Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Rape culture and The 40 Year Old Virgin

The decision to allow disgraced footballer and convicted rapist Ched Evans to train with the League One club Sheffield United has given way to understandable controversy. The player was released last month after serving half of a five year prison sentence, having failed to secure an appeal. The rape conviction, which is not spent until 2017, concerns a 19 year old woman who was deemed to have been too intoxicated to give consent. Evans and his supporters have all along refused to give credence to the rape charge and conviction. Now that he is released, his supporters claim that he deserves the chance to return to professional football. After all, the alleged rape was "non-violent", and he reasonably believed that consent was granted.

There are many problems with this of course. First, the offence of rape is always a violent crime. This does not require physical force. Second, the crime is against personal autonomy. If a man (under UK law, only someone with male anatomy can commit rape) engages in sexual intercourse with someone who is unable to give consent, then consent is absent. This is true even where the person regains the faculty to consent and decides that they would have given consent at the time. It is that simple. Sexual intercourse absent consent is the crime of rape. Third, and for our purposes last, Evans has not atoned for his crime. He continues to deny it. He can therefore not be considered rehabilitated, especially while the conviction is active.

Ched Evans will likely never admit guilt and will instead continue to try to clear his name. Following his release from prison, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that they would fast-track a review into his conviction. It is therefore at least possible that Evans' conviction will be overturned. In the meantime, it would be foolish for anyone to employ him, let alone reinstate him as a role model for young men and boys. His victim has several times been named, in contravention of the Sexual Offences Act, and has had to relocate twice.

Some, I daresay many, men seem to have a real problem accepting that it is possible to think you have consent for sex, but consent could not be given, and that this is in fact rape. This is despite that the law is quite clear on the matter. Why is this so? I suppose there is a cultural tendency to excuse this form of rape as normal, socially acceptable behaviour. I recently watched the film The 40 Year Old Virgin again with my wife. We both love that film. It's one of our favourite comedies. I have to say though that I was really struck this time by its apparent apologism for rape culture.

There is a scene where the protagonist Andy, played by Steve Carrell, is out in a night club with his male friends, who are attempting to instruct him in picking up women. The goal is to get him laid for the first time in his life. He is advised to go after "easy" drunk women, and indeed he does leave with one. She turns out to be so habitually drunk that she has a court imposed breathalyser integrated into the ignition of her car. Hilarious! Andy is turned off when she spews a half digested daiquiri all over him.

In another scene, we see Andy in the home of Beth from the book store, played by Elizabeth Banks, who is also recklessly drunk. Andy decides he can't go through with it, but his pal Cal, played by Seth Rogan, is there to step in. We do not see the rape occur, but are left to assume it did. That's right. This is rape (or at least sexual assault), and quite clearly so. Andy might have reasonably imagined he had consent, but Cal couldn't claim that. He took advantage of Beth's compromised state.

What am I trying to say? Is The 40 Year Old Virgin a horrible misogynistic film that should be shunned and condemned? Are the cast and writer/director Judd Apatow terrible people? No. I still think The 40 Year Old Virgin is a great comedy. Andy never takes a wrong step. His friends are mostly portrayed as character foil grotesques. One is an obsessed stalker who cannot let go after being dumped by his girlfriend years earlier. It is not trying to teach morals, but even if it were, we come away thinking it's better to be kind and gentle.

But maybe we should cast a more critical eye over the portrayals of drunken pickups in mainstream culture. Does this type of story normalise date rape? Perhaps it does feed into the notion that many men seem to have about it. I saw a tweet today from Greater Manchester Police, which I have to say is refreshingly enlightened:

I was dismayed though when I read the first reply, which states...
but what about them girls who consent. Then "cry" rape.
This is the trouble, you see. "Them girls who cry rape" afterwards did not consent. That is to say, if the woman was incapacitated at the time, you can assume you did not have her consent. This can be hard for a guy to deal with after he's paid for a nice dinner and a movie or pulled a really hot bird in a club. But if guys can get their heads around the fact that sex is not their God given right and that there is a real risk, yes risk, that they might actually rape someone tonight if they are not careful, then perhaps we can make some progress dispelling these rape myths.

We (mostly) all understand that "no" means "no". But those of us who may find ourselves in the position of risking rape would do well to be reminded that we also have the power to say no (to ourselves as much as anyone). Sleep on the couch. Who knows? Perhaps you'll get lucky in the morning.

Some people may take offence at my suggestion that guys are risking rape when they go out on the pull. Please don't get me wrong. This is not some oblique attempt at victim blaming. But I do think guys really need to be aware of how easy it is to become a rapist, though they might never think themselves capable of it.

