The great thing about having an all-purpose blog is that you can write about things that are not in the news, and have no relation to current affairs. In this case, I thought I would post something I should have written a few weeks ago.
On the 14 of January, I was delighted to speak at the AGM of the Society of Young Publishers. The theme was banned books, and censorship. One of the questions was regarding Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn. Apparently an academic in the USA named Alan Gribben decided to re-publish the book, replacing the word ‘Nigger’ throughout. What did I think of this?
This is quite possibly the perfect question for this blog, focusing as I do with questions of free expression and political correctness, and also how digital technologies affect publishing. How to reconcile the rights of people to publish what they want, with the uncomfortable Orwellian overtones that happens when you replace one word for another in a text? How to reconcile the bullying and harm that the dreaded ‘N-word’ can cause, with the historical context?
John Sargeant’s performance on the BBC Newsnight Review show yesterday was bizarre. He managed to say the n-word twice during a discussion of Django Unchained, and later described parts of a TV programme as “American bullshit”.
Among those watching the show, some wondered whether the BBC would receive complaints. Others applauded Sargeant’s no-nonsense approach. I found his language tiresome.
I am usually a supporter of ‘political correctness’, especially when it concerns speech. I think it is far better for someone who says something offensive to be criticised and recieve a social sanction for being ‘politically incorrect’ than for them to suffer any kind of legal censorship.
It is therefore incumbent upon me to condemn genuine acts of ‘political correctness gone mad’ when they occur. These are usually instances of local government officials take progressive legislation too far. There have been two ridiculous cases of this kind in the past week: A man won an employment tribunal case against Trafford Housing Trust after they saw he had posted comments against gay marriage on his Facebook Page; and a foster-couple in Rotherham had a couple of kids removed from their care when it was discovered they were members of UKIP.
I note that the authorities acted on information gleaned from the aggrieved people’s private lives. The couple’s membership came from a “tip off” apparently, and the demoted Christian man was posting on his own Facebook wall. Both these things acts of political expression took place in that liminal space that is not private but not necessarily fully public either. But the fact that the employers and Rotherham Council have been punishing these people, based on their actions and beliefs expressed in this mid-way space, is highly disconcerting. This is the sort of thing we need human rights legislation for – to protect the overreach of the state and employers into areas that are not their business. It’s ironic that the concept of human rights is also often derided as ‘political correctness’. Had Rotherham Council and Trafford Housing Trust had a better understanding of free expression, freedom of association and the right to a private life, they may not have made the mistakes that made the headlines.
Here’s a post first published earlier today on Labour List (a new venue for me). I hope there will be comments to which I can respond in a follow-up post.
The riots seem to have brought out the worst in our politicians. You would think our political class would be well aware of the perils of knee-jerk responses and short term expediency, but apparently not. First, a few Conservative MPs (the Prime Minister among them) have called for social networks to be interfered with in times of crisis – an astonishingly cynical and hypocritical idea, given our condemnation of the Iranian and Egyptian regimes when they did the same thing.
Not to be outdone, a group of Labour politicians have now put opportunism and short-term thinking above the principles of good democracy. The leaders of thirteen London Boroughs, together with John Biggs AM and MPs Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick, called for a proposed EDL march in Tower Hamlets to be banned on account of the cost of policing, which they say “would simply be too great”.
The potential cost of policing the march wass half a million pounds, which is be no small sum to remove from London’s clean-up effort. But the costs of banning the EDL march will be much higher in the long term. It will fuel resentment among those wishing to march, and award them the status of ‘free speech martyrs’ that they crave, but do not deserve. Their warped view of immigration and their fantastical idea of what constitutes ‘true’ British culture will remain unchallenged once again. This will only lead to more tension and conflict that the police will have to spend time and resources to contain.
