Tag Archives: Freedom of Speech

Goodbye Nero

So Twitter have finally had enough and banned the notorious troll Milo Yiannopoulos, @Nero for his part in egging on the racist harassers of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Much of Twitter erupted in cheers. His 300,000-strong alt-right fanbase cried foul.

Let’s get one thing straight. Yiannopoulos deserved to be perma-banned from Twitter. He’s repeatedly and flagrantly violated Twitter’s Terms of Service, not just sailing close to the line but driving a coach and horses through the spirit of the rules.

Kicking him off Twitter is probably a net gain for free speech. That’s because the fear of being the centre of a witch hunt has a silencing effect. The mob is as an effective censor as the bureaucrat with the red pencil, and as with all censors, the goal is for force people to self-censor, to make whatever things the censors don’t like become unsayable. And it’s all based on power.

Yes, it’s too little, too late. And it does look as though Twitter only acted because the latest ugly eruption involved a celebrity. Twitter does need to be consistent and transparent in the way it enforces its own rules, and needs to devote enough resources to do the job properly, things which are not currently happening. Making a public example of Yiannopoulos just looks like a quick-and-dirty fix, and a very political one at that. Especially when by no means are all of the awful, abusive people on Twitter on the right.

Twitter has had a problem with trolls and mobbings for years, and it goes back long before movements like GamerGate or the rise of the alt-right. Go back a few years and it was parts of the so-called progressive left who were leading the witch hunts and harassing people who said or did anything they didn’t like. The worst parts of social-justice call-out culture were a frightening thing, and one false move could put anyone in their crosshairs. That had the effect of legitimising the tactics that Yiannopoulos and his ilk would later use in the service of right-wing causes. One you claim there are no bad tactics, only bad targets, you hand a terrible weapon to your enemies.

Twitter does need a rethink about what it’s for and what it does best. At its best it’s a great conversation space that’s most effective for interaction with your peers rather than the unequal relationship between celebrities and ordinary people. And because it’s far more mainstream it breaks down when subsets of people try to import the values of subcultures that developed places like 4chan or Tumblr which become toxic outside of those spaces.

(Given the subject, comments are closed on this post)

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Nick Cohen on Charlie Hebdo

This blistering piece on Charlie Hebdo by Nick Cohen in the Spectator pulls no punches when it comes to those parts of the Anglo-American left who seem all too willing to make excuses for terrorism.

Not one mentioned that the gang went on to slaughter Parisian Jews in a supermarket for no other reason than that they were Jewish. But they cannot oppose religious prejudice – and in their failure they live a lie far greater and more grotesque than their lies about the dead of Charlie Hebdo.

Prose, Carey, the London Review of Books and so many others agree with Islamists first demand that the world should have a de facto blasphemy law enforced at gunpoint. Break it and you have only yourself to blame if the assassins you provoked kill you

They not only go along with the terrorists from the religious ultra-right but of every state that uses Islam to maintain its power. They can show no solidarity with gays in Iran, bloggers in Saudi Arabia and persecuted women and religious minorities across the Middle East, who must fight theocracy. They have no understanding that enemies of Charlie Hebdo are also the enemies of liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims in the West. In the battle between the two, they have in their stupidity and malice allied with the wrong side.

Most glaringly they have failed to understand power. It is not fixed but fluid. It depends on where you stand. The unemployed terrorist with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian cartoonist cowering underneath his desk. The marginal cleric may well face racism and hatred – as my most liberal British Muslim friends do – but when he sits in a Sharia court imposing misogynist rules on Muslim women in the West, he is no longer a victim or potential victim but a man to be feared.

What he said, basically.

If you follow any discussions in left-liberal or social justice circles, you hear the word “privilege” a lot. Privilege is a very useful concept when it makes you consider the crap that other people have to deal with and you don’t, especially when it makes you mindful in not contributing towards that crap.

But privilege is not an infallible moral calculus that can decides who’s right and who’s wrong in any situation based purely on what demographic or sub-demographic group they belong to. And it breaks down completely if you start to believe in one-dimensional hierarchies of oppression than take no account of contexts or individual agency. Sooner or later you’re going to end up defending out-and-out evil. And once people start getting killed, society pays a high price for such moral self-indulgence.

