Tag Archives: free speech

Free Speech Warriors And The Free Speech Illusion

I call them ‘free speech warriors’ but you may know them as the ‘alt-right’ and/or as neo-Nazis and neo-fascists. Whenever they’re challenged on their racist and sexist views, free speech warriors will complain long and hard that their right to free speech is being limited. They may even whine about ‘political correctness gone mad’. What they refuse to understand is that if they should utter ill-informed opinions or hate speech, then people have a right to challenge them. That’s not closing down free speech, that is free speech. It’s the right to reply. For the free speech warriors, freedom of speech means “I say what I like and you shut up” and if you challenge them, they may even utter the juvenile “you hate free speech”. The free speech warrior’s concept of ‘free speech’ is nothing more a form of bullying, and by being over-sensitive to criticism, they are little better than the authoritarians they claim to hate.

What British free speech warriors have consistently failed to understand is that free speech is an illusion. Why? Because there is nothing on the statute books that enshrines the right to free speech. Even a first year ‘A’ Level Media Studies student knows that. Let’s just take a look at three ways in which free speech is limited in Britain.

  1. The Official Secrets Act: Everything the state does is subject to the OSA and when I say ‘everything’, I mean everything. Even the brand of toilet paper that’s used in government departments is covered by the act. Breaching the OSA can land you with a massive fine, a prison sentence or both.

This section provides the penalties and mode of trial for offences under the Act.

Section 10(2) provides that a person guilty of an offence under section 8(1) or 8(4) or 8(5) is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

Section 10(1) provides that a person guilty of any other offence under the Act is liable, on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine, or to both, or, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.

The words “51 weeks” are prospectively substituted for the words “three months” in section 10(2) by paragraph 39 of Schedule 26 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

  1. DSMA-Notices (Defence and Security Media Advisory Notices), formerly called D-Notices are official requests from the Ministry of Defence to media editors advising them to not to publish or broadcast certain items for reasons of national security. The committee that oversees the DSMA Notices is always chaired by a retired senior military officer (a general, admiral or air marshal).
  2. Defamation Laws are used by the rich and powerful to silence dissent. Private Eye magazine has been subject to more libel suits than any other British publication, because it dares to ask serious questions about the powerful people that govern this country. Yet, defamation laws, when properly used, protect people whose reputations have been traduced in the public domain. Sadly, for the ordinary person on an average income, they don’t have the financial means to make use of the High Court to challenge the defamatory allegations printed about them in the tabloid press, which routinely makes up its ‘news’ from lies and smears. The LM network, being the contrarians they are, want to abolish defamation laws altogether. That’s not a surprise, given the fact that ITN successfully sued LM Magazine for libel in 2000.

If you go around thinking that free speech means having the freedom to racially or sexually harass people online, or saying the first thing that comes into your head, then you have a lot of growing up to do. But do these people actually go out of their way to insult their friends, family and work colleagues? Probably. They would claim that they don’t want to be censored and yet, we censor ourselves all the time. How many people tell white lies in order to spare the feelings of a partner, spouse, child or parent? Plenty. Do free speech warriors tell their boss how much they hate them? If they want to keep their job, then they’ll keep schtum until they’ve found another job. However, it is unlikely that the likes of Brendan O’Neill would ever find himself in that position but would he tell his paymaster, Rupert Murdoch, to fuck off? Unlikely. He loves the money he pays him to recycle the same old articles he’s been writing for the last 10 years.

In Excitable Speech (1997), Judith Butler argues:

Language is thought of “mostly as agency-an act with consequences;’ an extended doing, a performance with effects.

Free speech warriors aren’t cognizant of causality; they think they can say what they like, when they like and without consequences, but actions – including verbal actions –  always have consequences. Those who believe that certain kinds of speech don’t hurt people should be locked in a room and subjected to hours of insults and taunts. Let’s see how they deal with it. The chances are they will suffer same kind of psychological trauma they’ve inflicted on their victims on social media and elsewhere.

The free speech warrior is a person that has refused to grow up and accept the fact that they have responsibilities. Free speech has, therefore, become the last refuge of the bully, the racist and the misogynist. Personally, I blame the parents.

References/further reading

Bourdieu, P. (2011). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Butler, J. (1997). Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. Psychology Press.

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Telegraph Comment of the Week (#20)

This week’s comment was found on Toby Young’s blog, which pleads for a “First Amendment” (sic) to protect verbal bullies and the orally incontinent. Free speech in Tobes’s mind is where people say anything they like regardless of how nasty and mean-spirited the words may be.  It’s ‘free speech’, right?