Citing costs as a reason to deny political or artistic expression is a classic argument used by despots abroad to suppress internal opposition. Of course, there is no comparison between our democracy and their tyrannies… but that’s an argument that carries zero weight when you’re campaigning for human rights in those places. Cameron’s suggestion that we censor social media, and the Labour call for the banning of this EDL event, will hamstring the fight for free expression elsewhere: “You do it, so why shouldn’t we?”
Worse, this excuse also puts the power of censorship into the hands of the mob. For example, in 2004, a small and unrepresentative group of youths were able to stop performances of Behzti at the Birmingham Rep Theatre (which they found offensive), by threatening to cause chaos that the police were unable to stop, on grounds of cost. Six years later, another theatre had to fight tooth-and-nail to ensure that the police would guarantee the safety of performers in another play by the same playwright. If this precedent persists, then we give extremists like the EDL, the BNP, or Islam4UK an ongoing permit to shut down any gathering they disagree with. Already we’ve seen local councils bullied into withdrawingMoonfleece, a play that challenges far-right extremism… because those same extremists threatened ‘trouble’! Arguments that seek to ban the EDL, however well-intentioned, slide inexorably into the banning of others, and eventually, banning everyone.
When the riots erupted across our cities earlier this month, we rightly saw them as a threat to our way of life. We demanded the police throw all their resources at the problem, regardless of the cost in these austere times. The right to freedom of expression must be protected by the police with equal vigour, and it’s odd that our London councillors have forgotten this.
To argue that the EDL must be allowed their right to march is only the beginning of the discussion. Those who advocate the right to free expression have a moral obligation to challenge those who preach hate and division. No one is arguing that an EDL march will not exacerbate tensions in Tower Hamlets, but these can be diffused without trampling on the right to association and assembly. This is where we need leadership, from those very same elected Labour representatives who signed the letter in the Guardian on Monday. I met and campaigned with Rushanara Ali and Jim Fitzpatrick when I lived in Tower Hamlets – They are both deeply respected in their constituencies. They, together with the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police, have both the wit and the standing to co-ordinate and lead a peaceful response to the EDL. Why did they not playing a central role in the Unite Against Fascism counter-protest? So far it has only garnered support from the unions and the mosques.
It is down to our politicians to present the contrast between the thuggery of the far-right, and the vibrancy of multicultural inner-city life, all while respecting free speech. Granted, this is not as simple as just banning the march. But we elect our Members of Parliament and Councillors to take on these difficult tasks, not to engage in easy, knee-jerk letter-writing. Time for Labour to lead.
First, let’s note that “politically correct” is a degraded insult these days. If jumping the shark hadn’t jumped the shark itself I’d say that political correctness jumped the shark long ago. Disparaging those who disagree with you as “politically correct” isn’t an argument, it’s a way of avoiding argument. Look at me, it says, and see how brave I am to stand alone against the tide. Here I must stand for I can do no other. Unlike the soft-headed simpletons who prefersome sort of lemming-like approach that makes them feel warm and fuzzy. Alternatively, perhaps “politically correct” is just another word for fashionable these days.
In the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown writes on the delights that post-colonials bring to the English language, and laments the decline of language and civility online:
The future looks bright then, until you notice those who use new technology without due care. Some crazed demons on Twitter believe anything goes. Written words matter and hold meanings beyond that narcissistic urge to send off instant thoughts. The Tory councillor who sent out a vile and scary message about me says it was a joke. After some thought I decided I will not press charges. My objections have been made and there is no need for more. Yet having read many blogs and tweets that followed the incident, I do wonder whether our manners and morals will survive and if English itself, the best thing about us, is now seriously endangered.
I fear that such comments will become a regular punctuation in our discourse from now on. Such attitudes from the dead-tree columnists come about by a failure to understand that the new technologies like Twitter and teh blogs are not changing culture, but revealing it. Clay Shirky, in his bestseller Here Comes Everybody, likens the net to a public mall. Its a public space, but that doesn’t mean every conversation is directed at you. In a shopping centre, if you were to eavesdrop on a chat between a group of teenagers, then make comments about their awful slag, you would be regarded as, at best, a curmudgeonly pedant; or at worst, a dodgy weirdo worthy of a report to the mall security guards. Likewise with blogs and twitter, not every conversation in the public domain is intended to be a public pronouncement in the way Alibhai-Brown, Mirren and Marr traditionally understand it.
