Free speech is to journalists and academics what tax cuts are to rich libertarians 

We all have our own understanding of freedom, and it usually begins to evolve, as a starting point, from our own immediate experience. To an artist, perhaps freedom means being able to express yourself through creative means without being told what you are and aren’t allowed to paint. To a political activist, freedom might mean the right to march, chant and strike without being beaten or arrested by police. For a large corporation, freedom may mean the lack of restrictions on your manner of making profits.

And for people whose job is to speak, such as professional opinion writers or academics, freedom, quite understandably, looks at first as if it can be measured purely in the right to speech. Or, more accurately, the right to an audience, because if you’re used to having one, you conflate your right to speak with your right to have people listen.

And if you’re still looking at things from this starting point, then ‘freedom’ is as simple as ‘free speech,’ and so free speech should be more or less absolute. If you’re coming from this starting point, removal from a panel at the request of the event’s attendees becomes censorship; having an article pulled because it is deemed harmful by the people it is written about becomes an attack on your personal freedom.

This is an almost endearingly childlike understanding of what freedom is. You hate paying taxes but you have to pay taxes so your freedom has been curtailed. You wanted to go to the party but they didn’t invite you because you’re a homophobe so your freedom has been curtailed. You want an ice-cream before dinner even though you’re unwell but mummy says you can’t have an ice-cream so your freedom has been curtailed.

And that may all be true as far as it goes but as an adult you usually develop the ability to recognise that the world does not begin and end with getting what you want, and that ‘rights’ and ‘freedoms’ are a little more complex than the things that directly impact you. As she gets older, the thoughtful libertarian looks in the mirror and realises, for instance, that perhaps she’s been giving a disproportionate amount of attention to the things that directly impact upon her own life. The rich, white, perfectly progressive libertarian perhaps realises that, quite unintentionally, she’s spent, say, half her energy on calling for tax cuts and and half her energy asking why, say, black people (especially women) are so much more likely to be detained when they have a mental health problem than white people (especially men) – as if these examples of curtailing freedoms are all of equal magnitude. It’s not that taxes don’t relate to personal liberty, it’s just that there are all sorts of examples of people’s liberties being trampled upon – and it turns out that some of them depend, unfortunately, upon collecting a bit of tax to rectify. It’s not about saying tax isn’t an issue of personal freedom. It’s about keeping things in proportion when it comes to focus and priority.

The fact is there are invisible freedoms being curtailed all the time. We don’t hear from the people who really are, in practice, being ‘censored’ and ‘silenced’ because, funnily enough, that’s a big part of what real censorship and silencing means. People may disagree about whether it amounts to ‘censorship’ or ‘silencing’ to petition a university to no-platform Germaine Greer on account of her transphobia, but I think we can all agree that those words do not apply to appearing on Question Time and NewsNight and in the papers to talk about how you feel about it. Incidentally, while we’re on the subject, it also does not apply to having your article removed from the Observer website and having it republished by the Daily Telegraph instead, as happened to Julie Burchill not so long ago, and nor does it apply to being sacked for punching someone in the face, or to being criticised for saying the N-word, as happened to Jeremy Clarkson.

Huge sections of our media, however, appear to view these cases as enormous and significant restrictions upon personal freedom. Perhaps so. Here is another example of restrictions upon personal freedom. A choice between dying from getting overworked in brutal conditions and dying from homelessness, starvation, or lack of healthcare.

That is, course, the reality of the ‘freedom’ most people enjoyed before there was government regulations about working conditions and wages, and before a basic welfare state was introduced in the form of unemployment benefit, sick pay, pensions and health care. These things were denounced as anti-freedom when they were new, because the focus was disproportionately on the powerful people having to make compromises instead of the individuals who became freer as a result. Nowadays even critics of welfare tend to accept that these things make most people freer, and give people more control over their own lives. To those defenders of freedom who never quite got past that initial starting point, with the disproportionate focus on that which impacts themselves directly, the minimum wage was the government interfering in business. Anti-discrimination workplace laws were denying employers free choice. Paying for universal healthcare out of taxpayers’ money was a blow against financial liberties. It is only if you are no longer forced to choose between starving or freezing, between unemployment or back-breaking labour that doesn’t pay enough to live on, between bankruptcy or leaving a sick loved one untreated, that you would, irregardless of the theoretical ideological principles that you may hold in abstract, in practice, find yourself to be freer.

What does all this have to do with Germaine Greer getting no-platformed, you might ask. Well, a lot. If you have never feared for your life when walking down the street because you were assigned the wrong gender at birth, if you have never been physically threatened and called an abuser for wanting to use the toilet, if you have never been told that you should not exist, told that you do not exist, by respected academics who are celebrated as experts in their field of study – their ‘field of study’ being your life – it may be natural, as a starting point, that you would feel as if being disinvited from a panel or having an article pulled is the most significant impingement on ‘freedom’ that you can imagine. But it is not.

If there are certain places you cannot go, because you know you’ll be at risk of severe violence, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not able to use the toilet safely, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to transition to your correct gender without the permission of your spouse, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are banned from accessing a women’s refuge or rape support service, that is a violation of personal freedom. If you are not allowed to exist, without your right to exist being put up for academic debate, you better believe that is a violation of personal freedom. Think about that. Not allowed to exist. Paying taxes is annoying and all, but what greater violation of personal freedom can there be than being told that your right to exist is wholly conditional upon the approval of those who seek only to hurt and destroy you?

