Monday, 25 July 2016

Social Justice - a new authoritarianism


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I got to thinking about social justice. Partly this was because I'm doing a debate on Wednesday with someone who comes billed as a 'Social Justice Campaigner' and partly because it's a term I see used again and again but which seems to avoid clarity or definition. On the one hand we can point to a right wing version as typified by the Centre for Social Justice:

By combining hands-on experience, public involvement, academic rigour and effective political engagement, the CSJ has been able to work from a foundation that has sparked radical public policy change. Since 2004 we have set out over 800 ideas – published across more than 20 research themes – that would make a transformative difference in people’s lives. Many of these recommendations have influenced the political process significantly, revolutionising a tired debate about poverty and social justice. These include: radical welfare reform through Universal Credit; early years intervention programmes; political commitments to prevent family breakdown; pioneering education reforms; efforts to improve the rehabilitation of offenders and drug addicts; action on street gangs; and support for people with unmanageable debts.

I see this as having the same relationship to Conservatism as Methodism appears to have to English protestantism - at least in so far as I understand these things. Indeed, the CSJ does come across as drawing on a Christian conservative tradition that might be associated with 19th century 'muscular Christians', with G K Chesterton or, more recently, with Pope John Paul II. I'm being careful here because the mixing of religion and politics is always tricky. What is clear from the CSJ position on social justice is that it is about poverty and exclusion rather than inequality per se.

The other hand contains the left wing world of our social justice campaigner - the one I'm seeing on Wednesday is from this organisation:

JUST is a groundbreaking initiative set up by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust in 2003 to promote racial justice in West Yorkshire. Since its establishment JUST has become a leading voice in the North promoting racial justice, civil liberties and human rights. The fall-out from the 2001 Northern Uprisings and the introduction of draconian legislation following the 7/7 London bombings has resulted in civil liberties and human rights increasingly becoming an integral part of our work in the region.

In an era where the Community Cohesion and Prevent agendas have become the key paradigms of government policy and the Race and Institutional Racism agendas have been rolled back by the State, the adverse impact on Black and minority ethnic people has been unprecedented.

BME people continue to be over-represented in poverty, discrimination, NEETS, criminal justice, stop and search, education, poor health and other poor quality of life outcomes. Instead of investment in resources and funding to address the generational and historic systemic and structural discrimination that BME people experience, the government’s ‘war on terror’ has ‘criminalised’ BME and particularly Muslim people and its community cohesion policy has put the burden of good race relation on visible minorities.

We're in a very different place here from the CSJ. Instead of the focus on poverty we have an emphasis on inequality - the view that government and other institutions are contributors to the lack of justice faced, in this case, by BME communities. And we can encounter the same language from others advocating for LGBT, for women's rights and even for religious minorities (this is hinted at with JUST West Yorkshire saying "...particularly Muslim people....").

The question here is whether we have two entirely different definitions of social justice or whether there is a common theme between the anti-poverty positioning of the CSJ and the minority rights approach of JUST West Yorkshire. I did trawl through the philosophical underpinnings of the idea - from John Rawls backwards (always best to work backwards with philosophy) to Locke and Hobbes via Rousseau. As usual with philosophy it's about a penetrable as six-inch thick steel plate but the themes of poverty and equality (or equity) were common as was this idea of a 'social contract'. Indeed this latter concept seems to me quite the central consideration.

The problem is that this social contract is every bit as nebulous as the idea of social justice. Not only is the contract not written down but there seems to be some confusion as to whether it applies to all of humanity or merely to parts of humanity. Is the social contract something sitting at the level of the neighbourhood (say Cullingworth), region or nation? And is the General Will that Rousseau talks about essentially a vocalisation of that social contract? Finally, who interprets or enforces the social contract and how do we know that reflects the General Will?

I'm saying all this, not because I want to answer all those questions (I'm not sure we can), but rather because we need to understand that, if social justice is the enforcement of Rousseau's social contract, it can only be done through authoritarian means and through the preference for communal rights over individual rights. To do this someone - or some organisation - has to become the arbiter of what is or isn't a breach of that social contract or, in other words, is contrary to social justice.