Drink and drugs impair judgement, but this is no more an excuse for rape than it is for domestic violence or drink driving. You may not think you're too drunk to drive, but if you do it you're still a DUI. And if you kill an entire family as a consequence of it, you deserve all you get and more. If you had too much to drink or took drugs and did not possess the clarity of judgement to realise that a woman was not in a position to give consent, then you might as well have got out your car keys instead of your room key.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Samaritans Radar - good or bad?

TL;DR: Bad. A nice idea, but horribly implemented, causing more problems than it aims to solve and probably illegal.

The time has come for me to write my Samaritans Radar blog post. Others have already said much about it and I don't think I need to repeat that here. The moment I heard about this new offering from suicide prevention charity Samaritans, I knew it was a terrible idea. Samaritans Radar is an app that Twitter users can download and install, which allows them to become "good Samaritans" by monitoring the tweets available in their timeline provided by the accounts they follow, looking for key words and phrases suggesting the tweeter may be suicidal, and then sending email alerts to the subscriber about flagged tweets.

This is done without any of those tweeters' knowledge or consent. In fact Samaritans make it clear that they protect the privacy of the app's subscribers and will not reveal to their friends that they are being monitored.

The decision to deploy an app like this, which focuses on the rights and choices of the bystander rather than the potential person in need, is a baffling one. The Samaritans service typically involves a distressed person phoning their hotline to speak confidentially to a trained volunteer who tries to talk them down from the ledge, so to speak. The Samaritans have built up a cache of trust as experts in suicide prevention, and it is well deserved.

But with their latest offering, they have sadly lost sight of their mission and jeopardized their hard earned status. The problem is that this amounts to surveillance of, among others, the mentally ill. Mental health sufferers and privacy advocates have been up in arms since the announcement of the new service last week. The response from Samaritans to the criticism has been the most disturbing aspect of this tale.

At first the Samaritans Radar spokespeople dismissed privacy concerns as coming from users who do not understand how Twitter works, noting that anything their service flags up is publicly available on Twitter anyway, and that any follower would have been able to see those public tweets. They just might not have been paying attention at the time.

When users tried to explain that privacy is more complicated than that, Samaritans stubbornly stuck to their guns and downplayed the negative feedback as the mutterings of a handful of privacy extremists. They did make one concession, which is to provide an opt-out feature for users who send them a message request. This is something that frankly would have been expected from the very start at a minimum. The opt-out failed to quell the criticism.

One week on, and Samaritans have taken legal advice that the Samaritans Radar service operates within the law of the United Kingdom, particularly addressing issues raised about the Data Protection Act 1998. The advice that the company has communicated is astounding. Samaritans believe that they are not bound by the Data Protection Act because they are neither a data controller nor a data processor (who then is?). If the Samaritans were deemed to be a data controller, then they believe they satisfy the "vital interest" exemption allowing them to process sensitive personal information without consent. Information practitioner Jon Baines demolishes that position in his Information Rights and Wrongs blog.

Perhaps even more astounding is that Samaritans are taking legal advice and continuing to defend their controversial new service in the face of very sharp criticism from some of the very people they claim to be attempting to help. Many mental health sufferers who have turned to Samaritans in their past need have stated they no longer trust the Samaritans with the information they might provide. Others no longer feel safe speaking earnestly on Twitter about their conditions. Some have already left, thereby abandoning what might have been a vital outlet for them.

Technology journalist Adrian Short started a petition to have the app shut down. At the time of writing it has nearly 1200 signatures after four days. Short has indicated that he is considering a law suit against the charity if they continue to refuse to budge. I cannot imagine how Samaritans will attempt to justify to its patrons and donors the risk and expense of going to court over this untested and unproven offering.

I had a lengthy dialogue today with a Samaritans volunteer who had tweeted that he couldn't understand the bad reaction, but the app is worth it if it saves even one life. I think I managed to persuade him that there are many problems with the app that would be best solved by pulling it until it can be reworked. The feeling on the street is that it is causing actual real harm just by its mere existence. I laid out the following points:
  1. Monitoring people with mental health issues looking for signs, tends to make them feel more exposed, therefore worse.
  2. Many forms of mental illness are joined by paranoia. The mere confirmed existence of surveillance causes anxiety.
  3. Not all interventions are helpful. A sufferer should be able to choose someone s/he trusts. Trust has not been respected.
  4. There are people on twitter who enjoy tormenting mental health sufferers. This app is a gift to them.
  5. It feels like the app is making judgments about people. Suicidal people are not helped by being judged, and that's not what the Samaritans do.
That's a start. There are many other issues, but I don't want this to be too long. We agreed that there appears to be some inexperience of the medium among the decision makers at Samaritans and that they may have rushed into this solution without sufficient understanding. There was a similar offering deployed into the Facebook ecosystem which seems to have been much more successful.

