On Human Rights Act repeal and preaching to the choir

In the UK, we’ve recently elected a new government, and the result was disappointing for many of us.  The Conservatives have now expressed an intention to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998), on the argued grounds that it protects criminals and terrorists.  To be fair to the Tories, they said they were going to before the election, so it can’t really be argued against on those grounds.  I have seen a number of pieces explaining the complications of repeal, generally talking about how it intersects with other legislation and treaty obligations, so to remove the HRA would require unravelling a Gordian knot.  I shan’t go into such matters, since I’m no expert in the legal niceties, except to observe what happened to the mythical Gordian knot; I’m not sure that Michael Gove won’t just forge ahead with his plan and worry about the consequences afterwards (look at Lords reform for a policy under a previous administration that was started without any idea of an endpoint).

So on the basis that, if they believe that it is the right thing to do, the Conservatives might just go ahead and repeal the Act and damn the consequences, their opponents need to make the case as to why this is the wrong thing to do.  Assuming that Her Majesties Opposition do their job (which may be over-optimistic given the last 5 years, but let’s hope the new Labour leadership is a bit more effective), and given the size of the majority currently held by the Conservatives, this looks like a matter of persuading a relatively small number of MPs, either directly or via their constituents, that to do so would be a mistake.  So far so good.

The problem is that while there are a considerable number of people, in both the traditional and new media, making what appear to be very reasonable cases as to why the HRA should not be repealed, I’m not convinced that those who either support or lean towards repeal will listen to them.  Obviously, this is at least in part because there is a lack of direct communication.  You can write as many letters to the Guardian as you like, and Telegraph readers are going to remain cheerfully oblivious.  This is even more heightened by the gap between the traditional and new media.  I love Twitter, but most of the country (certainly that part over the age of, say, 30) barely registers its existence, let alone considers that it might be the site of serious political discussion.  Of course the reverse is also true, as readers of physical media are probably relatively unaware of how irrelevant it seems to the younger generation.  But aside from the issues specific to particular media, I think the major problem is that the two sides are speaking in different languages.

The broadest issue here is that when the term Human Rights is used, different people hear completely different things.  For those of us who *believe* in Human Rights, their existence and nature is self-evident.  While we might debate their precise constitution, for us the fact is that a) there are certain rights that are common to all of humanity, and b) that these are assigned purely on the basis of being human.  For the other side, this is not the case.  At the extreme, there are plenty of people who do not recognise the existence of rights at all, only privileges.  In this case, ‘rights’ are something awarded in return for certain behaviours: paying one’s taxes, adhering to the law, etc.  Secondly, these rights or privileges may be specifically limited to citizens of a particular territory.  This is not an unreasonable position.  In fact, given the concerns over the repeal over the HRA, it is eminently logical: it appears that the rights we are talking about are created by the HRA and similar legislation.  Where we, as believers in Human Rights, diverge is in insisting that these rights exist regardless of the HRA.  For us, the law only recognises, and administrates for, self-evident facts.

So the challenge for those arguing that the HRA should be maintained, or at very least that those who wish to repeal it need to make a lot clearer what exactly will replace it (because nobody is arguing that it is without flaw), is in speaking in way that their opposite numbers understand.

Speaking across the line

So, having determined that we must talk in way that resonates with those we are trying to win over, we must begin by acknowledging who they are.  The first, small, group is ministers and senior members of the Conservative party who find themselves directly frustrated in their plans by the existence of the act.  I suspect persuasion here is a waste of everybody’s time.  The vast majority of people who support, or at least ambivalent to, appeal have far less personally invested in this happening or, more pertinently, believe this to be the case.

To appeal to this large body of people, I think we must make the case in terms of self interest.  To be clear, this is not to say selfishness, as they are as concerned with the good of those around them as are any of us.  But we must explain how the law benefits (and repeal would injure) people like them.  We’re broadly dealing with tribalism.  There opposition is based on what they believe to be right for their family, friends, and the country at large.

