Free Speech, “Rape Threats” and the War on Twitter

Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)
Control-freaks hate Twitter (cartoon released into the public domain by Carlos Latuff)

British leaders often invoke the idea that Britain is a “beacon of freedom”. Anyone paying attention though, will note that free speech has always been strongly restricted in the UK: far more so than in the United States, where it is constitutionally protected. Sadly, most British people seem to have a vague understanding of what free speech is, or why it is so important. This lack of love for free expression runs across the political spectrum; of the three large parties, only the Liberal Democrats show any real interest in protecting it.

But the rot isn’t just within the political parties. By demoting free speech behind “security”, “protecting children” or simply “protecting against offense”, our political leaders are merely reflecting the attitudes of their supporters. I’m regularly told, by both righties and lefties, that “free speech doesn’t mean all speech” or “free speech is all very well, but there must be lines in the sand”. Thus demonstrating they don’t understand the basic meaning of the word “free”. Protection of free speech must include “bad” speech, by definition. After all, the ideas that women should get the vote or that homosexuality should be decriminalised were once “dangerous” ideas.

Despite the regular self-congratulations about how free we are, Britain has always had a censorious, paternalistic culture towards “protecting” its citizens from the menace of genuinely free expression. Our television is the most censored in Europe, and our government regularly blocks bigoted loud-mouths from entering the country (as if we didn’t excel in creating our own bigoted loud-mouths). This situation was suddenly disrupted by the arrival of the consumer Internet around 20 years ago, which brought truly uncensored expression to British people for the first time. With the later appearance of Web 2.0 – meaning tools that allowed non-technical people to easily publish content – true free expression accelerated further.

So the powers that be – government, police and media corporations – have always had an unspoken desire to rein in online free speech; to take us back to the 1980s, when they could largely control the flow of information to the masses.

Twitter, a classic Web 2.0 creation, is quite probably the most free mass medium of them all. It represents America’s First Amendment distilled and productised. It allows people to publish what’s on their minds in an instant, and for popular ideas to be rapidly propagated. Twitter is the great leveller: it favours the unknown over the famous. Well-known individuals will always find themselves the butt of jokes and personal attacks, simply because they’re famous. On Twitter, the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Needless to say, British authoritarians, control freaks and the fascist-minded hate Twitter. Our authorities have tried to keep American free speech at bay since the US Constitution was written, but now it has invaded our country: and we should be pleased of that. Since Twitter’s birth, it was only a matter of time before war was declared on the platform. The police have been flexing their muscles for some time. Since Paul Chambers went to court in the infamous Twitter Joke Trial in 2010, authorities have increasingly tried to take control of online speech. But Chambers attracted great public support; the authorities had chosen the wrong target.

The real War on Twitter began in mid-2013, when a well-orchestrated moral panic was launched. The clear aim of the panic is to create support for the idea that Twitter is a dangerous medium, and must be controlled. And sadly, many people – conservative and liberal – have swallowed the propaganda hook, line and sinker. The word “troll” – which originally referred to deliberately provocative posters in online chat forums – was appropriated by the media and redefined to mean “someone who is offensive online”. This now appears in a variety of contexts such as “abusive Twitter troll”, “misogynistic troll”, and so on.

Twitter has a block button, which easily hides future tweets from people one doesn’t want to see. I try not to ever use it (it would be pretty hard to watch morons if I did), but the mechanism works well for those who do. This means that the more delicate souls can forget that there are rude, foul-mouthed, abusive people on Twitter, if they want to.

The panic had clearly been primed and ready to go for some time. It found its perfect moment when a campaign was launched in 2013 to keep women on British banknotes, following the announcement of a new £5 note to be launched in 2016. A journalist, Caroline Criado-Perez, tweeted in support of the campaign, and received a number of offensive tweets in response: some of the abuse reportedly featured rape threats. Criado-Perez is an attractive, middle-class, young, blonde woman; the War on Twitter had its perfect victim, and operations commenced.