If there are really significant numbers of people in the Anglo-American middle-class left who believe that cold-blooded mass murder is a lesser evil than publishing sacrilegious cartoons because White Privilege, then it demonstrates the utter intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the left. They will deny it if challenged, of course, but their use of weaseling language of the “I’m not racist but” variety and the way they spend more time explaining why Charlie Hebdo are bad than condemning the murderers shows whose side they’re really on.

Not that the right deserve to get off the hook either. The right’s continual blurring the distinction between criticism of fundamentalism and old-fashioned racism, and Bush and Blair’s criminally ill-conceived and disastrously-executed military adventures in the Middle East that have killed vast numbers of innocent people have done much to poison the well. And it’s all compounded by the idiotic Red Tribe versus Blue Tribe nature of American politics which poisons everything it touches, so if one tribe supports a thing the other will oppose it as a knee-jerk reaction regardless of the merits of the actual issue.

You are perfectly free to believe that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are gross, purile, insulting or offensive. But that is not the point.

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Charlie Hebdo and Victim Blaming

Over the past couple of days there has been an huge outpouring of support for the ten murdered journalists of Charlie Hebdo and the two police officers who died defending then. #JeSuisCharlie and #JeSuisAhmed have both been very popular hashtags on Twitter.

But sadly there has also been some unpleasant mealy-mouthed victim-blaming. Some comes from the usual suspects on the religious right, both reactionary Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants. But there’s also some coming the culture warriors of the left, and this repellent piece by Arthur Chu is one of the worst. If you’ve never heard of him, Arthur Chu is a one-time game show contestant who has more recently become “internet famous” in the back of his public opposition to GamerGate. His line on Charlie Hebdo is “Murder is terrible, but…” using the conjunctive in the same way as the infamous “I’m not racist, but…”. It’s classic victim-blaming in the same way as “She shouldn’t have worn that skirt if she didn’t want to get raped”.

I’m hearing a lot of accusations of racism directed towards Charlie Hebdo from self-appointed experts who are quick to judge but understand little of French culture or French politics. Most of these people are American, and many of those seem ignorant of much beyond the American suburbs. They give the impression they understand French culture about as well as Post-9/11 warbloggers understood Arab culture. The idea that you can’t judge any cartoon without understanding its context seems to escape them.

The BBC obituaries of the twelve who died paints a very different picture, and doesn’t leave you with the impression that the victims were in any way racist or right-wing.

Satire is supposed to mock the powerful, the pompous and the self-important, so we shouldn’t be surprised when social authoritarians of the right ot the left have a problem with it. But if you really think mocking violent extremism is “punching down”, you moral compass urgently needs recalibrating.

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Freedom of Speech

Either you believe in freedom of speech or you don’t.

In recent years too many small-l liberals have been sitting on the fence on this issue. If you believe that there is any “right not be offended” or the principles of “safe spaces” should be applied to the public square rather than to private spaces, you don’t actually believe in freedom of speech. Yesterday’s events have thrown such beliefs into sharp relief. And the bloody murder of cartoonists ought to put an end to the ridiculous weasel-speak idea that it’s not censorship if it’s anyone other than the government doing it.

Freedom of speech means does freedom for speech you or others will find offensive and objectionable. But democracy and freedom depend on the ability to speak truth to power. Allowing bad speech is always going to be lesser evil than censorship which, even in enforced for the noblest of intentions, will inevitably end up serving the interests of the powerful.

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Katie Hopkins vs. Police Scotland

Yes, Katie Hopkins is an attention-seeking professional troll and bigot, and there is no way anyone can pretend that her Tweet about the Scottish ebola case wasn’t offensively racist. And no, I won’t link to it because that will only serve to spread her hate.

But hateful as it was, it fell short of direct incitement to violence. So is there any real justification for Police Scotland to get involved?

Liberal England feels the same way

I am not surprised that the police have picked up on the modern fashion for claiming offence. They know a good repressive ideology when they see it.

But I wish there were more on the left who would stand up for free speech – or at least for common sense.


Judging from some comments I’ve seen on social media it seems that too many people aren’t willing to make the distinction between supporting someome’s freedom to say something and supporting what they actually said.

If you do not support the freedom of bad people to say bad things in spaces you don’t own or control, you don’t really believe in freedom of speech. Many on the left do not, although a lot of them aren’t intellectually honest enough to admit it.

If you support a “right not to be offended”, where do you draw the line? Who decides which groups nobody is allowed to offend?

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