass collection and retention of data. The laws will be rushed through parliament next week.
I have a lot to say about this: Continue reading