Perhaps the people behind the Twitter offering failed to appreciate that Facebook's trust model is very different. There is a fairly clear concept of friendship in Facebook. That is the foundation of its relationships. On Twitter, the relationship between an account and its followers is not at all clear. If you were going to try to emulate friendship, the best approach would be to add a constraint of mutual following, but even this falls short.

By simply allowing any follower to act as a potential intervener, Samaritans have violated the trust of the users who have no real control over who might get to receive alerts, apart from locking their accounts and dismissing all of their followers. That would be rather pointless.

There is also the question of whether this is even legal. Information law experts tend to agree that it runs afoul of the Data Protection Act. Reading paragraphs 56 and 69 together from the ICO guidance on the processing of sensitive personal data, we can see that the Samaritans cannot claim to have obtained consent from users (which they have not claimed) and that it is hard to conclude that they would not need it (which they have claimed).

It is therefore unsurprising that they have put forward the legal position they have. The best bet to get them off the hook is to claim not to be bound by the Act at all (as they have done), but they have not offered the advice they were given, and the view is frankly unsupportable. And if they are not the data controller, then who is? The subscribers perhaps? They might like to know they may be breaking the law.

If that argument fails, then the Samaritans suggest that they (and I suppose their subscribers) are exempt by reason of vital interest. It's really all they've got, but it's extremely weak. As Jon Baines points out, the app is delivering a large number of false positives, and there is simply no basis to conclude that untrained people in receipt of these alerts would be able to have any net positive effect on a person's health prospects. You could say this is a matter of life or death. All the more reason to proceed carefully, considering a random stranger even with the purest intentions could make the situation a whole lot worse.

Conclusion: if the Samaritans wind up in court they will surely lose, and for what? They seem willing to sacrifice their hard earned reputation for the theoretical possibility of saving one person's life. It is naive and foolish. The charity's attitude this past week has been arrogant and condescending. They are refusing to listen to the concerns of their potential clients, many of whom have turned their backs on what was once a trusted ally. I do hope the Samaritans wake up to sense before irreparable harm is done either to themselves, or worse, to someone who is truly vulnerable.

EDIT 2014-11-07 10:20:
There's something I forgot to say in my original post. There is an interesting issue highlighted around the muting of Twitter accounts. Twitter offers a Mute feature similar to its Block feature, but with some key differences:

  • An account that is muted is not made aware of this in any way. It is still able to follow the account that has performed the Mute and to see public tweets from that account in its timeline feed.
  • A muted account can be followed by the account that performed the mute, in which case mentions from the muted account will be seen. Otherwise there is no interaction visible to to account that performed the mute.
Because the muted account is not aware it is being muted, the API does not communicate this fact. Therefore, a muted account would be able to receive alerts like any other follower. I can't imagine anyone being comfortable with this. Furthermore, that muted account which is not followed back has no way to directly intervene. Mute was introduced by Twitter as a compromise after it unilaterally changed the way that blocking worked so that it would be silent to the blocked account. This was an effort to calm the blow ups and pile ons that tend to happen when people react to being blocked.

I couldn't understand the negative reaction at the time, but now it makes perfect sense. People who had been stalked in the past felt aggrieved that they would no longer be able to stop people following their public accounts or appearing to interact with them. Twitter got that horribly wrong and they fortunately relented. Had that not happened though, we would now have a Samaritans Radar app that Twitter users would be unable to block other users from scanning their tweets with it. The original offering had no opt-out. This just goes to show how little thought was put into the risks associated with the chosen model.

Friday, 1 August 2014

Difficulties overriding XLV web parts with external stylesheets in SharePoint libraries