For the above group, the apparent effects of the act can be summarised in two broad categories: it protects and privileges criminals and terrorists, or at least people suspected of being such; it has no positive effects for ‘hard-working’, tax-paying, law-abiding citizens such as themselves.  That the former is, at least partially, the case is unarguable (the protecting part, not the privileging – if it gave rights to the accused that were not general to the population, it would indeed be flawed).  This is part of what it is supposed to do.  The idea that it does not do the latter, though, is attached to the notion that there are two distinct classes of people, which we might just call ‘criminals’ and ‘citizens’.  (by the way, I’m fully aware that I’m doing the dividing thing myself by talking in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, but this is merely regarding temporary positions on a single argument, not a lasting classification)

So, I think the case needs to be built, or restated, given the fact that it is self-evident to many, that the division here is false.  That by committing a crime, still less by being accused of one, one does not suddenly move beyond the pale.  That a criminal, a protestor, an asylum seeker, is not in any way a different *sort* of person to any of the rest of us ‘law-abiding’ types.  As long as you can accept, or even self-construct, a narrative where there is the sort of person who this happens to, and the sort of person you are, it’s only a small step to believing that they deserve different treatment.  It’s not as naked as self-interest vs. not caring what happens to others, but the fact remains that we find it hard to empathise with people without a strong personal connection.  And that can be manipulated by those who control the narrative.  I think much of it is actually driven by our need to believe in natural justice.  We know we live in a world where some people are treated badly, and the idea that we are somehow complicit in that is deeply troubling.  So we listen to those who tell us that those who are in trouble must have done something to deserve it.

I think the case that needs to be made to save the HRA is based on asserting its benefits for all of us.  It doesn’t help that if you are, say, a white middle class professional, you do generally get treated well by the authorities if you should happen to come into contact with them.  You think, for the most part, that they are fair.  Your day-to-day experience shows you this.  And if they are fair to you, why wouldn’t they be fair to everyone else?  But while an unchecked state may start by treading on the smallest of us, it will see no reason not to extend the practice.

The case needs to be made that a state and a people that does not respect and protect the least of us, the disadvantaged, the criminals, those who do not have citizenship, does not in the end respect or protect any of us, except maybe those who are rich and powerful enough to buy their own way.  Only by showing that we are all the same, that Human Rights are exactly what they are called, are we going to be able to win over those who see the HRA as unnecessary or even bad.

Why you shouldn’t vote (unless you want to).

Social media – and presumably RL media, but I don’t have as much access to that, being abroad – is currently full of people reminding everybody, and especially young people, to register to vote.  And by implication (or outright demand) that they should cast their ballot in a few weeks.  The first I broadly agree with, as it would be a terrible shame if anybody who wanted to vote missed out because they forgot or didn’t understand when or how they need to apply.  Despite changes in the system, it’s still apparently remarkably easy.  Just to clarify that I’m not actually against the whole thing, here’s the link:

https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote

Today’s the last day, but it only takes a few minutes.  And while they’d like your NI number, you don’t actually require one.  Anyway, that bit out of the way, let me explain why I’m slightly uncomfortable with the whole thing, and why choosing not to vote (as long as its a choice, rather than something forced upon you) is perfectly legitimate.  So a few points.

Firstly, fundamental to every properly constituted right is the right not to *do or be* whatever that right allows.  Freedoms of speech include the right to keep one’s own counsel.  Freedom of religion requires the right to have no religion.  Hell, even the right to bear arms needs to allow the choice to go unarmed, otherwise it’s not a right, it’s an obligation (as when you’re doing military service where that applies).  To not participate is always a legitimate choice.  Without wanting to get completely sidetracked, I’d say this even applies to the right to life itself.

Secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with all these people saying that people should vote because that’s why ‘your grandparents went to war’, ‘Emily Davison died’, or even, most absurdly, ‘Nelson Mandela went to jail.’  Obviously many of these things may not even vaguely be connected with the franchise.  But even if they are, fighting for the right and freedom to *be able* to vote doesn’t in itself place any obligation on one’s successors.  And there’s something vaguely unpalatable about trying to browbeat people in this fashion.  How dare anybody who doesn’t know them use the actions and sacrifices of the dead to argue in this way?  Moreover, why should the association with obligations to previous generations be a good one?  There’s something extremely patronising about the whole process, especially in the broad use of the the term ‘young people.’  As a young(ish) person, I’m acutely aware of how the profligacy and greed of (some) older people has screwed the youth of today, as it will others for years to come.  So maybe people need to be careful when advising those younger than themselves, as if age automatically brings wisdom.

Why you shouldn’t vote (unless you want to)

You might not want to vote is simply because you have no interest in doing so.  Either you don’t think that your vote will have any effect, don’t care about the outcome, don’t fully understand the system, or believe that none of the candidates offered you are close enough to your views.  These are all perfectly good reasons.