We mostly accept as a society that ‘freedom’ is not simple and not absolute. I’m not arguing that there is no freedom of speech issue to be discussed when it comes to no-platforming, but rather, that every time we discuss it, by virtue of being the kind of people who enjoy discussing these things, we inevitably have our focus completely out of proportion. The exclamations of outrage we hear from people who take platforms for granted at the suggestion that a democratic, peaceful process like a petition be used to take someone off a panel, on the grounds that their inexpert views are actively harmful, is not unlike the exclamations of outrage you hear from very wealthy people over higher taxes, or corporations over the minimum wage. After all, if freedom means the absolute right to appear on panels even when you have no expertise in the subject at hand then God help us, nearly every single person in the country is oppressed. I don’t think I’ve ever been on a panel. I’m being censored as we speak, I presume.

Besides, most grown adults understand that words have consequences. If you say a lot of nasty things about people and deliberately drum up controversy, well, of course in a free country you can carry on talking, but guess what – some people might not want you at their events anymore. Only somebody with a job like an opinion-journalist or an academic could possibly imagine that most people have an unfettered, unadulterated right to free speech without consequences. Every other adult in the country surely knows that free speech means the police don’t throw you in prison for your opinions, not that you have a God-given right to be invited to universities to speak. In most jobs, your boss is entitled to dislike your offensive opinions, and they are entitled to sack you or remove you from projects if you show yourself to be inexpert, unqualified, or if enough people complain about you. That’s not censorship, it’s facing the perfectly legal and reasonable consequences of your own actions. Your friends are entitled to stop inviting you to parties if you become offensive (or for any other reason, for that matter). And that is not censorship either. It doesn’t stop there. Your partner is entitled to leave you if they discover you are a terrible person. Customers are entitled to complain about you if you’re rude to them. You are free to use any words you like but words have consequences. It is laughable to see the journalists and academics so used to the idea they are entitled to a platform (and a microphone and a captive audience) no matter what they use it for and no matter whether they are even qualified in the subject of which they speak that they are taking such profound offense at someone being taken off a panel – yet all the while, lecturing others about navel-gazing, living in a bubble, and being too sensitive.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not arguing for or against Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, Nick Griffin or anyone else who comes out with hate speech to be given platforms. I believe that debate should be had between the people affected by their words – and the likelihood is, there will be different situations where a different approach is best. Sometimes no-platforming works, sometimes debate works. It depends upon the parties involved, the consequences, and, perhaps most of all, on what you are trying to achieve.

But freedom as a fundamental principle means looking at all of its manifestations. It means asking more than: “how does this impact my property and my free speech?” It means asking: “how does this impact people’s lives, all people’s lives, not in theory, but in practice?” The idea that freedom can be entirely measured in terms of what we are allowed to say without consequence is perhaps a positive evolution from measuring it entirely in terms of how much tax we pay, but it is still embarrassingly simplistic. Simple moral absolutes are like a comfort blanket. They make us feel safe. Opening them up for debate is challenging, scary, messy and complicated – especially when those absolutes happen to form the basis of how you make your living. But freedom matters, and the world is complicated, and we are all learning. And I think we can do better than this.

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Why do we care so much whether technically you can be racist to white people or not?

Why do we care so much whether technically you can be ‘racist to white people’ or not?

We need to make sure we always have the best, more qualified, most informed people in each job. That’s what meritocrats who don’t see colour or gender or anything else always say. Tell me why, then, we have so many repetitive, inexpert voices, who speak without intentional malice, just with a complete lack of understanding?

This week we have heard a lot about ‘racism against white people’ in the context of Bahar Mustafa’s safe spaces and ironic jokes which have offended so many. Anyone who thinks ‘safe spaces’ of this kind are places full of groupthink and indulgent mollycoddling has almost certainly never been anywhere near one. I’ve been called out and challenged to think about my words, actions, and my most deeply-held opinions more in ‘safe spaces’ than in any other place I’ve ever been in my life. Strange how those who complain about safe spaces and groupthink also are so often the first to denounce so-called ‘call out culture.’ Which is it? We are too critical, jumping on everybody who opens their mouth until no-one can say anything, or we are too circular, just sitting there nodding our heads?

Let’s talk about safe spaces. Let’s talk about triggers. It’s a flawed, perhaps problematic analogy, but we put warnings about flashing cameras on things to help people with epilepsy makes choices about what media to consume. Many people have no understanding of PTSD (despite, of course, being given space after space to write about it), and vaguely imagine ‘triggered’ just means ‘upset.’ So the idea of a warning that something might throw you back into reliving a vivid flashback of being raped (for example), make you sick, make you unable to function for a time, make you pass out, make you panic and struggle to breathe, is dismissed as nonsense for the over-sensitive.

The ignorant conclusion those people arrive at is understandable I suppose, if irritating, but the demand that people don’t set up our own safe spaces either, while refusing to understand or respect people’s needs in public spaces, feels like outright bullying to me.

Safe spaces are not just about PTSD, of course. It takes a huge amount of personal energy to watch people with no knowledge or understanding or interest in listening to actual experts dominate the same old boring conversation, a conversation that is about your life, time and time and time and time and time and time again. Imagine walking into a university level maths seminar, with people who have years and years experience, academic or literal or both of maths, and stating that you don’t agree Pi exists, because it’s never used in common language between you and your mates.

And imagine, when people suggest you chat to a tutor separately if you want to learn maths, but actually, in this seminar people have turned up to have a bit of a more complex discussion about maths that you might find confusing, demanding that you have a right to be in the space and you’re being discriminated against for not knowing about maths.

People will say, of course: “Ah, but that’s about a level of understanding, not skin colour. Bahar Mustafa wanted to discriminate on skin colour. My skin colour is irrelevant to my ability to understand racism, my gender irrelevant to my ability to understand sexism.”

