Tag Archives: Debate

This is how to make human rights a vote winner

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.

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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

Say It To My Face?!


When discussing the media, blogging or twitter we hear a lot about this rule of thumb that says “don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to someone’s face”. I think this is a simplistic cliché.

There are lots of reasons to put in writing something that you would not say directly. What you want to say might be quite long. Or it may require hyperlinks to make sense.

But most importantly: the written word is a leveller. It is an essential tool for those who wish to speak truth to power. Saying something to the face of politicians, clerics, military personnel, corporate CEOs or celebrities is incredibly difficult. First you have to actually meet them… and then negotiate the entourages and your own nervousness in order to confront them and say what you want to say. This is incredibly difficult and would present a huge psychological barrier to criticism, if that were the only way we could express dissent.

We evolved the written word so we could converse with (and critique) other people – transcending space, time and social class. “Say it to someone’s face, or not at all” is a silly principle by which to live.

Deeply Held Views

Listening to the radio over the weekend (Any Questions? I think, or was it Any Answers?) I heard some people described as having “deeply held views” that made them opposed to gay marriage. I have happened across the phrase in relation to the recent bout of Middle East rioting too.

This is an example of language and cliché being used to give weight to certain opinions, over others. When a speaker says that someone has “deeply held views” there is an implication that these opinions are more intractable than the opinion of the average person. The word “deep” suggests that the opinion is somehow buried beneath strata of rock.

But actually, an opinion or a value isn’t like that. It is exists within the malleable, mutable human brain, and therefore susceptible to argument, rhetoric, fact, emotion, and empathy.

Moreover, since we are all equal human beings (in the democratic sense, at least) there is no reason why a person with a “deeply held view” should receive special treatment or consideration. It’s a phrase that, to me, screams special pleading and it’s usually used to describe religious people. The message seems to be, My opinion is better than yours, because it’s older..

This is wrong. An antipathy to women or homosexuals (say) may have been encoded into the religious text or culture mores for centuries, but a person nevertheless chooses to adopt that opinion themselves within their own lifetime. That “deeply held” view is no older or deeper than the most new and liberal of opinions held by their next-door neighbour.

Or perhaps, “deeply held view” is actually code for those opinions that the holder has accepted (for reasons of religion, tradition or patriotism) without making a proper, considered choice? In which case, “deeply held view” is also a euphemism for an unthinking deference to the pronouncements of others (which is, in the end, a form of prejudice). I actually suspect that this is what the politicians and BBC journalists mean when they use the phrase.

Well, enough of that, I say! Let us stop giving undue credence to bad ideas, just because they have a long history. If the best argument you can give for holding an opinion is that it is “deeply held” then it’s not a very good opinion at all, and you should divest yourself of the burden of defending it as soon as possible.

Analogising Science in Political Debate

According to Sunny Hundal’s new web service Rippla, Joseph Harker’s Guardian article, about racism and the demonisation of communities, was the most shared article in the UK yesterday.

And quite right too.  It’s a truly sublime piece of analysis, comparing recent news sources, real demographic data, and an apt turn of phrase, to analyse the differing media coverage given to the same crimes, when committed by different perpetrators.  When Muslims are convicted of sex crimes, the stories receive much more attention than when generic white Englishmen are found to have done the same deed.  Worse, the actions of wayward Muslims are deemed to be somehow inspired by their culture.  This same extrapolation never happens for white people.

This article feels like the definitive statement on the issue of how the media treats minorities.  It raises its head in various guises all the time.  Like many people, I have been mulling it for years.  Back in 2003, when I was part of The LIP Magazine‘s editorial team, we published ‘Do You Belong To A Community?‘ by Aisha Phoenix which begins with a bite: “Whenever the media describes someone as coming from a ‘community’, you know they are not white.” Almost a decade later, and I see the same anxieties in this comment from the novelist Kamila Shamsie to the columnist David Aaronovich: “Could we have a moratorium on the phrase ‘Muslim leader’ please?”

Much rhetoric in politics is of a kind where the speaker (or writer) claims that his or her special interest group are being treated unfairly, and if they were of a different skin colour or religion (or whatever) they would be treated better.  This is often an incorrect assumption, which betrays a lack of understanding of the society in which we live.

Harker makes precisely this kind of argument in his article, too.  However, instead of making a vague assumption, the nature of the issue means he does have the ‘data’ to back up the rhetoric, and the article becomes akin to a scientific experiment.  Since the two prosecutions he examines are so similar, it is almost as if one is the control group for the other, in one of those attitude surveys invented by psychologists: Keep the details similar but change the ethnicity of the person, and see how attitudes change.

I would love to see other scientific analogies used in political discourse.  In particular, I yearn for an equivalent of dye tracing or radio-active marking when a controversy flares.  This would be very useful during some of the free speech arguments I follow, when some kind of institution has to decide whether to support or withdraw an offensive text, event or artwork.  It would be great to trace the decision-making process in such a way as to perceive the point where the support for the principle of free speech breaks down.  That would help us identify where these values should be reinforced.  Unfortunately, I cannot quite imagine how one might set the ‘tracer’ off… short of manufacturing an argument.  So, if Anjem Choudary is reading this, perhaps he would give me advanced warning of his next stunt?  Then I can track the reactions he provokes with academic precision.

