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 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.
On Sunday morning, I was delighted to be invited on to Jumoké Fashola’s BBC Radio London Breakfast show, to discuss free speech.
This week, the Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn caused outrage with a typically controversial column. Olympic diver Tom Daly had shared an ultrasound image on social media – he and his partner Dustin Lance Black are expecting a baby via a surrogate mother.
This blog is useful for many things: a jotter where I can experiment with half formed ideas; an outlet to vent my frustration at some form of shoddy public thinking; to impart advice or recommendations; or simply a place to marvel at the wonderful things that humanity or nature has created.
Today, however, it serves the useful purpose of providing l’espirit d’escalier—an opportunity to add to a conversation, after it has concluded!
The new Labour MP for Kensington & Chelsea is Emma Dent Coad, and she has caused controversy at the Labour Party conference by being rude about the royal family. Some of the things she said about Prince Harry have turned out to be false, but she also made some pertinent points about how they spend taxpayers money. This has prompted a conversation about the limits of civil and respectable speech, and echoes some of the discussion in the USA right now, about whether athletes who #TakeAKnee during the national anthem are showing this respect, and if so, to whom.
During an interview with ABC News, Richard Spencer, president of the white nationalist National Policy Institute, was punched by a protestor.
The video of the assult was widely shared online, with many people applauding the act.
I wrote a few Tweets in response to this:
A few po-faced tweets about that footage doing the rounds of someone punching a Nazi # I’m sorry folks, but punching a white supremacist while he’s on TV *is* a form of censorship and a free speech violation # If you think that this kind of thing is exempt from our values of free speech, then you don’t understand free speech #
Doesn’t matter that a private citizen, not the government, was doing the violence. Sure, Spencer can’t sue anyone under 1st amendment… # The person doing the punching is still a censor and against free speech. #
Next, it doesn’t matter that Spencer probably wouldn’t grant free speech rights (or indeed other human rights) to others. # That supremacists & religious fundamentalists deny others their human rights is neither here nor there. It doesn’t negate their rights #
We should give Nazis and supremacists free speech rights because we are better than them. # Punching a white supremacist is to be condemned because, well, it’s just the sort of thing a white supremacist would do. # If the reverse happened, & a nazi punched an interviewee who supported the #WomensMarch we’d rightly condemn it as Trump inspired hate #
But most importantly, who gets punched in other countries when they speak their mind? # In China, the person who gets punched is the pro-democracy activist, not the white supremacist. # In Russia, the person who gets punched is the LGBT activist, not the White supremacist #
In Saudi, the person who gets punched is the liberal blogger and the women’s rights activist, not the White supremacist # In Turkey, the person who get’s punched is the Kurdish nationalist, not the White supremacist #
It’s an open question whether ABC should have bothered to interview Spencer at all. I’m sympathetic to the ‘normalisation’ complaint # If I was the editor I would have avoided broadcasting his views. # On the other hand, there is an argument that it’s better to air and even encourage bad views in order to discredit them #
For Mill it wasn’t enough to express an opinion: the true liberal had an obligation to test it, to actively seek out the alternative view, to grill it, interrogate it, to argue it out. And that is where today’s liberal falls short, preferring to close alternatives off rather than open them up. Freedom of expression is chaotic and dynamic – not easy and timid.
It should also be standard practice to give a voice to someone who will refute the racist. More free speech. #
But, I say again, it’s not right and it’s against free speech to excuse a white supremacist getting punched on live TV. #
Ooh, I forgot one. Racists have a habit of twisting attempts to censor/shut them up as proof that their ideas are radical and important… # So this Spencer fellow will now portray himself as a free speech martyr and will seek to discredit antifas as being inherently censorious. #
Since posting this, I’ve read some powerful and persuasive arguments that support the punching of white supremacists.
The first is that the situation is already violent. The fascists’ modus operandi is inherently violent and they have already ‘taken the first swing’ as @knitmeapony put it.
Now I think there is distinction between actual physical violence and concepts such as ‘microagressions’, mental distress, and ‘illocutionary acts’. There is an important legal debate to be had over when or if speech acts can be termed ‘violence’.
However, such debates are utterly infuriating for activists, who experience the violence of the far right first hand. This week a member of the alt.right actually murdered an anti-facist protestor in Seattle. The inherent violence of such groups is not in question. Why indulge in legal parlour games?
In U.S law sets an extremely high bar for state censorship. The relevant case is Brandenburg v. Ohio in which the Supreme Court held that for speech to be prohibited, it must incite imminent violence. With such a demanding criteria before the state will intervene, those bearing the brunt of fascist abuse and violence find they cannot wait for their government to protect them. If the government will not even prosecute calls for genocide (which what Mr Brandenburg had done at a KKK rally, and what Richard Spencer has done in the past) then, say the activists, we need to take matters into our own hands.