Sometimes all this is pretty straightforward because there is no conflict between individual and communal rights - for example in arguing that it's wrong to exclude someone from employment on the basis of skin colour, gender or sexual preference. But where personal views (and our right to express them) are concerned we can only enforce social justice by denying individual rights. Thus the 'social justice right' may wish to prevent (or actively discourage) 'non-traditional' family arrangements and the 'social justice left' may want to stop the expression of support for such a traditionalist position. Both positions deny people a right - either to live in a non-traditional family or to express opposition to that idea.

The problem is that both sides invoke (at least implicitly) the idea of the social contract in defence of their position. Yet the positions are - for essentially the same reason on each side - mutually exclusive. The left says excluding the non-traditional is unfair or unequal while the right says that the non-traditional arrangements promote poverty and therefore inequality. Social justice cannot be delivered unless one or other position is rejected.

For the right this means championing stable communities, families (in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and often the fear of god. Hard work, community involvement and self-sacrifice in the interest of future generations are held as essential virtues - the social contract is an unwritten commitment to the whole community and that community is local, limited and seeks to be resilient. Social justice is served where everyone is part of secure, supportive and strong communities.

The problem is that this leads to social stasis, to paternalism and to the exclusion of people who reject (or have a different idea of) the essential community virtues. Plus, of course, someone has to define and enforce those virtues, to be the authority.

In the case of the left social justice is served by rejecting homogeneity, placing equality as the primary virtue and ensuring that no actions or speech undermines this primacy. The result is - or aims to be - a homogeneity between communities rather than within communities. Anything that questions the primacy of equality as the social contract's purpose cannot be permitted. Moreover the meaning of equality becomes fluid - it is determined by authority rather than by the reality of access to opportunity. As a result individual rights become secondary as communal rights come to dominate society. It is acceptable to 'no platform' a speaker if it is feared their words might contest the enforcement of the social contract - in ensuring social justice.

I had thought to draw the philosophical line forward down a different route to Giovanni Gentile's transition from Actualism to Fascism where the question of who interprets the General Will was answered though the idea of 'the leader'. The problem, however, is that this takes us - implicit authoritarianism aside - away from the modern position where leadership is more complex. Rather than a single identified leader, we have a sort of groupthink - a hive mind perhaps - that provides the basis on which the General Will is decided and the social contract upheld. Because this collective has market power, authorities bow to the pressure it asserts and exclude those who fail to conform with the perceived General Will.

In the end social justice is really something desired and doesn't need to be defined. The politician who proclaims he is fighting for social justice secures approval by seeming to support some sort of community betterment. The reality is that, whether from right or left, social justice is illiberal and excluding - either by enforcing an intra-communal conformity (the right) or by insisting on an inter-communal conformity (the left). The biggest loss here is, for me, individuality and the accompanying rights to speak, act and live freely.

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Sunday, 24 July 2016

Why it's good to admit to being wrong every now and then...


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I used to work with a chap - forget his name, it was along time ago before I came to Bradford - who, when I'd point out a mistake in his stats or similar, would smile and say: "I may occasionally be in error but I'm never wrong." To be fair this was said with a smile while the mistake was corrected - I always liked him for that.

It was quite a while after this that I discovered Rousseau's idea of the General Will and, importantly, that my colleague's quote was more or less a description of how (paradoxically) the General Will is intrinsically right. Now the problem with this collectivist take on will is, as I'm sure folk have already noticed, that we need to have a way of knowing what that General Will is actually saying.

We can point to democracy as a means of determining what the General Will is saying except that, as us Brits have just discovered, democracy doesn't do this - is 52/48 a statement of General Will to Leave the EU or merely the result of a democratic contest? So, if we can't use voting to determine General Will (and the recent referendum reminds us of this fact) how do we decide? Or maybe the General Will - even badged as 'Common Good' or 'Common Purpose' - really doesn't exist?

