The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us — by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools, some of them columnists and elected officials and, yes, even reality-show patriarchs, that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.
The trouble, I think, is when ostracizing a viewpoint as “beyond the pale” becomes not an end but a means to an end; that by declaring something unsayable, we make it so. It makes me uncomfortable, even as I see the value of it. I for one would love homophobia to fully make it on that list, to get to the point where being against gay marriage is as vulgar and shameful as being against interracial marriage. But it isn’t. Maybe it will be. But it isn’t. And kicking a reality-show star off his reality show doesn’t make that less true. Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.
The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive — nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right — it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.
April 8, 2014
March 22, 2014
March 18, 2014
Virginia Postrel diagnoses the real reason politicians are upset about Armalite’s updated image of David’s armament:
Italian authorities were indignant when they discovered that the Illinois weapons maker ArmaLite had an advertising campaign showing Michelangelo’s David holding one of its rifles. “The advertisement image of an armed David offends and violates the law,” tweeted tourism minister Dario Franceschini. Angel Tartuferi, director of the Accademia Gallery, which houses the sculpture, agreed: “The law says that the aesthetic value of the work cannot be altered.”
This moral posturing is clearly about something other than respect for the sculpture’s “aesthetic value” or “cultural dignity.” Otherwise, officials would crack down on the David boxer shorts sold by countless Florentine vendors. And where was the outrage in 1981, when the David was flogging Rush brand poppers, amyl nitrite drugs used to enhance sexual pleasure, in magazines aimed at gay men?
It seems that it’s fine to use the David to sell things as long as you emphasize his nudity rather than his meaning.
ArmaLite’s ads broke the unwritten rules. Instead of highlighting the hero’s body, they emphatically made him a warrior. Hence Franceschini’s objection to an “armed David,” even though every David is armed. “David famously used a slingshot to defeat the giant Goliath, making the gun imagery, thought up by the Illinois-based ArmaLite, even more inappropriate,” writes Emma Hall in Ad Age.
To the contrary, the gun imagery, while incongruously machine-age, was utterly appropriate. David did not use a “slingshot.” He used a sling. As historians of ancient warfare — and readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath — know, a sling was no child’s toy. It was a powerful projectile weapon, a biblical equivalent of ArmaLite’s wares.
ESR linked to this. It’s a generator site for “social justice” that produces simulated Tumblr and blog post rants that are indistinguishable from the “real thing”:
February 26, 2014
The legal recognition [in passports and other legal documents] of intersex people and others who cannot properly be said to be either male or female is probably a good idea, but this should not impact upon the vast majority of people who have no problem living in a binary-gendered world or using binary-gendered language.
History is replete with failed attempts to re-invent or modify language, from Esperanto to the feminist PC language of the Eighties. But this campaign to institute a third sex in language and law may well prove to be the most unstable project yet. The ever-changing and ever-expanding taxonomy of words and identities aimed at respecting difference among transsexuals, always seems to cause undue offence among transsexuals themselves. To use the word transsexual, for instance, as a noun (rather than as an adjective) is said, by some, to diminish a person’s identity down to a single trait. The very term transsexual has been replaced, first by transgendered (to assert that fact that it is about gender not sexuality) and now by Trans*. The capital ‘T’ is obligatory and the asterisk is meant to represent inclusivity. Apparently, to simply call someone ‘Trans’ implicitly denigrates the experiences of cross-dressers and gender-queer folk who are not intent upon making a full transition from one gender to the other.
Amid all the offence being taken over these linguistic acrobatics, the one thing trans campaigners, and now Facebook, fail to realise is that language does not respond well to being artificially manipulated. As Wittgenstein once remarked, language is like a toolbox, you use the best tool available for the job in hand. With general use, over time, words and their meanings change to reflect changing forms of social consciousness. It is not the other way around. Any attempt to force language to respond to the presumed delicate sensitivities of marginal groups not only underlines and reifies these presumed vulnerabilities, it also undermines the responsiveness of language to real experience.
