Tag Archives: freedom-of-speech

Suzanne Moore and freedom of speech. So. Much. Nonsense.

lynn_1802176cTry as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).

Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.

What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.

The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:

So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?

Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:

The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.

Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.

Why does the Advertising Standards Authority regulate e-petition campaigns but not referendums?

It is great to see that the Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on Paul Staines for misleading advertising as part of his campaign in support of his death penalty e-petition. It is not immediately clear however why the ASA feels it has a regulatory role here while it doesn’t have a role in regulating referendum adverts, on the basis of “freedom of speech”.

Election advertising is at least covered by legislation and the courts, something to which Miranda Grell and Phil Woolas can testify. With referendums however, it is a total free for all. At least in the case of elections however, the ASA does issue guidelines. In the case of the referendum, it refused to do even that.

So why does the ASA feel it doesn’t have a role here? As far as I can tell there is nothing in statute which prevents it from having a role and there is certainly no principled difference between regulating referendum and e-petition ads. Both are about influencing public policy; both are affected by freedom of speech.

What’s more, there is a question of significance. While a misleading advert to promote an e-petition might lead to a few extra signatures, it won’t change government policy. Influencing a referendum result with garbage, by contrast, has a significant impact on legislation and the government of the day. One could understand if the ASA had better things to do than to waste its time with Staines; it is harder to see how a referendum isn’t worth its time.

But perhaps it is Staines’ minnow status which is telling here. Cracking down on a small front organisation is pretty elementary; standing up to the combined Conservative establishment and Labour old guard is an altogether more daunting prospect. The decision is only explicable when you look at it in terms of expediency, but that doesn’t make it any more respectable.

Either way, regardless of what the next referendum happens to be on, this loophole in the law urgently needs sorting out. Because next time, it might be a referendum on the death penalty – in which case expect Stains and company to dredge out all the misleading nonsense they’ve just had their knuckles rapped over and worse.

Jewel of Medina pledge update: should trash be burnt?

My pledge to buy the Jewel of Medina is just one signatory away from being fulfilled, so if you haven’t already signed up, please do.

Since I launched the pledge, the publishers Gibson Square have postponed the publication of the book indefinitely, which means that the firebombers may have won. Shelina Zahra Janmohamed has also written a review of the book on the BBC Magazine.

In Shelina’s view, the book is a bodice-ripping yawn. Having read the book, I will defer to her judgement. But trash deserves the right to be published as much as quality literature. Get the trash taken off the shelves and the quality will follow. And is Islam really so fragile to be vulnerable to shallow nonsense? To be fair on Shelina, she doesn’t suggest otherwise and doesn’t call for the book for be banned. She is right to say that “If our society upholds the right to offend, then the right to be offended goes with it.” The problem is, too many people want a right not to be offended.

In my view, if you value freedom of speech and have enough spare income to afford it, you have a moral duty to buy any book under threat, no matter how dreadful it may or may not be. The book itself is meaningless, it is the precedent that is important. Can I get one more person who feels the same way before the end of the month? More to the point, can I get anyone else to set up more pledges like it?

Finally, note how spineless the BBC are – the picture of a woman reading the book accompanying Shelina’s article carries the disclaimer “Picture posed by a model” as if it would be uneccessarily inflammatory to have a picture of an actual person actually reading. Yet of course, Shelina herself has read the book, so it is completely nonsensical anyway.

Rowan Williams on religious hatred: quite silly actually

Before Thursday’s brouhaha about sharia law erupted, I had already intended to read Rowan Williams’ earlier speech about religious hatred laws, following on from the praise that Chris Keating garlanded it with on Monday. I’m afraid I don’t share Chris’ enthusiasm.

Let’s get one thing straight from the outset. Academic background or not, Rowan Williams is a politician. He is the leader of a worldwide movement which is happy to roll its sleeves up and get involved in political matters on a daily basis. He is a member of the UK’s legislative assembly. So when he says something, it matters. And when he makes a speech about religious hatred laws, at the very least he must acknowledge the role in which he and his political party (in this case, the Bishops) personally played in getting those laws onto the statute books. In particular, it should be remembered that the neutered piece of legislation we have now is not the draconian measure that the Church of England actively campaigned for and which we would now have were it not for the ineptitude of Hilary Armstrong, the anti-Parliamentary instincts of Tony Blair and arguably the intervention of another Rowan. For Williams, two years later, to make a speech justifying an Act of Parliament he didn’t actually want in its final form is utterly shameless.