For Actualists and latterly Fascists, the answer was simple, the General Will was embodied in the leader and his advisors (in themselves the leaders of the state's 'corporations' - army, business, organised labour, academia and so forth). But we're still stuck with the idea that somebody or some thing is the embodiment of that General Will - meaning, of course, that that person or body is intrinsically right. As the wags might say: "I may have my faults but being wrong isn't one of them!"

It seems to me that, in our sophisticated Western liberal democracies, this General Will has been embodied in a technocratic elite - a sort of Platonic administration by expert. Political decisions are sub-contracted to a process overseen by these experts - at the end of the process the politicians (defined here as the people we elect to represent us) do little other than rubber stamp the conclusions of the experts since these are 'scientific' or 'evidence-based'.

If we take the debate about standardised packaging for cigarettes as an example, we can see that the General Will was embodied in a small number of government bodies, academic departments and lobby groups rather than in the mass of response to the Department of Health's consultation on the proposal:

In total, 665,989 campaign responses were received from 24 separate campaigns. Around two-thirds of campaign responses received were from people who are opposed to the introduction of standardised packaging (total of 427,888 responses) and one-third of campaign responses received were from people who are in support (238,101 responses)...

The problem is that the opposition wasn't from those suitably (in the government's view) qualified to comment and they chose to assess only 'detailed' responses which, surprise surprise, split 53/43 in favour of standardised packaging. It doesn't matter whether or not you agree with the proposal for standardised packaging of cigarettes - the process of confirming the proposal post-consultation ignored the majority of responses because they were insufficiently 'detailed'.

The problem we have here is that there's a reluctance to admit that - regardless of how well 'evidenced' a policy might be, sometimes they are simply wrong. Indeed we know there's evidence of this with the standardised packaging policy:

“From a statistical perspective, none of these changes were different from zero. Over the timeframe of the analysis, the data does not demonstrate that there has been a change in smoking prevalence following the introduction of plain packaging.”

They also insert this important warning: “It is not possible to assign a causal relationship between the changes in the noticeabilty of health warnings or smoking prevalence and the introduction of plain packaging, as there have been a number of other confounding factors that have occurred before and during the period of this analysis.”

All this is merely illustrative of the problem with 'evidence' in making public policy. It's not just that we can't prove the counterfactual (what would have happened if we'd not made the policy decision) but also that appraising whether or not something works in social policy is really difficult - because of those confounding factors implicit in the second paragraph of the quotation above. Again this isn't an argument against the organised and systematic appraisal of public policy but rather a call for something different.

Put bluntly, it would be good for those experts to admit they were wrong every now and then rather than perform tortuous contortions aimed at explaining why, despite all the data (confounded or not) they really aren't wrong.

There is nothing weak about admitting a mistake - of fessing up and saying: "folks, I got that wrong!" Yet it seems that too many of us are constitutionally incapable of making that admission. We make predictions - often sweepingly on the basis of 'I'm an expert and I say' rather than actual research or analysis - and when they turn out wrong, the best we can do is sit quietly in the corner hoping no-one calls us out on our error. Some of the 'experts' are more brazen - denying that was what they predicted, shouting about how you've misunderstood what they said, and insisting that someone else is twisting their words to mean something different.

It's because of this - plus the patronising arrogance us clever folk use too much of the time - that polling tells us that much of the population simply doesn't trust what we're saying. Coupled with shouty and aggressive appeals to authority, we shove aside deductive reasoning and intelligent (if naive) questioning in favour of findings from a focus group of experts or determined by our partisan google searches. Treating the mass of the population as semi-sentient may seem right - what, after all, to those sheep know, they have to be led - but that mass of people doesn't forget and, given the chance, will stick two fingers up at you.

Truth is there isn't any General Will - or Common Purpose for that matter - but rather a moving collection of shared interests that never involve every person. Government - however hard you bash the social policy thing - is a pretty poor way of managing these shared interests. And the futher that government is from the things that actually matter to the folk who (in George Bailey's words) do all the living, working and dying round here, the less effective it becomes.

So my friends, make an effort - admit it when you get something wrong, a prediction doesn't turn out quite as you thought or a policy you backed is a failure. It will be a catharsis for you and will get you a damn sight more respect than trying to pretend you weren't wrong. And, of course, feel free to call me out on this too.