After the Debate

While I certainly stand behind the broad message of my Oxford Union speech, it is only right to acknowledge that the subject of debate – the impact of social media on social activism – is a little more nuanced and complicated than my bolshy assertions would have you believe. It’s worth acknowledging some of the arguments in favour of the motion, and expanding on some of the issues I was only able to cruise by in my eight minutes at the despatch box.

First, I wrote down a phrase from Mark Pfeifle, where he described social media as enabling “the soft power of democracy”. I thought this was a persuasive point. My speech focused on social activism in the UK and the USA, where there is a long tradition of social activism, and therefore ‘reinventing’ such activism is a very tough proposition. By contrast, those countries plagued by dictatorship have a stunted tradition of social action, so any tool that enables any kind of activism might be seen as a ‘reinvention’.
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Hit Günter Grass with Poetry, Not a Travel Ban

Liberty Central LogoAnother piece on Günter Grass and his poem, this time for Comment is Free.

On Sunday, the controversy surrounding Günter Grass’s poem Was Gesagt Werden Muss (What Must Be Said) escalated, with Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai confirming Grass was now considered a persona non grata in Israel, which amounts to a travel ban. This is a form of state censorship against an author, purely because of what he has written, which is wrong and an infringement on free speech.

Censorship might be legitimate when a writer incites violence or war, but Grass’s poem does neither. His transgression is to write something that many people find offensive and (given his history, as a conscript in the Waffen-SS) deeply insensitive. However, this is no reason for censorship: freedom of expression is meaningless without the right to offend. This is true not just for criticism of Israeli foreign policy, but the criticism and satirisation of other states, religions and individuals too. This is why we in English PEN oppose defamation and blasphemy laws all over the world and have also argued against laws banning Holocaust denial. On this we agree with the philosopher Pierre Vidal-Naquet (whose parents both died in the Holocaust) who said that “confronting a paper Eichmann, one should respond with paper” and Indian Muslim scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who says that one must “counter a book with a book; a statement with a statement.”

If Grass has written a polemical poem, the Israeli literary community should respond with poetry of their own, parodying and picking apart Grass’s offering. Literary dialogue, as opposed to diatribes by official spokespeople, is a far superior way to discuss these thorny issues. In 2009, the US-based Theatre J responded creatively to what they saw as unfair criticism in Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children by commissioning counter-plays. The result was more art, and a genuine attempt to discover some common ground.

Individuals, not states, should be free to make up their own minds, and this principle applies to boycotts in the UK, too. Recently, a group of prominent British artists demanded that the Globe Theatre cancel the performance of The Merchant of Venice by Habima Theatre, the national theatre of Israel. The troupe has performed in the West Bank settlements, which are illegal under international law, and therefore, say the signatories, it is disqualified from performing in the UK.

While these are legitimate concerns, the result of this would only be to remove the moral choice from theatre-goers, many of whom are understandably excited about seeing a play notorious for its antisemitic characterisations interpreted by a Jewish group. Moreover, the play has been programmed as part of an international celebration of language and Shakespeare, and excluding the Hebrew language would be odd. The issue is nuanced and complex and it is unlikely that either a large arts institution, or a cabal of actors and directors, will get the answer just right. Far better that the choice on whether to boycott is made by the individual audience members.

For those who disagree with the performance, there are other ways to express displeasure. Peaceful protests can and should be staged outside the Globe, and new plays can be written in response. Grass may even choose to write another poem, giving us his thoughts. The dialogue will continue afresh. Free speech means no one ever gets the last word.

Günter Grass and BBC World Have Your Say

Gunter Grass. Copyright: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann, Wikimedia Commons
Gunter Grass. Copyright: Das blaue Sofa / Club Bertelsmann, Wikimedia Commons

Last week, the Nobel Laureate Günter Grass, probably Germany’s most famous living author, published a poem (German original here) criticising Israel and its contemplation of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear programme.  This (predicably) caused controversy: Grass was a conscript into the SS during the Nazi era, which led many people – most prominently, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netenyahu – to accuse him of gross insensitivity and anti-semitism.

On Friday I was invited to participate in the BBC World Service programme ‘World Have Your Say‘ to give English PEN‘s reaction to the poem.  I defended Grass’ right to write such a poem, even if some people found it offensive.  I also said that it was interesting that Grass had chosen to launch his political criticism in the form of poetry, and that debate through literature might be a way to defuse the often shrill and vitriolic exchanges that accompany discussion of Israeli policies.  I thankfully managed to avoid offering an opinion on either the ‘moral equivalence’ issue or the motives and character of Günter Grass himself – The ‘phone-in’ format does not lend itself the ambiguity and detail that such debates requires, and the discussion became very tetchy when it turned to these matters.