If you live in a safe constituency, the first is likely.  You will still have people saying that your vote matters.  Firstly, you may think this is bollocks, and that’s not unreasonable.  But even if you do see your vote as having some weight, why should this be a good thing?  Turnout will be used to legitimise the result, whoever wins (although it will also be conveniently ignored when it doesn’t suit purposes).  And it might also serve to entrench the current system, as a high level of participation clearly shows that it works, right?  Of course you might think the exact opposite, especially if you favour one of the smaller parties; if you support the Greens, say, then the higher the share of the national vote compared with the number of seat(s) they win, the stronger you might think the argument is for some form of electoral reform.  If so, vote!  But only if you think it’s the right thing to do.

Secondly, don’t vote unless you feel comfortable with your understanding of its effects.  I don’t mean that you need to have scoured the manifesto of the party you intend to support, still less be prepared to predict how much of it they’ll actually adhere to in the event of success.  But do try to make a genuine choice.  I remember far too many people at my first election – ’97 – happily announcing that they would just vote the same way as their parents.  This seems a waste.  Not that you should just go another way to be rebellious.  I’ve seen some of the arguments against the female franchise that observed that a woman’s vote would either cancel out her husband’s (because *obviously* any respectable woman would be married), or needlessly duplicate it.  This conveniently ignored the fact that the whole point is to have the choice.  If you vote, do so in the way that you think you should.  Don’t just blindly follow somebody else.  You might end up supporting somebody who will work against your interests.  Listen to other people, and then make your decision.

Finally, remember that voting is far from the only way you can have an effect in a democratic society.  In fact, it can be a negative one, in that it indicates support for the status quo.  One of the ways I happen to think that things should change in the UK is the addition of a ‘None of the above’ option on the ballot.  It should be possible to say, sorry, but all of these people are rubbish, and I’d like to be offered some better choices.  And voting alone isn’t likely to change this, not least because our FPT (First Past the Post) system isn’t really equipped to deal with it.

Vote.  Don’t vote.  Write to your MP (it doesn’t matter if you voted for them or not), after the election.  Organise.  March.  Do what you can to create the country that you want to see.  But don’t feel like voting is either required or the only thing you can do to make your voice heard.

Postscript

I am acutely aware that, even cautiously, endorsing not voting puts me on the same side as Russell Brand.  And I’m fine with that.  I don’t particularly like him, and I disagree with many of his opinions, but he’s right on much of this one.  At the very least, he’s informed a lot of people about the various other ways you can exercise your democratic rights beyond marking your ballot paper.  Don’t vote unless you want to, but do be political about the things that matter to you.

On not voting

I used to be a hardcore member of the ‘if you don’t vote, you don’t get to complain about the outcome’ gang.  It’s one of the few matters I think I’ve completely switched my position over.  I mean, I’ve changed my mind over various matters of policy upon learning more about them, and my overall views have drifted, and interests broadened, but in the most part I’m not that far from where I was at 18.

To be fair, the world has changed a lot since I first voted in 1997.  Maybe I and my friends were naive and lacking in political education, but everyone seemed a lot more optimistic (not least because of the state of the economy and the end of the Cold War and all of its knock-on effects), and the major parties actually looked a little different from each other.  It actually felt like things were changing for the better and, notwithstanding Tony Blair’s later exploits, I think they were.   This is not to look back through rose-tinted spectacles, as there was a lot still wrong at the time, but it does feel that various matters have been moving backwards in the last few years, for the first time in my life.

It’s just a shame that the whole idea of not-voting has become so dominated of late by the figure of Russell Brand.  Not that I’m entirely opposed to the guy – it’s good that he seems to have engaged younger people in politics, and I agree with him on a good number of matters.  But then he doesn’t exactly have the best record in other areas – particularly in his treatment of women.  And more dangerously, his rather silly public persona can undermine causes he associates with – it can be presented to show that *serious people* vote,and  only foppish comedy millionaires would think otherwise.

Anyway, I’m not going to be voting in the 2015 general election, due to the whole living in another country thing.  But I’m not bothered about that.  I can still participate in UK politics in a whole raft of other ways, and intend to do more when I return to London.  I still think that everybody should be political, and I’m happy for people to vote as part of that.  But marking a ballot paper shouldn’t be the end of anybody’s engagement.

