In the United States, there is growing discussion on social media about the phenomenon of white people calling the police when they see a black person doing something entirely normal, or when they perceive a black person not showing enough ‘respect’.
Today I saw a variation on the theme: someone threatening to call the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when he became annoyed by two women working at a cafe speaking Spanish to each other.
Many people have made the point that this is linked to President Donald J. Trump’s unpleasant rhetoric about ethnic minorities (and indeed, everything). He has set a terrible example which incubates racists attitudes and brings out the worst in people. Others say that this kind of racism was always present in the society and it is only thanks to social media that we know these incidents are systemic, not isolated (it is almost a decade since professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr was arrested for breaking into his own home).
But these incidents also illustrate something about civil rights that I had not understood until I started working for English PEN, and which I don’t think many other people appreciate, which is that ambiguous laws can erode our civil liberties.Continue reading “Someone called the police”
Since then I have created a Twitter list of other Robert Sharps, which I tautologically consider to be a form of narcissistic worldliness. Astonishingly the list contains not one but two professional wrestlers.
I have actually met Rob Sharp and the world did not explode, and I have also chatted on social media with Robert Sharp.
However, a recent Google search threw up a few faces of which I had not been aware. Here they are, in alphabetical order—click on the photographs to read more about each of them.
Architecture and Design
Yeah, I know, I’m white and in prison for selling crack, it’s a funny story, write me and I’ll tell you all about it. [link]
There are dozens more mugshots of various men named Robert Sharp listed on Mugshots.com. Lots of drug possession, sex offenders and a couple of DUIs.
Following the revelations about the harvesting of personal data by Cambridge Analytica and the ongoing worries about abuse and threats on social media, the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Communications last week began a new inquiry entitled ‘Is It Time To Regulate The Internet?’. At the witness sessions so far, peers have opened by asking each expert to comment on whether they favour self-regulation, co-regulation, or state-regulation.
The instinct to regulate is not limited to the U.K. Late last year senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said:
You’ve created these platforms, and now they’re being misused, and you have to be the ones to do something about it… Or we will.
With the reader’s indulgence, these developments remind me of a point I made a few years ago at ORGcon2013, when I was speaking on a panel alongside Facebook VP for Public Policy EMEA, Richard Allan:
If we as the liberal free speech advocates don’t come up with alternative ways of solving things like the brutal hate speech against women, the hideous environment for comments that we see online, then other people are going to fix it for us. And they’re going to fix it in a draconian, leglislative way. So if we want to stop that happening, we need to come up with alternative ways of making people be nicer!
Ant McPartlin’s drink driving conviction and record £86,000 fine in Monday gives me an excuse to finally publish a post that has been sitting in blog purgatory for eight years.
Ant’s car crash is the latest example of fabulously wealthy TV and sports stars behaving badly in vehicles. Yaya Touré was handed a record-at-the-time £54,000 fine for drink-driving in 2016. Further back in time, we may recall the former Chelsea defender Ashley Cole was clocked doing 104mph in his Lamborghini, and John Terry has a penchant for parking in disabled bays.
To say that the world was shocked when the Scottish Parliament building was suddenly transported 1000 miles into the centre of Barcelona, would be something of an understatement.
No similar, verifiable phenomenon had ever before occurred in human history. The field of physics was thrown into disarray, when not one scientist could offer an explanation for why a building with a footprint of some four acres should suddenly, and without warning, disappear from its site beneath the cragged, volcanic mountain of Arthur’s Seat, and reappear on the site of the Mercat Santa Caterina. Continue reading “El Miracle de Miralles”
The racist far right group Britain First have been banned from Facebook. BBC South East reported the story and interviewed yrstrly for English PEN. Here’s what I said:
We abhor what Britain First stands for, but nevertheless there are some unintended consequences with this move. Shutting down speech you don’t like is deeply problematic—It means that countries around the world can use it as an excuse to shut down speech they don’t like. And it also alienates certain sections of the British population, [with whom] we really need to have a dialogue…
Obviously this is just a small excerpt from a longer interview I gave to the news team. There is a lot more to say about this issue, in particular about how we appear to have ceded most of our political discourse to private companies running social media platforms. There is also a real issue surrounding the efficacy of counter-speech, and what both social media and the traditional broadcasters might do in order to give better, bigger platforms to the kind of options that can counter and neutralise the far right threat. I will post more on this soon.