This is simply not true. Just look at where we place our focus. When Katie Hopkins or David Starkey or Jeremy Clarkson or John Terry or Prince Philip or David Coburn or Iggy Azaelea or Ricky Gervais or Frankie Boyle or Dapper Laughs says offensive things, you might hear a condemnation of what they say, but the focus, the central point, always gets dragged back towards “freedom of speech” and their “right to say it.” Ched Evans raped someone for crying out loud, and the overwhelming din from the media for week, if not months, was “do we really want to blight this man’s career, his future, over a mistake?” Meanwhile, when Bahar Mustafa or, as we learn this week, young Muslims who don’t want to shop at Marks and Spencer’s or drink booze (no, really), offend us, we might in passing acknowledge that they have a right to say what they said, but the focus always gets dragged towards why ‘reverse racism’ matters, whether you can be racist to white people, whether ‘social justice warriors’ have gone too far, and, above all, why it is so important not to be racist to white people.

Your life experiences impact what you think is immediately compelling about an event or news story. Of course they do. You can’t help it. It’s why diversity isn’t the opposite of “getting the best people for the job” – it’s the only possible way of doing it. How else do you explain the disproportionate amount of fuss made over whether technically you can or can’t be ‘racist to white people’?

And, boy, can people talk about that in great length! Why do we want it to be called ‘racism’ so much? Comparing institutions and patterns of systematic, deliberate, historical oppression with someone offending you because they dislike you as an individual for your white skin on one single occasion does seem extremely minimising to me. And since there’s already a word for the former (racism), how about we (white people) just let it go, and call it something else when someone is a bit mean about a white person?

Perhaps that’s not how your mates use the word. Perhaps you only ever use words in their colloquial meanings. Perhaps, in the maths seminar analogy, you think the professor could reasonably be expected to refer to Pi or zero or some other concept that mathematical experts probably have a rather different understanding of than you do, by a different term. But you probably don’t. You probably recognise that maths experts know more about maths than you do.

You probably understand (or who knows, maybe you don’t), that straight men aren’t all creepers, but understand that lesbian bars exist for women, and the bouncers might be inclined to turn away big groups of men who turn up demanding to be let in. You probably understand that a mental health support group isn’t a space you can wander into in order to ‘learn’ about mental illness, by listening to people’s experiences and vulnerabilities. You probably also recognise that David Cameron’s wealthy background doesn’t in itself make him personally a bad person, it just means that his perception of life is a bit different to that of a guy who works in Morrisons. And that his policies reflect that. So it is relevant to the debate about his ability to do his job well.

Imagine if David Cameron turned up in a trade union meeting about, say, the living wage, to ask questions like “but why does it matter if you earn an extra 20p an hour, it’s such a tiny amount anyway? Can’t you just use your savings? I don’t agree with your definition of the terms ‘work’ and ‘wage’ and ‘welfare state’ and ‘working class’ – after all, most people don’t commonly use it that way. Can you explain why you use the term ‘wage’ when technically we are talking about someone working for their benefit (because that’s what we have decided to call it)?” He might just get told piss off.

And imagine him saying, but how will you grow this movement, if you don’t let me in? If you tell me to shut up? I’m on your side, I believe in aspiration! I want to help you. You have to listen to me, I have heaps of ideas. I know about this stuff, man. I really, really, really care about it. I learned about it at school.

But one thing they don’t seem to teach you at schools like David Cameron’s is that you don’t need to be leading or speaking or even in the room where others are speaking in order to support social progress. You can volunteer time for boring, thankless tasks that no-one wants to do, donate money or possessions to charities and refuges, listen, learn, elevate, empower and validate and support others. It’s no fun hearing it if your entire skill set is to have opinions and say things for a living, but the most constructive thing you can do a lot of the time is shut up.

2 MINUTE RANT: Jennifer Lawrence, liberty, and victim blaming

People get so confused about what freedom means. The leaked photos of naked celebrities (including, most famously, Jennifer Lawrence) is one of those stories that exemplifies so perfectly that double standard – although it’s far from the first. Dismissing the story because it’s celebrity news, or because talking about it is publicising the existence of the pictures still further, is missing the point (and the latter verges on victim blaming).

The double standard I’m talking about of course is the unapologetically oppressive way victim blaming serves to control and restrict individual liberties, yet at the same time, those that perpetuate it so often pretend to be on the side of “freedom.”

I have free speech, cry the misogynists who like to shout at people they don’t know in the street about the shape of their bums or breasts. I have freedom of action, whine the creeps who like to grope strangers in clubs, insisting to themselves that she’s up for it even as she tries to edge away from their sad little grasping hands. I have the right to look at naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence, if I want. And if she doesn’t like it, she shouldn’t have taken them anyway. I have a right to look at them, without consequences, but she doesn’t have the right to take them in the first place, not really. Not without consequences. That is what “freedom” means, apparently.

This is just one more way that the extremely important concept of “freedom” gets hijacked by the mean and selfish, who care only for their own freedom, and not a jot from “freedom” as a concept; as a fundamental right that others, as well as themselves, are also entitled to. Only in the world of victim blaming are you entitled to hack, steal, violate, impinge upon others’ freedoms, then demand that they modify their behaviour (behaviour which impacts you in no way whatsoever) if they don’t like it. It’s just such an obvious lie.

