Gayer Cake

Icing is a medium of expression. I think often of this marvellous interview with the musician Todd Trainer (drummer in Steve Albini’s band Shellac) with the music journalist Holly Day:

Yeah. Icing has definitely always been a part of the visual aspect of Brick Layer Cake. All four records have had icing on the covers, both front and back covers – literally all the artwork that has ever appeared on my records is icing, so that’s a theme, an aesthetic theme … Icing is a rather limited medium – I shouldn’t say “limited”. It’s an unforgiving medium to work with, because you only get once chance to really do it right.

Trainer’s album covers, with their naïf cursive, are a thing to behold, and I wonder if there are other modern artists working in the medium. There are probably similarities in technique to art made from neon tubing, as practiced by people like Bruce Nauman or Tracey Emin. And since icing is very much a craft, it is surely ready for a Grayson Perry subversion. Continue reading “Gayer Cake”

The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture

Kerry-Anne Mendoza
Kerry-Anne Mendoza

In debates about reproductive rights, a crucial concept is over ‘when life begins’ and when a complex collection of human cells starts to have a moral claim. Some people say this must be the ‘moment of conception’. Others talk about ‘viability’, when certain senses come online; or they talk about the moment of birth.

For a long time now, I have been meaning to write a post about the ‘free speech moment’, after which we have a moral duty to defend the right to freedom of expression, even if we find the speaker or their statements odious. During a free speech controversy, asking oneself when that moment might be is a useful exercise, which helps to clarify what one thinks.

The Free Speech Moment I refer to might be the point of publication. Or in other contexts: The clicking on the ‘tweet’ button; The curtain up; the the exhibition opening; The opening notes of the first song; the speaker clearing their throat.

Alternatively, the Moment might also be the point of commission; the announcement of the new season of plays; the curatorial decisions; the booking of the venue; or the invitation. Continue reading “The Free Speech Moment and the Claudia Jones Lecture”

Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News

On Tuesday 11th September, Lucy Powell MP introduced the Online Forums Bill to Parliament. It was a ‘Ten Minute Rule Bill’, a mechanism by which opposition and backbench members of parliament can introduce legislation.  The text of Ms Powell’s speech may be found in Hansard and there is a video on Parliament.tv.

The speech makes some challenging points. How is it that Facebook groups can grow to tens of thousands of people in secret, with no oversight or scrutiny? One such group, which discussed autism, recommended that parents give their kids ‘bleach enemas’ to cure the condition.

Powell also points out that members of these groups often feel too intimidated to speak out against the most vocal and radical members of the group. This shifts the dynamics of such groups to ever more extreme positions, and is a very particular free speech issue in itself.

The bill proposes that online forum operators like Facebook be forced to take greater responsibility for what is published on their platforms. Just after the parliamentary debate concluded, I was invited onto Sky News to discuss the proposals. The segment can be viewed below or on YouTube. Continue reading “Discussing the Online Forums Bill on Sky News”

New Statesman: We mustn’t let the news cycle forget the Reuters journalists locked up in Myanmar

This week, two Reuters journalists working in Myanmar were found guilty of breaking official secrets laws and sentenced to seven years in prison. Officials from the British Embassy in Yangon attended the trial and report that there was scant evidence that Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo had done anything wrong. They have clearly been imprisioned as a means of silencing their reporting on the Rohingya crisis.

I wrote about the convictions, and how (I think) the campaign for their release should be run, in an article for the New Statesman.

A frustrating fact about human rights campaigning is that the release of a celebrated political prisoner usually happens not because the law is amended, but on the whim of an authoritarian politician. The power to arbitrarily censor is retained, and anxiety remains among activists and journalists, over what can and cannot be said. Fear and self-censorship persists, and tragically, many other people remain in prison. Presidential pardons rarely extend to equally deserving prisoners who have less of an international profile.

Read the whole thing on the New Statesman website.

Continue reading “New Statesman: We mustn’t let the news cycle forget the Reuters journalists locked up in Myanmar”

For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does

Alps from Aiguille du Midi (SW) by Tony Fernandez. Creative Commons licenced photo on Flickr

The news that conspiracy theorist and inciter-to-violence Alex Jones had been simultaneously banned from several social media platforms sparked several days of debate and comment – on both mainstream and social media. At stake were questions about the wisdom and efficacy of such a ban, and the acceptable limits of free speech.

A common argument trotted out in several quarters, including by me, was the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It might seem acceptable to ban someone unpleasant like Alex Jones, but who might they ban next? First they came for Alex Jones, but I was not a dangerous snake-oil salesman, so I did not speak up… Continue reading “For Alex Jones, The Slippery Slope Argument Doesn’t Work The Way You Think It Does”

Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens

I’m really enjoying ‘Clear and Present Danger: The Free Speech Podcast’ hosted by Jacob Mchangama. Its a comprehensive tour of the concept of freedom of expression. It begins in ancient Athens and there are episodes on the Romans, early Christianity, freedom of thought in the Islamic world, and how heresy was persecuted in medieval times.