Overriding an XSLT List Web Part runs into some limitations when using an external stylesheet with the XslLink property. The problem is that the ECB menu (which comes up when you click the arrow next to a list item name or title) is broken. Also, many of the item related ribbon buttons under the Documents tab are greyed out. The combination of those two problems makes for a very crippled web part which is good for not much more than displaying the list items.
Reproducing the problem is more specific than I've suggested. Only external stylesheets located in the SharePoint content database have these problems. In other words, stylesheets located in one of your document libraries (such as the root site's Style Library) break the ECB and the ribbon. Stylesheets located on the file system in the _layouts folder do not. This is all explained in some detail by Glyn Clough in his SharePoint blog - XLV Bug: XSL Link Property and the ECB Menu.
I've done a bit of my own debugging and found that the XslLink problem affects the ECB menu and the ribbon whether you use a fully qualified absolute URL, a server relative URL, or a page relative URL. The ECB menus and ribbon controls are rendered as a result of respective AJAX calls to obtain HTML to add to the DOM node tree. This includes script source​, which is executed by the browser. It's a rather clunky and insecure way to do it, if you ask me, and it may even be vulnerable to cross-site scripting exploits. Nevermind that. Long story short, when the XSLT stylesheet is in the web part definition in the page itself, no problem. When the stylesheet is external an in the content database, the SharePoint application page /_layouts/inplview.aspx is unable to create the output required.
For the ECB menu, the URL would look something like this:
http://[my host]/[path to my site]/_layouts/inplview.aspx?Cmd=Ctx&List={GUID of list}&View={GUID of view}&ViewCount=1&IsXslView=TRUE&Field=LinkFilename&ID=5&ListViewPageUrl=[URL of my page]
Plugging that URL into a browser results in the following response:
<div class="ms-vb">Unable to display this Web Part. To troubleshoot the problem, open this Web page in a Microsoft SharePoint Foundation-compatible HTML editor such as Microsoft SharePoint Designer. If the problem persists, contact your Web server administrator.</div>
<br/><br/>Correlation ID:[correlation ID GUID]<br/>
The javascript doesn't find what it's looking for in the HTML source of that response, and the result is a canned alert box displaying the unhelpful message "This item is no longer available.  It may have been deleted by another user.  Click 'OK' to refresh the page."
It turns out there are a couple decent workarounds to this problem with the ECB menu apart from keeping the XSLT in the page. The simplest workaround is to edit the web part in the browser and tick "Enable Asynchronous Update" under AJAX Options in the web part properites. This causes the ECB menu to be loaded in a different way that does not rely on the bad call to inplview.aspx. What other side effects it may have, desirable or otherwise, I'm not sure.
Another good workaround that avoids editing the web part properties is this one, discovered by Henk Haarsma: XSLT in sandbox solution. This technique uses javascript in the XSLT code to change the URL in the AJAX call so that the isXslView parameter is removed. That parameter does not seem to be needed in this call. When the call is working because the conditions for the bug are not present, the removal of the query string parameter makes no difference to the output.
Neither of these workarounds solve the ribbon problem. Encouraged by the success of the "Enable Asynchronous Update" solution, I tried all sorts of other settings in the web part properties. Nothing made a difference. The javascript solution prompted my to try the same thing in another part of the stylesheet that controls the URL to the AJAX call for the ribbon settings. That URL looks something like this:
http://[my host]/[path to my site]/_layouts/inplview.aspx?List={GUID of list}&View={GUID of view}&ViewCount=1688&ListViewPageUrl=[URL of my page]&IsXslView=TRUE&Cmd=EcbView
It shows the same output as the broken ECB call and removing the isXslView query string parameter does seem to fix it; however, when the call is working properly the output with the isXslView parameter is very different. So that's not a solution for the ribbon.
There is, however, hope. The two calls seem to fail for different reasons, or in different ways. There is another way to pull in an external stylesheet. You can use a very simple inline stylesheet in the web part's Xsl property that does nothing more than an xsl:include of the external file. It looks something like this:
<xsl:stylesheet xmlns:x="" xmlns:d="" version="1.0" exclude-result-prefixes="xsl msxsl
ddwrt" xmlns:ddwrt="" xmlns:asp=""
xmlns:__designer="" xmlns:xsl="" xmlns:msxsl="urn:schemas-
microsoft-com:xslt" xmlns:SharePoint="Microsoft.SharePoint.WebControls" xmlns:ddwrt2="urn:frontpage:internal" xmlns:o="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"
<xsl:include href="[path to external XSL file]"/>
An xsl:import would give identical results in this case. Using this method had no effect on the rendering of the ECB menu; however, with an absolute URL supplied the ribbon does work! So you can use one of the two methods I described earlier to enable the ECB menu combined with this method for solving the ribbon problem for a fully functioning web part. It is unfortunate to have to use an absolute URL, but at least that shows it's possible. Debugging with .Net Reflector shows that strange things are happening when SharePoint is trying to resolve the URL to the stylesheet in the ribbon AJAX call, and it fails in different ways depending on how the external file is referenced. I'm hoping that with a bit more digging I'll be able to find a workaround for page relative and server relative URLs as well.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

What am I?