Another female journalist, who followed events on the day, tells me that Criado-Perez only received a handful of abusive tweets; and yet the event was picked up by the press and massively exaggerated. The tweets, from a handful of morons, became a “torrent”, and a “barrage”. A number of female journalists began an ironically patriarchal campaign, the subtext of which was that women are more delicate than men, and should not have to tolerate the nasty language that men do. Online death threats to men (of which I’ve received, and laughed off, many) are just boys being boys, but rape threats to women are beyond the pale.

Over the past six months, the campaign has been pumped up by the media on a regular basis. Learning from the Criado-Perez experience, the bulk of the coverage is dedicated to the online abuse of attractive young women. Feminists of the Women’s Lib generation might spot the misogynistic message being deployed here, but it appears not to have been widely noticed, with many self-declared feminists attacking “sexist Twitter trolls” rather than the sexist concept that women, unlike men, can’t handle nasty words being thrown in their direction.

Eventually, two young morons – a man and a woman, came to trial for abusing Criado-Perez. Yes, a total of two, despite the “torrent” of abuse reported at the time. The trial’s coverage was riddled with misogyny and class snobbery. Photographs of the overweight, unattractive pair were juxtaposed with the blonde demureness of Criado Perez. “Look at these oiks, abusing such a nice, middle class lady”, the news outlets (almost) screamed.

The hysterical coverage of “Twitter trolls” has set out to demonstrate that the problem of unregulated speech is real, harmful, and getting worse. The prosecution stated that:

“Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter”

The poor, delicate little thing (did I mention she’s blonde?)

I’m probably being unfair to Criado-Perez here; the Crown Prosecution Service were clearly desperate to get a conviction and extend British law into controlling what people can say in public. The prosecution may well have misrepresented and exaggerated her true feelings in their lust to increase their power over public discourse.

In my 25 or so years of online discussion, I’ve experienced far more abuse than I can remember. It includes threats of harm, anti-Semitic and racist comments, and endless personal attacks. And yet the idea of people being prosecuted for mere speech – however ugly the speech – horrifies me far more than the worst Holocaust joke I’ve seen. One of the preconditions for the Holocaust to take place was to silence Jews and other minorities. Free speech protects the most vulnerable in society. The idea that police should have any role in controlling expression is a horrific one, and can only have horrific consequences; and yet those who should be defending our free speech have fallen at the first hurdle because – shock horror – free speech means people might say nasty words to nice people.

It is tragic that, centuries after the Enlightenment, liberals still need educating in why free speech – even including nasty, bigoted, hateful speech – must be protected. Women, minorities and the poor are never protected by giving increased censorship powers to the state. In 1789, America’s founders recognised this and outlawed censorship in their Constitution. 235 years later, it’s about time Britain followed their example.

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.

Conservative Feminism and the Right to Offend

This week, the fight to censor British media and art – even more than is done already – took a bizarre new turn, as pro-censorship “feminist” groups Object and UK Feminista launched an attack against Lads’ Mags. This attack can trace its roots to American morality campaigners in the 1980s, and it’s worth exploring a little history.

From the 1960s all the way through to the 90s, the British media scene was haunted by a pro-censorship figure; a devout Christian who believed her faith entailed the right to stop any British person from seeing anything that she personally found offensive. Mary Whitehouse was widely mocked throughout her campaigning life, which coincided with the greatest upswing of liberal attitudes in modern British history. She railed against the “permissive society”, in which her Christian morals came under assault from every side: the second-wave feminists were declaring the rights of women to enjoy sex without censure; abortion and homosexuality were legalised; TV and the theatre risked showing nudity, and society failed to collapse. There was plenty of work for a morality campaigner to do, but Whitehouse undertook it with a ferocious energy that gained her admirers, even among her enemies.

Although she was a figure of fun for most people, Whitehouse left her mark on British society: we became, and remain, the most censored country in Europe, other than Catholic Ireland and Poland. Her lobbying organisation, Mediawatch-UK, outlived her, and actively campaigns against “permissiveness” to this day.