February 2, 2014
After reading a post called An Incomplete Guide to Feminist infighting, ESR did a bit more spelunking down the feminist rabbit hole and came back with a bit of a travelogue for those trapped down there:
The most conspicuous thing is that these women ooze “privilege” from every pore. All of them, not just the white upper-middle-class academics but the putatively “oppressed” blacks and transsexuals and what have you. It’s the privilege of living in a society so wealthy and so indulgent that they can go years – even decades – without facing a reality check.
And yet, these women think they are oppressed, by patriarchy and neoliberalism, heteronormativity, cisnormativity, and there’s a continuous arms race to come up with new oppression modalities du jour and how many intersectional categories each player can claim.
While these children of privilege are filling out their victimological bingo cards…elsewhere, women are treated like chattels. Raped under color of law. Genitally mutilated. But none of this enters the charmed circle of modern American feminism. So much safer to rage at the Amerikkan phallocracy that provides them with cushy jobs writing about their outrage for audiences almost as insulated from reality as they are. Not to mention all those obliging men who will grow their food, fix their plumbing, mow their lawns, and know their place.
And to return to an older theme – I think this sort of bitter involution is what eventually and inevitably happens when you marinate in left-wing duckspeak for long enough. (Clue: if you find yourself using the word “neoliberal” as non-ironically as these women do, you’re there. For utter lack of meaning outside of a dense thicket of self-referential cod-Marxist presuppositions disconnected from reality, this one has few rivals.)
Accordingly, George Orwell would have no trouble at all identifying the language of the feminist twitter wars as a form of Newspeak, designed not to convey thought but suppress it. Indeed, part of the content of the wars is that some of these women dimly sort of get this – see the whole argument over “callout culture”. But none of them can wake up enough to see that the problem is not just individual behaviors. Because to do that they’d have to face how irretrievably rotten and oppressive their entire discourse has become, and their worldview would collapse.
Ah well. This too shall pass. The university system and establishment journalism are both in the process of collapsing under their own weight. With them will go most of the ecological niches that support these precious, precious creatures in their luxury. Massive reality check a’coming. No doubt the twitter wars will continue, but in historical terms they won’t last long.
December 19, 2013
Paul Rowan Brian explains where the suddenly omnipresent term “microaggressions” came from:
Microaggression is a term first coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s that, at least in original meaning, describes situational, spoken or behavioural slights (especially unintentional) that convey ignorance, hostility or dismissal toward individuals belonging to minority or marginalized groups.
Pierce is also quoted as saying that all children of five-years-old entering school are mentally ill. The reason they’re mentally ill, according to Pierce, is the children’s loyalty to their parents, the Founding Fathers, and belief in God or a Supernatural Being. The education system must seek to correct these mental illnesses, Pierce argues. Which is all to say that Pierce is certainly not one to overstate matters or let his rhetoric get away on him. (Not that anyone was worried about that, right)?
To look at how subtly microaggression may manifest, let’s take an example.
A middle-aged, white male in a city with a white majority offers his seat to a kindly-looking black lady of an older age on a crowded subway train; nobody looks twice, perhaps the lady even smiles as she accepts the offer.
But did you know that the male individual may well have committed microaggression?
Well anyway, he likely wouldn’t know if he had, by definition.
In offering his seat to the kindly-looking older black woman (or even, God forbid, thinking of her in those stereotypical terms), the white man has made hurtful assumptions about her needing the seat more than him including her identity as a woman, older individual and member of a minority. Even if none of these thoughts or impressions crossed the man’s mind or the woman’s, they have subtly-imbued the interaction with a harmful aspect, potentially causing or contributing to long-term feelings of marginalization, ‘otherness’ and psychological damage for the woman.
A number of other variables including the woman’s sexual orientation, socio-economic status and religion could make the seemingly-harmless and chivalrous interaction a double, triple or even quadruple microaggressive whammy.
June 27, 2013
In all the news from the US yesterday, this little civil liberties tidbit got pushed off the front page:
As I write this I am still only being updated by text message on the proceedings in the Senate chamber but I am told Bill C-304 has passed third reading and will receive Royal Assent tonight making it law.
What does this bill do?
There are a number of amendments to the act that help limit abuse but the main one is this:
2. Section 13 of the Act is repealed.
To put it bluntly, the means you can’t take someone through the federal human rights apparatus over hurt feelings via a blog post or a Facebook comment.