What am I?

I am cisgendered and I speak about gender; therefore, I am a cissplainer.

I am white and I speak about race; therefore, I am a whitesplainer.

I am a man and I speak about women's issues; therefore, I am a mansplainer.

If I do not want you to think badly of me, then I had better speak about nothing more controversial than the weather. How dull.

Edit: What am I? Answer - an idiot. I do not mean any of that. I take it back. Thanks for reading.
Edit (again): What am I? Answer (from another party) - "a miserable pile of secrets" Yes, that would be very accurate. Actually, you can't even talk about the weather these days without courting controversy. :)

Friday, 31 January 2014

Transcript from The Pod Delusion: Jesus & Mo and the right to be offended

Following is the transcript of my report for the Pod Delusion podcast today (from 33:06).

Jesus and Muhammad walk into a bar. On the way in, they greet each other with “Hey”. “How ya doin’?” They seem nice. The barmaid is a witty atheist and they all share deep philosophical discussions and seem to enjoy each other’s company. That’s a bar that I’d like to visit. You wouldn’t think there would calls for beheadings, but you’d be surprised.

Jesus and Mo is a web based comic strip created by an anonymous Author. It is a satirical look at the irrational aspects of some of the world’s major religions. It is irreverent of course but also clever, playful, and really quite benign. I have yet to see anything truly nasty come out of it, except for the frankly hysterical reactions of some members of the British Muslim community who either find the very idea of the cartoons extremely offensive, or find it extremely offensive that another Muslim would dare to say that he didn’t.

A little history: In October last year a couple members of the atheist society at the London School of Economics were threatened by security guards at a Fresher’s fair on campus for wearing t-shirts depicting an image from one of the Jesus and Mo cartoons. The image shows the two characters as line drawings doing nothing more than greeting each other.

They were forced to cover their shirts or face expulsion, with a representative of LSE’s legal and compliance team telling them that the t-shirts were creating an “offensive atmosphere” and could constitute “harassment”. Some students complained, you see. Following a public outcry and the intervention of Richard Dawkins, the school was forced to apologise.

Fast forward to January 12th. BBC One held its weekly debate program on moral, ethical and religious issues in current events called The Big Questions. The subject of this episode was “Should human rights always outweigh religious rights?” That in itself may seem strange to those who understand that religious rights ARE human rights, but it gives an idea of how untidy the thinking can be.

The incident at LSE came up and was debated. The same students were in the audience and wearing the same offending t-shirts, but the BBC declined to show the depictions of Jesus and Mo saying hello to each other. The reason for this (and the reason for the controversy in the first place) is that in strict Muslim tradition, it is forbidden to draw or otherwise depict an image of the prophet Muhammad or any other prophet to the faith (though Jesus seems to be okay). This is a blasphemy that is extremely offensive to many if not most Muslims. Indeed, in some parts of the world it would be punishable by death.

There is a whole laundry list of acts that depending on where they are judged could be Islamic blasphemies of varying degree. Some of these may seem quite strange, such as speculating about how Muhammad would behave if he were alive (Nigeria), saying that Islam is an Arab religion (Indonesia), or practicing yoga (Malaysia). What counts for blasphemy and what counts as punishment is largely the province of clerics in the role of jurist. If you are in a strict Islamic country and wish to avoid blasphemy, it is probably wise to avoid saying or doing anything which might upset anyone.

One of the panelists invited onto the BBC debate show was Maajid Nawaz, a reformed Islamic extremist who is founder of the anti-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation and now a Liberal Democrats parliamentary candidate. He observed that some Muslim women who had just been arguing for their right to wear the veil were now questioning these students’ right to wear an offensive t-shirt.

Nawaz defended the students, saying “I’m not offended by that. I’m sure God is greater than to feel threatened by it”. Later when he got home, Nawaz tweeted the same sentiment with a link to the picture that was on the t-shirts, which the BBC had refused to show. His intention, he says, was to defend his religion from “those who have hijacked it just because they shout the loudest.” “To carve out a space to be heard without constantly fearing the blasphemy charge, on pain of death.”

This proved to be a step too far as angry Muslims spread word of the tweet and began attacking Nawaz for having the temerity to admit that he was not offended by something. A fellow member of the Liberal Democrat Party, Mohammed Shafiq, started an online petition as an official complaint to the party, seeking to have Nawaz deselected. He went further, tweeting "We will notify all Muslim organisations in the UK of his despicable behaviour and also notify Islamic countries."

He used more incendiary language as well.

