Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History

Is this censorship or merely curation?

You’re all aware of the controversy surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford University, right?

To recap: Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902) was the colonialist, businessman and white supremacist whose career in Southern Africa had huge impact on the continent.  The celebrated Rhodes Scholarship programme at Oxford University was established by his estate. As such, there is a statue of him at Oriel College at Oxford.  Some current students are campaigning to have the statue removed on the grounds that Rhodes was a racist and not someone who should be glorified in stone.

This campaign is happening in a milieu of renewed debates about freedom of expression and decency at universities.  I am against ‘no platform’ policies,  and against the abuse of useful innovations such as Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings as a way to shut down offensive speech. Continue reading “Rhodes, Political Correctness and the Censorship of History”

Hooray for Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Political Correctness

Its worth me writing a little more about my views, lest people make incorrect assumptions.

My post earlier this week about a feminist society apparently colluding in the silencing of women has been widely shared in the past few days.  There have been hundreds of new visitors to this blog.  With this in mind I think its worth me writing a little more about my views, lest people make incorrect assumptions.

In particular, it is worth noting that my post is not part of a wider pattern criticising feminism, feminists or anyone fighting for equality.  Instead, it is part of a fairly consistent pattern defending freedom of expression.  Previous posts about Goldsmiths College were in defence of the SU diversity officer Bahar Mustafa, charged (wrongly, in my opinion) under the Malicious Communications Act over her ill-judged but not illegal #KillAllWhiteMen tweets.

I have also seen my article discussed in the context of the perceived decline in critical thinking at universities, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. In September, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote a widely discussed Atlantic article ‘The Coddling of the American Mind‘ that is perhaps the most complete example of this, although there have been many others.

In all such articles, the concepts of ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ are both held up as examples of what is wrong with today’s students. Continue reading “Hooray for Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Political Correctness”

The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism

No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3.

At first blush, the success of the No More Page 3 campaign does not look like a victory for free speech. After all, a thing that was being published, is no longer being published. The prudish censors have prevailed, right?

Look again. No law has been invoked to stop Rupert Murdoch from printing nipples on Page 3 (or, for that matter, Page 4 or 5). MPs did not vote on a new Bill. No lawyers have filed a complaint, no judge has granted an injunction. The law is not involved. Freedom of speech means a choice over whether to publish, and Mr Murdoch has chosen not to publish pictures of topless women any more. Continue reading “The No More Page 3 Campaign is a Victory for Free Speech But Not For Feminism”

#Gamergate and political correctness

It’s been a while since I’ve logged anything here about political correctness, a concept I believe to be much maligned and in need of defence. This quote from Deadspin a summary of the #GamerGate controversy neatly summarises a dynamic that exists all over the politic discourse

Co-opting the language and posture of grievance is how members of a privileged class express their belief that the way they live shouldn’t have to change, that their opponents are hypocrites and perhaps even the real oppressors. This is how you get St. Louisans sincerely explaining that Ferguson protestors are the real racists, and how you end up with an organized group of precisely the same video game enthusiasts to whom an entire industry is catering honestly believing that they’re an oppressed minority.

This rings true to me, but of course its a problematic analysis. No-one of whom this is said is likely to believe it is actually about them. And even if they do, they are bound to believe that it is simply another example of media bias or snide liberal condescension. This is the problem with ‘culture war’, the paucity of common ground and the disbelief that the other side is acting in good faith. These kinds of debate scare me.

#Gamergate, by the way, is the hashtag around which a modern, online culture war has arisen. The Deadspin link above gives a good, quick summary. It’s interesting that for people not online, or rather, people not on Twitter… or rather, people who do not follow social media and gaming accounts on Twitter, will have absolutely no idea that the controversy is even happening. I think its fascinating that there could be such vicious and virulent arguments raging—arguments that may become defining moments for many people—to which the rest of the world is utterly oblivious. I know offline, plenty of communities and countries experience disasters and wars to which the rest of the world remains ignorant, but what’s interesting in this case is that your neighbours and co-workers could be foot-soldiers in this war, and you might never know. In that respect, there are similarities with the #McCann controversy discussed previously: I had no idea the controversy even existed.