Now the bill is passed and will become law but like many acts of Parliament it will not come into force for a year.
Still after a long hard battle to restore free speech in Canada, this is a victory.
June 13, 2013
June 3, 2013
“I believe in freedom of speech and defend his rights to say what he wants, but once it starts offending people then it’s a police matter”
A Welsh shopkeeper gets a visit from two police officers after a slogan on a T-shirt gets someone upset:
A Newport shopkeeper has been forced by police to remove a T-shirt from his shop window because they felt it “could be seen to be inciting racial hatred.”
Matthew Taylor, 35, the owner of Taylor’s clothes store on Emlyn Walk in the city, printed up and displayed the T-shirt with the slogan: “Obey our laws, respect our beliefs or get out of our country” after Drummer Lee Rigby, 25, was killed in near Woolwich barracks in London last week.
But following a complaint from a member of the public, police came to his store and threatened to arrest him unless he removed the Tshirt from sight.
Mr Taylor said: “I had a visit from two CSOs (community support officers) because it has been reported by someone who felt it was offensive.
What was rather more depressing is how some elected officials view free speech:
Chairman of the Welsh affairs select committee, David Davies MP said: “I think the police are well aware of that (the current heightened tensions between communities) and I can see their point of view.
It’s a very sensitive time.
“But I can see this guy’s point of view and the statement he is making. You should not be in this country if you are not prepared to obey the laws.
I think the vast majority of people in this country of all races would agree with that.
So I don’t think it is a racist matter at but I can see the police’s point of view.”
Newport city councillor, Majid Rahman said: “I believe in freedom of speech and defend his rights to say what he wants, but once it starts offending people then it’s a police matter and it’s up to them whether they think it’s broken any laws.”
So, under this concept, you’re free to say anything you want, unless someone is offended and then the police have to get involved. I think someone misunderstands what “free” really means.
May 9, 2013
Although James Delingpole concedes that Ferguson pretty much had to apologize for his off-the-cuff remarks on Keynes, he still thinks it was the wrong thing to do:
I don’t think there’s much doubt about Keynes’s latent gayness: not without reason was he known as the ‘Queen of King’s’. And I’m not really sure that the fact that he later married and attempted (unsuccessfully) to have children proves anything very much. Unless, of course, you’re a modern, professional-offence-taking gay activist, in which case it’s the final clincher in your compelling argument that Ferguson is totally evil and really should lose his Lawrence A. Tisch professorship at Harvard right this second for — as one angry commentator put it — taking ‘gay-bashing to new heights’.
New heights? Really? As Jonah Goldberg has noted, it’s not like there’s anything particularly new or controversial in Ferguson’s theory, tossed off lightly in response to a question at an economics conference. ‘He was childless and his philosophy of life was essentially a short-run philosophy,’ wrote Schumpeter in his obituary of Keynes.
[. . .]
Which is why, of course, Niall Ferguson was forced to issue an apology. Not, I suspect — or rather, I hope — because he thought he’d done anything wrong, but because all too easily it could have become the chink in the armour into which his many enemies were able to insert their fatal stilettos. (I know whereof I speak here, you may recall.)
Here’s how it works: lots of liberal-lefties utterly loathe Ferguson for having committed the unforgivable crime of being an articulate and prominent exponent of right-wing views. Unfortunately, we don’t (yet) live in an era where voicing right-wing views is an indictable offence; so the way to get at such dangerously outspoken defenders of free markets, liberty and small government is through the back door, a bit like Al Capone eventually being done for tax evasion. Racism would have been the ideal charge (except Ferguson’s marriage to Ayaan Hirsi Ali scuppered that option); as too would perceived sexism (which did for Harvard president Larry Summers, remember); but the homophobia charge — had not Ferguson nipped it in the bud — would have surely worked its poison just as well in the end.
I perfectly understand why Ferguson apologised but I wish he hadn’t and I’m sure in his heart he knows he shouldn’t have done. As an economic historian, he’ll be familiar with Danegeld: the more you concede to the enemy, the more they’ll demand next time round.
