An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious, arrogant, cowardl and self indulgent. On all of these counts, you are mistaken.

Dear People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters —

As is customary with this form, I must begin by stating whether or not we have met.  We have not.  But in many ways, I feel like you.  In fact, following my Open Tweet to People Who Write Open Letters this morning, it could be said that I am you.  I share your concern that the Open Letter form has become a cliché, and your worry that we are reaching Peak Open Letter, bringing an ennui that can only be described as Open Letter Fatigue.

You claim that Open Letter writers being presumptious and arrogant.  You claim that they are cowardly.  You claim they are self indulgent.

On all of these counts, you are mistaken.  Continue reading “An Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters To People Who Write Open Letters”

Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies

I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.

If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.

I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies”

The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism

The theology of the cartoon is clearly homophobic. On social media people are calling it disturbing, bigoted, creepy and hateful. But I think the parenting depicted in the video is to be applauded and encouraged, for several reasons.

First published on the Huffington Post.  After this was published I received some challenging, passionate and extremely useful discussions about it on Facebook.  I will add some more thoughts about the video and my article in a separate post.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses are going viral. Social media users have discovered ‘One Man One Woman‘, a short animation about same-sex marriage.

In the clip, a mother tells her daughter, Sophia, that only straight marriage is in Jehovah’s ‘plan’ and that people should abide by those rules if they want to reach paradise. The sequence ends with the little girl revising bible quotes so she can explain to Carrie, her school-friend with two Moms, the true path to paradise. Continue reading “The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”

Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the homophobic Bed & Breakfast owners. But Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.

The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon

Nevertheless, willfull ignorance and social media illiteracy are with us and it would be nice to have some tools to ease the burden that such antagonism places on our discussions.

I posted this on Medium last week to almost deathly silence.  I thought it would be something people might share but clearly I’ve not built up enough of a network.


One aspect of the Internet that makes me a little melancholy is the fact that so many people have to put the same phrase on their social media bios: “These are my own views and not that of my employer” or variations of that theme.

It’s sad because the Internet was supposed to be a place where people have the freedom to explore new ideas, identities and friendships. Instead, our online discourse is polluted by the anxieties and the obtuse reasoning of the corporate world.

The all-to-common “personal opinions” disclaimer reminds us how our freedom of thought and of personality is curtailed. My heart sinks whenever I read such words, because I know that the person who is writing them is on their guard, insuring themselves against some future misunderstanding or invasion of their work life into their personal space.

And yet we need such disclaimers, because on the Internet there are a remarkable number of people who are happy to conflate the views of an individual with that of the organisations they work for. Continue reading “The Internet urgently needs a new ‘personal opinions’ icon”

These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims

Three schoolgirls from East London have left the UK to join ISIS, and everyone has an opinion. Some people say they are no better than Jihadi John, and that joining the fighters for Islamic state is tantamount to participating in the beheading of aid workers. they should be considered enemy combatants and we should not care one joy for their safety.

Other people say that these girls are victims: of brainwashing, of a culture that doesn’t value them, or of a society that offers the youth no aspirations. They’re essentially kidnap victims and we should mobilise to secure their safe return.

Here’s an idea: perhaps they’re both? Fully culpable genocide-enablers; and victims.
Continue reading “These jihadi brides are fully culpable victims”

The ritual of condemnation

In an excellent, angry essay on the contradictions of our collective response to the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, Sam Kriss makes this point:

The armed attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo was a vile and senseless act of murder. I condemn it utterly, it repulses me, and my sympathies are entirely with the families and loved ones of the victims. I can only hope that the perpetrators are caught, and that they face justice. All this is true; I really do mean it. But it’s also politician-speak, inherently false. Read any article against the sacralisation of the magazine, especially one written by anyone from a Muslim background, and you’ll see a paragraph like this one, either strangely stilted (I utterly condemn…) or falsely slangy and overfamiliar (a bunch of gun-wielding cockwombles…). Why should this be necessary? Why do we feel the need to prove that, like all sane and decent people, we don’t somehow support the gunning down of ten innocent journalists? Why this ritualised catechism; why can’t we get straight to the point? Is this not itself a kind of restriction of free speech?

Continue reading “The ritual of condemnation”

This is how to make human rights a vote winner

The effect of Khan’s argument is that human rights are framed as a crucial protection for everyone, not boutique laws for just a few.

In the past couple of months I have been making notes on the Labour Party’s approach to human rights. Here’s a quote from the conference speech given by my MP, the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan:

What happens when you cut back judicial review? You betray bereaved families, like the Hillsborough campaigners, who can’t challenge terrible decisions.

What’s the outcome of cutting legal aid? The family of Jean Charles De Menezes, the innocent Brazilian man shot at Stockwell tube station would no longer have access to expert lawyers in the future. Nor indeed the Gurkhas or the Lawrence family. It’ll be harder for victims of domestic violence to break away from abusive partners.

Continue reading “This is how to make human rights a vote winner”

Thoughts on Syria

I have yet to post anything on Syria, and what the international response should be to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. This omission is mainly because I was away when the House of Commons voted on whether to join in with any military action, and I missed all the debates over the morality of intervention. By the time I began consuming media again after my time in a communications blind spot, the conversation had become about whether David Cameron and Ed Miliband’s political fortunes had been helped or hindered by the parliamentary vote. I was coming to the issue with fresh eyes and ears, and such parochial analysis felt incredibly crass and wholly beside the point.

For the past ten days, there has been much discussion about how our collective democratic experience of the Iraq war in 2003 has affected our political judgements a decade later. Clearly the sense of betrayal that many of us felt back then still remains. The brutal aftermath in Iraq, and our lengthy, corrosive presence in Afghanistan has made everyone wary of more military action in the Middle East. Continue reading “Thoughts on Syria”