Tobes claims that Katie Hopkins is the subject of “visceral hatred” after a successful campaign to sack her from This Morning where she had been appearing as a reactionary rent-a-gob. A tad dramatic. No? Here’s how Tobes opens his article:

There are lots of good arguments for a British equivalent of the First Amendment, not least that it would prevent Parliament passing any law that abridged the freedom of the press, and I hope the next Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights.

What Tobes doesn’t realize is that a “First Amendment” or to be more precise, a right to free speech enshrined in law, would not actually apply to a campaign to remove her from our screens. La Hopkins hasn’t been arrested nor has she been charged with any offence. A “First Amendment” has to be part of an existing document and no such document exists, thus the use of the phrase is a little silly.

Nonetheless the Honourable Tobes whines on:

I made a film about JS Mill recently for the Daily Politics and he identifies this form of censorship, which he calls “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”, as a far greater threat to freedom of thought and emotion than any laws a tyrannical government might pass. Orwell wrote about the same danger in his essay on ‘The Freedom of the Press’:

In Tobesworld, the right to insult people is more important than making sense and advancing rational arguments. Therefore, challenging crazy ideas or offensive speech is indicative, in his mind at least, of “tyranny”.

Now to the Comment of the Week. This is from “Kentucky Straight”, who doesn’t think the Hon Tobes goes far enough.

Kentucky Warped

This guy is confused: Scousers come from Liverpool, while “Man Utd fans” are fans of guess who? In fact, you don’t need to be a Mancunian to support Man  United. Anyone can be one.  “Kentucky” moans that an unnamed MP (Labour’s Jack Dromey, in fact) used the word “pikey” to refer to a postal worker.  “Pikey” is a derogatory word that is used to refer to Romanis and Irish Travellers and since 2007  it has been an offence to use the word. “Kentucky Fried” then complains that “another councillor” (likely to be UKIP), who is being investigated for “racism” for his remarks about an unnamed council ward in an unnamed city.  You see, this isn’t about “free speech” at all: it’s about the right to be nasty and intolerant as well as offensive.

Now “Kentucky Fried” may deny that he’s a racist but he’d have a hard time convincing me. Today’s racists are more likely to use euphemisms in an attempt to avoid confrontation or, indeed, detection. “Kentucky” is quite clearly either a member of a far-right party or he sympathizes with one. How do I know? It’s the way he claims that “We are becoming a Marxist police state”.

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Right-wing political correctness. Are Tories too sensitive?

Cllr. Peter Graham is deeply offended. Poor wee thing

The right loves to accuse the left of having no sense of humour and being “politically correct”. Yet, while they would deny it, political correctness exists on their side too.  Nationalism, ‘traditional’ family values, law and order, corporate greed, Winston Churchill’s appalling racism, William Hague’s head… make a joke about those things and the right will call for you to be hanged! Right-wing windbags routinely offend people at the drop of a hat but when the shoe is on the other foot, they squeal and squeal and squeal.

It’s pretty easy to offend right-wing sensibilities. I left the following comment  on the Shepherds Bush blog yesterday.

I couldn’t make it to the meeting but once again, I see that H&F Tories have ridden roughshod over the wishes of the residents. I wonder how much money in brown envelopes has changed hands in advance of this decision?

It’s a joke and I cite the Jeremy Clarkson ‘defence’.

A council planning committee meeting was held on Wednesday over the proposed disruption of  Hammersmith’s skyline.  The meeting was a lively one. One plan is to build a footbridge over the insanely busy A4. Fair enough, you may say. But the bridge that is being proposed will effectively wipe out a quarter of Furnival Gardens. Green spaces are in short supply in Hammersmith and the building of this bridge would be nothing short of environmental vandalism. On this particular issue, someone heckled the Tories with,

“You get an extra bung for that, do you?”

But politically correct Tory councillor and planning committee member, Peter Graham, took offence to the above heckle and my comment. Yesterday, upset and close to tears, he tweeted the following to Chris Underwood

peter_graham

@chris_underwood – of course people will disagree with vote, but blog comments about “bungs” and “brown envelopes” are absurd and offensive.

I find Harry Phibbs’ views on social housing offensive but I don’t think Cllr Graham would understand exactly how offensive his colleague really is.  I mean, after all, they sing from the same hymn sheet. BorisWatch raised exactly this point with him with this comment on Graham’s Twitter page,

BorisWatch Boris Watch

@
@peter_graham I find Harry Phibbs ‘absurd and offensive’, but that’s no reason to be all beastly, old chap @chris_underwood

Here’s what Underwood said in reply to Graham,

chris_underwood

@peter_graham yes, it is close to the line I will say something in the comments when I get in front of a computer.

