Online Free Speech: Sticks And Stones…

Barely a week goes by in which the British “left” doesn’t display its increasing disdain for free speech, but this past week has been especially troublesome. The idea that only free speech and rational thinking can allow civilisation to advance isn’t exactly new; it descends from the Enlightenment. And yet, however many times mankind has to relearn this lesson, it gets forgotten again.

The thing that much of the left can’t grasp is that free speech (in practise, encompassing free expression in any form) really means Free Speech. Including – brace yourself – speech that you might find offensive, disgusting or just plain unnecessary. As the Enlightenment thinkers explained, only in a truly free market of ideas can the good ideas be separated from the bad. Any attempt to coerce speech in any direction, by any means, even for the best of reasons, can only distort and suppress, and will crush good ideas along with the bad ones.

What’s even more annoying (to me, as an ex-tribal leftie) is that parts of the right grasp this concept better than the left. The Telegraph (which I’ve spent most of my life loathing) today defends free speech far more stridently than The Guardian (which I’ve spent most of my life reading). Free speech is a progressive idea – how dare those righties take it from us?! But then, the left doesn’t seem to want it any more.

So, for example, here is how I started last Sunday:

A little explanation: last week, idiots in the UK government and Home Office decided to send vans to immigrant areas carrying a pleasant message to illegal immigrants: “Go Home or Face Arrest”. How lovely. The vans were designed to appeal to the racist vote that might be shifting from the Conservatives to the even-more-racist UKIP. The word “wog” is pretty much extinct now, but was a favourite of racists in the 1970s, referring either to black people or all non-whites, depending on preference.

I had sent the tweet on Sunday because I was planning to spend the day at Jamaican independence parties, including one in Brixton, south London.

My tweet had two replies of any substance: a black follower kindly pointed out that Jamaican independence day was actually on Tuesday 6th, not Sunday; and a PC follower objected that the tweet was offensive. Yes, because it included the word “wog”.

Sigh. Let me just point out, again, that offence is taken, not given. Words are not offensive, or harmful, though they have the power to cause offence in some, especially in the more delicate souls among us, the poor fragile dears. And, as we all learned in school, “sticks and stones can break our bones, but words can never hurt me”.

Easily offended Guardianistas are on the rampage against any form of expression that they consider to be offensive. “Free speech doesn’t mean you can cause offence”, they lecture. But yes, morons, it does! The legalisation of homosexuality required speech that offended many people. The abolition of slavery could not have been achieved without “offensive” speech. If you accept that offensive speech can be policed, then all speech is policed. And if you think minorities will actually benefit from such a system you truly are a moron. Censorship only benefits the powerful.

Of all the social media platforms, Twitter is the most tolerant of free speech. While my “wog” tweet remains on Twitter, Facebook not only removed it from my page, but banned me for 12 hours. Yes, a post satirising racism was considered racist because it contained a word considered (by the unthinking) to be offensive. What clearer illustration is needed that censorship is not the solution to racism, or any other nasty attitude?

Given Twitter’s defence of speech, it is no surprise therefore, that well-orchestrated outbursts of rage against Twitter are becoming frequent. The latest anti-Twitter panic also came last week, when some very nasty tweets, including rape threats, were sent to a number of high-profile women. Although I was raised with the feminist idea that women are just as capable as men of looking after themselves, modern-day feminists apparently agree with 1950s women’s magazines that women, like children, need special protection from their benevolent menfolk. Threats against men? No problem. Threats against women? SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!

Threats of violence are as old as mankind, and I can testify that I’ve seen them online for over two decades, and indeed have received many myself. The beauty of free speech is that, left to itself, it allows the good to overcome the bad. High-profile female journalists with many Twitter followers have the perfect solution to abusive tweets: no, not the block button, but the retweet button. Transmit an idiotic comment about rape to 50,000 adoring fans, and the abusive tweeter will soon wish he had kept his mouth shut.

No black person was ever kicked in the balls by the word “wog”, although many black people have been kicked in the balls by police officers, who now (according to some morons) should be preventing people from being offended online. No Jew was ever gassed by a swastika, and no woman was ever raped by a tweet. The most dangerous enemies of free speech are those who argue persuasively that the world will be a better place if just these few words, these few symbols, these communication platforms were just a little more policed.

Of course, censorship advocates are a little more sophisticated, and try to prove that some speech is actually harmful. Rape tweets feed into “rape culture” (they tell us) which leads to actual rapes. Do they provide evidence of this process actually happening? Of course not. They ignore the fact that rape tweets can generate anti-rape tweets in far greater numbers. They forget the lesson, provided to us by Jimmy Savile, the Catholic Church and their supportive police forces, that the greatest victory for rapists is to suppress speech. Only the powerful benefit when some subjects are deemed unworthy of public discussion.

