When does a moral argument become ‘settled’?

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’?”

Offence and Intent

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”

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alastair Stewart

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”

Clearly, What This Controversy Needs Is Another White Person’s Thoughts On Racism, And I Am Happy To Oblige

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”

Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech

What do people mean when they use the term ‘woke’ in a political context? By the time it crossed my radar, it had come to mean, simply, an acceptance that racism, sexism and other prejudices were still a problem for society.

With that definition in mind, I always thought it slightly weird for anyone to seriously describe themselves as ‘woke’ – especially if one was white and male. For a short time my Twitter bio was tautological-for-fun: Woke Free Speech Bro (until an incredibly embarrassing case of context collapse involving a famous author that I’m too embarrassed to link to).

‘Woke’ has become a term of derision and mockery. Over the summer I asked this:

I just realised that I don’t ever recall hearing the word ‘woke’ (in its new, political/social sense) used in a way that wasn’t pejorative or ironic. Are there still communities where it’s used seriously?

Continue reading “Actually, Nick, ‘Wokeness’ Helps Free Speech”

Liam Neeson and #BlackLivesMatter

The actor Liam Neeson is all over the news this week, following some comments he made in an interview with Independent correspondent Clémence Michallon. While discussing his latest film Cold Pursuit, he revealed that several decades ago a friend of his was raped. Since the perpetrator was black, his response was to spend a week prowling the streets, hoping he would find a black man to kill in ‘revenge’:

“I went up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody – I’m ashamed to say that – and I did it for maybe a week, hoping some [Neeson gestures air quotes with his fingers] ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could,” another pause, “kill him.”

This has caused justifiable concern, that Neeson behaved in such a dangerous and racist manner. Many people have noted that this is the literally ‘lynch-mob’ mentality, where the protection (or avenging) of women, is considered justification to murder black people. Continue reading “Liam Neeson and #BlackLivesMatter”

Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing

The Nazi pug

In Airdrie, Scotland, a man named Markus Meechan has been convicted of posting a grossly offensive video on his ‘Count Dankula’ YouTube channel. He taught his girlfriend’s dog to give a Nazi salute in response to the phrase ‘gas the jews’.

It’s clearly a joke. In fact, he explains as much in the video itself:

Mah girlfriend is always ranting and raving about how cute her wee dug is, and so I thought that I would turn him into the least cutest thing that I can think of, which is a Nazi.

This is clearly in poor taste. However, making offensive jokes should not be a criminal offence. Continue reading “Notes on the Nazi Pug Thing”

The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence

It’s nearly 25 years since the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in Eltham, south London. His death has become a pivotal moment in race relations in the U.K. It has become, in retrospect, the moment when the country woke up to the shoddy justice available to people of colour. It prompted the MacPherson Inquiry which famously branded the Metropolitan Police as ‘institutionally racist’.

In the 25 years since the murder, the Daily Mail has claimed for itself a central role in bringing justice for Stephen Lawrence. Its campaigning is hailed as an example of public interest journalism, and is often cited as a refutation of the charge that the newspaper itself is inherently racist.

In an enlightening paper for Political Quarterly, Professor Brian Cathcart examined every word that the Daily Mail published on the Stephen Lawrence case. He suggests that the newspaper has systematically exaggerated its influence over the case. He’s written OpenDemocracy article summarises the main findings. Continue reading “The Daily Mail and Stephen Lawrence”

On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

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”