Graham was still fuming,

peter_graham Peter Graham

@
@chris_underwood – the comments left go beyond suggesting a conflict of interest (legally, not the case). And we DON’T all live in Fulham!

Well where do you live Cllr. Graham? Chelsea? So this morning,

Chris Underwood said…

People – I share the view that the Council has ignored local people and should be criticised for that – but that does not excuse references to Hitler or allegations of brown envelopes – please refrain or I will need to moderate comments – and that just kills discussion.

Lets keep it above board.

The truth of the matter is that the Tories want to control discourse. If they make ‘jokes’ about minority groups as Emperor Boris has done with his “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” comment a few years back, it’s called “having a sense of humour” and you should “lighten up” and “get a life” and stop being so “politically correct”.  I remember the 1970’s, when it was perfectly acceptable for many white people to use words like “coon”, “darkie”, “paki” and “wog” in polite discourse. I remember how women were objectified but not listened to… what am I saying? That still happens.  I thought we would have become more enlightened by now. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the nature of power relations and how narratives are produced to keep certain groups of people in their place.  The Enlightenment was a bourgeois intellectual movement, whose ideals of liberty did not extend beyond the boundaries of their own social class.  It is these Enlightenment ideals of free speech that are always invoked in response to a complaint that is expressed by an injured minority.

Now Cllr Graham won’t admit to this, but Hammersmith & Fulham Tories look after their own narrow class interests. They do not work for all the residents of this borough and this was demonstrated by the Dear Leader’s thoughts on social housing.

King Street Developments, who are to be handed the contract to build these postmodern, anti-human monstrosities, is a partnership between Grainger and Helical Bar.  Both companies are members of the Conservative Property Forum.

By the way, Graham works for Greg Hands, the Thatcherite MP for Chelsea and Fulham.

Graham also grinned and cheered when the Irish Cultural Centre and other buildings were sold off in January.

Hands was the first Tory to defend the disgraced former Defence Secretary and fellow Thatcherite, Liam Fox.

Here’s Hands complaining about a T-shirt that he saw someone wearing at an event that Ed Miniband attended,

May we have a debate about the decorum of senior Members of the House participating in other elections? Did my right hon. Friend notice the extraordinary sight of the Leader of the Opposition appearing at a campaign rally with a Labour council candidate sporting a T-shirt in appallingly bad taste, which said:

“A generation of trade unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?

I’ll be dancing on her grave too. In fact, I’m taking a week off to go on a bender when Thatcher dies. That isn’t a joke. That’s a plan.

If you’re reading this, Cllr Graham, you might consider changing your photo. It makes you look like a self-parody of a young Tory toff. That isn’t a joke. That’s an observation.

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The LM Network and the idea of free speech

I saw a little bit of Sunday Morning Live on BBC1 this morning. One of the guests on the programme was Kenan Malik and I was reminded of how the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) has managed to insinuate itself into the sphere of public discourse, when many people have never heard of them. This morning’s debate was on the ubiquitous topic of free speech, so it came as no surprise that Malik or one of the other bods from the LM Network was invited to appear. It’s their ‘meat and potatoes’ so to speak.

In spite of its name, the RCP was neither communist nor revolutionary. When the RCP was wound up in the late 1990’s, it splintered into a variety of smaller groups (they haven’t lost their penchant for spawning front groups): the Institute of Ideas (IoI),  Sense About Science, The Manifesto Club and Spiked Online to name a few.  While these groups may appear to be separate, they form the LM network (named after the magazine of the same name). The entire existence of the RCP and its successor groups has been to insert its ideas into public conversations thereby  influencing society and culture. They do this through the use of public meetings, debates, publications, summer schools and appearances on the BBC.  In fact, the IoI’s Claire Fox is one busy woman,

Claire is a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education, politics and the arts across the whole range of media outlets: such as BBC Question TimeBBC Any Questions?, SkyNews Review, and BBC Breakfast. Claire writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals. She has a monthly column in the MJ (municipal journal) and presented ‘Claire Fox News’ on the internet TV channel ’18 Doughty Street’.