It’s not just the prudish wankers (if you’ll excuse the pun) that ring alarm bells. There’s been a disconcerting amount of Liberal Dudes, some of them self-defined feminists, lamenting the need to be so uptight, puritanical, prudish about “nakedness.” It’s just a human body, they cry! It’s just sex! Why can’t we all chill out! Those Liberal Dudes can go sit on several pins. Feminist women are always being blamed for putting people off feminism. I say that the prevalence of Liberal Dudes is what alienates so many women from sex positive feminism. It gets associated with guys like you, blazing into discussions about consent and boundaries and privacy to bully women, sometimes by calling us outright misogynistic words like prudes or frigid, sometimes throwing around cleverer coded language like “Mary Whitehouse”, “pearl clutchers,” or “nanny state.” (Why is it always the ‘nanny’ state, a word associated with women, when the laws are overwhelmingly made by men?) You think the issue here is sex, and we can only assume that’s because you don’t know the difference between consensual sexy times and violating someone. You think when a woman says “no, I didn’t consent to this,” an acceptable response is “oh, relax, it’s just sex. Stop being so uptight. Let me liberate you.” You Liberal Dudes, you are creepy as hell. You are why sex positive feminism gets a bad name. I wonder how many of these guys would be happy for pictures of themselves fapping over the leaked photos to be posted online? I mean, it’s all just sex, right? Come on, stop being so uptight.

Here we have an impossible-to-misinterpret-unless-it-is-wilful example of the difference between sexual objectification and sex. Jennifer Lawrence expressing her own sexuality by sharing naked photos of herself with another party consensually is a sexual act. A stranger banging one out over those photos, when he knows they are not for his eyes, even after she has said “no, I didn’t consent to this”, because she’s no longer a person with rights – that’s objectification. And, in this case, potentially a sexual offence.

Some of the victim blamers are pretending that it’s okay because Lawrence is famous, or because she’s been naked, or partially naked, in films. Some of them dress up their victim blaming as moral or intellectual superiority. They don’t care about silly celebrity gossip like this (something that seems, incidentally, to be much more frequently hurled at celebrity gossip relating to female celebrities than male ones). But this isn’t just something that happens to celebrities. This is just a celebrity experiencing something that ordinary women experience all the time – from ‘revenge porn’ to the doxxing of sex workers and trans women, this entitled attitude manifesting itself through technological means is happening to lots of people, many without expensive lawyers, and it’s not going away just because you shake your head and call famous women foolish. It’s not going away until people shout back, and make it much more socially unacceptable than it is now to violate other people’s privacy and make demands on their personal freedoms this way.

To see just how ridiculously obvious the “freedom” double standard is, let’s take the victim blamers classic – the analogy of a sexual offence, and stolen property. (You know the one. Don’t drink, don’t get in a taxi, don’t walk home, don’t wear short skirts. It’s just good sense. After all, you wouldn’t leave a car door open/iPod on the table/wallet on display.) This logic says, if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t want the pictures hacked, she should never have taken them or stored them online. Okay. So, extending this same analogy, if you use online banking, it’s fair game for a hacker to post your bank details online – and for people who see that posting to use them. Right? If you access counselling or other confidential health support online, it’s fine for a hacker to sneak into your emails and publish the details online. If you shop online, expect credit card theft. If you gamble online, or watch porn online, or do, well, anything else online, then it’s perfectly acceptable for the details of all that information to one day be shared with your colleagues, family, friends, and several million strangers. Right?

Except that analogy never gets reversed this way, because we don’t believe other people have an entitlement to access your property or money or health records in the way we far too readily accept an entitlement to access women’s bodies. Remember that next time somebody tries to conflate their victim blaming “common sense advice” with freedom; remember the hypocritical, stark staringly obvious way it’s used to control behaviour. It’s the opposite of freedom, and anyone with any genuine concern for personal liberty in any meaningful way will never engage with it.

Unless, of course, they don’t really see women as people.

‘Political correctness’ is about listening, not speaking

I find myself increasingly frustrated by established writers like Nick Cohen writing again and again on so-called ‘political correctness’, equating it with a top-down controlling approach to language, when in fact it is very often the opposite.

What I often see when people talk about ‘political correctness’ is the democratisation of language. The ‘objective’ consensus that existed before the days of ‘PC gone mad’ about what is and isn’t acceptable or offensive, where did that come from, if not the educated ‘establishment’? The top-down slurs used to dehumanise and devalue entire groups of people, where do those words come from, if not the ‘establishment’? When the charity MIND responded to Cohen’s most recent anti-political correctness article on the subject of mental health slurs, they stressed the fact that their language objections and suggestions come not from political types or academics, but from all sorts of ordinary people that they work with. Asking well-paid high profile media professionals to listen to the voices of those people is the very opposite of a top-down imposition from the ‘political class.’

Nick Cohen also explicitly makes the argument that using respectful language about anybody with mental health problems is what softens the public up to the cuts to services or benefits. The idea that people with mental illnesses were treated better before the days of respectful language is so bizarre it is bleakly amusing. You don’t need to look back as far as the Victorians to see that this is false. Over the last century there has been, broadly speaking, consistent positive improvements in terms of how we approach mental health which correlates almost directly with the work done by groups like MIND. That work includes campaigns around language – not just discussing which words we ‘can’ say or write, but all of us together re-evaluating the way we think. Dehumanising language is problematic because it’s an expression of dehumanising thinking, and far from ‘political correctness’ leading to less humane policies, history would suggest that the best way to justify inhumane policy is to first dehumanise the necessary groups – using language.

Besides, isn’t what Cohen says he advocates here just as much a case of ‘political correctness’ as what MIND advocates? He argues that we should use x or y terminology to justify government spending on mental health. That argument is either disingenuous or else he’s come so far round full circle that he’s forgotten what his original point was (that those on high shouldn’t dictate language for political reasons). Either way, he seems, along with far too many others, to have given up on challenging the underlying reasons why anyone should resign themselves to being dependent on ‘charity’ in the first place. Benevolent charity from on high is arguably much more of an imposition by the ‘political class’ than asking people to check their language.

