In December, I worked with English PEN on their responses to two important Law Commission Consultations: Hate Crime, and Reform of the Communications Offences. The two documents we submitted are on the English PEN website, along with an explanatory blog post.
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”
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.
“Pass the sick bag, Alice” wrote Littlejohn. “I still cling to the belief that children benefit most from being brought up by a man and a woman.”
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.
All this is ripe for discussion on a call-in radio show. Eddie Nestor was leading the debate on his BBC drive time show yesterday, and I went on air to make an uncompromising case for free speech. You can listen to the entire show again on the BBC iPlayer, either on the web or on the app, for the next thirty days. You can also listen to my contribution on SoundCloud, or via the player below. Continue reading “Discussing the Royals, Hate Speech and Free Speech on the BBC London Drive Time Show with Eddie Nestor”
This week, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was criticised for publishing a shocking cartoon about migrants and rape culture.
It features a depiction of the terrible image of drowned three year-old Aylan Kurdi alongside what appear to be some dirty old men, chasing women Benny Hill style.
Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example. I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.
Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech! He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending. I unequivocally disagreed.
A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading “Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo”
A couple of people have asked me my opinion on an article published on Vox this week. Writing anonymously, a university lecturer laments the entitled, consumerist tendency amongst his students, which means that they complain whenever they are exposed to ideas or opinions that make them uncomfortable. The article carried hyperlinks to examples where academics—both students and in some cases teachers—have successfully shut down discussion or caused events to be cancelled because they were deemed ‘offensive’ or upsetting.
If this is a real trend then it’s appalling. As I and others have argued previously and constantly, there are numerous benefits to having offensive statements made openly. Such statements can be countered and challenged on the one hand; but they may actually have some merit and change minds and morality (for example, women’s suffrage or gay marriage). Offence can shock people out of complacency, or be the only thing that makes people question traditional values and the structure of their society. Finally, it’s far better to have offensive views out in the open, rather than driven underground where they can fester and grow, and where those who have been censored can claim to be a ‘free speech martyr’.
I do want to raise a few aspects of the article that give me pause for thought, however. Continue reading “Academic self-censorship: is ‘offence culture’ really the problem?”
Last month I was pleased to be invited by Trans World Radio, the Christian broadcaster, to take part in their TWR Today programme. I spoke to presenter Lauren Herd about free speech in the context of blasphemy, offence and freedom of religion.
During the discussion I tried to articulate something that has been bothering me about the debate we have been having about free speech, following the Charlie Hebdo massacre:
… So when even free speech campaigners are making the case for offence, I find those arguments frustrating because I feel that argument has been settled, in favour of free speech.
To be clear: I’m not knocking those campaigners who write think-pieces that defend the right to offend. I’ve published such pieces myself in the past few weeks, as have my colleagues at English PEN. Rather, my frustration is over how much of the debate is still focussed on whether there is any legitimacy in censoring for reasons of religious offence. There is none.
Moreover, it is unfettered free speech that enables the freedom of religion. Lauren Herd gave a pithy and poetic summing up that I predict will become a staple of my rhetoric on this issue:
We may not like hearing attacks on what we believe, but it is that same freedom for one person to express, that allows us to profess what we believe.
They are working class, inarticulate and insecure boys with no prospects other than the army. And when these men speak, they swear. It is integral to their vernacular. To sanitize their words would be to silence them.
Unfortunately the constraints of the page forbade me from elaborating on this point…. but luckily, I have a blog.
The swearing of the enlisted men is also important because of the contrast it presents with the officer class, and the politicians who have sent Scottish soldiers into harm’s way for centuries. The show has a marvellous musical number where Lord Elgin, in full highland dress and regalia, prances around the stage, beckoning the young men to sign-up: “hurrah, hurrah!” He speaks the Queen’s English, and he is as mendacious as they come (“did I mention it would be all over by Christmas” he says as he sends the soldiers off to Flanders in 1914). In this context, the Fifer accents of the soldiers are a necessity. Homogenising the language would be an act of class warfare.
To my mind, the final genius of Black Watch lies in the juxtaposition between the coarse language and the stunning physical theatre. One reason why Steven Hoggett’s choreography is so powerful is because the precise and often tender movements emerge from characters who have been f-ing and c-ing just moments before. The combination jars the audience and is compelling, and it is the rude words that tee-up this possibility.
A headteacher in Kirriemuir has caused controversy by banner her pupils from studying Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production that I worked on in 2006. What with this history, couple with the free speech work I do for English PEN, this is perhaps the perfect issue for me to write on. Over the weekend, The Sunday Herald published my essay setting the issue in its context.
Free speech controversies are like solar flares. They burn hot and bright. Right now, it is Angus that is feeling the heat. Last week, the Sunday Herald reported that one headteacher in Kirriemuir had pulled Black Watch off the Highers syllabus because it is “offensive”. Parents are angry at the decision, and have demanded an explanation. Continue reading “Defending ‘Black Watch’ and free speech in the classroom”