Of course, one could argue the opposite. Tweeting and blogging about a celebrity might also be likened to taking your conversation from the pub after last orders, and continuing it loudly outside the door of the house of the person you are talking about. There, the awkwardness, the social autism, is on the part of the speaker, not the listener. If (say) Yasmion Alibhai-Brown has to step over noisy yobs outside her gate, then she may well choose to call the police. Thankfully, to take the analogy to its conclusion, she has told the yobs (in this case a conservative Councillor from Birmingham) to “stop being so rude, and to bugger off”… which seems the most healthy course of action to me. Her disgust is registered without anyone’s free speech being censored. Dave Osler’s take on the case is interesting and Paul Sinha’s speaks my own mind perfectly:
If you believe that Paul Chambers is a victim of a miscarriage of justice … then you should also believe that the police have no role to play in the strange case of Alibhai Brown vs Compton.
Back to those who feel that the Internet is generally unpleasant: We can point out thousands of counter-examples! Paul Staines, and his phalanx of Tourettes-suffering anonymous commenters, get all the attention, because the blog is the online equivalent of a tabloid, intent on winning readers in the rudest and crudest way possible. However, for every Guido Fawkes there are hundreds of more thoughful bloggers, writing for pleasure and to seek out genuine and meaningful connections online. How to pick just one? Well, as it happens, I have Federay Holmes’ blog open on my browser (because she just won a PEN competition). She writes thoughful posts about politics, literature and family life, and seems to have as much sincerity as Fawkes has cynicism.
Finally, I might point to the huge continent of Internet dialogue that is Facebook. As far as I can tell, the discourse on that site is entirely made up of expressions of friendship, congratulatory messagages (concerning love and friendship) and photographs of events that are themselves marking friendship, love and achievement. It can be saccharine at times, but its entire structure pretty much enforces civility and niceness. There are ways to signify ‘Friends’ and ‘Like’, but no means to do the opposite.
One disappointment was my failure to challenge to the host Peter Lavelle when he claimed that the Russian press do not feel pressurised to say anything bad about Vladimir Putin. I claimed that ‘political correctness’ was used in many countries to enforce the political orthodoxy of the ruling elites, including in Russia. Peter retorted that though there were states where that happens, he (working in Russia) was not living in one. On reflection, instead of shaking my head in disbelief (never effective on a split screen TV programme) I should have asserted that many Russian journalists would disagree with him.
I would also have liked more time to engage Robert Shibley on the censure of Christian groups on campus. Very often I think that freedom of (Christian) religion is used as an excuse for unfettered homophobia, and the ‘political correctness’ that responds is really just healthy counter-speech. Having said that, I think the discussion we had did go beyond the shrill superficiality of most debates on this subject. Take a look at the comments on the YouTube page for the clip – almost universally vile and stupid.
On Twitter, I have been discussing the use of mental health terms in political speech with the journalist Beatrice Bray. In recent weeks, Guardian cartoonists Martin Rowson and Steve Bell have both used the term ‘psychotic’ to describe political figures in negative terms. Beatrice says this is wrong and that is marginalises people who are actually clinically diagnosed with psychosis.
On the one hand, I think this is a case of ‘useful’ political correctness. First, I’ve said before that a respect for names and labels, of people, groups or cities, is one of my tenets of useful and persusive speech. Free speech campaigners always reserve the right to offend… but when we do, we are usually referring to the right to offend the people we are talking about! What Beatrice is complaining of in this case, is that other people – those with an actual mental illness – are the ones being hurt in the cross-fire. And I have sympathy with her contention that the ‘hurt’ caused is a very real social marginalisation, rather than just ‘hurt feelings’.