And the reason why such a societal model is problematic is evidenced by Cohen’s own message to MIND: don’t you dare criticise the way people treat you or speak about you, because they could withdraw their oh-so-generous ‘charity’ any time. It codes it into our social and economic DNA that inequality is inevitable, that power disparities are inevitable. It isn’t true. And when we start to talk about, say, people with mental illnesses in language that implies difference not inferiority or weakness, we begin to ask questions about those power structures. We begin to ask that employers make an effort to accommodate various types of mental illness. We begin to ask that transport providers make an effort to accommodate various types of physical disability. We begin to ask how much of that ‘inevitable’ inequality is down to stigma, prejudice, greed and inflexibility on the part of society’s institutions, rather than something innate which we must all accept. How much of the social isolation that can go alongside mental illness – which can, in turn, be connected to other inequalities from housing to imprisonment rates – could be mitigated by breaking down stereotypes and slurs?

Reshaping the way we value each other, reshaping the things we believe to be central to each other’s humanity and the things we don’t, reshaping our priorities, those things should be central to tackling mental health inequality – all inequality. The real irony that so many miss when getting upset about what they can or cannot say or write anymore is that at the root of what is fashionable to call ‘political correctness’ the point isn’t to say or write anything at all, but to listen to each other.

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins and the limits of liberalism

Richard Dawkins, scientist-cum-professional-controversialist, has confirmed what I have for a while suspected: that, in spite of being a very talented scientist, he is also a – how shall I put this – a less than lovely human being.

Today he is lamenting the great injustice that perpetrators of anti-Muslim hate crime are given too harsh sentences. “Who was hurt, except the pig?” he rhetorically asks his thousands of Twitter followers, as the pair who (in their own words) “invaded” an Edinburgh mosque by attacking it with bacon were sentenced to jail

This is the same Dawkins, let us remember, who, when Rebecca Watson wrote about how uncomfortable it was to be chatted up in an enclosed space like a lift right after giving a talk on sexual harassment, took the time to sneer at how trivial her complaint was, compared with the serious things happening to other women, in other countries. (Sam Ambreen has written a brilliant blog here about why this line of reasoning is nonsense.) This matter of anti-Islamic criminals being sentenced to jail is presumably the kind of high priority issue he would prefer people spent their energies on.

The attack on the mosque wasn’t just any attack. One of the perpetrators is a member of the Scottish Defence League – the Scottish version of the EDL. The self-appointed ‘rationalists’ seem to think the fact that you should always be free to criticise people’s religion (obviously true) applies here. But it doesn’t. The EDL and the SDL are not critiquing religious oppression. Many are hardline ‘Christian’ extremists, full of homophobic, misogynistic, anti-choice rubbish of their own. Nobody was critiquing passages or verses from the Quran. Nobody was asserting their own right to disbelief in Allah. This was bacon attached to and thrown at the door of a mosque, in a climate of rising hatred and violence towards Muslim communities. It is more akin to attacks on synagogues in a climate of rising anti-semitism than to an atheist or humanist critique of religion.

Attacks like these have nothing to do with ‘rationalism’ or atheism and everything to do with the nasty shadow of the far right that is creeping across Europe. When we talk about fascism and far right politics, we are too quick to talk about the role working class people play in driving it forwards, and too slow to talk about the responsibility of journalists, academics, politicians, scientists, and all sorts of other middle class professionals who have historically been central to the rise of fascism whenever it has occurred. Scientists, doctors and psychiatrists in particular played a huge role in legitimising racism in the early part of the last century, with their cold, ‘objective’ evidence based on measuring foreheads and gaslighting women into mental illness.

Rationalist liberalism likes to position itself as objective. The privileged arrogance of assuming yourself to be impartial and everyone else to be subjective speaks for itself. Too often, white rich men are able to see themselves as objective because they are the default human being, after all: what possible biases or prejudices could they have?

Nobody is removed from the context of the society they live in. If you describe yourself as a rationalist, far from being a super-rational person, you probably just have blind spots to your own privileges and prejudices.

Richard Dawkins talks of Muslims being “offended” by the bacon attack but we are talking about oppression, fear and real violence. Context, as I have written before, matters. Last week a woman was killed possibly, the police say, for wearing Muslim dress. Britain First are making threats to journalists for writing about them. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has topped the EU elections in France. The party is being widely reported, even by the BBC, as a ‘Eurosceptic’ party. This is the reality of the context this hate crime – for that is surely what it is – happened in. To say that nobody was “hurt” by one individual incident, as Dawkins did, highlights the limits of liberalism. Liberalism, by itself, ignores the structural. ‘Pure’ liberals, ironically, seem to have ended up as devout believers in the shiny religion of individualism, even when increasingly the evidence tells us that both socially and economically, liberalism is no longer, by itself, enough to make society better.

Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor

Ukip and the myth of the alienated oppressor

This week I can’t turn my head without seeing articles, tweets, blogs and comments about how Ukip is representing alienated voters, and if we ‘label’ them as racist or bigoted we will further alienate those people. This is where journalists start to opine about the ‘white working class’ – presumably hoping that class is so rarely mentioned explicitly that everyone will be distracted by ‘working class’ and forget that they’re specifying ‘white people.’

I guess it’s easier to pretend you’re standing up for working class people who happen to be white and conservative than to say you’re standing up for conservative white people, some of whom happen to be working class.

Anybody who did GCSE history knows that it’s common to turn towards extremism when people are alienated, particularly in challenging economic times. But that doesn’t mean we have to pretend in some patronising way that everybody who turns to the far right is ‘alienated’ or that there’s no other factors involved. Ukip voters are slightly more likely to be working class than Labour or Tory voters but  overall they span all different class demographics – and that’s before we even analyse the backgrounds and wealth of the party officials themselves.