Why men must believe women about rape.

CW; TW: rape

This is the first post I’ve written for a particular audience: other men.  This is because the last thing women need – and it’s not as if they don’t already have a near infinite supply – is another man telling them about something they are far more qualified to talk about.  Also, as a feminist/ally/whatever, I understand that the most helpful thing I can do is try to talk to other men, because that’s where – at least in theory – I have an advantage.

The key point is that rape is not like other crimes, and until men at large appreciate this, it’s going to be difficult to act effectively against it.  This is not to say that all other acts are the same, but rape cannot just be treated as another offence on the list the police and courts are to deal with.  This is not just because it is overwhelmingly directed at women (and, yes, I am perfectly aware that a significant number of men will also experience rape), nor because of the terrible stigma attached to being a victim, although both of these are related.  But in no other crime is it quite so common to find people denying that it ever happened.  This is why you’ll find campaigns, hashtags, petitions and the like circulating to announce that other women *believe* an accuser.  It’s all too easy to mentally dismiss these as being about female solidarity – and that is part of it, and a good thing in its own right – but it goes beyond that, as rape is the only crime where the public response routinely involves attacking the victim.

Take a murder trial: at some point in proceedings, the defence is able to provide a good enough alibi that the defendant is acquitted; so what happens next?  Obviously this may be upsetting for the victim’s family and friends, and a set-back for the police and CPS, but a setback is all it (necessarily) is.  The first thing you expect to see outside the court is the leading officer announcing that they intend to reopen the investigation and find out who *really* committed the crime.  The same would apply for an assault, a robbery, or any of a variety of other crimes, and it may be true in the case of the cliched attack-by-a-masked-man-in-a-dark-alley.  But with the vast majority of rapes, when the trial falls apart (assuming that things have advanced that far) the default assumption is now that the alleged crime never actually took place.  Or that there was sexual activity, but the nature of it magically changed to being either fully consensual, or a mere misunderstanding or miscommunication (not that the latter should be excusable).

It’s not so much that I’m arguing that we should treat rape differently de novo, as observing that we already do, so we need to react to that.  When a killing, or a theft is announced, we immediately accept the reality of the crime.  There may be all sorts of theories floating around about the perpetrator, or how the crime was committed, but things have to get to a pretty extreme state before we consider that it might not have happened in the first place.  So really, in saying that we believe a rape victim is only to restore that crime to the status we accord to the rest.  To say that we believe a rape victim is to accord to them no more than the basic courtesy afforded to the rest of society.

Some expected responses

Now a certain fraction of mankind will immediately leap up against the idea that any one crime should be treated differently to the rest as counter to various principles of justice.  My first response to that is to observe that legal and judicial systems are constructed and evolve over time; we might like to pretend that there are eternal underlying concepts, but the fact is that we have constantly modified both laws and systems to reflect the wider society.  Also we already treat different crimes in slightly different fashions.  Nobody seems to object to the notion that sexual crimes need to be handled with greater delicacy than others.

The second is to observe that apologists often seem very attached to a misreading of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  This is part of a whole raft of narrow legal principles that people like to interpret as general rights, but without any sound basis (see also: people shouting about Freedom of Speech while failing to understand that the right, as most clearly given by the first amendment to the US constitution, which even non-US citizens tend to use a benchmark, is purely to not have *the state* limit one’s speech).  If you’ve committed a crime in fact, you are not innocent up until the moment of conviction, in the sense of not having done it.  The facts themselves do not change.  You *are* innocent in the eyes of the law, but that is not the same thing.  Nor is there any expectation against members of the public forming opinions at any stage in proceedings, except in the case of their being required to perform jury service.  I challenge anybody to read the news without forming instant (if potentially malleable) opinions about the guilt or innocence of those reportedly involved in any incidents they read a few lines about.

And finally, and associated with the above, there’s the fact that a rape trial is, to an extent, zero-sum.  To say that the defendant is innocent is necessarily to imply that the accuser is guilty (of fabricating, or at least exaggerating the incident).  And in plenty of cases it goes much further than that: it has been horrible to observe over the past few years how many people tangentially connected to the Ched Evans case have attacked the victim in all sorts of public ways.  And the rest of us have largely let this go because this is what the friends and family of someone accused of a crime are *supposed* to do – leap to the defence.  But in the case of rape this can seemingly only be done by attacking the character and credibility of somebody who has already been subject to a horrific crime (and let’s not ignore that in this case he was convicted and hasn’t been able to provide grounds to appeal or overturn).

