Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs

Back in March, I participated in a round-table discussion hosted by the University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, on the subject of defamation. I will post my remarks at some point, but for now (primarily because of a media appearance I made today) I wanted to share a remark made by Dr Alex Mills about the state of Facebook Terms & Conditions.

What you have when you look at Facebook’s community standards is a defamation law that you would write on a postcard if you were trying to explain a sort of version of American defamation law to someone who wasn’t a lawyer.

Continue reading “Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs”

Do We Really Need To See A Person’s Face? Chatting to Vanessa Feltz about the Danish Niqab Ban

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

Denmark have banned the burka and the niqab, because “we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark”, according to Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen. That’s a strange sort of value: taken literally, it would presumably also mean a ban on motorcycle helmets and many kinds of carnival costumes.

We should call this out for what it is: an illiberal attempt to bait Muslims for electoral gain; and an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of belief. This was my view when France enacted similar legislation in 2010, and in 2016 when some French municipalities tried to ban the ‘burkini’ on their beaches.

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Boris Johnson on this issue. He wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Many people have criticised Johnson for likening the clothing (and the women who wear them) as ‘letterboxes’, which was indeed insulting and wrong. But I think the column as a whole is a classically liberal argument against harassing a minority. The veil might not be our choice, but its wrong to stop others from choosing it. I hate what you wear, but defend your right to wear it, as Voltaire or Tallentyre might have put it.

However, there is one piece of conventional wisdom on this issue that I think should be challenged. Johnson writes:

human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

Is it though? I suspect this ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not be as true as we think it is. A couple of years ago, when OFSTED said they would mark down schools where a veiled teacher hindered learning, a friend of mine wrote to me about her experience of being taught by a teacher thus attired:1

I went to a school in East London where five girls in my year group wore a full face veil. All five of them got awards for having the highest GCSE’s in our year.

My maths teacher had a full face veil and I was in her class from year 9 to 11. My maths grade improved from a failing U grade to me getting a C on the Higher Maths Paper. She was the best maths teacher I ever had. I learnt the most from her and improved my maths tremendously. My teacher before her was a man and he made me feel like I was really bad at maths.

It doesn’t matter if a teacher is veiled in my opinion. Even when they’re veiled the body language comes across. It really doesn’t matter at all.

See also the viral blog post by Thomas Mauchline, ’15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque’:

You can do that look British people do to each other, when someone near by is making a scene, in a full face veil.

The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, apparently. So maybe its eye contact and one’s voice that are the real essentials for good communication, rather than facial expressions?

Earlier today I called the Vanessa Feltz breakfast show on BBC Radio London to make these points. The entire programme, with contributions from women who choose to wear the veil, is very interesting. My short twopenn’orth was at about 9:35AM, and you can listen to what I said via the player below or on SoundCloud.


1. Reproduced with permission, and lightly edited to remove names and places.

The Sherwood Syndrome and Deep England

In an Aeon essay on the (surprisingly early) deforestation of England, Hugh Thomson writes this about our national identity:

The myth panders to our need for a sense of loss. There is an undercurrent of regret running through our history. A nostalgia for what could have been: the unicorn disappearing into the trees; the loss of Roman Britain; the loss of Albion; the loss of Empire. We are forever constructing prelapsarian narratives in which a golden sunlit time — the Pax Romana, the Elizabethan golden age, that Edwardian summer before the First World War, a brief moment in the mid-1960s with the Beatles — prefigure anarchy and decay. Or the cutting down of the forest.

One only need look at the near-ecstatic reception given to Danny Boyle’s Olympic rendition of our ‘green and pleasant land’, complete with shire culture and hobbit mounds, to see how easily history elides with mythology. Britons are supremely comfortable with that blurring — with a mythic dimension that adds gravitas to our self-understanding, and that imbues the land with a kind of enchantment, a magical aspect that is echoed in our narratives of how we came to be a nation, but is as illusory as the Arthurian lake from which the Lady’s hand emerges to grasp the sword.

This is a marvellous articulation of the ‘auto-stereotype’ of Deep England that Paul Watson coined earlier this year and which I wrote about in March.

The rest of Thomson’s essay is fascinating and you should read the whole thing. British woodlands were chopped down much earlier than we suppose.


Photo: The South Downs, by yrstrly. Available as a Creative Commons licensed image on Flickr, here.

Mickey Ears

I’ve been at Disneyland Paris this week, and it’s compelling. Every element, whether it is the sight lines, the architecture, or the set dressing in the queuing areas, has been carefully ‘imagined’ to create an immersive experience.