The thing is, lots and lots of people feel alienated, and don’t turn to extremism. And a lot of those people don’t get pandered to like this. A lot of those people don’t get heard at all. Is it because they aren’t scary? Is it because Nigel Farage, with his fag hanging out his mouth is ‘likeable,’ while disability rights campaigners, or asylum seekers asking for basic rights, or trans people denied healthcare, are somehow less fashionable to leap up and defend?

Is it just me or are some people just a tiny bit too enthusiastic about listening to the voices of the ‘alienated’ racist, homophobic, sexists – out of compassion and decency, they insist – but not the voices of the alienated people who end up on the receiving end of that bigotry? It’s not to say all those trying to engage have an ulterior motive but fake concern for the alienated far right voter can be a way of expressing sympathy for the bigotry without owning it.

It’s a pretty common thing, after all, for people in politics and in journalism to project less than pleasant views on to us, the public, rather than defend them. They like to present their ‘discomfort’ at same sex marriage or women having casual sex or ‘Romanians moving in next door’ as the views of ‘ordinary people’. And I don’t know about you, but as a member of the public, I don’t want that kind of crap said in my name.

If someone feels alienated and they turn to a far right party, there are two things happening. One of them is alienation. The other is what they do with that alienation. If you choose to take your vote and use it to show the ‘political class’ (a term increasingly applied to anyone who watches the news and dislikes Ukip) that you care more about sending them some vague message of being pissed off than you do about racism, homophobia, misogyny, rape apology and Islamophobia, then expect me, and others, to conclude certain things about your priorities.

As I type, I know what the response will be. Farage doesn’t care what I think. I’m not his target voter. And his voters don’t care about these issues. (Well, quite.) So it isn’t ‘productive’ to talk about the party’s problems with bigotry. But I’m not here to filter every opinion I have through the prism of political tactics. That suggests to me a mindset too obsessed with positioning, a world where opinions aren’t rooted in anything real, but are only expressed as a means of political strategy.

It also gives an awful lot of power to ‘oppressor’ or dominant groups, as soon as you allow them to dictate what counts as an acceptable response to their behaviour, and what does not. If we’re not allowed to call things sexist in case we alienate sexists, if we’re not allowed to call things racist in case we lose the approval of racists, if we make the broader debate about what is oppressive or bigoted and what is not conditional upon appealing to the most oppressive and bigoted mindsets, then it’s over, we’ve lost, we might as well go home. It’s wrong to police people’s reactions to bigotry and, worse, actually blame those reactions for fuelling the rise of the far right. Bigotry isn’t caused by people standing up to it. Racism isn’t caused by people talking about racism. Homophobia isn’t caused by gay people demanding too many rights too fast.

I know what else people will say. That I should shut up and listen more. I agree. I do listen to people. I listen to friends who say they’ve no interest in politics but they are thinking of voting Ukip. I listen to other people too. I listen to all sorts of people, some I agree with and some I don’t. I listen to a lot of people that many of the ‘don’t-call-Ukip-names’ brigade never even notice exist.

So I do listen but not just to you: I don’t think that by virtue of being angry and loud, you are entitled to my attention any more than the voice than, say, an asylum seeker being held in a detention centre without basic medical care. You are not entitled to a larger platform than the Muslims on the receiving end of hate crime which spikes dramatically when the far right up their rhetoric. You don’t get a bigger microphone than gay people who want to get married and feel safe in the streets. You aren’t entitled to a bigger platform than everybody else just because you’re loud and aggressive, and claiming to be ‘alienated by the modern world’ rather than intolerant.

Listening is good, but listening is an active thing, and if you’re listening properly to things, they usually spark a reaction. To assume an ‘alienated’ person isn’t capable of engaging with any kind of disagreement is far more patronising than telling them you disagree with them and having a conversation about it. That’s what you do, ironically, when you don’t actually care about what they’re saying. Let the disillusioned Ukip voters have their rants, they’re almost saying, because it’s all they have. Ignore them, don’t challenge them, they don’t know any better and can’t be expected to expand or explore their ideas.

It’s telling that so many of the apologists feel the need to frame discussions about bigotry with phrases like ‘screaming racism,’ ‘shouting racism,’ or ‘playing the race card,’ or spike accusations of sexism or homophobia with words like ‘hysterical.’ The assumption seems to be that in calling an opinion racist or homophobic or misogynistic, you aren’t engaging with it, or you must be seeking to silence it. But defining things is part of how we debate them. Words like ‘racism,’ ‘homophobia’, and ‘misogyny’ exist for a reason – and bigots hate them for a reason, too. Those words allow us to name and challenge broader structural issues behind what they say, instead of treating each occurrence as a random, isolated incident – which is exactly what Ukip want us to do when they demand we only use words they are comfortable with.

Saying that Ukip aren’t intentionally a racist party and it’s just a coincidence that they attract so many bigoted people isn’t good enough for me as a voter, and I’m entitled to say so. When I say there’s a problem with bigotry in Ukip I’m including people who are quietly okay with other people’s bigotry. When we say we shouldn’t focus on racism, or homophobia, or sexism, because that’s not why their voters are voting for them, we are accepting an ugly premise: that those things are side issues, not important to most people. We are saying that people’s views on equality shouldn’t be a central part of how we judge them. We are accepting that we can only talk about racism if the racist actually wants to be called a racist, and isn’t a potential voter. In other words, we can never talk about this. The fact that the bigotry isn’t a factor one way or the other in how so many people choose to vote, far from being a reason to change the subject, is exactly what I am so concerned about.