So this is why it’s important to believe anybody who says that they have been raped.  We all know it happens a lot, even if we refuse to believe it in the face of overwhelming statistics.  On the same basis we should also know that false accusations are vanishingly rare (not least because of the huge cost to the victim of going public.  I don’t know where this myth of women getting rich and famous of the back of making accusations came from, but it’s as persistent as it is poisonous).  But even if this were a possibility, with any other crime we’d expect the police and the courts to root it out.  The women who have been raped deserve our support, and much of that comes from simply saying that we believe them.  There is a time and place for scepticism, but it is not in the face of somebody who has just faced one of the worst experiences a person possibly can, and who will also be acutely aware that this is just the beginning of their ordeal.

Believing rape victims is the only decent thing to do.

Postscript

Please note that when I’ve talked about rape in this, I include various other sexual offences; this is not about a particular legal definition, but a type of crime and how society does (and should) deal with it.

The Problem with Libertarianism.

I’m a liberal.  Depending on where you are in the world and your own political background, that might read as a okay, great, or terrible thing to be.  And within the tent it’s pretty complicated: gentle hippy types, hawkish republicans, and avid consumers can all be heard describing themselves as ‘liberals’.  But the root idea is that everybody should be free to live their own life as they choose, and in turn leave others to do the same.  If only it were that simple in practice.

,Within liberalism, though, there are two broad trends, connected to two conceptions of liberty: negative and positive (when exactly these were defined is a little disputed, but Isaiah Berlin may have been the first to formally do so).  Putting aside the possible implications of those labels, they are pretty simply formulated: Negative liberty is the absence of constraint, while positive liberty requires that one be empowered to act to carry out what they will.  The former is pretty simple, and contained within the latter.  Positive liberty is more complicated, but its necessity might be argued for by observing that, say, a small child alone in the wilderness is free from constraint, but still lacking in ‘freedom’.  I think most of us would have at least some sympathy for the idea that children should receive some education and basic healthcare even if we feel that as adults it should be ‘every man for himself’.  Of course if negative liberty is callous, positive can tend to overstretch its roots and lead to the ‘nanny state’.

Those who lean towards negative liberty are libertarians, as they see personal liberty – in the sense of freedom from constraint and interference – as the ultimate goal.  And those, like myself, who believe that positive liberty is fully a good thing, rather than a necessary evil, might call themselves social liberals.  Nonetheless, the two groups should really be able to get along, sharing the same ultimate aim.  As long as the libertarians have got their own spaces, we more socially-orientated types should be free to organise our selves, and we shouldn’t mind if they don’t want to participate, cos they’re not asking for anything either.

However, there is a big problem: [most] Libertarians are arseholes.  I’m not saying that social liberals aren’t an issue too, but social liberals don’t misrepresent ourselves in the same way.  We admit that we think we or the state should interfere in people’s lives.  There’s a lot of debate to be had about how much interference is too much, but at least we’re not pretending that this is not what we’re up to.

Why ‘Libertarians’ are arseholes

The first problem with people who call themselves libertarian is that most of them aren’t anything of the sort.  The second is that even those who ostensibly are have no idea how it would work in actual practice.

An example of the first type would be those better described as small-government conservatives   To put it briefly: it’s not libertarian to not want the state to meddle in your life (cos that’s true of pretty much everybody), it’s only libertarian if you don’t think the state should interfere in everybody else’s life too.  These are the people who would like the government to butt out when they abuse and discriminate against certain other races/sexualities/religions/etc., but at the same time demand that it act to prevent access to abortion and block same-sex marriage (they’re kind of accidentally half right on the latter, as a true libertarian should be opposed to any form of state-sanctioned marriage).  Everybody thinks that the state should do less of some things and more of others, but its not an ideology.

But you’re an arsehole if you can mentally juggle the idea that the state (and everybody else) should totally leave you to do what you want, while insisting that it stick its nose into the business of other people in the most intrusive fashion (and you don’t get much more intrusive than some of the rules that have been introduced to limit or discourage access to abortion).