I do regret not making a couple of points more forcefully.  The first was the complaint that Grass was being ‘insensitive’ and ‘arrogant’.  This may well be the case, but that should never be a reason to censor such people.  George Orwell and others have spoken of how liberty and free expression are meaningless if they do not also include the right to offend: insensitivity and arrogance are surely siblings to offensiveness, and Grass’ apparent insensitivity should never be a reason for formal censorship.

Conversely, a caller from Germany who defended Günter Grass complained of ‘political correctness’.  As I’ve argued before, political correctness is a form of social sanction against those who say offensive things, and it is a far superior mechanism to formal censorship – people may be criticised for saying things, but at least they get to say them! Embodied in the concept of Free Speech is the right to counter-speech. No-one has the last word, and no-one has the right to have their opinions – or their poetry – go uncriticised.  Political Correctness is a form of counter-speech.

One aspect of counter-speech I enjoy is when critics respond like-for-like.  My favourite example of this is Ari Roth and Theatre J, who responded to Caryl Churchill’s play Seven Jewish Children with their own pieces of theatre.  In the case of the Grass poem, the Israeli Embassy in Berlin at least took the title of his poem (Was Gesagt Werden Muss, ‘What Must Be Said’) for the first line of their rebuttal.  I made the point to the BBC that I would like to have seen some more literary responses to Grass’ offering.  Have any been posted online?

Since I spoke on the programme, I hear that Grass has been declared a persona non grata in Israel.  I don’t know whether Grass was intending to travel to Israel at any point, but this is nevertheless a form of state censorship.  I wonder if his books will still be available for sale in Israel after this incident?

Feminism Enabled Gay Marriage

Feminism enabled gay marriage, and that’s a good thing.

Last week we heard the Catholic bishops parroting the tired old line about marriage being “between a man and a woman”, and that the secular government was somehow redefining the concept for the rest of us. This argument sounds more and more pathetic every time I hear it.

Marriage has often been redefined! In the Old Testament we had polygamy, a practice that continues in many parts of the world to this day. When that fell out of favour, the bond of marriage was still very much a transaction in which the girl had no input. This practice, of a father arranging a marriage on his daughter’s behalf, is still very popular in many parts of the world and many British citizens still submit to it. The idea of romantic love leading to marriage is also a new innovation (at least, new when compared to the idea of marriage itself). Literature, from Tristan & Isolde, to Romeo & Juliet, to the Jane Austen œvre, is full of stories of romantic love colliding with the more traditional view of marriage as a financial arrangement.

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Strategic Ignorance in the US Primaries

The Republican Presidential Primary debates are frightening. From the audiences at these events, we’ve had the booing of a solider because he is gay, the cheering of the idea of someone dying because they didn’t have health insurance, and the enthusiasm for the executions of potentially innocent people. Meanwhile, the candidates seem entirely ignorant of foreign affairs or proper fiscal policy, and instead double down with their demonstrably untrue lies about President Obama.

This is clearly evidence of an extreme intellectual and moral decay – the sort of thing that, if unchecked by good people, could end up at some pretty unpleasant and illiberal end points: war, torture and extreme poverty. Let us hope that Obama prevails in the 2012 election.

In trying to comprehend why the Republican prospective nominees are so ignorant, it is easy to assume that it stems from an underlying stupidity. But this post from Chris Dillow introduces the concept of ‘strategic ignorance':

Ignorance – normally a weakness – can increase one’s bargaining power. For example:

… The man who doesn’t appreciate the cost of a breakdown of negotiation – say who doesn’t know how much a strike will cost – will adopt a tougher negotiating stance, and so extract more concessions, than the man who doesn’t.

Applied to the presidential primaries, the idea here might be that many of the candidates are being willfully simplistic and ignorant in order to get votes.  In the wider US political system, they’re being ignorant in order to increase their barganing power in Congress.

This tactic is of course deeply cynical, disingenuous, and wrong.  However, I find it a strangely reassuring analysis, because it suggests that the Republican nominees aren’t actually as nutty as they appear.  If (or when) they achieve office, and faced with actual governing decisions, the cynical political player might at least pick the option which diffuses the chance of war or economic depression, when the genuinely ignorant leader might sleepwalk towards catastrophe.

My guess is that the nominess fall into two camps: The genuinely frightening (Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Herman Cain and Rick Santorum) and the cynical (Newt Gingrich, Gov. Rick Perry, Gov. John Huntsman, and Mitt Romney). Congressman Ron Paul feels like he should have a category of his own: A zealot, but self-aware in a way Bachmann and the others are not.

“[The Republican Party] consists half of people who think like Michele Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michele Bachmann and that leaves very little room to work things out,” – Barney Frank, the witty Speaker of the House we never had.

Via the Daily Dish.

In the UK we have plenty of terrible politicians, but very few who fall into the former group, of frightening zealots.  The negative virtues of cynicism and opportunism, which we deplore, also provoke compromise and middle-of-the-road choices, which we admire.  Ann Widdecombe (now no longer in Parliament) and Nadine Dorries MP might plausibly be added to the former category, but even they seem to be more self-aware than their American counter-parts.  Could this be because our constituencies are less gerrymandered and more diverse, preventing extremism that can exist when you have a whole continent of disparate values bundled together into a single political system?