Ukip want to present the case that the party is accidentally stirring up racial tensions with their xenophobia, and accidentally riling up homophobes, but they don’t intend to do that. I don’t think it matters as much as they do what their intention is. If you vote for someone you know could be a racist or a homophobe or a rape apologist, then what use is it to me that your vote was cast because you wanted to send Westminster a message? If pissing off ‘the political class’ is really more important to you than whether the person you’re choosing to represent you and pass laws on your behalf is hateful or not, then, well, what exactly are we supposed to conclude from your priorities?

Liberals need to have an honest chat about free speech

I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder. 

When liberals debate free speech and George Orwell’s 1984 comes up, it’s usually in the context of spying or censorship. But the cleverest oppressions in Orwell’s world come from not censoring speech, but from controlling the language people can use in the first place.

If you don’t know the language for ‘rape culture’ or ‘patriarchy’ it doesn’t matter that you theoretically have the freedom to talk about them. You can’t even think them.

This is central to the free speech debate. Who controls language? Why is the expression ‘violence against women’ okay but ‘male violence’ too uncomfortable? Why is abusing a child on camera ‘child pornography?’ Why is naming micro-oppressions being ‘offended’?  Why is the oxymoron ‘rape fantasy’ the best term we have for erotic power play? What is the point of the ‘date’ in ‘date rape’, or the ‘domestic’ in ‘domestic violence’

And why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to grasp the distinction between ‘porn’ that depicts a woman or girl being raped, and hating it, with a title like ‘bitch slut got raped’, and actors showing consensual kink or power fantasy, often told from the perspective of the fictional ‘victim’? Why do we believe it’s too damn difficult to understand the difference between reducing a woman to an object, and a woman expressing her own sexuality?  Why do we pretend it’s too damn difficult to differentiate between expressing your opinion about Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign, and threatening to rape her, or sending hate mail directly to a family member’s home address?

A lot of that linguistic framing comes from liberals. Liberals so protective of their own free speech that they never noticed some people don’t even have language for what they need to say, let alone a space to say it in.

Free speech is necessary and must be defended but free speech is not enough. If your voice is louder than mine, free speech won’t solve that. Free speech is a starting principle, not a solution to injustice.

I support free speech. That’s why I critique what people say so much. But when you pretend all words are of equal power, thrown from an equal height, it sounds naive. Women have free speech to say no – but men decide that sometimes no means yes. When you pretend free speech is about the right of the powerful to dictate language, when you pretend that calling someone a sexist is the same as calling them a rapeable bitch, don’t be surprised if people use you and your sneering dismissal of power structures as an excuse to shut that freedom down for the rest of us.

Because the irony is that when free speech is restricted, yours usually survives anyway. The ‘rape porn ban’, if it works at all, will probably end up penalising marginalised groups – gay people, BDSM enthusiasts, trans people, sex workers, rape survivors – while arrogant Libertarian Dudes will find their conscience-free wank fodder elsewhere. Similarly, a Twitter troll button would probably silence not the ‘bullies,’ but those who shout back. You can already see how woman-haters run riot on Twitter exercising their free speech while accounts like @Misogyny_Online, set up to record the abuse, get suspended.

And yet, the blame for censorship still, somehow, falls on marginalised groups. I don’t agree with the content of the rape porn ‘ban’ but if you honestly think you’re being oppressed by feminists because you have to change your internet settings before wanking over a rape video, you need to take your head out of your rectum.

It’s not just liberal men.  Some liberal feminists are ‘protesting’ online abuse by leaving Twitter for a day. Choosing to leave the platform you are privileged to have in the first place seems, to put it gently, an odd way to protest the silencing of the marginalised.

This hypocrisy is why so many throw up their hands and give up on free speech altogether. That’s dangerous. I don’t want misogynists to be quiet. I want feminists to be louder.

But if you care about free speech, you have to care about how it works in practice, not just as an abstract principle. You have to care about the structural. You have to care about the voices you don’t hear and why you don’t hear them. It isn’t because they’re not talking. You have to care when speech is used to silence others, even when their silence makes you louder. Free speech is needed in order to resist oppressive power structures. And the best way to protect free speech is to make sure that more people have it.

FEEDING THE TROLLS: The put-upon privileged who resist progress need to take responsibility for their actions

Rod Liddle, bless him, has somehow become a big-government, pro-statist left-winger. No, really. Here he is, in the Spectator, calling for regulations on businesses to protect employment rights for workers, even when the employee in question screws up so monumentally that your entire business’s credibility hangs by the skin of your gums.

You see, Rod Liddle thinks it was unfair of Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, to make a commercial decision about John Derbyshire’s future employment with him following his ‘controverisal’ (read: racist) article in a different, online publication. Derbyshire’s article The Talk includes titbits of wisdom like explaining to white kids that black people are usually less intelligent than white people, and that they should avoid, mistrust, and fear black people whenever they see them. You don’t need to spend much time joining the rather obvious dots to see how tragedies like the killing of Trayvon Martin, or, here in England, of Mark Duggan and Charles de Menezes, are the inevitable end result of having people walk around believing such racist nonsense. If it was published in England the article would quite likely be deemed an incitement to racial hatred.

America should be proud of the respect they give to their constitutional right to free speech. But the land of freedom is also famed for being the land of personal responsibility. If you’re seriously going to expect a black man wearing a hood to ‘take responsibility’ for the fact that some people see a hood as a threatening thing (rather than being, say, a good way to keep your ears warm), or a woman to ‘take responsibility’ for how she dresses or what she drinks in case she’s assaulted, you really have to also agree that racists should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their racism – or even to just use their common sense in understanding, as a grown up, that when they say racist things, some people will probably call them racist.

