Sunday, 12 February 2017

Permission to Speak Freely?

Freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom from which all other freedoms flow; to fight against freedom of speech is to forge your own shackles.

In the last few weeks, there have been a couple of events that raised warning flags for me, and those flags are nicely encapsulated by Orwell's words here.

This is going to be a quick and dirty rant about speech, our freedom to express our views, however unpopular, and what constitutes a reasonable response to being confronted by views that we don't agree with. 

Let me start by saying that, in my view, nobody has the right not to be offended. No matter what you have to say beyond the most vapid, milquetoast of possible views, you're going to offend somebody with it. Terry Pratchett famously said that, whatever you do or say, if somebody somewhere isn't offended by it, you're probably doing it wrong.

The first event was a video that made its way around the internet. I'm not going to post it here, but it was of a well-known neo-nazi, while engaged in an interview on the street, being sucker-punched out of the blue. There was much discussion over the following few days centred around whether this sort of response is justified. In a couple of cases, well-respected sceptics were treated as if they'd engaged in some sort of crimes against humanity, and being accused of being nazi sympathisers simply because they didn't think that punching this idiot was appropriate. I'll begin by reproducing what I said on a popular social media platform.
"It's been a bit disheartening to see otherwise wonderfully peaceful people in the last couple of days responding to a video of a known neo-nazi being punched.
I get it, and I admit to feeling a bit of schadenfreude at the sight, but the discussion has taken on a quite nasty tone, with those advocating non-violence being accused of sympathising. This is nothing more nor less than an emotive and fallacious attempt to poison the well and silence dissent.
Let me be clear. The only justification for physical violence is in the face of physical violence or threat of harm, and saying this isn't sympathising with anybody.
Yes, these morons have toxic views, and not all violence is physical. Nonetheless, words and thoughts cannot justify violence. As soon as you resort to this sort of behaviour, you've conceded the argument. Moreover, when you attempt to paint somebody who agrees with you about the toxicity of the views as a sympathiser on the basis that they don't advocate a violent response, you've sided with the thugs.
What these cretins need more than anything else is education and, while the fists are flying, nobody's learning anything of value. 
Of course, my tiny voice was lost in the wind, which is to be expected. I'm fairly new to the broader public sphere, most of my time spent as a medium-sized fish in a fairly small pond. Others, whose voices are more widely heard, tried to make some of the same points, but were vilified as defending the nazi, while what they were really defending is proper standards of discourse, and the idea that violence not only isn't the solution to such problems, but actually serves to reinforce them.

Two people in particular, one a popular author of sceptical and counter-apologetics literature, the other a broadly-heard podcaster and Youtuber, took several days of flak from people who would normally consider themselves allies. I attempted to interject again.
I get it, guys. It really does feel excellent to punch a fuckwit in the face. However, when you engage in such behaviour, regardless of the justification other than in defence under attack or threat of said behaviour, you're normalising the behaviour, and yielding your best currency for change.
 What it takes to defeat the sort of mindset that results in a Richard Spencer is education of the general populace. When the majority voice their contempt for shitty ideas like racism and other idiotic prejudices, we might see the tide turn in the fight against conflicts rooted in ignorance. When we engage in this sort of behaviour or, worse, normalise it or erect rationalisations for it, we're doing exactly what they did to get to that point.
There are better ways than punching, and people behind bars for assault are useless in the battle for true equality.
 Seriously, peeps, it isn't rocket science*. 
While I was writing this, one of the protagonists in the above exchanges, popular sceptical podcaster @GSpellchecker, had a timely discussion with Matt Dillahunty, and Matt raised an interesting point, namely that somebody like Spencer would have been well-served had he actually planted the phantom boxer to execute this manoeuvre while he was on camera. 

There's a well-worn tactic for vilifying the opposition and for undermining peaceful protest, one that has entered the language in the form of the popular French term agent provocateur, a planted actor whose role is to disrupt protest from within. The term itself can be reliably tracked back to at least the French revolution, in which freemasons fomented discontent and violent protest or otherwise breaking the law in order that the authorities had cause to arrest them. This is such a successful strategy in most cases that such tactics have been employed by police forces the world over to lure people into breaches of the law. 

Now, I'm not suggesting that this is the case with this punch, and nor did Matt, as he was careful to point out, but it is certainly something to bear in mind. More importantly, in this instance, whether the punch was engineered or not, the vociferous defence of the punch among ordinarily peaceful people and defenders of the principles of equality has the same effect, not least because the sceptics and defenders aren't the only ones who see these exchanges. They're also available to view by Spencer's base, and serve to confirm the worst of their ideological presuppositions.

This brings me nicely to the second issue I wanted to discuss, because the agent provocateur has relevance here also. In my esteem, this episode is more disturbing in terms of sociopolitical impact. A little potted history first, to give some context.

In the 1950s and 60s, there was a rise in political awareness, quite probably driven by the previous half-century, which had seen turmoil on a scale never-before encountered, with two world wars resulting in somewhere between 70 million and 120 million deaths, the rise and fall of the League of Nations and the formation of NATO and the United Nations, the formation of the state of Israel and all that that entailed, McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Commission, culminating in the civil rights movement.

As is often the case with such activism in the political sphere, among the real hotbeds were the universities. One notable series of events took place at U.C. Berkeley in the '64-'65 academic year.

