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
First posted yesterday on Huffington Post UK.
Today is the third anniversary of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi’s arrest, and thousands of activists around the world are demanding the reversal of his conviction on charges of blasphemy and ‘setting up a liberal website’. Many gathered at Downing Street today as a letter signed by hundreds of writers and politicians was delivered to Prime Minister David Cameron.
But the Royal Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in London is not amused. Last week, it issued an indignant response to the ongoing campaign for Badawi’s release.
‘…the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia wishes to state that it has no tolerance for foreign entities meddling in the Kingdom’s internal affairs,’ said the statement. ‘The Kingdom will not tolerate such outrageous, ridiculous interference in its sovereign criminal justice system.’ Continue reading No, Ambassador: It’s Not ‘Meddling’ to Call for Free Speech in Saudi Arabia
A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week. Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable. The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.
If this is a real trend then it’s appalling. As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly. Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage). Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society. Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.
I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading Academic self-censorship: is ‘offence culture’ really the problem?
The Supreme Court gave free speech a boost last week when it handed down its ruling in a case known as MLA v OPO, and lifted an injunction prohibiting publication of an autobiography.
The case concerned Instrumental, a memoir by the classical pianist James Rhodes. The book includes graphic accounts of the sexual abuse that Rhodes suffered as a young boy, and how music helped him to overcome the mental health issues he suffered as a result. Rhodes ex-wife sought the injunction on behalf of their son, who as Aspergers Syndrome. She argued that, were their son to read the book, it would cause him significant psychological harm. Relying on 19th century case law, she argued that publication would be to knowingly cause this distress, for which her son would have an action in civil law.
The Court of Appeal had accepted this argument and put an injunction in place, even going so far as to provide a schedule of excerpts from the book that should be removed before publication would be allowed. But on Wednesday the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this was an error. Continue reading James Rhodes wins at the Supreme Court
Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.
Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion. Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.
In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:
“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”
Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:
“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”
Continue reading Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award
Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.
During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.
To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend. I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN. Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence. There is none.
Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion. Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:
We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.
You can listen to the show on the TWR website, on SoundCloud, or via the player below.
Continue reading Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR
Last week the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hit back at those who have been voicing their dismay at the hideous and inhuman sentence handed down to liberal blogger Raif Badawi.
The Kingdom cannot believe and strongly disapproves what has been addressed in some media outlets about the case of Citizen Rai’ef Mohammed Badowi and the judicial sentence he has received.
While we regret the aggressive attacks these media have leveled against the Kingdom and its Judiciary system, the Kingdom assures at the same time that it rejects in shape and form any interference in its internal affairs.
Blaming the ‘media’ is a well worn cliché that oppressive regimes like to deploy when seeking to play down their human rights abuses. In this case, however, it’s just flat out wrong. Yes, the media have reported on the Raif Badawi case and published scathing op-eds from the likes of yrstrly. But the bulk of the outcry has been on social media, where hundreds of thousands of people are voicing their distaste for Wahhabi justice.
There is also this:
… the Kingdom unequivocally rejects any aggression under the pretext of Human Rights; after all, the constitution of the Kingdom originates from the Islamic Sharia which enshrines one’s sacred rights to life, property, honor, and dignity.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the first States to promote and support human rights and has on this regard respected all international conventions congruent with the Islamic Sharia.
This is just delusional. By no stretch of the imagination can flogging someone for peaceful political speech be considered a protection of “honour and dignity” or human rights.
Lest we forget, Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights States:
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
In my essay for the Sunday Herald I made the case for the necessity of the swearing and offensive chatter that makes up much of the dialogue in Black Watch:
They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.
Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.
The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries. The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!” He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914). In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.
To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre. One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before. The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.
A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006. What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on. Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.
Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom
A couple of weeks ago I gave an interview to journalism student Elizabeth Perlman about the work of English PEN and my approach to free speech. Elizabeth has uploaded an excerpt from the interview to the Hack Freedom website. Continue reading Gushing about PEN and free speech to Hack Freedom