February 27, 2013
Australia, like Canada, has a large and over-mighty set of bureaucracies empowered to pursue “human rights” scofflaws (I put “human rights” in scare quotes because the most prominent cases in both countries appear to be enforcement of certain privileges rather than ensuring equal rights for all). Nick Cater says that the joyride for these — if you’ll pardon the expression — kangaroo courts may be coming to an end:
Quietly at first, but with a swelling, indignant chorus, respectable Australians of unimpeachable character began howling Roxon’s bill down. The contrivance of describing race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or 14 other grounds for victimhood as ‘protected attributes’ jarred; the inclusion of industrial history, breastfeeding or pregnancy or social origin suggested overkill; the reversal on the onus of proof, obliging alleged racists, misogynists and wheelchair kickers to demonstrate their innocence, seemed a step too far. The ABC’s chairman, Jim Spigelman, a lawyer of some standing, voiced his concerns about the outcome of the Bolt case. ‘I am not aware of any international human-rights instrument or national anti-discrimination statute in another liberal democracy that extends to conduct which is merely offensive’, Mr Spigelman said. ‘We would be pretty much on our own in declaring conduct which does no more than offend to be unlawful. The freedom to offend is an integral component of freedom of speech.’
[. . .]
Unlike political opinion, attributes like age or gender or sexuality are objective facts. They did not have to be demonstrated. As Senator Brandis pointed out: ‘There is no imperative for a 45-year-old man to go around saying, “I’m 45”. That does not happen.’ Political opinion, however, means nothing unless it is expressed.
Brandis: ‘I do not know if you are familiar with Czeslaw Milosz’s work The Captive Mind, or Arthur Koestler’s book Darkness At Noon… The whole point of political freedom is that there is an imperishable conjunction between the right to hold the opinion and the right to express the opinion. That is why political censorship is so evil — not because it prohibits us holding an opinion but because it prohibits us articulating the opinion that we hold.
‘We all agree that there is no law in Australia that says you cannot have a particular opinion. We all agree that there are certain laws in Australia, including defamation laws, that limit the freedom of speech. My contention is that there should not, in a free society, be laws that prohibit the expression of an opinion… This attempt to say, “Holding an opinion is one thing but expressing an opinion is quite different”, is terribly dangerous in a liberal democratic politic.’
January 25, 2013
The not-so-hidden libertarian streak in South Park:
The genius of Parker and Stone was to see that in our day a new frontier of comic transgression has opened up because of the phenomenon known as political correctness. Our age may have tried to dispense with the conventional pieties of earlier generations, but it has developed new pieties of its own. They may not look like the traditional pieties, but they are enforced in the same old way, with social pressure and sometimes even legal sanctions punishing people who dare to violate the new taboos. Many of our colleges and universities today have speech codes, which seek to define what can and cannot be said on campus and in particular to prohibit anything that might be interpreted as demeaning someone because of his or her race, religion, gender, disability, and a whole series of other protected categories. Sex may no longer be taboo in our society, but sexism now is. Seinfeld (1989–1998) was perhaps the first mainstream television comedy that systematically violated the new taboos of political correctness. The show repeatedly made fun of contemporary sensitivities about such issues as sexual orientation, ethnic identity, feminism, and disabled people. Seinfeld proved that being politically incorrect can be hilariously funny in today’s moral and intellectual climate, and South Park followed its lead.
[. . .]
This is where libertarianism enters the picture in South Park. The show criticizes political correctness in the name of freedom. That is why Parker and Stone can proclaim themselves equal opportunity satirists: they make fun of the old pieties as well as the new, ridiculing both the right and the left insofar as both seek to restrict freedom. “Cripple Fight” is an excellent example of the balance and evenhandedness of South Park and the way it can offend both ends of the political spectrum. The episode deals in typical South Park fashion with a contemporary controversy, one that has even made it into the courts: whether homosexuals should be allowed to lead Boy Scout troops. The episode makes fun of the old-fashioned types in the town who insist on denying a troop leadership to Big Gay Al (a recurrent character whose name says it all). As it frequently does with the groups it satirizes, South Park, even as it stereotypes homosexuals, displays sympathy for them and their right to live their lives as they see fit. But just as the episode seems to be simply taking the side of those who condemn the Boy Scouts for homophobia, it swerves in an unexpected direction. Standing up for the principle of freedom of association, Big Gay Al himself defends the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude homosexuals. An organization should be able to set up its own rules, and the law should not impose society’s notions of political correctness on a private group. This episode represents South Park at its best — looking at a complicated issue from both sides and coming up with a judicious resolution of the issue. And the principle on which the issue is resolved is freedom. As the episode shows, Big Gay Al should be free to be homosexual, but the Boy Scouts should also be free as an organization to make their own rules and exclude him from a leadership post if they so desire.