The second major bunch of pseudo-libertarians who seem to be cropping up of late have given the matter a modicum more thought.  And they take their cue from people who are as close to actual, practical libertarianism as possible: survivalists.  The odd thing is that this new bunch are placed in a polar opposite situation: the techno-utopians.  I’ve been seeing a lot of these around Gamergate and the New Atheism (there’s a not insignificant overlap between the two of these, either).  Anyway, the common factor here is that these groups maintain that they can manage without the state, so they’ll be just fine if it goes away.  With your survivalist types, this might just about be possible.  If you’ve got the skills to not just cope in the wilderness, but to maintain the tools (and weapons) that you need to do so, then maybe you don’t need society.  It still seems a little churlish to ignore the source of your education, but if you want to bugger off, so be it, and best of luck to you.  The techno-utopian types are far more laughable.

I said that these people have given it a modicum more thought than the small-govt conservative, and I do mean a modicum.  They seem to think that if you magically removed all of the structures that support our modern global society, it would still stand in the same place.  They sit behind a computer and genuinely believe that either a) they have the basic skills to survive in the wild, because they play enough CoD; or b) that they’d be able to trade their coding skills for the necessities of life.  Somehow or other, the internet, the power grid, the roads, the markets, etc, etc, are going to be maintained in the absence of government, to allow them to barter off their amazingly specific skills.  It’s a really weird combination of a primitivist ideology with total dependence on high-technology.  So, again, these people are in effect demanding that all the things that annoy them personally are removed, while maintaining all of the associated stuff that they enjoy the use of.

Thing is, I’m totally a fan of the idea of dismantling current structures and systems of power.  States, corporations, institutions can all be torn down.  You just have to consider what you want in their place.  And nothing at all is not really an option, at least if you want access to running water.

Postscript

It might be observed that I haven’t really answered my question.  Rather than explaining why libertarians are terrible, I’ve pointed out that most people who label themselves thus are mistaken.  So a last point to maybe help explain why real libertarians are arseholes: it’s an ideology overwhelming dominated by white affluent types, frequently male, and who display an amazing blindness to how much they benefit from the status quo (and the state).  It’s easy to maintain that you can do as you will, when you have grown so used to the safety net that you can’t even see it any more.

On Freedom of Speech

There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech lately.  There’s been a lot of bullshit talked about freedom of speech since it became a concept.  But perhaps the most frustrating thing about the recent spate is that people are talking at cross-purposes, and generally agree on the basic principle, just not how and where it’s applied.  This is not an argument about whether there should be a free press or government monitoring of what people say.  As such, I shall try to be charitable towards those I disagree with, as I think they’re generally well-intentioned but mistaken in their apprehension, rather than malicious.  Or at least most of them: some are awful trolls and haters (I’m not sure if I like the word ‘haters’ in general use:most people don’t hate indiscriminately – they do it directedly and for reasons, good or bad – but it’s about right here).

First, some pedantry.  When people talk about freedom of speech, they mean a whole range of different things, from being able to express an opinion in (what they regard as) private, up to the maintenance of a free press.  And this is the root of much of the disagreement at present.  But when one is talking about freedom of speech as a formal right, it must refer to the state, and nothing more.  The right to speak freely is the right to not have your speech arbitrarily monitored, limited, or controlled by the government.  It doesn’t stop other people from ignoring you or shouting you down.  It doesn’t mean you get to speak in any particular place.  It doesn’t entitle you to say anything you want without consideration for the possible effects.  The classic example is shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded room, causing a stampede.  It certain doesn’t entitle you to a platform, or any other means of amplifying your voice over those of others.

This is not to say that many of these things aren’t desirable.  Those with something to say should be heard.  But that comes down to matters of opinion about who should be heard, and who ignored.  What isn’t helpful is people framing any suggestion that a certain individual doesn’t deserve a given platform as censorship.  Especially when that person has access to all sorts of alternatives.  Most people in the world have little outlet (and probably nothing before the advent of the web), so let’s not get distracted by a few high profile people encountering a little resistance at universities.

The limits of free speech

Look, in an ideal world, everybody would have a public voice.  This sort of thing – a blog – is a pretty good approximation.  Of course, most blog content might as well be shouted into a well.  A few friends and family might read it, but unless you hit something zeitgeisty, or have contacts, you have no expectation that it will reach many people.  The thing is that the ‘free speech is everything’ people aren’t focussed on the right to speak, so much as the right to be listened to.  I think they make two major oversights.