But in the 1980s, the pro-censorship cause gained surprising new supporters. The feminist movement, once as far removed from Whitehouse as could be possible, split, and a new conservative wing of feminism emerged. The new, pro-censorship feminism was as moralistic as the 1960s feminists had been libertarian, as determined to cover up all female flesh as the previous generation had been to flaunt it – whether as a political statement, or just because…

Now, post-Whitehouse, media morality campaigns are spearheaded, not by conservative Christians, but by conservative feminists (though it must be suspected that many Christian morality campaigners have sought camouflage in the puritanical feminist movement).

This week’s salvo from the morality crusaders works as follows: they declare that any public display of sexuality – nudity, semi-nudity, or anything they deem to be sexual – “demeans” women. All female flesh must be covered up, in order to “protect” women.

The tactic they employ is to declare that any shop that sells potentially “offensive” material – lads’ mags in this case – constitutes sexual harassment, and thus an attack on civil rights, against any female employee in the shop. Women are, according to this doctrine, weaker and more delicate than men, and thus must be protected. This message is, of course, an anti-feminist one. But amidst the hysteria, many middle-class “feminists” seem not to have noticed, and are embracing this deeply patriarchal concept.

The tactic means that any woman who feels “harassed” or “offended” by having to even share a building with “sexualised” material can sue her employer. This isn’t an original idea; it was invented by a US lawyer, Catharine Mackinnon, who was one of America’s leading conservative feminist morality campaigners in the 1980s. This “civil rights” approach to attacking sexual expression turns censorship from something the state does, into something anybody can do. Any woman who feels she is offended, or “demeaned”, by a smiling photo of a semi-naked woman can claim that her rights have been violated, and sue for damages.

The Mackinnon attempt failed; to allow such challenges would fundamentally undermine free speech, and this is clearly protected under the first amendment of the US Constitution. What Object and UK Feminista are not making clear is what should be obvious to anyone: if a person can sue for finding something “demeaning”, then anything can, and will, be censored. Offence is taken, not given, and almost everything offends somebody. Religious groups will find lads’ mags offensive. And Page 3 of the Sun. And gay publications. Some atheists will find religious material offensive, and surely a Christian bookshop worker could sue for having to sell The God Delusion? Fundamentalist Christians could find Muslim or Jewish publications offensive, and vice-versa. White and black supremacists may object to imagery showing mixed-race couples.

Art galleries will be sued for showing any kind of sexual or other controversial object – for example, erotic Roman sculptures currently on display at the British Museum. All expression will come under attack. The possibilities are endless.

Am I just guessing? No; the Mackinnon law, which failed to gain traction in the US, was adopted in Canada in 1992. The result: “controversial” material – and in particular feminist and gay publications – was seized. Gay bookshops were raided. The Canadian state revelled in its new powers of censorship. All the censors had to do, if they wanted to ban something, was to find one person who found that thing offensive.

Are Object and UK Feminista just well-meaning but naive? Unlikely. These groups know better than anyone the history of what they are trying to do, and the chilling effects this tactic would have on free expression. What is really disheartening is the rush of “feminist” supporters to back these morality groups in the mistaken belief that feminism is about begging “The Patriarchy” to protect weak, sensitive, helpless women from anything they might find demeaning (which has, it seems, come to mean “icky”). What is tragic is the widespread belief that the very sexual freedoms won by the 1960s feminists are themselves a threat to women’s rights.

I have a fundamental problem with people who are prepared to be easily offended. About anything. In fact, I find them offensive. Object and UK Feminista will find themselves as easily censored as anybody else if their “civil rights” approach to censorship succeeds; I suspect they don’t care. They are the modern-day successors to Mary Whitehouse, and if they succeed in banning all “offensive” material, they will have finished the job she began in 1963, when she set out to attack – more than anything else – the sexual liberation of women.

[PS – As I’m so often informed that I, being a mere man, have no right to comment on feminist issues, here are a couple of other good articles on the Lads Mag campaign, written by women.]

Georgia Lewis: Losing lads’ mags and the slippery slope of censorship

Gemma Ahearne: Dangerous Dolls: ‘Object’ and Lose The Lads’ Mags