On Tuesday evening I participated in the launch of Defining Islamophobia: A Contemporary Understanding of How Expressions of Muslimness are Targeted, a report published by the Muslim Council of Britain.
I wrote a short article for inclusion in the report, explaining why I think the new definition of Islamophobia that the report recommends would be a good thing for free speech. Ambiguity is the ally of censorship, and so a narrower definition of Islamophobia — one that is rooted in racism, rather than an opposition to Islamic ideas and theology — should reduce the chill on free speech.
The full report may be downloaded from the MCB website, and the launch event is available to view on Facebook. My contribution, where I expand on some of the issues I raise in my article, is at around 29 minutes.
I also published the text of my article on SSRN.
I want to say something quite precise about the nature of the ‘debate’ about transgender rights. It is not about the substance of the argument itself, but about how we are arguing about it.
The prompt for this is last week’s furore over a Suzanne Moore column in the Guardian, and the No Platforming of the historian Selina Todd. But it could just as easily be about any of the other controversies that have generated news media coverage and social media heat over the past few years.
First, did you notice how I put apostrophes around the word ‘debate’ above. I do that to acknowledge a point that transgender rights activists make constantly: that their right to exist should not be up for debate. Continue reading “When does a moral argument become ‘settled’?”
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”
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”
Over on Twitter, the Daily Telegraph columnist Dan Hodges asks a question: has Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, been the target of specifically racist press coverage? Or is it just the double-standards in way the press writes about her, compared to the Duchess of Cambridge, that has led people to conclude that Meghan is the victim of racism?
The answer to the question appears to be ‘no’ – there has not been any mainstream media coverage or commentary that deploys racist tropes or epithets. Continue reading “Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige”