Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor

This blog is useful for many things: a jotter where I can experiment with half formed ideas; an outlet to vent my frustration at some form of shoddy public thinking; to impart advice or recommendations; or simply a place to marvel at the wonderful things that humanity or nature has created.

Today, however, it serves the useful purpose of providing l’espirit d’escalier—an opportunity to add to a conversation, after it has concluded!

The new Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea is Emma Dent Coad, and she has caused controversy at the Labour Party conference by being rude about the royal family. Some of the things she said about Prince Harry have turned out to be false, but she also made some pertinent points about how they spend taxpayers money. This has prompted a conversation about the limits of civil and respectable speech, and echoes some of the discussion in the USA right now, about whether athletes who #TakeAKnee during the national anthem are showing this respect, and if so, to whom.

All this is ripe for discussion on a call-in radio show. Eddie Nestor was leading the debate on his BBC drive time show yesterday, and I went on air to make an uncompromising case for free speech. You can listen to the entire show again on the BBC iPlayer, either on the web or on the app, for the next thirty days. You can also listen to my contribution on SoundCloud, or via the player below. Continue reading “Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor”

We’re All Puritans Now

Its Banned Books Week, a time for all the family to gather round the dinner table to discuss free speech and censorship. One book that often comes up in such conversations is Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, which was the subject of a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s.

I have been reading the Wikipedia page for the trial, and found this marvellous section on the testimony of academic Richard Hoggart, who was subjected to a snide cross-examination by the prosecuting barrister, Mervyn Griffith-Jones: Continue reading “We’re All Puritans Now”

On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi

As the extent of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people becomes clear, many people have harshly criticised the response of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Facebook, one of my friends even expressed shame at having campaigned for her.

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I picketed the Myanmar Embassy on a few occasions (see my photos here) and even addressed a rally for Burmese dissidents in Trafalgar Square (from whence the banner image at the top of this blog). I also collaborated with the Burma Campaign on #64forSuu, a campaign to celebrate her 64th birthday, while she was still under house arrest. On her release in 2012, I was invited to attend an event with her and other dissidents (including Zarganar) at the Royal Festival Hall.

I regret none of this. Continue reading “On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi”

Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia

A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.

Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.

Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas

René Descartes

Last week I asserted that the ‘marketplace of ideas’, a primary justification for the concept of freedom of expression, probably doesn’t exist. I ended my post with a promise to present some arguments in favour of the so-called market place, and how the concept could be rehabilitated.

The first such argument begins with a comment I made at the end of my guest appearance on the Kraken podcast in February. Winding up, I made the point that “changing your mind can be euphoric”.

What the reveals, of course, is that I have changed my mind in the past. This entire blog is testimony to how a person might iterate and refine their ideas and politics over a period of time. I can think of many examples where I have come to believe something different to my prior assumptions. And in a few cases, I have made a 180 degree turn in my opinions. Continue reading “A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas”

Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal

An Iranian childrens’ book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi has been denied a visa to visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Publishers have branded the decision “disgusting”.

The Bookseller broke the story and I’m quoted in Heloise Wood’s report, commenting for English PEN. Continue reading “Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

Borough Market

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events

An odd story unfolded today: Buzzfeed News were disinvited from a Rochdale hustings event after the Labour candidate Simon Danczuk said he would refuse to attend if a BuzzFeed reporter was there. I was asked to comment on behalf of English PEN:

The move to ban BuzzFeed was also criticised by the freedom of expression group English PEN, which said: “One reason why free speech is so important to a democracy is that it ensures diversity of voices and opinion in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.” …

Robert Sharp, spokesperson for English PEN, the writers’ organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, also criticised the decision to ban BuzzFeed News from the event.

“These reports are very worrying”, he said. “Political events should be open to all journalists, not just those who file positive stories about a candidate.

“It is odd that this should be happening during a general election, when the political parties are surely seeking to broadcast their message to as many people as possible.

“Candidates for political office need to reassure voters that they are open to scrutiny. Selectively refusing journalists access to events is not the way to build public trust.

He added: “If a politician thinks they have been unfairly treated by one outlet, then a better response would be to invite a greater range of journalists to cover future events.”

Continue reading “Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events”

What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

Demonstrations in Berkeley spurred by the planned visit of Milo Yiannopoulos. Photo by Jo Parks (Creative Commons Licence: Attribution Non-commercial)

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech. Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?”