The National Review is a serious magazine, and, apart from anything else, it’s a well-run business. Lowry is perfectly entitled to decide whom he wants to employ and whom he wants to sack. Welcome to the free market.

Justice has been served by the free market itself (and it seemingly has because John Derbyshire has been sacked), so you might ask why I’m feeding the trolls with a blog post about the whining naysayers? Does it matter if people write silly things on the internet?

Well, for a start, the hateful Coffee House blog Rod Liddle wrote about the Stephen Lawrence case almost prejudiced the whole trial. It’s a horrible thing to make victims beg for justice in the first place; to risk dragging the quest for it out even further for the sake of your right to say silly things about a murder case with no consequences definitely does matter.

But this smug veneer of being lazily controversial at the expense of less privileged people than yourself is damaging to us all as a society in a much less immediately tangible way. It helps cultivate a culture of cynicism so pervasive that it serves to do exactly the opposite of what those who practice it pretend they want.

The Liddles, O’Neills, and Delingpoles are not the defenders of free speech. They are the very thing they say they detest: an oversensitive mob, shouting down dissent, and trying to ridicule people into silence.

They contribute to and facilitate a culture which is extremely saddening. It allows people to sit in their bedrooms nursing a convenient, uncharitable assumption that anyone who cares about any moral issue, ever, is only doing it because they’re following some trend, or else for some other selfish, hypocritical reason. It’s easy to miss how prevalent this world view is.

Real, serious work, such as that done by charities like Refuge, gets denigrated by Carol Sarler in the Daily Mail with no basis for the assumptions made whatsoever. Protesters get denounced because they drink coffee. In fact, activists, writers, and ordinary people taking any moral interest in anything are continually met with the most tenuous accusations of “hypocrisy” because, for example, they care about X, but not Y. And the criticisms usually come from people who feel no particular need to give a toss about X or Y. Or a A, B, C or D, for that matter.

Just look at the comments on the Guardian article by Ava Vidal about the Trayvon Martin case. Why don’t you do more about gang violence, demand page upon page of furious commentators? Why don’t you criticise black killers? Almost as if a black person’s opinion is only valid if they criticise some unrelated other black people first, which, come to think of it, is probably the inevitable logical conclusion you come to if you hold everyone of the same race responsible for each other’s actions (i.e. if you’re a racist).

And this fake concern for every other issue under the sun bar the one the person in question happens to be addressing at that particular point in time is more than just a mild irritation. It actually gives validation to whatever is being spoken out against. When Brendan O’Neill decided that the most pressing issue worthy of space on his blog was to criticise all the people who protested the execution of Troy Davis – protested it on the rather important grounds that he might have actually been innocent – he accused them of inverse racism. He may not have a racist bone in his own body, but the article spewed comments from a stream of people who had several, and who saw his sneering at anti-racism campaigners as a validation of their hate. When he criticised the language in the government’s gay marriage consultation by pretending to be offended that “us, the little people” are not welcome in the consultation process, he attracted pages of comments from people who “agree” with him that gender reassignment is nonsense, that people can’t ever truly change gender, and, weirdly, that the feminist movement should be honest and rename itself the militant lesbian movement.

It’s not just that these kinds of columns dismiss very real concerns from people who are often vulnerable and voiceless. By peacocking his own ignorance about gender reassignment and framing it as ordinary, O’Neill actually shifts the centre ground in terms of social progress. And, needless to say, he isn’t shifting it forwards. Keeping an issue like trans rights on the sidelines is the perfect way to provide yourself with endless column-fodder for years to come. While an issue is only defined a minority issue, it can be derided as irrelevant to ordinary people, and then, when awareness is successfully raised and people start to actually care about the issue in question, everyone taking an interest can just be mocked – then completely ignored – for being nothing more than fashion-following sheep.

To say nothing of the fact that declaring minority issues to be all bang on trend can be repulsively insulting to the people who know, with painful clarity, just who the most powerful “mob” really is.

Homophobes who sometimes have to – shock, horror – have their views challenged may think that being gay is “fashionable,” but a child bullied for being gay – whether they actually are gay or not – who is terrified to walk home after school, or go into the school toilets, for fear of being beaten up or worse, would probably disagree. Rod Liddle may be able to make money from writing in the Sun that disability is fashionable (before mocking and denigrating disabled people in the same article) but Fiona Pilkington and her daughter? They knew only too well that it wasn’t.

Yes, welcome to the smelly nub of the hypocrisy of these faux-libertarians. These people who side with the dominant groups in society, usually make money from doing so, and then pretend to be bravely rebelling against a fashionable trend. These people who say they agree that people are better at solving problems than governments are, but when people try to solve problems, they throw their toys out of the pram and call them names, because, as it turns out, they don’t like that very much either.

After all, when News of the World was closed down by the free market, because consumers and advertisers alike voiced their disgust in a great example of real free speech, against an organisation that actually was powerful, and had actually been engaged in illegal, harmful activities, Liddle, O’Neill and Dellingpole didn’t applaud that, or hold it up as an example of why government doesn’t need to regulate the press. No, they demonised the people speaking out about phone-hacking as biased, vindictive, and stupid.

There are some people who genuinely do value personal freedom, but we also value personal responsibility. There are others who use the very precious concept of liberty as an excuse to defend the indefensible. Make no mistake: that’s not about freedom of speech, or about freedom of anything else. It’s about resisting progress. Are these people to blame for every racist murder and every assaulted trans person? No. But every piggish snort they give out, every minute they spend finding reasons to mock the voices trying, however imperfectly, to drive social progress forwards for all of us, sets the whole fight back just a little bit further. And for that, they really should take some personal responsibility.

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