Over the past few days a debate has erupted concerning a tweet posted by the historian Mary Beard. Here it is.
Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere. But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone. And overall I still respect those who go in to help out, where most of us wd not tread.
This Tweet provoked a furious backlash from people accusing her of a kind of veiled colonialism. Professor Beard wrote a follow-up blog to clarify her remarks and posted a photo of herself in tears. One of her Cambridge University colleagues, Priyamvada Gopal, posted a scathing critique of Beard’s tweet and clarification, writing
I’m afraid that your good intentions notwithstanding, it is precisely this genteel patrician racist manner and this context of entrenched denial in which your tweet on Haiti, ‘civilised’ values (scare quotes noted but not enough, I’m afraid) and disaster zones was received. … Your subsequent blog post, to not put too fine a point on it, did little to help your cause and is regarded by many as a ‘no-pology’, a stubborn refusal to see what was wrong with your original post and taking refuge instead in the familiar posture of wounded white innocence.
Marjory (as she was known) was born in 1882 and was a teacher and social worker. In 1909, when she was 27, she secured work as a paid organiser for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, organising meetings, rallies and petitions. Her activities are detailed in Chapter 4 of the book. The excerpt below is taken from pages 78 to 81.
What is fascinating and slightly depressing about this account is how many of the free speech challenges faced by the NUWSS and Suffragettes remain today. The problem of people shouting down political speakers with whom they disagree still persists one hundred years later. And the comment from the Men’s League that they never suffered the same level of abuse as the women is echoed by our contemporary experience of female politicians receiving far more abuse on social media than their male counterparts.
Last month I was honoured to be in the audience as the Northern Irish poet Michael Longley received the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize, and to hear his address, ‘Songs for Dead Children: Poetry in Violent Times.’ The entire event, including Longley’s speech, is available to listen to online.
The speech is a generous and lyrical discussion of how poets and artists can respond, with the appropriate outrage and humanity, to violent acts. Longley makes a eloquent point about the importance of literature to the ideas of free speech and democracy: Continue reading “Michael Longley on Poetry and Propaganda”
At Westminster, an Early Day Motion is a motion tabled by an MP, calling for a debate on a particular topic. The motions rarely get debated, but they draw other MPs’ attention to particular issues. EDMs are a sort of petition system, exclusive to members of the House of Commons.
I had always taken it as a given that EDMs were a useful tool in a campaigner’s kit. If one Member of Parliament is allied to your cause, they can table an Early Day Motion… which then gives supporters of the campaign a reason to write to their own MPs about the issue. By requesting that your elected representative signs the EDM, you are effectively asking “please put it on record that you support this issue”. This is useful.
During the course of the Libel Reform Campaign, we made much of the fact that 249 Members of Parliament had signed EDM 423, which was a lot. It was also significant that the motion had cross party support.
The disappointing fact that some EDMs do not attract cross party support is often a useful data point. For example, of the 36 people who have signed EDM 37, condemning the imprisonment of Raïf Badawi in Saudi Arabia, none are from the Conservative Party, who are currently in government. Since Badawi is in prison for the crime of setting up blog that discussed liberalism, it is odd that no Tory wishes to put their name to it. Perhaps they simply haven’t been asked… but perhaps the Conservative whips have asked them not to, for reasons of diplomacy. (This is infuriating to campaigners, but as I blogged previously, there may be good and honest reasons why this is so.)
It is possible, however, that if one seeks genuine change rather than posturing, EDMs are a distraction. While working on the Raïf Badawi case, I wrote to some MPs asking them to sign the EDM. I received this reply from one Member of Parliament:
I very rarely sign EDMs for the following reasons. First, they have absolutely no impact at Westminster.
Second, PR companies and the like suggest to their clients that they should pressure MPs to sign them when they know full well that they are political placebos with negligible impact but they can claim that their influence has made MPs sign EDMs.
Third, I am told they cost the taxpayer (each) about £300 a month and there are hundreds of them. I do not like that at all in view of my first two points.
One MP I could name signs almost every one, but I think that to be dreadful because he knows full well that they achieve nothing. But it gets that MP off the hook! Not one EDM has made it through to legislation in my time.
The EDM on libel reform disproves that last point, but the others are worth considering. The £300 figure is a factual claim which I will check. But if the EDM process is not particularly respected by MPs then it might not have the parliamentary influence that campaigners assume, and those ‘PR companies’ assert.