Tag Archives: offence

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Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example.  I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.

Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech!  He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending.  I unequivocally disagreed.

A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Academic self-censorship: is  ‘offence culture’ really the problem?

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?

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Discussing free speech and freedom of religion on TWR

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

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A couple more points, if you please, about the swearing in Black Watch

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.

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Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom

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

Twitter Asbos would squeeze freedom of expression without curbing anti-Semitic hatred

First published in the International Business Times.

Last week, the Community Security Trust, a charity that records attacks and harassment against Jews living in the UK, recorded 1,168 anti-Semitic incidents in 2014 — double the figure reported in the previous year.

On Monday, a group of British MPs published a report noting that whenever there is heightened conflict in the Middle-East, the rate of crime against Jews in the UK increases. The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism (APPGAA) also noted that the problem “continues to emanate from Islamist extremists, far-left and far-right groups” and made a number of recommendations to government, the police and the media to combat the issue.

The APPGAA report singles out social media as “a breeding ground for serious discriminatory and racist content” and recommends that the Crown Prosecution Service explores the use of prevention orders in cases where someone has been prosecuted for cyber-hate. Offenders would have their devices confiscated and be banned from using social media. The newspapers have labelled this idea ‘Twitter ASBOs’. Continue reading Twitter Asbos would squeeze freedom of expression without curbing anti-Semitic hatred

The #Sunifesto is confused about free speech

We’re 100 days out from the election, and the Sun has launched a manifesto – a #Sunifesto – for Britain.

Their last bullet point is about free speech. Incredibly, this is not about press regulation, the harmonisation of our libel laws, extremism ‘banning’ orders or police abuse of RIPA to track down whistleblowers. This is odd because The Sun is at the heart of all these issues.

Instead, it’s about the dangers of Twitter mobs.

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The paper complains about the police “wrongly” acting against those who have caused offence. “Unless it’s illegal, it’s NOT police business”.

The problem with this is that causing offence is illegal. Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 expressly criminalises ‘grossly offensive’ messages. And of course, what constitutes gross offence is in the eye of the beholder. So the highly subjective test in the law enables and encourages abuse.

The Sun blames political correctness for this and implores us to #forgawsakegrowapair. But it’s not political correctness that causes the mischief here. The principle of free speech permits not only the right to offend, but the right to say that you have been offended, even on Twitter. For many people it takes courage to speak out and tell a powerful newspaper columnist that they’re being crass and prejudiced. For many, politically correct fury is indeed “growing a pair” (we’ll ignore the sexist overtones of that phrase for now).

Appallingly, people in the UK are given prison sentences for making tasteless comments online. The Sun claims to stand up for Free Speech, but (as is perhaps inevitable, given the name of the paper) it’s a fair weather friend. Where was the Sun when Robert Riley and Jake Newsome were jailed for unpleasant social media postings?

For social media, the free speech policy must be reform of s.127. Free speech cannot just be for the newspapers. It must be for the Tweeters, too.

Christian fundamentalists cause theatre cancellation

Just as we were discussing offence, blasphemy and Islam, a reminder that hard-line Muslims are not the only enemies of free speech.  Index on Censorship reports that The Reduced Shakespeare Company has been forced to cancel its production of The Bible because of complaints from religious groups.

Continue reading Christian fundamentalists cause theatre cancellation

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Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Last week The Bookseller reported on a furore in the world of e-Book publishing. Erotic self-published novels appeared next to children’s literature in the WH Smith online store, which is powered by Kobo.

This looks to me like a technical mistake, but the occurence provoked outrage. The store was taken offline for a while and many books were removed from sale. I spoke to The Bookseller about the controversy: Continue reading Defending offensive and erotic literature in The Bookseller

Another Misguided Facebook Conviction

Another person has received a criminal conviction for something they posted on a social media site. Matthew Woods received a 12 week prison sentence for posting a message about missing schoolgirl April Jones on his Facebook page.  At 20 years old, Woods sits in the same young and foolish male demographic as Azhar Ahmed, @Rileyy_69 and Leo Traynor’s troll.

The media have refrained from reporting Wood’s comments. This is a good thing. The joke assumes the guilt of the person accused of April Jones’ murder, so reporting it would prejudice a trial.  Media restraint also minimises any distress to April’s family, and denies the attention-seeker further opportunities to provoke.

However… The only reason this Woods has received any attention in the first place was because he has been hauled before a magistrate! Had he not been arrested and charged, the comment would have been lost in the obscurity of his Facebook timeline after a couple of days. The comment obviously violates Facebook Terms & Conditions, so he might have been banned from using the site. We might describe that as a contractual matter, not criminal. And he might have lost a lot of friends (both in the real sense and the Facebook sense). But this is a social sanction, not criminal. Continue reading Another Misguided Facebook Conviction