On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi and I regret none of it.

As the extent of the humanitarian crisis facing the Rohingya people becomes clear, many people have harshly criticised the response of Aung San Suu Kyi. On Facebook, one of my friends even expressed shame at having campaigned for her.

I was an active campaigner for Aung San Suu Kyi’s release. I picketed the Myanmar Embassy on a few occasions (see my photos here) and even addressed a rally for Burmese dissidents in Trafalgar Square (from whence the banner image at the top of this blog). I also collaborated with the Burma Campaign on #64forSuu, a campaign to celebrate her 64th birthday, while she was still under house arrest. On her release in 2012, I was invited to attend an event with her and other dissidents (including Zarganar) at the Royal Festival Hall.

I regret none of this. Continue reading “On campaigning for Aung San Suu Kyi”

Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia

Even ostensibly benign restrictions on freedom of expression can have significant knock-on effects

A few years ago the Russian government introduced a set of ridiculous regulations on how art can be produced in the country. It prohibited swearing in films and TV shows, and mandated that books containing LGBTQ content be sold in plastic wrappers.

Insisting that such books are packaged like this introduces a stigma. It places LGBTQ literature into the same conceptual category as pornography which makes it less likely that readers will buy the books, or that readers will have the books bought for them.

Naturally, this affects book sales for Russian publishers, and some have taken extreme steps to avoid having their books placed in the stigmatised category. Last week, fantasy author Victoria Schwab revealed that her Russian publisher had bowdlerised the translation of her Shades of Magic series. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, condemning homophobic publishing laws in Russia”

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’. Continue reading “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas

I change my mind, therefore the ‘market place’ exists.

Last week I asserted that the ‘marketplace of ideas’, a primary justification for the concept of freedom of expression, probably doesn’t exist. I ended my post with a promise to present some arguments in favour of the so-called market place, and how the concept could be rehabilitated.

The first such argument begins with a comment I made at the end of my guest appearance on the Kraken podcast in February. Winding up, I made the point that “changing your mind can be euphoric”.

What the reveals, of course, is that I have changed my mind in the past. This entire blog is testimony to how a person might iterate and refine their ideas and politics over a period of time. I can think of many examples where I have come to believe something different to my prior assumptions. And in a few cases, I have made a 180 degree turn in my opinions. Continue reading “A Cartesian Defence of the Marketplace of Ideas”

Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal

The rigid UK visa requirements can prove an impossible hurdle for some artists

An Iranian childrens’ book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi has been denied a visa to visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Publishers have branded the decision “disgusting”.

The Bookseller broke the story and I’m quoted in Heloise Wood’s report, commenting for English PEN. Continue reading “Quoted in The Bookseller Condeming a Visa Refusal”

The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?

An intellectual problem for those who defend freedom of expression

Amid all the concern about ‘Fake News’ and the increasing polarisation in politics, there is a psychological insight that I have seen explained and shared in many forms: when presented with a fact that contradicts a strongly held belief, people often reject the fact and double-down in their belief.

This is the Backfire Effect, a phrase coined by the American academics Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler. Here’s part of the abstract to their 2006 paper ‘When Corrections Fail‘:

Can these false or unsubstantiated beliefs about politics be corrected? Previous studies have not tested the efficacy of corrections in a realistic format. We conducted four experiments in which subjects read mock news articles that included either a misleading claim from a politician, or a misleading claim and a correction. Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a “backfire effect” in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.

Continue reading “The ‘Marketplace of Ideas’ Probably Doesn’t Exist. What Does That Mean For Free Speech?”

Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events

One reason why free speech is so important is that it ensures diversity of voices in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.

An odd story unfolded today: Buzzfeed News were disinvited from a Rochdale hustings event after the Labour candidate Simon Danczuk said he would refuse to attend if a BuzzFeed reporter was there. I was asked to comment on behalf of English PEN:

The move to ban BuzzFeed was also criticised by the freedom of expression group English PEN, which said: “One reason why free speech is so important to a democracy is that it ensures diversity of voices and opinion in our political discussion. When organisations limit media access, they limit that diversity and go against the spirit of free speech.” …

Robert Sharp, spokesperson for English PEN, the writers’ organisation that campaigns for freedom of expression, also criticised the decision to ban BuzzFeed News from the event.