In terms of his speech on religious hatred (which is equally as long but in fairness not quite as oblique as his speech on sharia), it can essentially be summed up by two statements:

The grounds for legal restraint in respect of language and behaviour offensive to religious believers are pretty clear: the intention to limit or damage a believer’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society is plainly an invasion of what a liberal society ought to be guaranteeing; and the obvious corollary is that the creation of an offence of incitement to religious hatred is a way of avoiding the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded.

and

It can reasonably be argued that a powerful or dominant religious body has every chance of putting its own case, and that one might take with a pinch of salt any claim that it was being silenced by public criticism; but the sound of a prosperous and socially secure voice claiming unlimited freedom both to define and to condemn the beliefs of a minority grates on the ear. Context is all.

These two principles are designed to guarantee what Williams refers to, both here and in other speeches as ‘argumentative democracy’ – the idea of the public realm being a marketplace of ideas where people can freely argue without fear of being shot down, moderated by restraint.

Superficially this all sounds fine. The powerful must not be allowed to drown out the powerless. The problem is, it is so subjective and his definition of ‘power’ is at best undefined, at worst to be taken to refer merely to the power of the state. It certainly is when he offers his critique of the Enlightenment – there we are asked to put it in the context of a few brave intellectuals standing up against an over-powerful church which influenced every part of public life. No supra-powerful church these days (thanks to the Enlightenment), ergo no real need to continue the Enlightenment project. Their work is done, time to move on, is essentially Williams’ argument.

But the power of the state is just one tool. There is the power of big money, something which religion continues to use around the world, from Saudi Arabia through to the US Presidential elections through to the bankrolling of UK Academies. There is also the power of violence.

Williams does not reflect on this and without wishing to sound like a neo-con this is pretty unforgiveable in the post-9/11 world where the asymmetry of conflict is now well understood (at least outside of Lambeth Palace). You don’t need to be a super-power to change the world these days, just enough people who are willing to die for your cause.

In a global world, does anyone have a legitimate claim to be a Goliath-fighting David? The brilliant film In the Valley of Elah explores this theme in the context of the Iraq conflict, showing how that metaphor can be applied and reapplied in different contexts. It’s an evocative image, and one which our global culture is in love with (from The 300 and the Seven Samurai through to Dad’s Army), but I would suggest in a world where everyone is both David and Goliath it isn’t a particularly useful foundation for law.

Ultimately, any such narrative is intensely political. Eurosceptics like to emphasise about how they are plucky Brits standing up against the immensely powerful monolithic Brussels. Nationalists, be they English, Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or Russian, flatter themselves that They have Us under their yoke. And of course it has now become a Christian tradition, each December, for people of faith to claim their celebration of Christmas is under attack from sinister secular forces.

The latter point is particularly relevant because of course Charles Sentamu, who is fond of denouncing the evils of ‘aggressive secularism‘, is the Ying to Rowan Williams’ Yang. Sentamu’s allegations are explicitly intended to limit atheist’s freedom to be visible and audible in the public life – not only are his allegations about Winterval et al without foundation and highly inflammatory but he is lecturing people what they can or can’t have on their Christmas cards. Where does this fit in Williams’ picture of things? Ostensibly nowhere – the irreligious are not to have any of the rights he insists the religious should have. And if we are to believe the rest of his speech, the Church is no longer a powerful entity, at least compared to the aggressive secularist hegemony (which in reality has as much substance to it as the Elders of Zion). To not even begin to grapple with this issue, in a six thousand word essay, when his second-in-command is going around making such blood libels willy-nilly, is sinister indeed.

Williams mentions the Behtzi case, but laughably tries to have it every which way:

In the case of the bitter controversy in the Sikh community over the play Behzti in 2004, it was clear that many deeply intelligent members of the Sikh community in Britain were torn between the belief that the play would cement in the minds of audiences largely ignorant of the Sikh religion a distorting and negative set of images and the gloomy conviction that violent protest against the play would have exactly the same effect (c.f. Nash, pp. 34-6): very much a no-win situation. Once again, there is the disconnection between the firm claim of an artistic establishment that protest against oppressive systems is justifiable, even imperative (and Behzti had identified a real and too-often buried concern among Sikh women), and the counter-claim that this kind of representation of a religious culture in front of what was likely to be a fairly religiously illiterate audience would be experienced as a straightforward flexing of the muscles by a hostile, alien and resourceful power.

Or, to put it another way: Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti was making valid criticisms but the hoi polloi is too stupid and ignorant to fully appreciate her argument. Therefore, on balance, her play should not have been performed.