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Saturday, 23 July 2016

Why Africa will leave us behind later this century


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We're still building railways - nineteenth century technology albeit jazzed up with improved kit. Africa - on top of sophisticated mobile telephony (and banking) - will have this:

Norman Foster is often hailed as the inventor of the modern-day terminal-style airport with his design of London’s Stansted. And now, his new plan is to build the world’s smallest airport. For drones. The dynamic, futuristic technology of drones is still mostly associated with the military. But the endless opportunities of the speedy and compact air vehicles are quickly being discovered as their use is expanding in commercial, scientific, recreational and other applications. It is estimated that over a million civilian units were sold in 2015.

Who needs expensive multi-lane highways when, for a fraction of the cost, you can zip in the goods, medicines, and people needed to make the place tick on a drone? And then watch the produce of formerly remote - now connected - places fly off to serve the world. Brilliant.

In the (currently) rich world we're stuck with a creaking and high maintenance transport network because, in a world of drones, autonomous cars and driver less buses, we've convinced ourselves that the answer is spending all the spare cash on high speed trains.

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Why Remain lost (redux)


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Can I start firstly by saying this is a marketing view not a political one (although inevitably there'll be some politics). And secondly that Remain lost the referendum, Leave didn't win it. The campaign to stay in the European Union went from a secure opinion poll lead at the start of 2016 to losing the referendum six months later. At the outset of the campaign - which really started back in January not at the official campaign launch - Remain (or Stronger In) held all the cards. The campaign could count on the support of the three mainstream party leaders, most of the established names in politics, business, academia and science. Plus a reliable stream of celebrities happy to smile at the camera and proclaim "Stronger In".

The 'Stronger In' message - immigration aside - should also have been a winner. Thousands of foot soldiers to be recruited from the direct beneficiaries of EU members, from organisations receiving grants, from the ranks of universities. Big business, local government and the 'third sector' could be relied on to do the right thing in getting that message across.

So what went wrong? Well before some analysis from cleverer marketers than me, I'd like to share a couple of anecdotes (or qualitative analysis if you prefer).

Here in Cullingworth, the Village Hall decided to hold a referendum debate - they'd sounded out some folk in the village who all seemed keen and got a time and date (the venue, of course, would be the hall). A call to the local MP provided a Leave speaker pretty quickly and the Hall then contacted Stronger In - firing an email off to the address on that organisation's website. Nothing. No response at all. The good folk from the Hall chased - still nothing. I messaged the chief executive of the campaign, the Stronger In press office and another In twitter account. No response. Eventually, on the eve of the event, we got a limp phone message: "have you got a speaker?"

As it happened, other avenues had got us a speaker (thank you to Richard Corbett MEP for stepping up). But had we not used those avenues the event wouldn't have happened. The Stronger In campaign had failed at the very first hurdle of any campaign - not responding to enquiries. And, while Will Straw and the Stronger In press office were having a fun spat on Twitter with the much better organised (if smaller and poorer) Leave campaign, they also failed to respond to a request - from a non-partisan organisation - for campaign help.

The second anecdote is about public perception of what the vote was about. I'm sat in the sitting room of some local members - we were actually there to talk about the May local elections - and the referendum, perhaps inevitably, came up. Now these members are both elderly - 70s maybe even 80s - and they spoke about their doubts. Not selfishly but from the perspective of their children and grandchildren - "this is about twenty, thirty, forty years in the future - what sort of Britain we want for them" was the driver of their doubt. Now I don't know how this couple voted but I do know that the Stronger In campaign completely missed their perspective - the public campaign (where it was coherent) was entirely about the next few years.

I picked up this time perception time and time again but the Remain campaign stayed trapped in its short-termism - there was no message that answered my members' question: "what would a Stronger In Britain be like in twenty, thirty or forty years". Other than a sort of grandfatherly (at best) "it won't be good, you know - I wouldn't do it". And this short-termism continues after the Brexit vote - West Yorkshire Combined Authority in a report on 'Brexit implications' described 'long term' as 2017-2018.