On the other hand, I cannot shake a feeling at the back of my mind, a sense that Rowson and Bell and others who use mental health terminology, are in fact using the words as metaphors.
Often, the term employed as a metaphor is not always used properly. ‘Spastic‘ was often used to convey mental deficiencies when in fact it refers medically to a motor/physical illness; and schizophrenia means delusional and disorganised, not split-personality.
However, I think Rowson and Bell are at least getting their metaphors straight. They seek to describe the Conservatives’ policies as being dangerously out-of-touch with reality. They reach into our vocabularies for a word that describes such trait… and often, the word ‘psychotic’ fits the bill. We all know that David Cameron does not actually have a clinical mental illness… but the term seems the perfect metaphor for his political tactics (as least to a liberal lefty).
So, while many will consider the word extreme, they nevertheless know that it is an accurate metaphor for the concepts under discussion. Does that necessarily translate into harm against people with a clinical psychosis? Thoughts and opinions welcomed.
The PCC have upheld the complaint made by TV presenter Clare Balding against the Sunday Times. In July, the critic AA Gill called her a “dyke on a bike”, which the PCC agreed was a form of discrimination.
In addition, the newspaper drew attention to two organisations called Dykes on Bikes (an American lesbian motorcycling movement; and a UK-based cycling movement) whose members had reclaimed the word “dyke” as an empowering, not offensive, term. It argued that an individual’s sexuality should not give them an “all-encompassing protected status”. …
In this case, the Commission considered that the use of the word “dyke” in the article – whether or not it was intended to be humorous – was a pejorative synonym relating to the complainant’s sexuality. The context was not that the reviewer was seeking positively to “reclaim” the term, but rather to use it to refer to the complainant’s sexuality in a demeaning and gratuitous way.
This reminds me of an interesting video blog I watched recently by Jay Smooth of the Ill Doctrine. In it, he makes the pithy point that, in general, “if you are not the original subject of an insult, you can’t be the one to reclaim it.” This seems a sensible rule of thumb to me.
This reclaiming of offensive words relates to david Foster Wallace’s discussions around dialect. He pointed out that words in opne dialect – for example, ‘Nigga’ in Black Urban English – is very different from using the ‘N-word’ in other contexts. This should be the put-down to idiots like AA Gill who are deliberately offensive and then try and cover their tracks by wailing “but other people use it!”
“Well I think there’s a difference between multiculturalism per se, and state multiculturalism, where the state intervenes and says, ‘You will do this, you will do that.'” For example, she offers, “When the state says ‘We’ll have winterfest instead of Christmas, so everyone feels included.’ That’s wrong.”
Eh? Did I miss something? When – and you don’t have to be exact now, a year will do – did the state say we’ll have Winterfest instead of Christmas? (Except for the time when Cromwell’s government banned Christmas, smartypants).
Perhaps the most notorious of the anti-Christmas rebrandings is Winterval, in Birmingham, and when you telephone the Birmingham city council press office to ask about it, you are met first of all with a silence that might seasonably be described as frosty. “We get this every year,” a press officer sighs, eventually. “It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it’s bollocks, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference.”
According to an official statement from the council, Winterval – which ran in 1997 and 1998, and never since – was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham’s newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January.
Clicking back from the Five Chinese Crackers post, I find that the Exclarotive blog has been logging similar myths. Anton Vowl spotted another example of the Conservatives propagating the nonsense, this time over health and safety legislation. Ann Widdecombe cited several examples of PC gone mad during our debate on the issue last year. I wonder how many had any substance?
One might think that debunking articles, such as those mentioned above, might serve to sink the highly dangerous armada of lies that sails through our society, leaving a hatred of immigrants in its wake. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be so. In the Boston Globe, John Keohane reports on a University of Michigan study that shows that the introduction of new facts may actually cause people to double-down on their strongly held misconceptions.
“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”
This is why we need to discuss much of our politics in terms of narrative. It sounds pretentious, but the fact is that a single article giving some facts will rarely reverse a political consensus.