This libertarianism makes South Park offensive to the politically correct, for, if applied consistently, it would dismantle the whole apparatus of speech control and thought manipulation that do-gooders have tried to construct to protect their favored minorities. With its support for freedom in all areas of life, libertarianism defies categorization in terms of the standard one-dimensional political spectrum of right and left. In opposition to the collectivist and anticapitalist vision of the left, libertarians reject central planning and want people to be free to pursue their self-interest as they see fit. But in contrast to conservatives, libertarians also oppose social legislation; they generally favor the legalization of drugs and the abolition of all censorship and antipornography laws. Because of the tendency in American political discourse to lump libertarians with conservatives, many commentators on South Park fail to see that it does not criticize all political positions indiscriminately, but actually stakes out a consistent alternative to both liberalism and conservatism with its libertarian philosophy.
January 18, 2013
Willard Foxton discusses some eye-raising configurations on new smartphones in the UK:
When you get a new phone, there’s a very good chance it comes with automatic filters enabled. For example, it’s very common for you have to explicitly request the ability to call premium-rate phone lines. This is long established, but now, a sinister new trend has started, whereby phone providers are automatically blocking access to certain websites for “mature content”, rather than “adult content”.
Mobile provider 3UK is blocking access to political satire as “mature content”; Orange is preventing access to feminist articles as “mature content” through its automatically applied Orange Safeguard service; several providers are blocking perfectly legitimate sites like Pink News because they deal with gay issues, or Channel 4′s excellent Embarrassing Bodies website, because of the graphic discussion of body parts and sexuality.
This was bad enough when these services were blocking porn (I for one wholeheartedly support the right of teenagers to watch smut on their iPhones), but now it seems overzealous providers are blocking access to anything a Catholic Bishop might consider for adults only. This carries not only the problem of “overblocking” caused by lazy filter design — notably, it’s hard to get your website read if it refers to Middlesex or Scunthorpe — but also as these filters are automatically applied, most people don’t even realise they are losing access to certain parts of the web.
December 12, 2012
Australia is exploring the notion of making it illegal to offend others (I guess it got precedence over the bill to make water run uphill…):
Have you ever called the Prime Minister ‘Juliar’? Or called a mate a dopey bastard? New laws could put a stop to name calling.
Civil Liberties Australia (CLA) warn the PM herself could be in trouble for calling Opposition Leader Tony Abbott a misogynist if proposed amendments to anti-discrimination laws take effect — although Julia Gillard has the protection of Parliamentary privilege.
What about cricket sledging, or paying out on a mate?
CLA chief executive officer Bill Rowlings has lashed out at the proposed amendments to anti-discrimination laws which make it unlawful to “offend” people.
His attack follows ABC chairman Jim Spigelman’s scathing appraisal this week — he said that the laws could breach our international obligations to freedom of speech.
Update: Of course, it’s rather unfair of me to point my finger and laugh at our Australian cousins when Albertans get up to similar japes of a quasi-legal kind:
One is surprised to discover that Hanna felt it needed to outlaw theft and assault, and also amused to contemplate the idea of a court trying to define “social out-casting”. But it turns out, anyway, that the law does not actually outlaw bullying! It instead does a bizarre half-gainer and prohibits the making-of-someone-feel-as-though-they-are-being-bullied.
1. No person shall, in any public place:
a. Communicate either directly or indirectly, with any person in a way that causes the person, reasonably in all the circumstances, to feel bullied.
To prove an offence under this scheme, one apparently only needs to show that one felt taunted, put down, or outcast. (Felt “reasonably”, that is. I would have thought the salient characteristic of feelings is that they are not reason, but there you go.) The Hanna Herald has said the bylaw is “based on similar laws passed around Alberta.” One hopes that this is not the case, but readers are invited to submit local intelligence. If we can call it that.