Nawaz would soon wake up to a deluge of abuse, including a significant number of threats to his life. At least one Twitter user called for his beheading. Some of the threats originated in Pakistan and appear credible. And perhaps naturally given the great fuss, the BBC and other news outlets still refuse to show a cartoon line drawing depicting, not rudely by any means, the founder of Islam.

How did this happen? Britain is a free and liberal democracy with a strong human rights tradition of free speech, though that appears to be slipping. Multiculturalism has tended to produce a stale political atmosphere in which we dare not offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of our minority groups lest we risk inflaming the fragile harmony of our volatile communities. Mockery of religious teachings has been confused with causing harassment. Valid and forceful criticism of the many ignoble deeds carried out in the name of a religion is conflated with hate speech.

Some Muslims I’ve spoken to about the present crisis have suggested that although nobody dispute’s Nawaz’s right to tweet an image and to declare that he does not find that image offensive, he should choose more carefully the manner in which he expresses this view so as not to offend. In other words, be serious. Be sober. I have to say, as a liberal I find that idea extremely insulting in itself.

It reminds me of something the former Cat Stevens once said to Jon Stewart when asked about Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. The gist was “Yes, of course we have free speech. But why is it necessary to insult the Prophet?” Turning it around into a question for the speaker is a diversionary tactic. It is calling for nothing more or less than self censorship, which is the most insidious kind. It is making the case for fear masquerading as respect. “Yes you have free speech, but please try hard to make your speech the good kind that I don’t object to. Let’s have a civil, constructive debate. Don’t take the piss.”

I will make this very plain. You do not get to choose the medium and manner in which I am permitted to challenge your beliefs. It is not supposed to be comfortable for you. That’s entirely the point. “Have I Got News For You” can be more effective at opposing government than the opposition party. Nothing unmans oppressive power quite so quickly and effectively as popular ridicule, which is why oppressive authority works so hard to suppress it. If we can’t agree that the Jesus and Mo cartoons are civil and constructive, though by knowledge of their mere existence offensive, then we will never agree the terms of the debate.

The Liberal Democrats initially tried to patch things up in this row with a predictably milquetoast statement recognising Nawaz’s right to be offensive, but also calling for moderate language and warning members against causing unnecessary offence. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to cause offence in order to make a point that is of great public importance.

Like the Liberal Democrat MP for Bradford East, Mike David Ward*, who was suspended after choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to remind us that Israel has committed a few atrocities of its own, Maajid Nawaz has made a brave and principled stand against an orthodoxy of thought. It was wrong to suspend Ward. Israel is a nation state and far from immune to scorn. He should have been asked to clarify his views, which would get people talking instead of having someone shut up. Let’s not make the same mistake here.

I will not deal with the various ad hominem attacks against Maajid Nawaz coming from Islamic quarters that are naturally at odds with him for various political reasons. They are completely transparent and not worth what little time I have to talk. Suffice to say there are plenty of Muslims who have plenty of reasons to want to discredit the man. I will stick to what is relevant. I’ve seen Muslims attempting to explain why defaming the Prophet is so extremely hurtful and offensive. I sort of get it. It goes something like this:

Mocking someone’s mother is the one thing in all cultures that is deemed absolutely unacceptable, something you only do when you deliberately seek to offend. Muslims believe paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother, and you must obey her without question unless contrary to God’s laws. The prophet Muhammad, who taught this, is more beloved to Muslims than their mothers and all loved ones.

That is fair enough; however, I would only say this. If I mock your mother then it is no doubt insulting and very hurtful. But when your mother is Margaret Thatcher who commanded armies  and police forces and who still embodies a political ideology, I will say what I damn well feel. My sympathies to Mark and Carol, but when your mother is or was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, mockery and worse go with the territory. Don’t blame me for what she subjected you to. I’m sorry Chelsea Clinton, but when your mother is running for President of the United States, she is fair game. So is your dad, and so is your faith for that matter.

Those of us whose mothers are powerful public figures need to develop thicker skin or else live a life of monastic seclusion.

Why, Yusuf Islam, is it necessary to insult the Prophet? I’ll tell you. Because it is not yet universally accepted (not even in this country) that criticism of a religion and all its various customs and diktats is a right. That such criticism may not be followed by threats to one’s physical existence. It is kind of out of order to suggest that someone who creates a picture of Muhammad should have his head cut off. Belief systems which, as with politics, control entire populaces, and in whose name people are maimed and tortured and killed, are public discourse.

