Monday, 18 July 2016

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


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!

1 comment:

ACTIVIST said...

Yes, but did you check your privilege before writing this?