UKIP's muddled sense of free expression

In a recent press release, Janice Atkinson, a UKIP candidate for the European Parliament, calls on the police to prosecute Hope Not Hate and Unite Against Fascism protesters under ‘hate crime’ legislation.

Ukip demands police action to arrest so-called ‘anti-racist’ protestors

Janice Atkinson, as Ukip SE chairman, and MEP candidate, jointly with colleagues Patricia Culligan and
Alan Stevens, MEP candidates, have raised concerns about the way the police will deal with the protestors
at the Hove Ukip public meeting, on Tuesday, 13th May to be held in the Jewish Hall.

They have formally asked the chief constable to arrest any protestors who call our supporters ‘fascists’, hurl other abuse or any physical assault, for ‘hate crime’ or under the public order act.

We therefore call on the police to confirm that they will prosecute under ‘hate crime’ any individual or group who seeks to intimidate our supporters and candidates or at least under the Public Order offence under
Section 4, 4A or 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

This shows a remarkable lack of understanding of the law and of the principles of free speech. Continue reading “UKIP's muddled sense of free expression”

Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism

The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.

On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?

This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?

Continue reading “Huckleberry Finn and Politically Correct Revisionism”

Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?

John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.

Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.

Continue reading “Was John Sargeant right to use the 'N-word' on the BBC?”

Yes, This Is Political Correctness Gone Mad

I am usually a supporter of ‘political correctness’, especially when it concerns speech. I think it is far better for someone who says something offensive to be criticised and recieve a social sanction for being ‘politically incorrect’ than for them to suffer any kind of legal censorship.

It is therefore incumbent upon me to condemn genuine acts of ‘political correctness gone mad’ when they occur. These are usually instances of local government officials take progressive legislation too far. There have been two ridiculous cases of this kind in the past week: A man won an employment tribunal case against Trafford Housing Trust after they saw he had posted comments against gay marriage on his Facebook Page; and a foster-couple in Rotherham had a couple of kids removed from their care when it was discovered they were members of UKIP.

I note that the authorities acted on information gleaned from the aggrieved people’s private lives. The couple’s membership came from a “tip off” apparently, and the demoted Christian man was posting on his own Facebook wall. Both these things acts of political expression took place in that liminal space that is not private but not necessarily fully public either. But the fact that the employers and Rotherham Council have been punishing these people, based on their actions and beliefs expressed in this mid-way space, is highly disconcerting. This is the sort of thing we need human rights legislation for – to protect the overreach of the state and employers into areas that are not their business. It’s ironic that the concept of human rights is also often derided as ‘political correctness’. Had Rotherham Council and Trafford Housing Trust had a better understanding of free expression, freedom of association and the right to a private life, they may not have made the mistakes that made the headlines.

Putting the Power of Censorship in the Hands of the Mob

Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”

 

English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr
English Defence League / Unite Against Fascism protest, by Matthew Wilkinson on Flickr

Here’s a post first published earlier today on Labour List (a new venue for me).  I hope there will be comments to which I can respond in a follow-up post.

The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians.  You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not.  First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.

Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy.  The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.

The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort.  But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term.  It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again.  This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.

Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition.  Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places.  Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”

Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob.  For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost.   Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright.  If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with.  Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawing Moonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’!  Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.

When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life.  We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times.  The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.

To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion.  Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division.  No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly.  This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday.  I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies.  They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL.  Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest?  So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.

It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech.  Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing.  Time for Labour to lead.

 

Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr
Police prepare for an EDL march in Leicester. Photo by robotswanking on Flickr

Political Correctness Jumps the Shark too?

Following my post earlier this week about Failed Multiculturalism Jumping the Shark, I was all-eyes when Alex Massie has suggested that using “political correctness” as an insult may have gone the same way:

First, let’s note that “politically correct” is a degraded insult these days. If jumping the shark hadn’t jumped the shark itself I’d say that political correctness jumped the shark long ago. Disparaging those who disagree with you as “politically correct” isn’t an argument, it’s a way of avoiding argument. Look at me, it says, and see how brave I am to stand alone against the tide. Here I must stand for I can do no other. Unlike the soft-headed simpletons who prefersome sort of lemming-like approach that makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Alternatively, perhaps “politically correct” is just another word for fashionable these days.

If either of my readers are not au fait with the term Jumping the Shark, here’s all you need to know about the phrase.