So where did they come from? After a split from the International Socialists (the precursor of the Socialist Worker party who, ironically, came from another RCP) over the issue of apartheid, the RCP was formed ostensibly as a Trotskyist group but any left-wing pretensions they had quickly disappeared by the mid 1980’s. Although its front groups sported names like Workers Against Racism and the Irish Freedom Movement, its position always leaned towards the libertarian right.  Anyone who was a student in the 1980’s will tell you how the RCP would disrupt the meetings of groups from the Anti-Apartheid Movement to CND. On more than one occasion, I challenged RCP supporters who, unable to respond to points that I had put to them, would pass me to one of their colleagues who would then pass me on to another colleague. This evasiveness and their tendency to contradiction still exists in spite of their efforts to appear as our philosophical superiors.

What was the point of Workers Against Racism, when the RCP was neither pro-worker nor anti-racism? Why maintain an Irish Freedom Movement, when Ireland was an embarrassment. Why ally with businesses one day and Campaign Against Militarism the next? The Free Speech Societies continued, however, for a longer period of time.

You may have noticed that I used the word “supporters” rather than ‘members’ when I refer to people associated with the RCP. This is because the RCP was a rather tight-knit group whose core membership probably numbered around 12; these 12 people were all located at the Universities of Kent  and Sussex and were led by Hungarian born sociologist Frank Furedi (who called himself Frank Richards). To be a member one had to be initiated into the small but select group of insiders, but this never really happened and the core membership remained the same while the numbers of supporters fluctuated. While the members directed policy and formulated strategy, the supporters sold the The Next Step on the street (often in the same location as Socialist Worker sellers) or disrupted public meetings. This practice opened the RCP to the charge of it being a cult that was built around the personality of Furedi – a charge that continues to this day.

The RCP are most obviously concerned with the idea of free speech often to the detriment of those they claim to be working for,

The RCP had long since given up on class, in fact working out what they still believed was something of a mystery. They supported the racist lecturer Chris Brand.

It is instructive that the LM Network has been funded by a variety of private interests. For instance both Spiked and the IoI have been funded by the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer (makers of Viagra). Pfizer also funds the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the Netherlands-based Edmund Burke Foundation. Therefore the work of the LM network adheres to a certain agenda, namely those of corporate interests.  Other funders of LM have included BT, Monsanto and Exxon.

Free speech is something that many of us agree with in principle but the reality is that there are limits to free speech; and if one has the money to pursue a successful case of defamation in the courts then free speech gets muzzled.  Freedom of speech is great if other freedoms exist too: freedom from poverty; freedom from homelessness; freedom from disease; freedom from violence and war; freedom from bad philosophies are all important but get scant attention from the LM Network, who are more content to churn out controversial statements in order to emphasize its commitment to free speech than actively seeking to create a better world. Instead, the only commitment that LM have is to itself and to the companies that fund its activities. As the Manic Street Preachers sang in 2000, “freedom of speech won’t feed my children”. I think the LM Network would disagree with them.

This blogger who is a former LM supporter (note that he was a  supporter and not a member) is a critic and refers to the various front groups of the RCP as the “Continuity RCP”. He talks here about the Modern Movement (another LM front),

It all moved very quickly, and despite the fact that the group was supposed to be autonomous from the Institute of Ideas—it was never merely a front group—those members closest to the IoI quickly assumed leadership positions. These positions were never put to any form of democratic deliberation; moreover, democracy was always considered something of an embarrassing liberal formality, in contrast to the vague ‘Leninism’ the self appointed leaders espoused.

LM/RCP aren’t interested in democracy (I know this from my previous encounters with them), they are concerned more with power and influence.

In the short space of a month or two a left and a right faction of MM started to appear. Broadly speaking the rightwing leadership clique were closest to the IoI, most reverent for the traditions of the RCP, dismissive of democracy, and pro-capitalist. Conversely, the leftwing faction were more insistent on marking a break from the old formulas of the RCP, operating in a democratic fashion and taking an openly anti-capitalist line. These differences came to ahead in the build up to the G20.

LM/RCP do not tolerate dissent or debate; they are correct and they know it. Those who take a view that is to the left of them are dismissed as nutters,

They had made it clear from the start that only ‘loons’ go around calling themselves Marxists or anti-capitalists nowadays. In private one had admitted to being a secret, ‘right wing Marxist’ and described the chapter on the working day in Marx’s Capital as the worst thing Marx ever wrote.

Yes, I’ve always been aware of their oxymoronic “right wing Marxism”; it is a glaring example of their philosophical confusion.

Interestingly enough, some of the most prominent right wing enfants terribles were all at one time former Trots (albeit of the  SWP variety): Christopher Hitchens, Peter Hitchens and Rod Liddle to name three. The RCP was never left-wing or Trotskyite; they were just a confused bunch of libertarian ideologues who wormed their way into the nation’s cultural institutions. Former swappies always make the best right-wing loons!

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