This gets to the heart of it. Far from approving of an ‘argumentative democracy’ Williams wants to insulate the public from any argument it may not be able to fully appreciate the nuances of. The Ivory Tower of academia can have these debates but the rest of us must have it doled out in strictly vetted, bite-sized chunks. Given the events of the past 48 hours, I do hope the irony isn’t lost on anyone here. Given the enormous backlash that Williams’ speech has caused, and given his call a week earlier for people to exercise restraint, could he not be accused himself of knowingly “damaging believers’ freedom to be visible and audible in the public life of a society” and thus be restrained in order to “avoid the civil disorder that threatens when a group comes to feel that it has been unjustly excluded”? Or should such restraints only apply to anyone who happens to disagree with him? In reseaching his article I am reminded that the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 would have made it an offence to stir up religious hatred if you were “reckless as to whether religious hatred would be stirred up” if Williams’ had had his way: in a parallel universe his counterpart is currently sitting in a police cell.

Ultimately, we can’t agree who is powerful or weak any more than we can agree what is a valid criticism or not. In a global, information rich society, ideas about the powerful versus the weak are losing resonance in any case. The self-assured righteousness which religion imbues in its adherents and all too often descends into violence must be regarded as a powerful thing in itself – it doesn’t need the power of the state it had in medieval times to still cause oppression.

Why does the Oxford Union think that freedom of speech only applies to fascists?

One thing I didn’t realise regarding the latest Oxford Union debacle is that this comes just a month after those heroic defenders of free speech denied Norman Finklestein a platform to criticise Israel:

Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians surely cannot be described as balanced by any stretch of the imagination. The Biblical injunction of “an eye for an eye” is grisly enough, but Israel goes even farther by its habitual practice of exacting an eye for an eyelash! As Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians becomes more heavy-handed and violent, the very notion of balance needs to be re-examined. Luke Tryl displayed neither wisdom nor courage in dealing with these broader issues and he eventually caved in to the pressure. On 19 October, four days before the debate, he curtly informed Finkelstein that his invitation was rescinded.

Perhaps Jonny or someone could explain to me why they appear to be supporting one rule for Jewish anti-Zionists but another rule for people who would happily march them into the gas chambers?

UPDATE: Mea culpa – I goofed. In the original version of this article I portrayed Norman Finkelstein as a Zionist, which was completely, 180 degree arse-over-backwards, something which I knew at the back of my mind but at the time had my mind on another article (ahem). With that said, far from weakening my argument, this actually makes it stronger as it shows how the Oxford Union is only a fair weather friend of freedom of speech. Thanks to Barry Stocker for pointing this out and letting me minimise the degree by which I managed to make a tit out of myself.

Oxbridge Twittery and Freedom of Speech

About every 5 years or so, some bright spark in the Oxford or Cambridge Union comes up with the “thrilling” idea of inviting Nick Griffin, David Irving or whoever happens to be the current racist fuck du jour to speak. This results in a wholly predictable row which the media then duly reports. Because we’ve all gone Web 2.0 these days it also results in Facebook groups and bloggers getting incredibly exercised about the subject.

I’m sorry, but this simply will not do. I would not personally ban David Irving or the BNP, just as I would not ban Hizb ut-Tahrir. They are perfectly entitled to shout their views at the top of their lungs in the public arena short of inciting violence. But it is not denying them freedom of expression if I choose not to invite them round to my house. The same applies to any club or association I am a member of. It isn’t censorship for me to advise an individual not to break bread with a scumbag, it’s being helpful.

For a private students club to choose to hear them speak isn’t a defence of freedom of speech, it is being Frightfully Clever and Frightfully Daring. No-one learns anything from the exercise, they just have their prejudices confirmed. Extremists don’t pose a problem for freedom of speech; Voltaire nipped that one in the bud 300 years ago. The real challenge to freedom of speech in the modern age are laws such as the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. The problem is where you draw the line in an increasingly complex world.

The self-proclaimed purpose of the Oxford Union and its lighter blue equivalent is, I thought, to open minds and widen debate, not to preside over a quinquennial punch up. Surely their purpose is to create light not heat? There’s nothing daring, or clever or even remotely interesting about wading into the same row every few years. It is reasonable for those impartial outsiders like me to wonder why they feel so compelled and who on earth would want to be a member of such a nonsense organisation. If going through the motions is all they’re interested in, why not simply hold a regular barn dance?

Freedom of information. But don’t tell anyone.

Quote of the week must go to Charlie Falconer:

“People not the press must be the priority. There is a right to know, not a right to tell.”

You only need to think about this for a couple of seconds to realise how dumb it is. After all, freedom of speech IS a right, and how can you know if no-one is allowed to report it?

This idea that the Government seem to have cooked up that you can have freedom of speech but without any media involved is utterly pernicious. Frankly, I can’t believe Falconer gave the game away as blatantly as this.