People have the right to believe that the sin of blasphemy should be punishable by death, but they MUST accept that it is not. It once was, but no longer, and it never will be again as long as there is a liberal in this country with a pulse, drawing breath without the aid of a respirator. Until that time, these acts of defiance are not only justified, they are absolutely necessary.

The ridiculous and untenable situation in which we’ve found ourselves only serves to show that they do not happen often enough. Insulting the Prophet (or whatever religious equivalent) needs to become a normal thing. Though it may be painful to many, it will become accustomed and the pain will become manageable in time. Your God is strong and your belief will survive. If not, then what was it ever worth?

The same BBC that was afraid to show a cartoon offensive to Muslims had no qualms about screening Jerry Springer the Opera in January 2005, which features a scene in which it is suggested that the Virgin Mary was “raped by God”. I honestly cannot imagine anything more offensive to anyone deeply Christian. Even I, as a lapsed Catholic, was offended! I sat there transfixed with my jaw halfway to the floor wondering how anyone could be so bold.

The Beeb received no fewer than 55,000 complaints from viewers after the event and vigorously defended its decision to broadcast, one which prompted the Christian Institute to attempt to bring a private prosecution against the Director General on a blasphemy charge (thank gawd we binned that one, eh?). I commend the BBC for this, but why the double standards?

The fact is there was a time in this country when producing Jerry Springer the Opera would have gotten you burned alive on a pyre. Thankfully we are over that. I’m very sorry, but Islam has some catching up to do on that score. Cowardly pseudo-liberal appeasement of extreme feeling does not get us any further along. Drawing the blurry line where the BBC and its contemporaries have chosen to draw it on this occasion is deeply offensive to liberalism. It is simply the case that the belief that drawing a decent cartoon is blasphemy and may deserve death is one that is incompatible with our laws and traditions. The belief, though rightfully held, deserves no respect. 

It needs to be offended, often and mercilessly. Call it tough love.

It is often said that you don’t have the right not to be offended. That bears repeating. Nobody has the right to not be offended. A corollary is that, very broadly speaking, everyone has the right to cause offence to anyone. Absolutely, everybody has the right to take offence and to express their outrage, even to call for something to be done. What is not often articulated though is the right to be offended as a proactive thing.

If we all allowed ourselves to be offended more often, the world would be a much better place. Being offended is good for you and it’s good for me. It is something that I believe we should each seek out regularly for our own personal, empathic development. The reason is that being offended challenges our rigid thinking and stale notions. If we take the time to think about our gut reaction to being offended, we might come to find that the roots of our objection are misjudged and misplaced.

If we open our minds to a challenge, our minds can be changed. It is wonderfully transformative and all for the good. At the very least, we can look forward to building some character.

For me, the right to be offended means that if you find something offensive you have no right to take away my opportunity to be offended. Being offended does not make you special, nor does it give you powers. It certainly does not appoint you my guardian of good taste, whoever you think you are. Be offended and find some way of dealing with it. But go do it over there, away from me please if you’d be so kind. I’m happy for you, but if I’m honest I have my own matters to attend to. But do make sure to thank the person who offended you for the great service performed for humanity.

Muhammad Shafiq had the gall to appear on Andrew Neil’s politics show and complain that people were trying to stifle his right to speak as a Muslim on behalf of other Muslims. He mentioned abuse that he’d received over his petition, including some death threats. I noted that this did not prevent him from appearing on the program, unlike his adversary who was advised by police not to make any further comment or to appear on television as it would be too dangerous for him.

Shafiq has in fact appeared several times on television since these events unfolded calling for Maajid Nawaz to be silenced, while Nawaz has not. When a person is made to fear for his safety if he tries to speak up, that is silencing. Maajid Nawaz was not able at that time to speak freely on behalf of himself let alone other Muslims who might be inclined to agree with him. Have the police forgotten (or perhaps they never fully understood) that the law owes Maajid Nawaz a positive duty to defend his unpopular speech against the angry torch waving mob?

Muhammad Shafiq may have a point that I as a non-Muslim have no business telling him how to speak on behalf of Muslims. But I’ll tell you what, Mr Shafiq. I am a liberal with a strong sense of liberty and a particular attachment to Article 10. I can tell you that you have no business wearing the badge of liberal, and I will. Take it off, if you can’t see how important it is to defend the freedom to offend.

I have criticised you, but I’m not calling for your head. I do not dispute your right to create a petition calling for your party fellow to be disciplined. I just think you’re dead wrong in a way that no self respecting liberal could fail to see. There is no place for such blind intolerance in any party that calls itself liberal or democratic. If anyone has brought the Liberal Democrat Party into disrepute, Mr Shafiq, it is you. Do I need to draw you a picture?

