#BeanDad and Online Harms

Its Twelfth Night! Christmas is officially over, and we can return to the normality of publically shaming people on social media.

The first furore of the year concerns ‘Bean Dad’ John Roderick, a musician and podcaster. A few days ago, he posted a lengthy thread on Twitter about ‘teaching’ his nine-year-old daughter to use a can opener. According to his Tweets, he did this by refusing to feed her anything else until she worked out, on her own, how a can opener works.

I confess that when I read (and shared) the account, I saw it as a story about human ingenuity and perseverance. There were points about how tools come to be designed, and I do not think we should ever lose our wonder that young human beings can work out (after a few false starts) how to use such tools.

That’s not how everyone read it. To other people, Roderick was exhibiting classic bullying and abusive behaviour. He was a ‘sicko.’ It was eye-opening to re-read the thread in that light.
A social media pile-on ensued. Roderick deleted/disabled his Twitter account, but not before critics had discovered deeply unpleasant language and slurs in his Twitter archive.

Today, Roderick has published an apology. Interestingly, his text is not one of those frustrating, passive “I’m sorry if anyone took offence” non-apologies, but an admission that his persona in the tweets was indistinguishable from that of an abusive parent.

I was ignorant, insensitive to the message that my “pedant dad” comedic persona was indistinguishable from how abusive dads act, talk and think. … I’d conjured an abusive parent that many people recognized from real life.

He also accounts for his use of misogynist and racist language:

As for the many racist, anti-Semitic, hurtful and slur-filled tweets from my early days on Twitter I can say only this: all of those tweets were intended to be ironic, sarcastic. I thought then that being an ally meant taking the slurs of the oppressors and flipping them to mock racism, sexism, homophobia, and bigotry. I am humiliated by my incredibly insensitive use of the language of sexual assault in casual banter. It was a lazy and damaging ideology, that I continued to believe long past the point I should’ve known better that because I was a hipster intellectual from a diverse community it was ok for me to joke and deploy slurs in that context. It was not. I realized, sometime in the early part of the decade, helped by real-life friends and Twitter friends too, that my status as a straight white male didn’t permit me to “repurpose” those slurs as people from disenfranchised communities might do.

It’s not for me to say whether this excuses his language, though it seems a plausible explanation, at least.

For me, one thing that this affair re-affirms is how the interpretation of messages seems, now, to be entirely the preserve of the beholder. ‘The author is dead’ and what they might have meant does not seem to matter. Many (perhaps most) social media controversies occur because of this. The stages are these:

  • A person posts something
  • Their readers say “this is offensive”
  • The author responds with “that’s not what I meant”
  • The readers reply “what you meant is neither here nor there.”

In the purest form of controversy, the author’s clarification only exacerbates the anger, because it is seen as a dismissal of the readers’ interpretation as wrong or ‘oversensitive.’ By contrast, Roderick’s apology appears to work because he accepts the premise that he is not the final arbiter of his own words’ meaning.
There is no single right answer to whose interpretation takes priority. In a previous post, I gave an example of situations where an author’s meaning should prevail, and anyone who takes offence would be simply wrong. In Roderick’s case, it seems to me that we should adopt his reading of the account of his daughter’s travails with the can-opener; but that we should be less generous towards his ill-advised “reclaiming” of racist and misogynist language.

John Roderick lives in the USA, but this affair has an added salience in the UK. Recently, the Law Commission made some proposals for the reform of the communications offences that are used to prosecute people for messages posted on social media. The main offences are to be found in section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which criminalises messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or false messages designed to cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety.”
Free speech advocates have long complained that the law should not criminalise ‘offensive’ or ‘annoying’ messages. In the recent case of Scottow v Crown Prosecution Service [2020] EWHC 3421 (Admin),  the High Court (Warby and Bean JJ) overturned a section 127 conviction, declaring that the prosecution “failed entirely to acknowledge the well-established proposition that free speech encompasses the right to offend.”

The Law Commission proposes to excise the idea of insult and offensiveness from the law, which is good. Instead, it proposes a ‘harm-based’ offence, where a prosecution could result if a message causes (and intends to cause) “serious psychological distress.”

The idea that any restrictions on free speech should be linked to harm caused is a good one. Indeed, Article 10(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights says that freedom of expression is not an absolute right, and can be limited to protect the rights of others.

However, unless the new law incorporates a very clear definition of what ‘psychological distress’ means, and sets out how the police and the Courts can objectively determine the harm caused, then the new law is likely to cause as many problems for freedom of expression as it solves.

The ‘Bean Dad’ affair provides a good example of the perils that await us if the laws are drawn too widely or without the proper precision. John Roderick’s postings were undoubtedly ‘triggering’ to many people and would likely have caused psychological distress. They are messages that might be deemed to have fulfilled the ‘conduct’ element of a proposed new offence, and so might have prompted a police investigation if they had been posted in the UK. This would be a ‘chill’ on free speech, even if the prospect of an actual prosecution over such messages is negligible.

Meanwhile, the Government is pushing ahead with its plan to set up a regulatory framework for social media companies.  It will impose a ‘duty of care’ on tech companies not to allow harmful content to remain on its platforms. Free speech groups such as the Open Rights Group and English PEN have expressed concern that this will cause the social media platforms to over-moderate their users.

Again, the ‘Bean Dad’ tweet thread is an example of a message that could be censored as a result of the new regulatory regime. If the tweets cause distress to readers (who see their experiences of childhood abuse reflected in Roderick’s ‘persona’) then the social media platforms might very well consider that they have a ‘duty’ to protect their users from such messages. The result would be a removal of the tweets and a suspension or banning from the platform.

This would be an affront to free speech. John Roderick might deserve criticism for the way he uses social media, but he does not deserve censorship.

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