I commented before on how the advertising folk - and Remain had access to all the top agencies, a deep well of marketing knowledge - saw the campaign as a shambles, without any positive message and focused more on personalities than on that message. Well here's another comment - focused more on tactical communications issues - from Mike Hind:

It was almost as if Remain actively wanted to exclude you if you read the Daily Express. Tepid offerings of business information and hesitant requests to support them if you’d “like to” hardly spoke of a passion to mobilise people who are generally more turned on by a direct call to arms. It didn’t work for me — and I was a financial contributor to the campaign. A despairing one.

Hind looks at web messaging, brand development and the lack of any apparent strategy. But this paragraph gets to the core of it - there was no message for the elderly couple sat in a Yorkshire sitting room worrying about their grandchildren. Instead Stronger In figures spent time painting these likely (but not certain) Leave voters as if they were pariahs - racist xenophobes, Little Englanders, selfish, ill-educated, lacking in understanding. A communications strategy designed to reassure the core thirty- and forty-something professional audience of Stronger In not a strategy to have a conversation with people in places like Cullingworth who hadn't made their minds up.

As I started out saying - Stronger In, or Remain, began the campaign with all the advantages, all the expertise and the basis of an effective organisation. And blew it. On the evening of polling day - a few minutes after the polls had shut, the BBC interviewed Ed Miliband. It doesn't matter what the MP for Doncaster North said in the interview, it matters where it was conducted - from London. Miliband wasn't where he would have been most effective - in his constituency where he's known, influential and probably liked.

The problem now is that those who campaigned to remain a member of the EU are compounding their error. They're still preferring to paint Leave voters as thick, ill-educated, oafish bigots rather than begin the job of listening to those people. Analyses of voting that confirm this view are shared. Bad news of any sort is leapt on and spread around - whether its reports of xenophobic attacks (do note that West Yorkshire police say there's no post-referendum increase in such attacks) or some snippet of economic news, mostly opinion or anecdote, that confirms the Remain campaign's predictions of short-term doom and gloom.

Right now there's a peace to win. And it won't be won by portraying half the nation as stupid, bigoted, ignorant and selfish. It will be won by presenting the case most of us support - Britain as an outward-looking, co-operative, creative nation that's up for trade, intellectual exchange and, yes, sensibly managed immigration.

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Thursday, 21 July 2016

So the Chinese are buying up Sheffield. Tell me economic nationalists where's the outcry?


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You'll all recall the outcry - much of it pig-ignorant - over the sale of ARM Holdings to a Japanese company. Between people blaming Brexit and a veritiable torrent of slightly leftish economic nationalism we were told that this was a terrible foreign take over. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't (I lean towards the latter - after all I'd be cheering on a British business buying a Japanese company why not the reverse).

What I don't understand it the selective nature of this economic nationalism. I've not picked up anything like the same sort of negative response to this:

In the biggest Chinese investment outside London, Sheffield city council announced that an initial £220m would pay for four or five city centre projects over the next three years and create “hundreds if not thousands” of jobs in south Yorkshire.

The partnership is between Sheffield city council and Sichuan Guodong Construction Group, one of the biggest firms in China’s south-western Sichuan province.

What, dear reader, is the difference between a massive Chinese conglomerate buying up big chunks of Sheffield city centre and the (admittedly larger) inward investment deal that was the ARM takeover? Or for that matter the perennial whining and whimpering about foreign investment in London property? I mean, if you're going to be an economic nationalist - adopt the daft Will Hutton view of industry - then, for heaven's sake, be a consistent economic nationalist.

What we have here is a massive Chinese investment in UK property - celebrated by The Guardian. Just the sort of thing the same paper was railing against a short while ago:

Foreign buyers now own close to 10% of the UK’s housing stock, he claims, and, unchecked, will gobble up much more, increasingly in Manchester, Edinburgh and other regional cities. With the global financial elite numbering at least 15 million, “increasing housing supply can never bring down prices, no matter how much public land and green belt is turned into flats, because the demand for investment returns is almost infinite.”