* On the podcast recording I mistakenly refer to this person as Mike Ward.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Panic mode - my proposal to curb Twitter abuse


There has been much talk these last few days of what can be done to tackle the problem of the overwhelming deluges of nasty and often threatening abuse that Twitter users can sometimes receive. This abuse can rise to the level of criminality very easily. There have been many suggestions aimed at tackling the social root cause head on, including making it easier to report masses of abuse instead of having to select individual tweets. Some have gone so far as to suggest some sort of annual fee for the use of Twitter in order to cut down on sock puppetry and discourage breaking terms and conditions. Still others have asked for Twitter, like Facebook, to require real names. In my view all of these suggestions would create more problems than what they aim to solve. The problem they aim to solve is not realistic. The world is what it is and human nature is complex and varied. There are nasty people everywhere. It's too much. The problem needs to be redefined.

The problem

The problem is that when a Twitter user is under attack, as happened recently to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, she quite understandably fears using the tool that Twitter provides her. She can't have conversations with people because her mentions are flooded with vile abuse. Nobody should have to put up with that.

The solution

My solution to this problem would be for Twitter to introduce something like a panic button that would immediately but temporarily place one's account into a state where all mentions are blocked except for those coming from the followers and following lists. Twitter could also allow the user to open a case and have mentions logged against that case to help Twitter to take action against those who violate the terms. Twitter could also perhaps warn users attempting to put the panicked account into a mention or reply. Perhaps they could ask for confirmation either within the stream or in an email. An alternative would be to actually disallow the creation of the mention or reply. A blocked account is currently not allowed to perform a reply but it can use a mention. The same rules might apply here. The mention would still not be seen.


I can see two clear benefits to simply blocking all but the followers and following. This would allow the user to carry on using the tool more or less as normal, while also throwing water on the flames of abuse as the abusers will not be getting the satisfaction of a reaction. Going further, the ability to launch a case with mentions attached would help Twitter to take action against those who violate the terms. This is much more efficient than blocking and reporting users over individual tweets, but it has potential problems so it would need to be implemented very carefully. Warnings, confirmations, and disallowing tweets would cut down on the volume of abusive material.


We're not going to change the world with a social tool. It would be pointless to try. What is important is to give users the freedom to use the tool without having to suffer the indignity of drowning in a sea of hatred. Do this please, Twitter. Thank you.

UPDATE 30 July 2013: I thought it would be obvious so I didn't mention it, but in my proposal you would also have approval over new followers in the same way that protected mode provides this.

UPDATE 31 July 2013: I had another thought this morning. It occurs to me that panic mode combined with a sudden spike in mentions would be a good indicator for twitter to go in and have a look.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Thoughts on the "marital coercion" defence in modern Britain

We are probably by now all aware of the trial that ended last week with the jury discharged and which is due to be heard in front of a fresh jury this week. That of course is the trial of Vicky Pryce, ex wife of the disgraced former Liberal Democrat MP and Transport Energy Secretary Chris Huhne. Mr Huhne has pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice by avoiding a prosecution for speeding a decade ago, having his erstwhile wife take 3 points on her license instead. Ms Pryce is contesting the same charge. This case has generated much controversy in the past week with claims that the jury system is fundamentally flawed.

This case should court controversy for a very different reason. The defence of "marital coercion" that is being relied upon is archaic in that it is only available to a "wife". The defence is provided by the Criminal Justice Act 1925 - section 47, wherein is stated:
"Any presumption of law that an offence committed by a wife in the presence of her husband is committed under the coercion of the husband is hereby abolished, but on a charge against a wife for any offence other than treason or murder it shall be a good defence to prove that the offence was committed in the presence of, and under the coercion of, the husband."
I am surely not alone in thinking that it is ridiculous in the present day when efforts are well under way to redefine marriage as being open to same sex couples, that there exists this distinction in law to afford a criminal defence to a "wife" that is not available to a "husband". The terms husband and wife have themselves become obsolete. Wikipedia reports that in 1977 the Law Commission recommended that this defence be abolished altogether as it is no longer appropriate. It is no longer appropriate because a husband no longer holds legal dominance over his wife. Although there is still quite some way to go before society treats women as truly equal to men, the law does grant equal rights to this demographic. And yet, the defence still stands.

Perhaps the next jury hearing the Pryce trial will take the audacious step of disregarding the defence of marital coercion and treating the defendant as a woman in her own right who is capable of making bad decisions and taking responsibility for the consequences.

Flayman on LiveJournal (old)