The first is in trumpetting a simple multiplicity of views.  The more ideas and opinions we hear, the better.  In an ideal world…maybe.  It’s certainly good to consider contrary opinions, even if they do only lead to us strengthening our own.  Debate is a fine thing.  But to suggest that ignoring any given person  – generally someone the arguer agrees with – is a mistake is itself folly.  There are simply too many voices in the world, and we are all necessarily selective.  You should certainly temper your Fox News with some BBC (and vice versa), but you cannot possibly listen to every single position.  So people are very rarely just saying ‘don’t listen to this person’; rather, they are saying that you should give time to someone else you maybe haven’t considered.  To give a specific example: when a group protested against Germaine Greer speaking at the Cambridge Union, they didn’t just argue that she shouldn’t be listened to (on the grounds of her attitude to, and treatment of, trans* people), but they offered their own event and speakers, Roz Kaveney & Sarah Brown, to provide an alternative.  Oddly, this has been presented by some as ‘no platforming’ despite the fact that both events went ahead.

The second error is in ignoring the fact that speech can have negative consequences.  It is odd that they present it as being neutral, ideas as if they are completely objective prior to their application, when they are so determined as to the good that can be done.  If the world can be changed for the better by a speech, it can just as well be made worse.  We know that some things can be harmful if said in the wrong place and time.  The aforementioned shout of ‘fire’.  The use of abusive language directed at certain people.  This is all about context: a word is neutral when spoken in a vacuum; it is not in any circumstance where it has meaning.

The thing is that virtually all of those calling for more free speech know this.  I doubt many of them want to give neo-Nazis an opportunity to recruit at our institutions of learning (because even *wrong* words have power).  I’m sure they all repudiate hate speech.  But then who decides what hate speech is?  Denial of a genocide?  The suggestion that only white people can be British?  Arguing that women are inherently inferior?  Insisting that sex is purely physiologically determined and fixed at birth, and that trans* people are trying to fool the rest of us?  Of course, where you draw the line is a huge messy argument in itself.  This has long been the debate around the rise of UKIP to apparent ‘legitimacy’, but even Nigel Farage appreciates that there are some things that should not be said in public (even if he’s only kicking people out for reasons of expediency).

It’s odd that the one type of debate the arch free-speechers don’t want to hear is the one about what sort of public debate we should be having.  They like to pretend that the line between the acceptable and unacceptable is generally agreed and immovable.

Letter to the editor

This was a letter I wrote (in anger) to the editor of the Guardian following the publication of an open letter: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2015/feb/14/letters-censorship
Haven’t heard from them, so I guess they’re not going to publish (I’ve about a 50% hit rate, but this one is probably too long anyway).  Hope it’s because they’ve chosen somebody more articulate than me. 
I was extremely disappointed to read the list of signatories beneath today’s letter (14/2/15) regarding censorship at universities; some names were to be expected, but I would have hoped that others would have looked more closely at the situation.  At the very least, a number of different circumstances have been conflated here to create the appearance of an orchestrated campaign against free speech.

It is striking how one-sided the reporting of the Smurthwaite affair, which seems to have occasioned this particular outbreak of hand-wringing, has been.  As anybody who has bothered to listen to the Goldsmiths comedy society is aware, there is no ban, and was going to be no organised protest.  The university feminist society declined to jointly present the gig, at least in part of the basis of certain of Kate Smurthwaite’s expressed opinions, but there is a lot of blue sky between deciding not to endorse, and calling for a ban.  They also voted against a picket.  It is possible that certain individuals may have decided to act privately, but this is both unclear and irrelevant to the stated case.  The main source of information regarding the probability of a picket has been Smurthwaite herself, who has conveniently managed to use her reported ‘no-platforming’ to acquire, er, a substantial media platform.

There has also been a deliberate juxtaposition of the original ‘no-platforming’ against fascists with the current movement, as if to suggest that those involved are claiming equivalence.  To be opposed to the institutional endorsement of those – such as Julie Bindel – who insist on objectification and denial of the agency of sex workers, for example, thereby indirectly perpetuating violence against a marginalised group is not to equate with groups who advocate direct violence.  Nor is it a reason to fail to act against such an unconscionable position.
Most disturbingly, there has been an attempt to reposition student feminists as those with the power, against those so voiceless that they are barely able to get onto Newsnight.  Presumably most of the signatories would support a grassroots (student or otherwise) movement against certain organisations – maybe Shell, UKIP, or BAe – so one wonders why the recent action has caused such consternation.  Maybe it’s because it has achieved a modicum of success; everybody thinks that students are supposed to protest, but the idea that they might be listened to is apparently beyond the pale.