And yet the same time the place is weirdly discordant, because the spaces are too close to their Platonic ideal. The real ‘wild west’ could never have been as co-ordinated and compact as Frontierland; and the actual Paris, just a few miles away, has far less consistent architecture than the Ratatouille-themed Parisian square in Walt Disney Studios.

I think these contradictions are what fuels so many people’s obsession with the Disney theme parks (there are four five, the others being in Los Angeles, Orlando, Tokyo and Hong Kong). That, and the non-trivial logistics required to move and cater for thousands of visitors while staging a daily carnival and a several Broadway calibre song-and-dance shows, seven days a week.

Amid the co-ordination of the cast and the chaos of the crowds, I latched onto an obsession of my own—specifically the way in which an iconic design element can iterate its form and its meaning. I am of course talking about the Mickey Ears. Continue reading “Mickey Ears”

Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement

Free speech is supposed to be facilitate human progress. In its ideal form, it enables debate and causes us to iterate better political policies, better cultural outputs and a better society.

In reality, the marketplace of ideas, if it exists at all, is corrupt and monopolised by those with money and power.

One aspect of freedom of expression I think about a lot is the way in which disagreements happen. I’ve expressed dismay at how some free speech advocates seem remarkably uninterested in listening to other points of view, and only really care about their own right to offend. And I’ve noted how many spats seem to disintegrate into a competition over who can first reach a place of unassailable piety. Continue reading “Anger, Contempt, and Constructive Disagreement”

The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake

Writing in the New Statesman about how useless and selfish Boris Johnson has been as Foreign Secretary, John Elledge says this:

There’s no evidence he cares about the public good, nor matters of policy, nor even ideology: he treats politics as a game, and his goal has only ever been to reach the next square on the board. This was how politics worked in the latter part of the Roman Republic, where the entire point was to complete the cursus honorum quicker than your peers

Not a classicist myself, I needed Wikipedia to tell me that cursus honorum is a set of public offices that aspiring politicians sought to hold. Ostensibly as a means of securing well rounded training in matters civic and military, but (by the end) a means of self-aggrandisement. Continue reading “The Selfishness of a Career for Career’s Sake”

The Turkish Event Horizon: One Science Fiction Fan’s Thoughts on the Turkey Election

Black Hole in the Universe

Nine days ago, the authoritarian president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prevailed in a surprise election. He is now expected to consolidate his power and further erode civil liberties.

My friend Mehmet, who is an avid reader of science fiction, just sent me a brilliant description of what it feels like to be a Turkish citizen right now, Reproduced with his permission.

We were really disappointed with the election results last week. It felt like crossing the event horizon to be sucked into the center of a black hole where reality is irreversibly bent and there is no way of going back. We both felt tired, depleted, lost for a couple of days but I guess we are adjusting now. For a split second hope was very vivid and then it went away again. We’re grasping for straws right now, but we know we have to find ways to be optimistic again. Some say black holes are beginnings of new universes, right?

The Past and the Present Side By Side: An Interview with Peter Kimani

Dance of the Jakaranda

PEN Transmissions is English PEN’s new online magazine dedicated to international writing. The latest issue is on the theme ‘Writing the Past’ and features my interview with the Kenyan novelist Peter Kimani, whose most recent book Dance of the Jakaranda was published by Telegram in March 2018.

Peter was a fascinating interviewee. We discussed the idiosyncratic structure of his novel, the challenges of ‘writing the other’, the need for Kenya to invest more in developing Swahili and Gikuyu literature, and the perilous state of freedom of expression in Kenya.

The past and the present side by side: a conversation with Peter Kimani

The Neimöllerisation of PREVENT

Families Against Fracking, July 2017

Oh dear. The Home Office have had to point out to the City of York council that anti-fracking groups are not ‘extremists’ and should not be funnelled into the PREVENT programme.

This is an excellent example of the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘boiling the frog’ problem that is so eloquently expressed in Pastor Martin Neimöller’s famous poem which begins ‘First they came for the socialists…’

Laws enacted for a narrow purpose are often deployed more widely in ways that are illiberal and a threat to our civil liberties. For example, the UK law that criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages sent online were enacted in 2003 (before the rise of social media) and intended to stop people sending hate mail via email or fax. But now it is being used to criminalise offensive comedians and harass outspoken student activists. Continue reading “The Neimöllerisation of PREVENT”

Someone called the police

In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.

When Yale student Lolade Siyonbola fell asleep in the library while writing an essay, someone called the police. When Tenessee real-estate developer inspected a house in Memphis, someone called the police. When Oakland resident Onsayo Abram set up a barbeque in the park, someone called the police.

Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.

Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).

But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties. Continue reading “Someone called the police”