I find it a little annoying when I’m referred to as a “fucking Jew”, as has happened recently, and not for the first time; but I’ll get much more worried when the authorities ban the term in order to “protect” me from being offended. Minorities know better than to trust somebody else with our protection. So long as “offensive” words are allowed, I can defend myself. The moment they are banned, supposedly in order to protect my feelings, is the moment Jews and other minorities can really start to worry.

Under David Cameron’s new Internet filter (aka Internet censorship), this blog will probably find itself blocked to households that have chosen not to see “hate speech”, because it contains terms that the authorities consider hateful. Discussion of hate speech is being crushed under the banner of stopping hate speech. We need to go back and learn again the lessons of the Enlightenment, before we all live in a benign dictatorship that protects everybody’s feelings. Because there’s no such such thing as a benign dictatorship. Surrendering one’s right to free speech by attacking somebody else’s is about the dumbest thing any person can do.

9 thoughts on “Online Free Speech: Sticks And Stones…”

  1. The reservations I have about your argument stem from Goebbels’ view that “if you repeat a lie often enough people believe it to be true” (a procedure the likes of the Express and Mail use regularly about things like The EU and BBC, and also Muslims). If we had a free press in the UK, rather than one controlled by a few media barons and gangsters (Murdoch), then I’d be more with this. Using the context of “hate speech” (which is on the edge of free speech), it’s quite difficult always to tell where this tips over into “incitement to violence” (which is a crime, albeit one prosecuted somewhat selectively), and I think you need either to hold such hate speech up to ridicule, and/or (preferably) have some mechanism to report it and hope the police will do their job competently and even handedly.
    Such things as threats of rape to discourage women from campaigning publicly are clearly unacceptable, but the vast majority of them, I suspect, are empty threats, and probably best dealt with by ridicule (preferably involving – usually -his mother finding out!). The difficult part is make sure all the serious threats are acted upon before anything actually happens. A difficult balancing act involving skill and sensitivity, so we can safely assume it won’t happen!

  2. There are many potential Goebbels around today. The difference is, we can at least partially neutralise them, thanks to things like… this blog for example. And millions of others, as well as Twitter, and Facebook (when it isn’t censoring stuff).

    Give the police a nice vague power, like “preventing abuse on Twitter”, and you can guarantee they will abuse it from day one. Recently, a young Muslim woman in London tweeted a joke about the Woolwich murder. She was responded to with many threats of rape and violence, so she contacted the police. She was prosecuted and found guilty for a “malicious” tweet. Meanwhile none of those who threatened to rape her were contacted. That’s what happens when you think you can improve speech by involving the authorities in regulating it.

    1. I guess a useful guide would be “if I said this to the person’s face, would it be intimidation?” The joke about Woolwich clearly isn’t (it may not be in particularly good taste, but that’s irrelevant). Rape threats are.

      I’m not convinced we need any new laws (as a general rule, and specifically for this), just a sensible (and we have Mr Cameron! not to mention various other morons) application of existing laws to a new communication medium.

  3. As a PS, I think this from @DMReporter (a Daily Mail spoof) sums things up pretty well:

    SAFETY: Prime Minister urges teenagers to boycott ̶r̶̶o̶̶c̶̶k̶ ̶n̶ ̶r̶̶o̶̶l̶̶l̶ p̶̶u̶̶n̶̶k̶ v̶̶i̶̶d̶̶e̶̶o̶ ̶n̶̶a̶̶s̶̶t̶̶i̶̶e̶̶s̶ Ask FM

  4. The argument, “If I said it to their face, would it be intimidation?” has the problem that it is subject sensitive – some people are more easy to intimidate than others and thus it is difficult to identify what comments might be problematic.
    There is also a tendency for people to cry, “I find that offensive,” in response to something which they do not like and wish to suppress without debate or accepting that they are wrong.

    1. Point taken, and you would have to write in some sort of “reasonableness” test in any law (these exist in a number of contexts in law). The alternative to “I find that offensive” is “this causes ….isation [in children]” without providing evidence to support this vague claim. Mark Steel in today’s Indy is pretty good on this (discussing Godfrey Bloom)

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/godfrey-bloom-was-repeatedly-asked-if-his-remarks-were-offensive–but-isnt-that-charge-a-bit-weak-8752152.html

  5. Hi,
    I am one of your “Morons,” which means I am a Bible-believing Christian, Pro-Life, Anti-Islam, and everything else you hate (At least that is what you say on twitter). My handle is @ohionippon. I have been trying to fire up my morons, which includes you guys. Come by and say ‘hi’ sometime.

  6. Spike Milligan summed up the the offensive power of words rather beautifully.

    “I can’t say ‘fuck’ but I can say ‘kill’. Why is this? I’d much rather be fucked than killed.”

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