One crucial piece of information about the concept of freedom of expression, which I think is desperately relevant to our modern debates and disputes, comes in the first episode. Mchangama points out that there are actually two philosophical idea embedded in the Athenian conception of free speech and which drove their democracy. Continue reading “Two Conceptions of Free Speech in Ancient Athens”

My remarks at the UCL Institute for Advanced Studies round-table on ‘Lies and the Law’

Zola aux Outrages, Henry de Groux, 1898

Last week I posted a quote from Dr Alex Mills of University College London, on Facebook’s woefully inadequate Terms & Conditions that related to defamation. That was drawn from a panel discussion I participated in on 22 March 2018 hosted by UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, entitled ‘Defamation – A Roundtable on Lies and the Law‘.

Here again is the audio of the panel discussion, and for for completeness I have pasted my remarks below too. The other participants were by Dr Alex Mills (UCL Laws), Prof Rachael Mulheron (Queen Mary Law) and Dr Judith Townend (Sussex Law). The discussion was chaired by Harry Eccles-Williams, Associate at Mischon de Reya. Continue reading “My remarks at the UCL Institute for Advanced Studies round-table on ‘Lies and the Law’”

Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme

The propaganda website InfoWars has been banned from Facebook, the Apple iTunes podcasting platform, and Spotify. Most people have welcomed the fact that these technology companies have finally acted to enforce their own terms and conditions, though others (including, obviously, InfoWars itself) says that this is an infringement of free speech.

I was invited onto the BBC Victoria Derbyshire TV programme today to discuss the issue, alongside Karin Robinson from Democrats Abroad; and Neil Heslin, whose son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and who has been taunted and harassed by the InfoWars website and its supporters. Continue reading “Discussing InfoWars and Free Speech on the BBC Victoria Derbyshire Programme”

Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs

Back in March, I participated in a round-table discussion hosted by the University College London’s Institute of Advanced Studies, on the subject of defamation. I will post my remarks at some point, but for now (primarily because of a media appearance I made today) I wanted to share a remark made by Dr Alex Mills about the state of Facebook Terms & Conditions.

What you have when you look at Facebook’s community standards is a defamation law that you would write on a postcard if you were trying to explain a sort of version of American defamation law to someone who wasn’t a lawyer.

Continue reading “Dr Alex Mills on Facebook T&Cs”

Do We Really Need To See A Person’s Face? Chatting to Vanessa Feltz about the Danish Niqab Ban

'Her Eyes' by Ranoush on Flickr. Creative Commons Licence.

Denmark have banned the burka and the niqab, because “we must be able to see each other and we must also be able to see each other’s facial expressions, it’s a value in Denmark”, according to Justice Minister Søren Pape Poulsen. That’s a strange sort of value: taken literally, it would presumably also mean a ban on motorcycle helmets and many kinds of carnival costumes.

We should call this out for what it is: an illiberal attempt to bait Muslims for electoral gain; and an attack on both freedom of expression and freedom of belief. This was my view when France enacted similar legislation in 2010, and in 2016 when some French municipalities tried to ban the ‘burkini’ on their beaches.

I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Boris Johnson on this issue. He wrote about it in his Sunday Telegraph column yesterday. Many people have criticised Johnson for likening the clothing (and the women who wear them) as ‘letterboxes’, which was indeed insulting and wrong. But I think the column as a whole is a classically liberal argument against harassing a minority. The veil might not be our choice, but its wrong to stop others from choosing it. I hate what you wear, but defend your right to wear it, as Voltaire or Tallentyre might have put it.

However, there is one piece of conventional wisdom on this issue that I think should be challenged. Johnson writes:

human beings must be able to see each other’s faces and read their expressions. It’s how we work.

Is it though? I suspect this ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not be as true as we think it is. A couple of years ago, when OFSTED said they would mark down schools where a veiled teacher hindered learning, a friend of mine wrote to me about her experience of being taught by a teacher thus attired:1

I went to a school in East London where five girls in my year group wore a full face veil. All five of them got awards for having the highest GCSE’s in our year.

My maths teacher had a full face veil and I was in her class from year 9 to 11. My maths grade improved from a failing U grade to me getting a C on the Higher Maths Paper. She was the best maths teacher I ever had. I learnt the most from her and improved my maths tremendously. My teacher before her was a man and he made me feel like I was really bad at maths.

It doesn’t matter if a teacher is veiled in my opinion. Even when they’re veiled the body language comes across. It really doesn’t matter at all.

See also the viral blog post by Thomas Mauchline, ’15 things I learnt about Islam and British values being a gay boy living opposite a mosque’:

You can do that look British people do to each other, when someone near by is making a scene, in a full face veil.

The eyes are the ‘windows to the soul’, apparently. So maybe its eye contact and one’s voice that are the real essentials for good communication, rather than facial expressions?

Earlier today I called the Vanessa Feltz breakfast show on BBC Radio London to make these points. The entire programme, with contributions from women who choose to wear the veil, is very interesting. My short twopenn’orth was at about 9:35AM, and you can listen to what I said via the player below or on SoundCloud.


1. Reproduced with permission, and lightly edited to remove names and places.