A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

Safe spaces need not be antagonistic to free speech – indeed, they can be a catalyst for full freedom of expression

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

On Killfies and Campaign Photos

What photo will the media use in the event of your untimely death?

Via @Documentally’s excellent weekly newsletter, here’s a short Observer article by Eva Wiseman on the phenomenon of ‘killfies’. This is where a person’s attempt to take a selfie of themselves gets them killed.

Which led me to think, maybe we’ve been getting our fears wrong all along? What if the way technology destroys humanity is not with an uprising of robots, of toasters turning against their masters, of self-driving cars choosing a road trip less travelled, but with something as simple as a reflection? There is something so unashamedly ancient in these deaths that it almost seems gauche to point it out. The sirens singing on the rock, beckoning sailors towards their comprehensive display of filters. The boys drowning in their own image. The recording of a risk, the risk itself. …

And once you’ve learned about killfies, it’s very hard to unsee them. Every Instagram post suddenly reads a little like a suicide note.

Or, as a candidate for ‘the photo of you the media will use when they report on your untimely death’, the darker side to selfies that I wrote about a few years ago. In bygone eras, these images were usually school photos or wedding day pictures. Now they tend to be self-portaits. Continue reading “On Killfies and Campaign Photos”

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government

We must not let politicians use this story to undermine the case for universal human rights

The news this week was full of the controversy surrounding the British born suicide bomber Jamal al-Harith, formerly known as Ronald Fiddler.  Al-Harith was picked up by American forces in Afghanistan in 2001, where he was suspected of fighting with the Taliban.   He spent time in the U.S. detention centre at Guantánamo Bay, before being returned to the U.K. It seems that he subsequently traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS and launched a suicide bomb attack during the current battle with the Iraqi army for the city of Mosul.

Aspects to this story include whether security services had been monitoring his movements; whether the policies of previous Home Secretaries (including Teresa May) made it easier for him to do what he did; The Daily Mail’s ridiculous attempt to smear Tony Blair for being at fault; and the alleged £1m compensation paid to al-Harith. Continue reading “I’m Glad That ISIS Suicide Bomber Jamal al-Harith Was Paid £1m Compensation By The British Government”

Imagine Your Well Meaning Policy in the Tiny Hands of Donald Trump  

One tangential effect of the Trump presidency—I hate to call it anything so optimistic as a ‘silver lining’—is that it is likely to reconfigure many people’s conception of the state and its power.
An ongoing difficulty for those of us who campaign on human rights issues is convincing ordinary that rights violations effect them. The people who usually have their human rights violated first are usually out of the mainstream: people on the political fringes, religious minorities, or those who are part of unconventional sub-cultures. Those who are part of the conventional majority do not the abuses happen to others, and even if they are told about them, they never really believe the old Pastor Niemöller warning that they could be next (I’ve talked about this before).


Although I think such attitudes are mistaken, I think they are forgivable. When one lives in a country with a healthy democratic culture under politicians who are conventional and centrist, it is entirely rational to think that any clipping or shaving of human rights will not affect you, because, frankly, they won’t.

This is why the British people appear to have consented to their government logging communication and browsing history: few people really believe that Prime Ministers like David Cameron or Teresa May will use their surveillance powers to establish a Nineteen Eighty-four style surveillance state.

Warnings to that effect (perhaps even deploying the word ‘Orwellian’) are perceived as hyperbole.

Likewise with the way in which people consented to human rights abuses perpetuated by the Obama Administration. Because the forty-fourth president was a thoughtful and essentially decent person, it was assumed that any capability the U.S. Government has to invade citizens privacy, or to launch drone strikes on foreigners, would be used wisely and sparingly.

But Barack Obama gifted Donald Trump an expansive surveillance state.

While I do not believe the Trump presidency is likely to be materially or morally helpful to the world, it will at least be rhetorically useful. In his awfulness and in his likely abuse of his power, he will provide the perfect warning, a salutary tale, a bogeyman that we can use to warn policy-makers and voters everywhere about the dangers of eroding civil liberties.

So when someone proposes a slight curb on free speech, or subtle change to surveillance powers, the argument will no longer be some nebulous hypothetical In the future someone could misuse these powers. Instead, the argument will be Imagine these powers in the hands of Donald Trump. The fact he has been elected and is busy ignoring all the standards, traditions and norms that keep a democracy strong and trusted, shows us just how quickly a stable democracy can slip off the rails. He is a stark reminder that we should build safeguards and worst-case-scenarios into our laws.

None of this is particularly interesting to the Irish or to ethnic minorities, of course. They don’t need to imagine state over-reach because they already have first-hand experience of how the state can abuse it’s power at their expense.

The Corruption of the Victim: Şafak and Koestler on Censorship

When rights are abused, we are all corrupted

Writing in the New Yorker about Turkey, the novelist Elif Şafak begins thus:

The Hungarian-British writer Arthur Koestler, born in Budapest at the turn of the last century, became, over the course of his life, intimately familiar with the dangers of authoritarianism. It was the corroding effects of such rule on the human soul that preoccupied him as much as the unbridled concentration of power. “If power corrupts,” he wrote, “the reverse is also true: persecution corrupts the victim, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.”

This is, I think, an under-explored aspect of human rights… or rather, human rights violations.

