Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Keep looking on the bright side

Look on the bright side of life – offends some Christians
More than once commentator pointed out, last month, the hypocrisy behind the attendance in Paris of so many senior politicians in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and that week’s other murders.

Then again there were the UK media outlets that spoke high and mighty words about ‘free speech’, but thought twice about actually reprinting a Charlie Hebdo cartoon or two – and instead, chose to illustrate reports with pictures (in some cases not even pixilated) of policeman Ahmed Merabet seconds before he was murdered, thus doing the terrorists’ work for them – while some on the British left chose to castigate the victims for ‘racism’.

I didn’t envisage coming back to the question of offence again so quickly, but within the last few days, there has been a further assault on free speech in the UK, with a call to ‘ban racists from social media’.

This came from the all-party Parliamentary inquiry into anti-semitism, days after the Community Security Trust had reported that UK anti-smitic incidents “more than doubled to 1,168 in 2014”.

That itself came against a background of various news reports claiming that anti-semitism was up, with increased numbers of Jewish people thinking of leaving for Israel or the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, in the wake of the murders of four Jewish people in a kosher supermarket in Paris, been urging Jewish people to emigrate to Israel.

Mira Bar-Hillel, an Israeli-born freelance writer on property and housing, and Zionism and Israel for the Evening Standard and Independent, took to social media to question some of what this report said.

She pointed out that it listed one serious assault, while most of the other incidents listed were comments – largely but not exclusively – made on social media, relating to or as a result of the attacks by the state of Israel against Gaza last summer.

Some of those were downright nasty; many were very emotional responses to Gaza that didn’t worry too much about taste (whatever that is) or logic; some made comparisons that others may find distasteful or historically inaccurate (ie drawing similarities between Zionism and Nazism), but from what it’s possible to see from the examples provided, while there may be hate and there may be ignorance and there may be a lack of intellectual rigour, there are no examples of incitement to assault or attack.

And what is the wider context of this?

Anti-Muslim incidents in the UK are also apparently on the rise – and these saw a particular spike after the murder of Lee Rigby in 2013.

But it’s not just religion.

“Home Office statistics reveal police recorded 1,841 reports of disability hate crime in 2012-13, with 810 incidents going to court.
“This led to 349 convictions, but only seven of these resulted in an increased sentence with the victim’s disability being considered an aggravating factor.”

Other forces around the UK also reported rising figures.

It seems to be generally felt that much of the rise is down to increased reporting of issues and greater confidence in the police to deal with them, so the rises in reported attacks may not be as negative as first appears.

But there’s a vast difference between a violent assault – whatever the motive – and being upset by something seen on social media or as graffiti.

We’re back, once again, into the territory of ‘offence’.

For most people, it’s no fun being labeled a bigot. I got it in the neck on social media a couple of times last summer, being accused of being an anti-Semite for daring to challenge Zionists.

But then I count myself in good company, with people such as Bar-Hillel and satirist Jon Stewart, both of whom have spoken out on such issues and both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitism, self-hate and goodness knows what else in an effort to silence them.

Bar-Hillel wrote recently: “The beauty of the antisemitic label (and libel) is that it is impossible to disprove.”

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem that I see with calling for bans on (in this instance) “racists” using social media.

We have laws to deal with incitement – on any grounds. If people use social – or any other media – to incite on the basis of any hatred, then they can be dealt with by laws that already exist.

But how are we going to define, in law, what constitutes hate speech if it is not incitement?

Who gets to decide?

As Bar-Hillel put it, “it is impossible to disprove”. Or at least it is certainly very difficult on any objective level, if one person genuinely believes that, say, criticism of the state of Israel is a synonym for anti-semitism.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, we had some people doing a ‘oh, it was bad, but ...’ routine.

In other words, they found it entirely reasonable for someone to say: ‘oh look, nobody can insult my god (according to my definition/interpretation of theology) because that’s racism (because Muslims are usually brown people’.

That’s the thin end of the wedge (as well as being patronising).

I’ve no desire to see or hear hateful thoughts – but should they be illegal or should it be illegal to voice them in what is supposed to be a free and open space, ie social media?