A right to speak is not a right to be listened to

Today’s topic of not practicably tweetable size is freedom of speech, censorship, and how they relate to something rather cumbersomely called ‘no-platforming’.  I realise that this has been well-covered by a myriad of other people but, entirely in line with my position, my right to express and opinion on the matter is perfectly matched by everyone else’s right to completely ignore me.

No-platforming is the idea, originating in its particular form with anti-fascist campaigns, that certain people and groups should be refused the implicit legitimisation of a particular platform.  And the notion of legitimisation is important.  Practicality means that not everybody can have an equal opportunity to speak, so by giving a group a defined space to speak, a university (or similar organisation) is saying that this group has a position that is worth considering.  This is not the same as a direct endorsement, but it is important.

For a recent example, look at the BBC’s mistaken (and now apparently reversed) insistence on giving equal air time to climate change deniers.  The BBC maintained it was being neutral, but the result of its actions were that uninformed people were given the impression that scientific experts were more-or-less evenly split on the matter.  When the fact is that the vast majority, particularly of those with an expertise in the relevant areas, of scientists agree that human-driven climate change has been confirmed as occurring.  The real debate has long moved on to determining the precise extent of this, its likely effects, and how we can react.

The reverse position to this would be to require certain public entities (such as universities or broadcasters) to give a fixed minimum of time or space to anybody who desired to speak.  Now you might note that this is already partially the case: in the run-up to a general election all of the major parties are permitted the same amount of coverage for their political broadcasts (a situation that, while I applaud for the way it reduces the reliance on campaign funding by donors, also serves to entrench the position of the established political parties).

So what is and isn’t censorship?

Let me make it perfectly clear: censorship is a positive action.  Inactivity can never amount to censorship.  To say otherwise would be tantamount to arguing that if I said I’d give you £10 (without strings attached), and then withdrew the offer before handing it over, that somehow you’d lost money.

It also has to involve the state or some similar-level entity.  Me telling you that I don’t want to hear you spout off about this that or the other in my house is not censorship, but me exercising my – essential to any true notion of free speech – to not be forced to listen.  This is as important as the right to freedom from religion is as a part to freedom of religion, or any such similarly fundamental liberal position.  You might  note that the regimes that are most associated with censorship are also those keenest on propaganda: they don’t just want certain voices to go unheard, they want their own views to be forcefully disseminated in their place.

And finally, true censorship must be blanket; it’s not censorship to suggest that certain things can only be said or done in appropriate fora.  There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that you might like to keep off saying ‘fuck’ until after the 2100 watershed, as long as there are places people can swear to their heart’s content.  And outside of a few areas that are palpably dangerous (incitement to violence, etc.), in the UK we still generally allow people to say pretty much what they want in public.  In actual fact, the greatest threat to free speech is nothing to do with no-platforming at universities, but restriction of the right to demonstrate or to strike without meeting unreasonable conditions.  But these are most commonly associated with left-wing causes that fail to inspire the ‘libertarian’ crowd.

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this matter is that so many of the FREE SPEECH IS EVERYTHING! crowd self-identify as libertarian.  So people who profess opposition to the state are moaning that their pet causes aren’t getting access to state-funded platforms? (because in the UK, at least for now, universities still are that)   If they think that provision of a platform is a fundamental right, then I’d like them to provide me with my own TV channel so I can rant to an audience about whatever has caught my attention that day, rather than muttering it into the bottomless pit that is this blog.

Postscript

None of this has touched on the matter of who exactly should or shouldn’t be allowed a platform.  This is an interesting area for debate in itself.  And it’s perfectly possible to argue that no-platforming has gone too far – shouting down everyone who disagrees with one’s own position – without undermining the legitimacy of the tactic.  I’m broadly in favour of allowing as many people as possible to talk, but the particular decision should be taken by those directly involved.  For a university, this means the student body and faculty, not any outside body.  But then outsiders are perfectly free to try to persuade the students to call off a talk, just as the original speaker is entitled to try and persuade them of the value of their views.