Thes epeople really do need to make their minds up. Just because this is a snuggly deal between a Labour Council and a big Chinese corporation (with all the lack of accountability that goes with this sort of deal) doesn't make it special or better - it's just as much foreigners buying up British assets as the ARM deal or a thousand other mergers, property investments and stock purchases. All in all a reminder that economic nationalism is stupid.

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Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Brexit means we're leaving the EU - it really is that simple


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"But what does Brexit mean?"

In a multitude of comments, each coloured by the particular preference or prejudice of its author, this is the cry. It's not enough to say you want to Brexit, you have to set out all the precise constitutional, legal, economic, political, cultural and moral details of that Brexit. If you don't do so it isn't Brexit and we can carry on pretending that, on 23 June 2016, the British electorate didn't vote to leave the European Union.

Worse still you can get your lawyer friends to cobble together an argument that might - just might - mean that the referendum result can be ignored in favour of what you'd probably call 'wiser counsel'. And then get surprised when ordinary voters wonder what the hell you're on about and which bit of the word 'democracy' you fail to understand.

Some have a cannier approach - rather than trying to use legal legerdemain to try and get round the fact that people voted a way you didn't like, they set about a process of getting a second referendum so as to get the right result. That result being, of course, one they agree with - that overturns the mistaken decision of those 'excluded' and 'insular' voters last June. We're familiar with this disdain for European electorates - our lords and masters have rammed through second referendums in Ireland and Denmark and, in the case of France, simply ignored the referendum result completely.

In summary Brexit means we're leaving the European Union whether or not you are happy about that. As the Prime Minister said - "Brexit means Brexit".

What was this I heard you say? "What do you mean by 'Brexit means Brexit' then?"

Really? You've not worked this out then? It's simple - the people voted to leave the European Union and, therefore, the government is morally (if not strictly legally) bound to take us out of that Union. That's it - people didn't vote to do anything else and it's for the government to propose, parliament to debate and the application of politics to decide just what the details of leaving might be.

But that doesn't include an option where we ignore the wishes of the electorate and remain a member of the European Union.

In the future all things are possible but right now our government has to set out a timetable and process for leaving the EU. I'm pretty confident that is what it will do and I'm also pretty confident that the government will seek the support of parliament for that timetable and process. And that parliament - if it has any respect for the idea of democracy - will endorse a timetable and process for us to leave the European Union. Probably one pretty close to that set down by the Prime Minister and her government.

I appreciate that there remain a bunch of folk who hate the result of June's referendum. And they've every right to argue for us to stay in (or, in some future scenario, rejoin) the European Union. But right now the right - as in moral, ethical, democratic - thing to do is set about doing what the electorate asked for. That is to leave the European Union.

Now, as a consequence of this, the UK government might have less open borders - "an end to free movement" as its advocates put it. But that's not what we voted for - we voted to leave the EU. Other things may happen as a result of us leaving - we might see more state intervention in industry. We might see an upsurge in the sort of economic nationalism that people like Will Hutton have been advocating for years. And we might see some new regulations and the ending of some old regulations.

The point isn't that these changes are or aren't made but that they will be made by British governments through the UK parliament. And when it becomes clear that ending all but "high skilled" immigration is a bonkers idea, a future UK government can open the borders up again. And the same goes for trade deals, for tariffs, for regulations on the shape of bananas and for much else besides - the final decision, while moderated by treaty and international negotiation, will be made be people we can boot out if they get it wrong.

All Brexit means is that we're no longer a member of the European Union subject to the obligations in the various treaties that form that Union. That's it. Nothing else. Indeed all the other stuff people are talking about - the assorted bogeymen and doom-laden dystopia set out by disappointed Remain voters included - represent the consequence of choices that can, and will, be made by the UK government.

So instead of crying salty tears into your schooner of achingly trendy craft lager try accepting that Brexit means Brexit and moving on to argue for a post-EU Britain that follows the sorts of policy you think right. You might not get those policies - democracy is a pain - but if your policy is to plan to say "I told you so" on a loop tape then you will definitely be disappointed. We're leaving the EU - what matters is making that decision a great one not in either insulting those who made that choice or else sitting with your bottom lip out and arms crossed sulking because your side lost.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Don't kill free speech for the sake of sensibility.

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Somewhere - I don't know precisely as I've not been paying it all that much attention - there's a gathering calling it self "Reclaim the Internet". My Twitter timeline is filled with a steady dribble of reports from this gathering - many from Labour MPs but also photographs showing earnest folk talking about trolls, abuse and how the Internet is a horrible place stuffed with nasty people who live under bridges.

Now I've no doubt - indeed I've witnessed it - that there are plenty of thoroughly unpleasant people hiding in corners of the Internet churning out pretty vile and personal stuff. Anyone who has encountered the less intellectual parts of the 'alt-right', especially the American 'alt-right', will have enjoyed a collection of choice insults, gun-toting threats and plenty of racism. And the sort of stuff that's levelled at Jewish public figures like Luciana Berger is straight up revolting.

So I get the idea of 'reclaiming the Internet'  presumably drawing on the experience of 'reclaim the night' marches that have been a feature of feminist campaigns down the years. Indeed the use of moral suasion and solidarity to sway public opinion is pretty valuable - the fact of saying 'you're not going to stop us, this is our space too' is powerful.

What worries me is that we get - especially when there are politicians involved - a sense of 'something must be done' where that something is almost certainly some form of further constraint on free speech. It's fine for organisations - in the real world or online - to have rules and to enforce those rules (my local Conservative Club is pretty tough on bad language, for example) but when this becomes a means by which the difficult, the challenging and, yes, the unpleasant can be shut down warning bells should go off.

It's even worse if the result of these campaigns is that governments take 'something must be done' as permission for creating a policing system allowing argument to be closed down by reporting the 'abuser' to the authorities. Don't get me wrong here, there are times when this is absolutely right, but too often the opportunity is taken to close down real debate and, worse, to conduct a political attack using reporting.

The, now thankfully neutralised, 'standards' process in local government tells me that having a quasi-legal process driven by reports of supposed wrongdoing presents less scrupulous politicians with the opportunity to undermine opponents, to destroy careers simply through reporting someone to the beak. And it doesn't matter much whether the person reported actually did much wrong, the fact of the reporting is sufficient.

So when you see someone Tweeting "I've blocked and reported @pigeonpost for being a vile troll", what you are seeing is something that is an attack on @pigeonpost - by all means block and report but waving this fact around the Internet is pretty poor behaviour when it might be that the worst @pigeonpost has done is lost his or her rag (and it's not your call whether the medium's terms and conditions were breached). It's also indulging in the same trolling behaviour you're accusing @pigeonpost of using.

In the end the price of free speech is that people can be - and often are - pretty vile. This isn't just true online (as any visit to a city centre pub late on a Saturday night will tell you) but clearly causes some consternation online. So complain and protect, encourage good manners, insist that terms and conditions of social media are adhered to, but please don't use abuse as a reason for restricting speech, for giving to politicians, public officials and campaigners the tools to shut up those whose only offence is to be rude or inarticulate in their opposition to such folks' agendas.

Free speech matters. It is one of the protections - too few of them - we have from the worst of government. Governments don't like free speech and will find ways to limit it. Ways to stop you from saying what you want to say. Too often I pick up little whispers - "I know I'm not supposed to say this but..."  And yes, sometimes this is racist, sexist, anti-gay but I can challenge that, explain why it's wrong - if they can't say it and take that challenge will they not remain racist, sexist or anti-gay? And won't that speech become hidden and in doing so become more extreme by developing only with affirmation and never challenge?

So, in reclaiming the Internet do remember that you're reclaiming a place of free speech, filled with the jokes, opinions, stupidity and rudeness humanity churns out. It's mostly ephemeral, often thin in thought, but for many people it's the way they get to sound off, to explode with fury, to celebrate, to share joy. Don't kill this because there's a few who think it grand to swear and cuss, to issue threats and to parade their nastiness for all to experience. Don't do in free speech for the sake of sensibility.

PS There probably is a Twitter user called @pigeonpost and I'm sure they're not remotely offensive - it was just slung down as an anonymous name, hopefully no-one's upset!
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