Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?

Censorship of the painting would set a dangerous precedent that would disproportionately affect black artists

A controversy has erupted around the Whitney Biennial in New York. Protestors have demanded that a Dana Schutz painting of murder victim Emmett Till be removed from the exhibition with the further recommendation that it be “destroyed and not entered into and any museum or market”. This is a clear call for censorship.

Emmett Till was an 14 year old African-American, murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.

Till’s mother Mamie famously requested an open casket, so the terrible disfigurement of her son could be witnessed by everyone. This decision exposed to the world the brutality of lynchings and lack of civil rights for black people. Continue reading “Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?”

Quoted in the Bookseller discussing free speech and the alt.right

I was quoted in The Bookseller today.  The report by Katherine Cowdrey gives all the context.

English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor’s lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.

“Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored,” said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to “censorship”.

“The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression,” said Sharp. “Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted.”

British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week

Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.

“However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed,” said Sharp. “Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship – it is also a manifestation of free speech.

“PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as ‘dangerous’ or corrupting to society.  If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.

“Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored.”

A few people were dismayed by this statement, saying that English PEN should not be giving me support or succour to the alt.right.  I hope to write more on this in the coming week.

Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History

Is this censorship or merely curation?

You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?

To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent.  The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford.  Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.

This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities.  I am against ‘no platform’ policies,  and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech. Continue reading “Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History”

We should rethink ‘NSFW’

We should label sporting images NSFW

Here’s a timeline of Facebook censorship of breasts and other anatomical parts.

When I posted this to Facebook just now, I was going to add the abbreviation ‘NSFW’, Not Safe For Work. But that prompts two thoughts. The first is that my work actually involves looking at links and images like those displayed here! I often wonder if I have inadvertently shocked my colleagues who have accidentally wandered past my screen while I was reading some link about porn or violence or racism or something.

Second, its surely a problem that our culture, as reflected in the Facebook image usage policies, deems images such as masectomies, nude drawings, and breastfeeding as “NSFW” regardless of context. Why shouldn’t these images, undeniably in the public interest, be viewed at work?

I reckon we should start labelling images and GIFs from sporting events as ‘NSFW’ because surely that’s the number one content that should not be viewed at work, damging as it is to productivity.

Page 3 returns? The winner is still free speech!

Well, that was a short lived celebration, wasn’t it? After a just week, the Sun has reversed its editorial policy, and the topless models are back on Page 3.

This rather dates my post from only yesterday, which begins talking about the ‘success’ of the No More Page 3 campaign.

I stand by the post itself, though, and repeat the core point: no law, no police, no threat of violence were part of the decision over whether the pictures should be published. The choice to publish or not remains free. Freedom of expression prevails! Note that the Sun suffers no sanction as it resumes publication. All this gives the lie to the ridiculous idea that this country had succumbed to politically correct censorship. We had not.

Though I remain of the view that Page 3 is a bad thing for society and am privately disappointed that it has returned, one cannot help but be wryly amused at the Sun’s tactics here. What label should we give it? ‘Machiavellian’? ‘A false retreat’? Trolling? The editors must be laughing their bellies off right now.

Happily, the No More Page 3 campaign understands that the debate is unlikely to end in the near term. They are happy to deploy their own right to free expression to continue their campaign. Here they are on Twitter, promoting their petition and welcoming new followers.

The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism

No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3.

At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?

Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more. Continue reading “The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism”

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.

Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine

Off Black Magazine launches today: fashion, arts and culture.

WE ARE DRAWN TO THE EXPERIMENTAL, STRONG, EQUAL AND FUN. WE PROMOTE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION FOR ALL.

Me too.  I was delighted to be asked to write for the launch issue (which takes ‘The Body’ as its theme) on the censorship of art and culture.  My article takes in erotica, Google algorithms, 3D models of vaginas, Instagram’s terms & conditions, and Rupert Bear’s penis.

Continue reading “Writing on Censorship for Off Black Magazine”

Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?

There was some controversy last month surrounding free speech group Index on Censorship.  They’ve appointed Steve Coogan as a patron, but he is famously a part of the Hacked Off campaign which supports press regulation policies that Index does not.  Both Nick Cohen in the Spectator and Richard Pendlebury in the Daily Mail have written angry responses to the manoevre.

I’ve heard a couple of people express dismay that Hacked Off are being described in such reports as a “pro-censorship lobby”.  Through my work at English PEN 1, I’ve met three of the people who run the group—Brian Cathcart, Martin Moore, and Dr Evan Harris.  If you have read their countless articles, heard any their speeches, or read their tweets on the issue, I do not think one can seriously suggest that they are in favour of “censorship” as the word is commonly understood.  They are at pains to point out that they do not endorse any kind of pre-publication curbs on the press.

Continue reading “Hacked Off: Unwitting support for self-censorship?”