Sometimes ‘Cancel Culture’ *Is* A Free Speech Issue

A letter in Harper’s Magazine, supporting the principle of free speech and bemoaning ‘cancel culture,’ has caused something of a stir. At least, on Twitter.

In itself, the letter is unobjectionable. However, many people think it is an ill-timed, coded rebuke to the social justice campaigns of the moment:

I think the uproar is more about the timing and the context in which this letter engages (BLM, TERF wars etc), which feels very dog whistle-y.

@sysh

Others have ridiculed its premise and the signatories. They say that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences, and that if an audience reacts negatively to something they find offensive, that is merely a manifestation of free speech.

Continue reading “Sometimes ‘Cancel Culture’ *Is* A Free Speech Issue”

Journalists Under Attack

I’m incredibly busy with a couple of major things at the moment made more difficult by the lockdown.

(No, not A Thousand And One Recaps — that’s ticking along just fine).

As a result of my distractions, have not had time to post about the appalling UK coronavirus death rate, the preposterous lockdown sabotage by Dominic Cummings, the horrific murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, or the atrocious glorification of violence by Donald Trump that has finally caused Twitter to place warnings next to his Tweets.

My silence on all these issues is not to be taken as due to a lack of opinion, or sufficient emotion about each of them. I just don’t have time.

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COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information

In 2004, the writer Orhan Pamuk gave the inaugural Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture, at the Prague Writer’s Festival. Among his remarks, he said this:

I have personally known writers who have chosen to raise forbidden topics purely because they were forbidden. I think I am no different. Because when another writer in another house is not free, no writer is free. This, indeed, is the spirit that informs the solidarity felt by PEN, by writers all over the world.

Orhan Pamuk

I would often use the highlighted bit of that quote in English PEN’s marketing communications. I thought it would appeal to the worldliness of other writers, their solidarity and empathy with fellow wordsmiths.

But occasionally I would worry that the proper meaning of that quote was properly understood. Because taken literally, it’s obviously untrue. The fact that Ahmet Altan (to pick another Turkish novelist) is currently in prison and censored does not stop me writing my derivative science fiction or my bad poetry. Continue reading “COVID19, Free Speech and the Right to Receive Information”

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”

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.

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Algorithms and Radicalisation

I’ve been busy recently—work, study, Christmas—and haven’t felt a huge urge to write anything here. So let’s round off the year with some old fashioned web-logging: the mere bookmarking a story on a subject that feels emblematic of the entire decade.

A discussion about a pre-publication research paper with some shoddy methodology leads me to a New York Times article by Kevin Roose, published in June this year, chronicling one young man’s journey into alt.right radicalisation. A key insight:

The radicalization of young men is driven by a complex stew of emotional, economic and political elements, many having nothing to do with social media. But critics and independent researchers say YouTube has inadvertently created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism by combining two things: a business model that rewards provocative videos with exposure and advertising dollars, and an algorithm that guides users down personalized paths meant to keep them glued to their screens.

The impact of algorithms on our psyche and society has become very apparent in the last few years. The power to determine who sees what and when can change moods and swing elections. But discussing the issue this week, Roose and other data journalists present some important caveats. The algorithm isn’t everything.

The only thing I’d add, coming at the issue (as I do) with an eye on freedom of expression concerns, is that the way the algos affect our interests is not in itself a bad thing.

We’ve all fallen down algorithm-induced ‘YouTube Rabbit Holes in our time, and when the subject is not political, the way that the system steers users away from mainstream content and into the back-catalogue the results can be delightful. Last night, for example, I watched a load of astonishing videos of ballet performances. I know nothing about ballet and cannot now remember how I happened upon them (perhaps I clicked on a link on someone’s blog?) but it’s possible this could be the start of a deep and consuming interest that we would usually applaud.y

Even political ‘radicalisation’ is not necessarily a bad thing. I imagine that ‘radicalising’ people to fight for racial or gender equality (say) or to become environmental activists, is actually desirable.

The issue, as ever, is not with ‘radicalisation’ per se but ‘violent radicalisation’ or (as the Commission for Counter Extremism recently suggested) with ‘hateful extremism.’ Algorithms that serve us relevant content are useful tools for many that can be misused by a few. Or, as Kevin Roose and Becca Lewis point out above, algorithms don’t radicalise people; people radicalise people.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t intervene to temper the algorithms. Just that the challenge for tech companies and governments is not one of banning, but of balance. This will be the task of the next decade. Let us hope that by 2030 we will have reached a fair settlement.

Would It Break Journalism If Sources Who Lied Were Named?

Journalists Laura Keunssberg and Robert Peston have egg on their face this week, after they both breathlessly tweeted the news that a Tory staffer had been punched by a Labour activist in Leeds.

When video emerged of the incident, it turned out that no assault had taken place. One man accidentally brushed past the hand of another.

Both Keunssberg and Peston posted follow up tweets to apologise and share the video. But in giving an explanation for their inaccuracy, they enraged people further. Both journalists gave the excuse that ‘sources’ had told them it was true. Continue reading “Would It Break Journalism If Sources Who Lied Were Named?”

Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech

What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society.

With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to).

‘Woke’ has become a term of derision and mockery. Over the summer I asked this:

I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?

Continue reading “Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech”