Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The progressive left don't believe in free speech - and will redefine speech to pretend otherwise...


Free speech is important. It's not just me saying that most people think free speech is one of our core values:

When asked what British values are, the most-chosen answers from all respondents were: respect for the law (69%); respect for free speech (66%); democracy (64%); respect for private property (62%); and equality between men and women (61%).

Now I know we can argue over what we mean by values but there's no doubt that most people have been raised with an essential belief in free speech. The problem comes when we begin to discuss what we mean by this free speech. Do we actually mean that people have the right to say whatever they like free from consequence? Take this comment from Norman Tebbit:

‘I’m not a particular friend of Leon Brittan, but this gentleman could equally well get up and accuse me of things like this – and I wouldn’t care for that. In fact I’d probably go round and smack him on the nose.’ 

This comment was in the context of parliamentary privilege - a peculiar form of free speech where there are, quite literally, no consequences. But in the context of free speech the words that upset Norman Tebbit enough for him to 'go round and smack him on the nose' are protected whereas the consequential physical violence isn't. However, in most circumstances, if we can demonstrate that the words spoken are untruthful, offensive and damaging then we have recourse to the law to get them withdrawn and to secure compensation.

None of this restricts free speech. You are quite at liberty to libel someone but you do so at the risk of having to withdraw the words and pay the offended person. However, we have added some other constraints on free speech within the criminal law through, for example, the Racism and Religious Hatred Act 2006. These constraints take the form of acting in response to words seen as incitement (in the case of the Act above, incitement to hatred). We have also seen constraints placed on 'offensive' or 'threatening' speech where it is broadcast or published including via social media like Twitter or Facebook. And finally we have direct and specific restrictions on free speech in the form of bans and controls on certain forms of commercial speech. The best example here is the ban on advertising tobacco products.

So while we say free speech is important we have allowed limits to be placed on speech that mean it is not always free and unlike the USA we have no First Amendment merely the goodwill of parliament in protecting our freedom. And this allows people to play a game of redefining what we mean by speech in order to justify censorship. Here's Anshuman A. Mondal setting out the premise for his justification of such censorship:

However, in his seminal book How to Do Things with Words, the Oxford philosopher J L Austin developed something known as 'speech act theory'. He argued that there were two broad categories of speech: the first, which he called 'constatives', are simply descriptive and informational; the second he called 'performatives', and they don’t simply say something, they do something. These forms of speech are therefore a kind of action.

In my book Islam and Controversy: The Politics of Free Speech after Rushdie, I argue that the giving and taking of offence are performative speech acts in Austin’s sense. They act upon the world and the work they do is political insofar as they aim to establish a power relation between offender and offendee. Put simply, to offend someone is to subordinate them, to put them down. Conversely, to take offence is to draw attention to that subordination.

So we have two sorts of speech - one (facts and figures or stuff like that) Mondal would allow to be free while the other (opinions, observations and exhortations) should be constrained because to use such language is an act of oppression. Mondal argues (from his premise based on one philosopher's work) that the second type of speech isn't speech but action and thereby no different from Norman Tebbit's smack on the nose. Thus:

If some forms of speech are actions, then it follows that restricting or regulating them does not necessarily diminish freedom in speech in general, just as restrictions on some acts – say, robbery or murder – do not jeopardise freedom as such. Otherwise, the only true freedom would be anarchy.

Now this may be an entirely circular argument since you have to accept Austin's philosophical position that certain types of speech are actions, but it also raises a definitional problem because you have to set the boundary between speech that is protected and speech that isn't. And it is clear that Mondal intends this definition to be in the hands of the offended person - if they are offended then the speech should not be protected. Not only has Mondal redefined speech but, in doing so, he also redefines freedom (or rather suggests there is more than one sort of freedom):

If giving and taking offence is the idiom through which struggles over freedom and equality are being articulated in contemporary society then a society that desires a balance between freedom and equality is perfectly entitled to restrict and regulate offensive speech acts, either by legal means or through moral pressure. This is not the threat to freedom of speech that some might take it to be, but rather a shaping of the kind of freedom we, as a political community, believe to be desirable.

In essence we have the progressive dilemma - a vocal assertion of civil liberties combining with the desire to control the words people use through fiat. To square this particular circle it is essential to redefine both parts of the term 'free speech'. Thus some speech is redefined as action (not objectively different from a smack on the nose) and freedom is framed in the context of equality rather than individual autonomy. Neither of these new definitions make sense to the ordinary person, we are in a world where it isn't possible for a black person to be racist or a woman sexist.

Lastly such a redefinition hands to others an absolute power over what is said - I cannot predict whether what I say will 'offend' because the choice to be offended is not in my control. Moreover, Mondal want certain protected groups to have a monopoly in the use of law to police that offence. It is commonplace to see someone who isn't actually 'offended' by some speech arguing that the speech is 'offensive'. In effect no speech is protected and what we understand as free speech ceases to exist.

The result of this is that things that needed to be said don't get said for fear of someone badging what is said offensive. And this has enormous and damaging consequences for our society. Free speech is important, too important to be defined by whether or not someone is offended by that speech.


Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Why everyone is right about immigration...


City-AM published a piece of mapping showing - or purporting to show - the lack of relationship between high levels of immigration and UKIP voting habits.

The results are similar across England and Wales, with Ukip's key messages on Europe and immigration hitting hardest in the areas with the fewest immigrants. 

Now I could quibble with the conclusions made about the map since the Boston area clearly shows some of the highest proportions of residents with a non-British nationality and UKIP is pretty strong there - it's one of the places where they've a better than evens chance of winning in next year's general election.

But this isn't the point I want to make. Rather I want to argue that only relatively small numbers of immigrants are needed to alter people's perceptions of immigration. So we'll start with this statement from the article accompanying the maps:

Ukip's first elected MP, Douglas Carswell, represents the coastal seat of Clacton, where residents with a non-British nationality make up between one and three per cent of the population.

Clacton's electorate is 67,447 - is 1-3% of these people are not UK citizens that's 1349 adults, Add in children and we've between two and three thousand immigrants in Clacton. I'm going to guess that these immigrants are concentrated in the parts of the constituency with low cost housing, often (and this is especially true of seaside towns) close to the centre of town. There'll be a shop saying 'Polski Sklep' or similar that caters for the community. One of the pubs in town will become a gathering place and there'll be a collection of lurid and overblown stories about crime or violence. Someone, somewhere will say the town is being 'swamped' by 'these people'.

So while folk like me who say that immigration is far less of a problem than people make out are right, it's also true that these perceptions - the impact of immigrants on how people see a place - are true. People do see that their town has changed, and don't always see that change as being for the best. And we shouldn't dismiss such botheration as 'xenophobia' or 'racism' or those who express concerns as narrow-minded little Englanders (or whatever chosen pejorative us who know better have selected).

If there is a solution then it lies in getting to know the immigrant, in breaking out from the 'Parallel Lives' situation that described Bradford after the riots of 2001. Now I think a good deal of the onus here is on the immigrant to respect local culture, mores and rules - it is completely unreasonable for us to be expected to change the way we talk, act or otherwise behave so as to accommodate immigrants. But this also means that one of those old customs - being a good and welcoming host - applies. And this is down to us who already live here.

Three years ago I wrote about the village where I live:

Friday night, Cullingworth Conservative Club and it's quite busy. There are a few blokes who've chosen to watch the rugby here rather than at home as well as the usual Friday night collection. Some people are playing dominoes in the corner, others are playing snooker and the rest are sitting or standing to talk and drink.

All very typical of that English culture which presents such a barrier to those from different cultures we might say. But let me invite you to take a little closer look - and to discover why the separate development theory of multiculturalism was wrong.

Stood, pint in hand, with the rugby watchers is Manu - newsagent, Parish Councillor, avid Bradford City fan. Across the lounge sits another middle-aged Asian lady with her friend - her white, bottle-blonde friend. Occasional side conversations are held between her and others passing by - some older, some younger. Friendly exchanges about shared experiences in village, mutual acquaintances and other such matters of moment.

Among the domino players is Pete - Chinese takeaway owner and former ping-pong player. Pete's also on the club committee and, while his accent's a bit impenetrable after a few lager & blackcurrants, he's as much part of the Club and the village as anyone else.

I'm pretty sure that, if I put my head round the corner past the one-armed bandit, there'll be a selection of the Brown clan - mostly third or fourth generation in the village and varying in colour from dark brown to a good sun tan. And sitting with them will be friends and neighbours, girlfriends and boyfriends - also native to the village but with a paler hue.

And there will be others less noticeable among the crowd. People whose parents arrived after the war from Eastern Europe, for example. Beyond the Club, there's a Muslim lady who's our GP, there's 'Smiler' who owns the general store and many others who - like me - aren't from the village. Yet we seem to get along alright. There aren't all that many fights - and these won't usually result from racism.

This is the sort of world we should aspire to and it isn't served by wanting to stop all immigration now nor is it helped by telling anyone who expresses worries about immigration that they're thick xenophobic racists.


Monday, 27 October 2014

In which the left remind us they hold the electorate in contempt (if they vote the wrong way)

I've no time for UKIP at all. Not only are their policies confused, swaying from gung ho libertarianism to proposing frightening degrees of state control, but the Party's strategy is entirely defined by Nigel Farage's desire to damage the Conservative Party. I find UKIP's approach almost as opportunistic as the old Liberal Democrats - chap down the pub complains about the smoking ban and UKIP want to scrap it. And when he moves on to not liking gay people getting hitched UKIP bounce onto that bandwagon.

But it's not the bloke in the pub's fault that UKIP act as an echo chamber for his prejudices, he's just doing what he has always done - sounding off about the ills of the world. And some of what he says is right - the smoking ban killed thousands of pubs along with the jobs of people who worked in those pubs, the EU is an undemocratic and unaccountable nightmare we'd be better off without and there are too many jobsworths at the Council.

But disagreeing with that bloke isn't a justification for being rude about him, for treating him with contempt. Yet this - and the poster above reminds us - is exactly how the left think we should campaign against UKIP. By calling the people who vote for that party "thick". Now I know this is the default view that the typical Guardian reader has of the working class or lower middle class voter, perhaps it reflects a deep disappointment that some of those voters no longer dutifully vote Labour as they're supposed to do (this may reflect the fact that the Labour candidate they're given - middle class, university educated, full of fancy words - doesn't hold or respect those voters' values). But it displays an utterly appalling arrogance.

If the left really want to respond to UKIP (rather than hope enough damage is done to the Conservatives that Ed Miliband gets to be PM on the votes of a third of the electorate) then they need to start listening to what the bloke in the pub is saying. Responding to his concerns about immigration, trying to understand why he's bothered about gay marriage and discussing what's wrong with the EU. Calling him thick is to guarantee that he'll carry right on voting UKIP. Why on earth should he vote for someone who thinks he's an idiot and isn't prepared to listen to what he's saying?

These are ordinary voters who are worried about things they see around them. They aren't stupid, they're not thick and they deserve our respect. If the left can't do that it deserves to be wiped out.


Sunday, 26 October 2014

In defence of anonymity...


Writing at Conservative Home, Charlie Elphicke the MP for Dover and Deal has called for the banning of anonymity on social media:

We should target the anonymity hate-tweeters use to harass people online. At the moment it’s just too easy to set up a bogus account and viciously stab at people from behind the curtain. Ensuring people can’t set up anonymous accounts would mean hate-tweeters would be forced to be responsible for the hate they spew.

Elphicke goes on somewhat egregiously to suggest that wanting to ban anonymity isn't a free speech issue arguing this point by creating a new definition of free speech that no-one had used until he dreamt it up:

There are some who will claim this undermines the principle of free speech. They are wrong. It’s an insult to all those who fought for our right to speak out. Free speech is not there to protect people who spread hate while hiding their identity.  The whole point of free speech is the right to speak freely in your own name.  There is also a big difference between the privacy of surfing the internet and claiming “privacy” in aid of anonymity to launch attacks on people. There should be no hiding place for the trolls.

Unlike Mr Elphicke I think this is absolutely a free speech issue and the right to speak anonymously - whether offline or online - is an essential element of that liberty that, in the MP's words people "fought for". And there are very good reasons why we should allow anonymity. Here's one:

A blogger who used the user name, "Miut3" was kidnapped and killed in Reynosa Tamaulipas. She was a "Tuitera" with the over 41k followers on her popular twitter page, that sent out situations of risk, and narco news tweets.

This women - a 'citizen journalist' in a place where the mainstream media and government is coerced by violent criminals - used anonymity to protect herself and to allow the brave resistance to the Mexican borderland's dysfunctional society. If the price of allowing this woman and others like her to challenge and question criminal conspiracy, corruption and murder is that some people use anonymity to post abuse then it's a price I'll take.

Now I can hear Mr Elphicke saying that the UK isn't Mexico and that things are different here. But imagine some other situations - perhaps someone wants to expose wrongdoing within their industry. Do you think that posting under their own name would enhance their career prospects? People simply won't take the risk.

Look at the great blogs exposing some of the management problems in the police - closed down because the blogger got identified. We'd be worse as a society without blogs like Night Jack. And there are tweeters and bloggers who use anonymity to catalogue their struggles with drug addiction or alcoholism safe knowing that anonymity protects their life from intrusion and attack.

Look also at the lengths to which public authorities will pursue bloggers who challenge and criticise them - local councils such as Bexley, South Tyneside, Carmathen and Barnet have all expended council taxpayers money pursuing bloggers (with differing degrees of success). Anonymity facilitates challenge and criticism and this is one of the reasons why public authorities are so keen to see it stopped.

It isn't pleasant to be abused online anymore than it's pleasant to be abused in the street, the pub or at work. But most of the time we walk away, a little upset maybe but not otherwise harmed. The same applies online - switch off the computer, go and make yourself a cup of tea and read a book or watch the telly. The abusers will soon go away if they don't get a response. And don't - unless you're a troll yourself - play the silly game of broadcasting on Twitter, Facebook or your blog that you're being 'trolled'. All that does is make you even more of a target - you've responded so the trolls know they'll get a rise from you.

So I say to Charlie Elphicke, get a thicker skin, stop claiming it's all "for the children" when it's not and read and remember the final tweet from Miut3 - posted by her murderers:

Friends and Family, my real name is Maria del Rosario Fuentes Rubio, I am a doctor, now my life has met it's end.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Values? The one that really matters is freedom...

Queueing for bread - socialist values in action

This is a pretty typical framing of a left wing values statement - from Julian Dobson:

And that brings us back to values. Do we want a society that turns competitiveness into a totem, blames individuals for social problems and judges success on earnings and rates of return? Or are we looking for something more inclusive and creative, places that recognise the value generated by people’s imagination and relationships and passion for the common good? 

And the typical slightly green, middle-class leftie will feel a little shudder of affirmation through the bones at this statement. Absolutely, our lefty might say, this statement clearly separates the uncaring, individualist from the caring, sharing collectivist. They might add little mutterings about 'trickle down' or 'profits' before smiling again as the high plateau of collaborative, cooperative glory comes into view.

The problem with all this is that it is a delusion, a deliberate self-deception. All this enthusiasts for ending the dark and evil neo-liberal world and ignorant of its central truth - that far more than the state-directed, protectionist systems our caring lefties aspire to create, free market systems are absolutely about inclusion, creativity, passion value generation, imagination and mutual benefit. The secret lies in that magic word 'free' and it is all that freedom that gave us the wealth to ponder such matters as 'values'.

Once the matter of values was something for priests and philosophers. Most ordinary people - and this still stands for a great deal of today's world - were way too busy keeping body and soul together to bother about what it all meant. Then something happened. It wasn't a planned economy, it was a spark of liberty that set us free. And we became free because the trap of subsistence was removed, we could lift our head up from the daily drudge and think about those values, about what we thought the world should be like.

And the match that ignited those flames of freedom wasn't a law, it was capitalism, the liberal enlightenment that opened up trade and allowed business to innovate, to create and to transform - in just a few decades - the entire world.When the likes of Julian Dobson paint free markets in negative terms, when they demonise the idea of choice by talking about competition as a negative, and when they dismiss individual material success as somehow distasteful or exploitative, what these people do is build a mighty man of straw, a grand lie.

This lie is essential to socialism - without that mighty straw man representing capitalism's sins the logic of the left collapses into the terrible reality of a place where people queue for seven hours to buy some flour and some milk. This, rather than sunlit uplands, is the consequence of that focus on the "common good" - for there is no common good other than that determined by the interactions, transactions and exchanges of the people. And the best way to get those mutual benefits isn't through committees, co-operatives and regulations but through free exchanges in a free market. That is why the left must make a demon of liberty because they can't admit that free choice, free exchange and free speech is the best road to a good society, to a place where those values they prattle on about are met for everyone.


More nonsense about urban farming...

Urban farming, some believe, is the solution to all our problems. Rather than shifting food from distant locations to the urban communities where we live, we farm the corners, roundabouts and gardens and cultivate diused land so as to feed ourselves. It's all terribly jolly and green, typified by the Incredible Edible programme in Todmorden. I love it, the randomness, the cheeky nature of swooping on a little patch of urban green and seeding it with herbs is great.

However, when people start taking this stuff seriously they start talking nonsense. Here's a report from some professors at Sheffield University:

THE COUNTRY may only have 100 harvests left because of intensive over farming unless drastic action is taken, according to university scientists

They say the problem has depleted the soil of the nutrients needed to grow crops and suggest converting parts of the UK’s towns and cities into new farmyards.

Scientists from Sheffield University warn that a lack of bio-diversity is causing a dramatic fall in the country ‘s wildlife populations.

A study by Dr Jill Edmondson has also found that soils under Britain’s allotments are significantly healthier than soils that have been intensively farmed.

Now I'm going to take the scientists' information at face value - it really isn't surprising that the soil in allotments, lovingly and intensively managed by the hobby horticulturalist, is better than the soil on the typical commercial farm. But that really doesn't make it either sensible of viable to replace the production from farmland with production from gardens or allotments. More significantly, yields from commercial farming as vastly higher than yields from hobby farming. Despite stagnant yields in some crops, there's not much evidence to suggest that the dire predictions from the Sheffield University team will come to pass.

However there's another important point to be made here which is about land use and land values. We know that urban and rural land values are massively different. According to Savills the average value for farmland in Great Britain is £9,750 per acre whereas residential development land can be values at £900,000 per acre of higher. Quite obviously there is no way in which the value of the land for other uses (housing, parkland, highway, commercial or industrial) can be substituted for agricultural use and for the farmer to be able to recover his outlay from the profits generated by growing stuff.

As one comment on urban agriculture put it:

What today’s enthusiastic locavores ultimately fail to understand is that their “innovative” ideas are not only up against the Monsantos of this world, but also in a direct collision course with regional advantages for certain types of food production, economies of scale of various kinds in all lines of work and the fact that pretty much anything they can achieve in urban environments can be replicated at lower costs in the countryside. These basic realities defeated sophisticated local food production systems in the past and will do so again in the foreseeable future.

While no one argues against the notion that our modern food production system can be improved, and entrepreneurs are always searching how to do so, the desire to make urban agricultural a viable commercial reality distracts from more serious issues such as international trade barriers and counterproductive domestic agricultural subsidies. The sooner well-intentioned activists understand these realities, the better. 

The right response is to work on either protecting biodiversity and soil quality in intensive agriculture or at opening up more land (not just in the UK, America and Europe but in Africa and Asia) to productive agricultural uses. Suggesting that Sheffield's twee Love Square - or any similar sort of project - is any kind of solution to food supply challenges is arrant nonsense. But it's so much more fun to play at farmer in our spare time and to prattle on about urban food production.

Hardly a day passes without some further argument support intensification and densification within urban communities. It's as if that science fiction image of cities captured in biodomes, self-sufficient and shiny but surrounded by wilderness, has become the real ambition of the green movement. What they miss is that the image was always a convenient plot structure rather than a painting of a real future, a way for the writer to explore the logical conclusions - good and bad - of urban living.

The sad part of this green myth-making is the seriousness with which some folk treat it - they seem unconnected to economic reality as they pretend their sweet world of sustainable towns peopled by walking, cycling allotment owners is anything but a greenwashed version of subsistance agriculture - the very form of poverty that we escaped from by moving to cities and creating the modern capitalist society.


Thursday, 23 October 2014

Modern urbanism defined - build places people don't want to live in and call it 'sustainable development'


I can understand dense urban development when there's not a lot of spare land and values are very high. But sometimes it just reveals the ideology of urbanists to be unpleasantly directing and controlling. Here's an example - the relocation of the Swedish town of Kiruna:

“Either the mine must stop digging, creating mass unemployment, or the city has to move – or else face certain destruction. It’s an existential predicament.”

So Kiruna (familiar to us 'A' level geography students as the best example of a town that simply wouldn't be there were it not for an essential natural resource - iron ore) needs to move. But the proposed replacement is a classic example of what you get when trendy architects meet 'sustainable development' and state control:

The current town is a sprawling suburban network of winding streets, home to detached houses with gardens. White’s plan incorporates a much higher-density arrangement of multistorey apartment blocks around shared courtyards, lining straight axial boulevards, down which the icy winds will surge.

It is an opportunity, say the architects, for Kiruna to “reinvent itself” into a model of sustainable development, attracting young people who wouldn’t have stayed in the town before, with new cultural facilities and “visionary” things such as a cable car bobbing above the high street. But it is a vision that many of the existing residents seem unlikely to be able to afford.

Kiruna is in the middle of nowhere - quite literally. It only exists because of the reserves of magnetite and, if you don't want to stay and dig the stuff up, you're going to head south pretty sharpish. Why on earth would young people stay in a small town where it's dark for half the year when they can go to Stockholm?

There was no need at all to build this sort of trendy version of 'Stalinist Baroque' - the authorities could have simply parcelled up and handed out building plots to residents. But that would have been too free, open and democratic for the urbanists. They'd much prefer some choice and living room but will be getting the high rise, high rent apartments the state dictates. This is the sort of world the fans of garden cities and sustainable living want. It's not what people want.  But what do we get?