Will the #COVID19 Antibody Test Break Our Discipline and Make Things Worse?

We’re all in this together. But what happens when we’re not?

Earlier this week I posted a tweet that got plenty of attention.

When the COVID-19 antibody test becomes available, it will split the country – and the world – into two types of person: those who are immune to the virus, and those who are still susceptible.

In the long term, when we have established ‘herd immunity,’ this won’t matter.1 But in the short term it could prove incredibly divisive, and cause the disintegration of solidarity and co-operation that our country has demonstrated so far.

Continue reading “Will the #COVID19 Antibody Test Break Our Discipline and Make Things Worse?”

Banter, Tragedy and the ‘Healthy Dissonance’ of #COVID19

Londoners during the Blitz

This afternoon, as I was hunched over my phone composing a draft of a tweet, I paused over what word I would use to describe the COVID-19 events of the past few weeks.

Shenanigans? Malestrom? Crisis? Hilarity? Tragedy? Nonsense? “This COVID19 business”?

I began to realise that, in our discussions about the virus, we all seem to be able to slide effortlessly between gravity and frivolity. We can at once be deeply affected and concerned by the death, illness, and risk to our frontline workers on the one hand; and sharing memes about day-drinking and homeschool #fails, on the other. We all seem to be experiencing a sort of mass cognitive dissonance. Continue reading “Banter, Tragedy and the ‘Healthy Dissonance’ of #COVID19”

Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria

World Leaders Video Conference Call, 26 March 2020

Jillian C. York writes a short thread on looking presentable for video calls.

This reminded me of a passage in Infinite Jest where David Foster Wallace describes the phenomenon of Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria, the anxiety at having to present yourself on a video call. Continue reading “Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria”

Three Science Fiction and Fantasy Books I’ve Been Thinking About A Lot During The COVID19 Lockdown

So, voluntary self-isolation becomes a mandatory lock-down.

Plenty of people have been discussing relevant films, TV shows and literature that deal with pandemics, deadly diseases and the like. GIFs from Shaun of the Dead, and all the other zombie movies, fill my timeline.

As for me, I have found that my mind keeps wandering back to three books I read in recent years, which all include moments of apocalyptic lock-down.

Continue reading “Three Science Fiction and Fantasy Books I’ve Been Thinking About A Lot During The COVID19 Lockdown”

When does a moral argument become ‘settled’?

I want to say something quite precise about the nature of the ‘debate’ about transgender rights. It is not about the substance of the argument itself, but about how we are arguing about it.

The prompt for this is last week’s furore over a Suzanne Moore column in the Guardian, and the No Platforming of the historian Selina Todd. But it could just as easily be about any of the other controversies that have generated news media coverage and social media heat over the past few years.

First, did you notice how I put apostrophes around the word ‘debate’ above. I do that to acknowledge a point that transgender rights activists make constantly: that their right to exist should not be up for debate.

Continue reading “When does a moral argument become ‘settled’?”

If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights

Harry Miller at the Royal Courts of Justice

Are you the sort of person who gets annoyed with ‘political correctness’? Are you fed up with ‘woke’ students and minority rights activists seeking to police your thoughts? Exasperated with civil servants attempting to social engineer us all?

Well then you had better get behind the campaign to save judicial review.

Last week Mr Justice Julian Knowles of the Administrative Division of the High Court handed down his judgment in R (Miller) v The College of Policing and another [2020] EWHC 225 (Admin). Continue reading “If You’re Worried About Political Correctness Going Too Far, then You Had Better Oppose The Threat to Judicial Review and Human Rights”

When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest

The idea of human rights being valuable in themselves doesn’t wash with a lot of people. Instead, they want to see a practical benefit to rights. Seeing horrible people benefit from the same rights as the rest of us undermines people’s support for such rights.

I worry about this a lot.

This attitude is particularly apparent this week due to the horrific knife attack in Streatham, which mirrored the awful murders at the Fishmonger’s Hall in December. In both cases the perpetrator had been released from prison following a conviction for terrorism, and so now there is discussion about retrospectively changing the release and parole procedures for such criminals. Continue reading “When Defending Human Rights, We Must Tell Pragmatic Stories That Appeal To Self Interest”

Offence and Intent

There have been a several incidents recently where a person has caused offence by their actions and language, and been accused of racism. Roger Scruton said that Chinese people were like robots, Danny Baker tweeted a picture of a chimpanzee, Priti Patel used an antisemitic dog-whistle, Louise Ellman faced deselection on Yom Kippur, and Alastair Stewart quoted Shakespeare.1

In each case, when a complaint has been voiced, other people have chimed in to say that the offence caused was unintended.

But this only fans the flames of the row. Those who have taken offence (or those who are offended on their behalf) claim that the intent of the person giving offence doesn’t matter. Rather, our moral judgments should be based on the effect it has on those on the receiving end of the words or actions.

This makes me uneasy. I don’t think that our moral judgments can be based only on how it affects those who are the perceived target. I think intent is indeed part of the moral equation.

Here’s a thought experiment. Continue reading “Offence and Intent”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart

Free speech furores now happen on a weekly basis. The latest iteration concerns the ITN newsreader Alastair Stewart, who has stepped down from his duties following some regrettable posts on social media.

At the centre of the controversy is a quote from Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which he posted during an argument with activist Martin Shapland. It includes the line “His glassy essence, like an angry ape.” Shapland is black, so the post attracted accusations of racism (comparing black people to apes is an undeniable racist trope).

In that respect, it echoes a controversy last year, when Danny Baker posted a picture of a chimpanzee and likened it to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s new baby Archie (who, like his mother, is mixed-race).

The Stewart resignation caused consternation among his fellow journalists. All the comments I saw paid tribute to his career; and many said that the offence taken at his tweets was misplaced.

This was similar to my own, initial reaction. It seemed to me that the outrage was overblown. The Isabella quote from the play talks about humanity in general, rather than describing an individual as monkey-like.

However, reading comments from other people online have made me rethink that position. Those who saw the discussion unfold in real-time say that it was not just a single Shakespeare quote, but a mean-spirited and out-of-character pile-on. And when someone else wryly drew attention to the ‘ape’ slur embedded with the quote, Mr Stewart posted an emoji in response, suggesting he was aware of, and indifferent to, the offence he might cause. Continue reading “What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart”

Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence

Over the years, the exercise of free speech by cartoonists has been a recurring theme on this blog. All the way back in 2006 I discussed the infamous Mohammed cartoons published by Jyllands Postern, and of course the output of Charlie Hebdo has been examined and defended on several occasions. Meanwhile, the free speech of cartoonists around the world is often something that English PEN has to defend.

Continue reading “Chinese Cartoons, Free Speech and Offence”