Existing regulations regarding fundraising and other political activities restricted them to the official on-campus clubs for the two main political parties, Republican and Democrat. They prohibited recruitment, outside speakers and advocacy of other political causes. In the autumn of '64, some student activists began giving out information and asking for donations to fund various civil rights causes, in breach of these regulations. In September of that year, the dean of the university announced that these regulations would be rigorously enforced.

This came to a head in October when a former graduate mathematics student, Jack Weinberg, was sitting at a table run by the Congress of Racial Equality and refused on request by campus police to show his ID. He was arrested and put in a police car, at which point the car was surrounded by up to 3,000 students, who kept the car there for about 32 hours, using it as a podium from which to speak, and holding a public discussion until the charges were dropped. 

Eventually, after several sit-ins and a mass arrest of 800 students culminating in a protest that effectively closed the campus down, university officials began to relent, and ultimately put new measures in place provisionally allowing for political activity on campus.

For this reason, Berkeley is seen as being the real birthplace of the free speech movement. In reality, this is something that was fought for long before these events, and found form in the first amendment to the US Constitution, but it certainly played a part in the public consciousness of these issues, and this episode was key to that.

A couple of weeks ago, an event was scheduled at Berkeley in which a well-known internet cretin was slated to speak. Much like the recipient of the aforementioned Salford handshake, this moron is a promulgator of some pretty toxic views, some of which resulted in his banishment from Twitter last year.

A protest was put in place, ostensibly peaceful, to show this ignorant mouthpiece what was thought of his views. All went well until some protesters turned up kitted out in black and wearing masks. Whether stalking-horses or genuine, these protesters had no intention of being peaceful and things turned more aggressive, with some violent incidents and some property damage. In the end, the event was cancelled and the talk didn't go ahead.

Now this is troubling to me, for all the same reasons as above, but with some additional issues. 

The first of these is something that's come to be known as the Streisand Effect, named after the popular singer, after she attempted to suppress some images of her house in Malibua. The ultimate effect of her attempt to suppress these images is that they became far more widely-viewed as a direct result of the publicity surrounding the attempted suppression.

The same thing has occurred here, in that the views promulgated by this idiot now have a much broader audience due to the furore over the events at U.C. Berkeley. Moreover, regardless of the intent of the majority of protesters, many of whom I'm sure just wanted to voice their opposition to the views of said mouth-breather, the outward view gleaned by the public is one of a single group of aggressive or violent protesters behaving like children. This is not the way to win hearts and minds, and it's certainly not a route to helping people to see reason.

Let's be clear here. Milo is a wankstain of the highest order, and while it's certainly the case that nobody's obliged to give him a platform or an audience, and while everybody's welcome to voice their displeasure at his being given a platform, he's entitled to his opinions, and to voice them. I'll come back to why for the coup de grâce shortly.

Moving on, there's one last group of events that I wanted to discuss and, even in the last few hours while I've been writing this, yet another example has come to light. I'll come to that shortly, but I'll begin where this began for me.

In October last year, I wrote a piece on some idiots on Twitter who'd taken it upon themselves to attack a UK pop singer, Lily Allen, for a film she'd made about the Jungle, a refugee camp in Calais housing, among others, a large group of disenfranchised children. You can see my response in The Unbearable Shiteness of Beings... Redux. This wasn't the end of it, however, and some further incidents have occurred of late, which I want to discuss here, because not only are they rooted in a ubiquitous logical fallacy, they're troubling for other reasons.

I'll not bore with instances beyond a cursory listing but, for example, a former footballer and sport pundit was told that he should stick to what he was good at rather than posting his opinions on politics, a popular author was labelled a whore, and a former marine gunnery sergeant, philanthropist and all-round good egg was told she'd lost a fan.

Now, all of these people are big and ugly enough to look after themselves, but there's a deep logical problem with this aside from the overweening hubris it represents.

If you honestly think that somebody being well-known for something other than political commentary or analysis somehow disqualifies them from having anything worthwhile to add to discourse concerning the future of the society in which they and those they love must live, then not only are you engaging in a particularly insidious commission of the genetic fallacy coupled with poisoning the well, you're attempting to silence dissent, and that is something up with which we will not put, as Hitch would have said.

Politics, especially democracy, works when when everyone's voice is heard, even when those voices are given to opinions we might find distasteful. All attempts to silence dissent, either by acts of violence, by poisoning the well, or by any other means, are a big problem. Think about who benefits from living in an echo chamber. Only despots and totalitarians can benefit from such a situation. Allowing the curtailing of the right to voice one's opinion opens the door to the worst abuses being visited on us all.

A real citizen is duty-bound to protect the rights of all to hold whatever views they see fit, regardless of whether they agree with them or find them odious. Only a moron can brook no dissenting opinion, or responds to disagreement with violence or attempts to shut down discourse or silence opposition. 

I'll finish how I began, with a simple truth:

Freedom of speech is the fundamental freedom from which all other freedoms flow; to fight against freedom of speech is to forge your own shackles.

Don't be a moron, be a citizen.

* There is one correction in here of a typo I spotted while copying to the blog post.
† Numbers are difficult to pin down robustly, not least because they depend largely on what variables are included. For example, some sources will include deaths from famine and disease in the aftermath, while others only deal with direct casualties.