I just finished a PhD diss abt “reason” in relation to the public sphere so w apologies I might risk a short thread re: punching nazis – # – bc there is an unstated self-evident logic that I feel like might be clarifying. Feel free to mute or unfollow or w/e #
every liberal democracy realizes early on there are some positions which must prima facie be aggressively excluded from public discourse # u can’t even articulate WHY they are unreasonable bc to articulate WHY they are unreasonable is to itself open the possibility of reason. # this is why u can’t allow “just hypothetical” questions abt whether Jews or blacks, as Spencer posits, are innately inferior/destroyable. #
Nazi theorists like Carl Schmitt VERY QUICKLY diagnosed this weakness in liberal democracies – # U can collapse a democracy by insisting the democracy had a right to end itself: Hindenburg to Hitler, “the peaceful transition of power.” # Intolerance cannot be tolerated, bc this corrosive effect means the law can be co-opted by, and so protective of, fascism. # Fascism wriggles into democracies by insisting on right to be heard, achieves critical mass, then dissolves the organs that installed it. # WHICH MEANS the stronger it becomes, it cannot be sufficiently combatted with reason. Bc “reason” becomes the state’s tool to enforce. # The Overton Window becomes weaponized – as we are seeing in @KellyannePolls and @seanspicer‘s “alternative facts.” The state decides. #
I wrote a little bit about the Overton Window here.
Liberalism literally cannot see this – its insistence on rule of law, not genocideal lust, is what turned the German people into good Nazis. # some positions must be excluded from discourse. Some positions you do not listen to – u can only punch. # A society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay. Those voices must be excluded. #
TL;DR – punching a nazi is actually a supreme act of democracy bc it will not tolerate a direct affront of a fellow citizen’s citizenship. #
the term to interrogate in “should you punch a nazi?” is SHOULD – what is the status of that “should”? Legally: no; ethically: fuck yes. #
All of American history is an exercise in one debate: “who is the ‘we’ who are the people?” # (the thing that used to solve this debate – “God decides what is reasonable” – is not on the table anymore, and was always a deferral of Q) #
(if you’re looking to read more, a slim, elegantly articulated place to start is Horkheimer’s ECLIPSE OF REASON): https://t.co/wzVmtno252#
I do not think that punching anyone can be a ‘supreme act of democracy’ but this is powerful: ‘a society that begins to entertain why some members of its polis might not belong invites catastrophic decay.’
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.
I’m bookmarking this Washington Post profile of Professor Susan Benesch, whose research looks at ‘dangerous speech’—that is, speech that can incite mass violence.
For Benesch, it’s important that people understand that the type of speech she wants to counter is different from hate speech, which she says is a broad category for which there is no agreed-upon definition. An advocate for free speech, she does not believe that hate speech can or should be silenced. In fact, it’s one of the central reasons she sought to differentiate dangerous speech.
I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.
It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent. Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’
Obviously, someone elected to a position of authority and responsibility should be more diplomatic in their use of language so its probably right that she should be asked to step down. But the story is a useful way to restate a point about ‘white privilege’ and ‘male privilege’ that I touched on a while back when Diane Abbott was accused of racism.
Its this: My white male privilege is such that when someone tweets #KillAllWhiteMen, I assume is a joke. I read the hashtag and my natural reaction is that she’s indulging in hyperbole. Banter. I get to make that assumption because I don’t live in a society that demeans or belittles me because of my race or gender. Nothing in the mainstream culture or media undermines me or makes me insecure because of my phenotype or chromosomes.
Black people do not get to make that assumption.
Women do not get to make that assumption.
LGBTQ people do not get to make that assumption.
When any of these people see comparable hashtags (posted, usually, by white men) the threat feels real, and their outrage in response to such message is real and justified. Conversely, when there is an angry backlash against people like Mustafa on petition sites and newspapers like The Daily Mail, the outrage seems (to my mind) quite false: a mask donned in order to better fight the culture war.
None of this is to defend Bahar Mustafa or to suggest that routinely posting antagonistic messages is admirable. Rather, its just to point out that context is important. While laws should be blind to race, gender and sexuality, our society and the interactions within it are not. Words that bite in one context may be toothless in another.
Indeed, changing contexts mean there will be situations where white men would indeed feel menanced by a hashtag. For example, if it were tweeted in Paris on 7th January, right after the Charlie Hebdo murders, messages like #KillAllWhiteMen would take on on a whole new meaning, and I’d think again.