Don’t criticise anything theological or someone will be offended.

Don’t comment on something political – or someone will be offended.

Don’t satirise something – or someone, somewhere, will take offence.

As noted earlier, hate crimes – including serious, physical assaults – are up against disabled and LGBT people.

The increase in attacks on the former group has been laid – in part at least – at the doorstep of some in the UK mainstream news media, which has spent a nice chunk of the last five years demonising those on disability benefits as ‘scroungers’.

For the latter group, there has been negative coverage too, plus hatred/dislike of various other groups, from the far right to assorted intolerant religious sorts.

Ralph Steadman cartoon
The thing about free speech – the thing that most seems to confuse a lot of well-meaning voices these days – is that the philosophical aspect of the question isn’t about what you agree with, but what you disagree with.

It’s never difficult to think that what you agree with should be allowed.

That’s why it’s important that we have incitement as a crime that can be prosecuted.

But if we say that someone should have legal action taken against them that is the equivalent of a convicted child abuser being denied internet use, on the basis that they accused Zionism of being like Nazism or suggested that Mohammed was a child abuser or ... well, fill in as many entries as you wish ... and thus upset some tender souls: this is naïve and dangerous.

Offence is a subjective matter. If you claim to have been offended by something – to have been abused by something – then who is to say that you’re wrong?

In 2009, the then Fianna Fáil government introduced a new blasphemy law in Ireland.

This legislation defines blasphemy as “publishing or uttering matter that is grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters sacred by any religion, thereby intentionally causing outrage among a substantial number of adherents of that religion, with some defences permitted,” and with fines of up to €25,000 for conviction.

Former justice minister Dermot Ahern has subsequently defended the law, saying that it was needed because the 1936 Irish constitution only covers Christians.
Well, just scrap that bit of the constitution, then. Why does any religious person need this special, legal protection?

Blasphemy is a brilliant cover-all for any offence: law based on total subjectivity and a lack of reason.
In January 2012, Indonesian civil servant Alexander Aan posted on an atheist Facebook group that God did not exist.

Further, he asked: “If God exists, why do bad things happen? ... There should only be good things if God is merciful.”

He went on to declare that heaven, hell, angels and devils are “myths” and also posted an article describing Mohammed as “attracted to his daughter-in-law”.

But that counts as blasphemy in Indonesia – and also incitement – and he was reported to the police, attacked by a mob in the street and then charged. In June 2010, Aan was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, with a fine of 100 million rupiah (£6,945.15).

Predictably, that wasn’t enough for some: the Islamic Society Forum, a coalition of Islamic groups, wanted him executed.

Thankfully, Aan was released in January 2014, but the case reveals the sheer bonkersness and subjectivity of the entire issue.

But clearly it’s light years away from what happens in, say, the UK. Or is it?It is really not that long since the likes of Mary Whitehouse and her ilk demanded prosecution of people for offending them. It’s not long since The Life of Brian was the subject of outrage (if not actual riots).

It’s not that long since BBC staff were sent death threats because the corporation screened Jerry Springer: The Opera, which portrayed the family of Jesus as dysfunctional.

The only objective way of dealing with this is to say that nobody has a right not to be offended; that providing there is no incitement to violence, let people say what they want.

I’ve been on the receiving end of all sorts of verbal abuse over the years, including on the internet and for a variety of reasons – but all of which essentially stems from someone being ‘offended’ by something about me and wanting to shut me up with something other than an actual argument.

It can be damned unpleasant, to say the least. No sane person wants to be accused of being an anti-semite or a racist, for instance.

But how naïve is it to expect that all of life should be ‘nice’.

Great if it was – but how would we be able to tell? – but reality is not all chamomile tea and cuddles.

Education has to be central to changing attitudes.

But driving things underground, fueling a sense of victimisation and martyrdom ... what good does that do?

If people want to burn flags or books, ignore them. They’re little different to online trolls demanding attention. So don’t give them the reward.

And unless you really want a situation in which what you say can be reported because it ‘offended’ someone else, then be very – very – careful what you demand be censored in situations where you decide that is the acceptable approach because you disagree with the comments.

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