“These reports are very worrying”, he said. “Political events should be open to all journalists, not just those who file positive stories about a candidate.

“It is odd that this should be happening during a general election, when the political parties are surely seeking to broadcast their message to as many people as possible.

“Candidates for political office need to reassure voters that they are open to scrutiny. Selectively refusing journalists access to events is not the way to build public trust.

He added: “If a politician thinks they have been unfairly treated by one outlet, then a better response would be to invite a greater range of journalists to cover future events.”

Continue reading “Quoted by BuzzFeed News condemning the barring of journalists from political events”

What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?

“It is easy to advocate counter speech when you can engage in it freely and without repercussions”

Using my statement to the Bookseller as a springboard, Ruth Coustick-Deal writes an interesting and challenging piece on counter-speech, and why it doesn’t solve the problem of hate speech in the way that free speech advocates assume.

Certain paragraphs that stood out for me, as particular challenges for free speech advocates.  We need to have answers to these points, and address them in our own responses to controversial speech. Continue reading “What’s Wrong With Counter Speech?”

Swallowed by the Kraken

I usually experience the podcast as disembodied conversation between my ears, but on this occasion I was able to step into that space myself… like someone sucked into his own dreams.

There has been a growth in the popularity of podcasts in recent years—both in the number being produced, and in those listening to them. I think part of the reason for this can be explained by the same psychologies that make sitcoms popular. Recurring characters in shows like Cheers, Friends or Big Bang Theory are your smart, funny friends that visit you every week. It’s a pseudo-social interaction, and I think ‘panel’ podcasts tickle similar synapses.  Continue reading “Swallowed by the Kraken”

Quoted in the Bookseller discussing free speech and the alt.right

I was quoted in The Bookseller today.  The report by Katherine Cowdrey gives all the context.

English PEN has said Milo Yiannopoulos’ right to freedom of expression must be respected, amid the furore surrounding the far-right editor’s lucrative book deal with Simon & Schuster US.

“Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored,” said Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications for the free speech organisation. He added that demands for S&S US to cancel the deal were tantamount to “censorship”.

“The right of Mr Yiannopoulos to write and to offend is integral to the principle of freedom of expression,” said Sharp. “Likewise, Simon & Schuster US has the right to make an editorial judgment over whether to publish his book. Demanding that the publisher cancels the book deal amounts to a call for censorship, and should be resisted.”

British Yiannopoulos is an editor at Breitbart News based in the US, known as a publisher of “alt-right” articles, and was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump in the run-up to the presidential elections. He was banned from Twitter for the racist trolling of Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones, reportedly received a $250,000 advance from S&S US for his book Dangerous, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be published by Threshold Editions, an imprint of Simon & Schuster US in March 2017, but there are no plans for the UK arm to publish it, The Bookseller reported last week

Sharp emphasised the difference between criticism of the deal and calls for the book deal to be reversed. The latter, he argued, would set a terrible example to authoritarian governments.

“However, we must remember not everyone expressing dismay is asking for the book deal to be reversed,” said Sharp. “Many have simply expressed a negative opinion about Mr Yiannopolous writing and politics. Outrage is not in itself a form of censorship – it is also a manifestation of free speech.

“PEN campaigns for the victims of censorship in many countries around the world. Often, the people we seek to support have been branded as ‘dangerous’ or corrupting to society.  If we seek to silence people like Milo Yiannopolous on the same grounds, then we set a terrible example to more authoritarian governments.

“Anyone angered by this decision should use their own free speech to counter the ideas they disagree with. Offensive ideas should be debunked and discredited, not censored.”

A few people were dismayed by this statement, saying that English PEN should not be giving me support or succour to the alt.right.  I hope to write more on this in the coming week.