When one is in the business of defending human rights and free speech in other parts of the world, it’s easy to slip into a simple dichotomy:  The censorious government is bad and corrupt; the dissidents are noble and good.

In reality, things are far more complicated.  Not all activists, journalists and writers have the courage or even the means to fight back. Those outliers who continue to write what they think—and damn the consequences—are few and far between. This makes it easy for the Government to identify them and pick them off.

Most people aren’t that brave and instead find themselves corrupted in some way: As Şafak explains later in her essay, this might be through direct complicity with the regime; silence (a sort of sin of omission); or else a corruption of their literary output as it flees into metaphor and ambiguity.

My interview with Anjan Sundaram about what he saw happen to journalists in Rwanda is relevant to Elif’s analysis: he saw the full spectrum of reactions to authoritarianism, from cringing complicity to outright defiance.

More generally, the corruption of the person and the state that comes when human rights are denied is a crucial argument against any weakening of rights protections.  As we prepare for a battle against a British Prime Minister intent on destroying our hard-won protections against state power, this is one of the arguments we must marshal: when the rights of some are abused, we are all diminished.

How to say this in a way that persuades?

Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’

A good formulation of one of the most powerful reasons to support free speech. I have already appropriated the phrase in my own advocacy.

Last month I was privileged enough to participate in the annual House of Lords Chamber Debate.  It’s the one time during the year when people who are not members of the House of Lords are allowed to sit on its benches and debate.

This year the debate was about free speech and its limits.  I made a short contribution about the practicalities of censorship and surveillance, and said that free speech should be about dialogue and conversation. Continue reading “Free Speech and Democratic ‘Buy In’”

Marshall’s Faith in the Rule of Law, and Snyder’s Guide to Resisting the Erosion of Democracy

Since my ramble last week about the different ways in which Donald Trump could break America, I have been drawn to articles which seem to be saying the same thing, only better.

Ian Millhiser’s piece ‘Democrats will botch The resistance against Trump‘ is an good example. He catalogues the ways in which democracy itself might be undermined by a president and a ruling party intent on consolidating their power. Millhiser also notes the terrible conundrum liberals face, which is that ahrence to the Rule of Law can often award power to those who are eager to undermine the Rule of Law!

We have brought a sheet of parchment and a set of abstract principles to a knife fight. We’re going to get cut.

The pedant in me wants to point out that it’s also possible to get cut by paper… but the point is important.  The article also cites the example of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, who made the point that adherence to rules is crucial.

Justice Marshall taught Kagan that “it was the very existence of rules — along with the judiciary’s felt obligation to adhere to them — that best protected unpopular parties.” A liberal who casts aside the rule of law today because the cause seems just will have no ground to stand on tomorrow when the strong arm of the state is brought to bear against them.

Millhiser also links to an important post by historian Timothy Snyder, setting out a 20-point guide to defending democracy against a Trump presidency.  The list sets out the ways in which democracy can be eroded and how dictators gather power to themselves. More importantly, it also offers ways to resist.  We need to be mindful of the way politicians try to bend language and redefine what words mean (see, for example, how Republicans will try to claim a ‘mandate’ when they have none). And we should be particularly savvy and calm when some kind of terrorist atrocity occurs, as one inevitably will. 

Those in the legal profession and in law enforcement have a particular rôle to play.  Judges, lawyers and gun-carrying police officers need a strong sense of professional ethics and have faith in those principles.  

One practical thing the rest of we can and should do now is to draw attention to the different kinds of Every Day Resistance that Snyder suggests. A large part of the task is a mental one: refusing to buy in to the framing that powerful people seek to impose on any given situation.  It is a also a challenge of communication: using the platforms at our disposal to push back against shoddy thinking in the media and against the lazy non sequuntur of those in power, even if the stakes seem relatively small (that’s something I try to do with this blog).  Happily, modern technology has made us well equipped to do this.  There has been much chat recently about how social media puts us inside an opinion ‘bubble’, but remain optimistic that it can also fortify us against the mental trickery that demagogues and propagandists would play upon us, and embolden everyone to resist at moments when they must. 

Public Inquries Are Not An ‘Outrage’, They Are A Democratic Tool That Make Us Safer

The Sun is outraged that army killings in Northern Ireland will be reinvestigated. Soldiers who killed during the ‘Troubles’ will be considered as manslaughter suspects in a new inquiry, report Tom Newton-Dunn and Matt Wilkinson.

The report contrasts the “brave” servicemen with the IRA terrorists who were killed, or in some cases, received a pardon. The newspaper says this is a “witch hunt”.

This re-tread over old ground is down to the trust, or lack of it, that the the people have in the Government. We now know that the police and security services colluded in UVF the murder of Catholics in Ireland as late as 1994. Such actions were in themselves a hideous human rights abuse and a betrayal of a Government’s core duty to protect its citizens. But it also eroded the trust that any Government needs to operate effectively in matters of security. Continue reading “Public Inquries Are Not An ‘Outrage’, They Are A Democratic Tool That Make Us Safer”

A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

Free speech advocates need to acknowledge that our approach asks people to lay their identities on the table for dissection. If people balk at that suggestion, our response should not be to call them ‘thin skinned special snowflakes’

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”