Tuesday, 18 February 2014
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
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,
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?
Monday, 29 July 2013
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 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.
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
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.
Friday, 21 September 2012
This is cross posted from Justice Denied.
Much has happened, dear reader, since we last spoke. I will focus on just a couple related items. You may be aware that a week ago today the Crown case against Azhar Ahmed of Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire resulted in a conviction at Huddersfield Magistrate's Court. We had hoped that the prosecution would choose to drop the case after the DPP loss in Chambers v DPP at the High Court. Unfortunately, they did not. Rather more unfortunately, the new leading authority of Lord Chief Justice Judge was not introduced into evidence. The defence stuck with DPP v Collins and lost the case. It seems that the judge was not persuaded by arguments that Mr Ahmed never imagined that his Facebook update would be seen by anyone other than his friends and family.
Now, less than one week from that result, the Director of Public Prosecutions yesterday published a statement on the CPS blog about his decision not to prosecute a s127 case and his intention to issue guidelines to prosecutors on social media. Once draft guidelines are published there is to be a wide public consultation feeding into the final publication. This is very good news, but one feels it comes a few days too late for poor Azhar Ahmed who must now await sentencing as he decides whether or not to appeal.
The DPP, Keir Starmer QC, has also been making appearances in the media. I'm told he was on BBC Breakfast this morning, though I've not heard what he had to say for himself. In light of his comments yesterday, I would now call upon the Director of Public Prosecutions to instruct his prosecutors to ask for an absolute discharge at the sentencing for Azhar Ahmed on the 9th of October and to explain to the judge that the CPS feel that a conviction would no longer be in the public interest. Certain of Mr Starmer's remarks are particularly relevant as quoted here:
"This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain. It was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield, it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse. Against that background, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, Jim Brisbane, has concluded that on a full analysis of the context and circumstances in which this single message was sent, it was not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought."
All of this with certain transpositions could be said equally of Mr Ahmed's Facebook remarks, which when taken in context are nothing more than a strong but poorly expressed political opinion. Indeed, his message was not found to be grossly offensive on an objective reading.
On top of all this recent business we have also seen, on the same day as this announcement by the DPP, another arrest on a s127 charge for a Facebook posting. A man has been arrested for creating an offensive Facebook page following the murders of two female police officers in greater Manchester. This may be the first time someone has been arrested on a s127 charge for publishing a web page. I will leave it to readers to work out why the publishing of a web page should not be caught by this offence. Start by looking up the definition of "public electronic communications network", then the definition of "electronic communications network", then the definition of "content service". All of these are defined within the Communications Act.
This has not yet been referred to the CPS and I am very interested to see what they would say about it. If it turns out that GMP have got the law "right" and the Lord Chief Justice would agree, then any web page, static or dynamic, can be caught by this offence. If that is the case then we have really opened Pandora's box. I will fight this like hell and I will need your help. In the meantime, please pop over to the Jack of Kent blog to get involved in a discussion about the upcoming public consulation.
UPDATE 5:16pm - I said I would leave it to the reader to work out why an act of publishing should not be caught by this offence. Ever one to be diligent, I decided to go and reread the relevant sections of the Communications Act, which are sections 151 and 32. Section 151 says “public electronic communications network” means an electronic communications network provided wholly or mainly for the purpose of making electronic communications services available to members of the public. Section 32 says:
32 Meaning of electronic communications networks and servicesIt also defines a content service, but it turns out we don't need that. The internet has been found at the High Court to be a public electronic communications network (PECN); therefore, it is also an ECN. An electronic communications service cannot be a content service, but both operate over an ECN, so it follows that a "message or other matter" sent by way of an ECS or a content service on an ECN can be caught. This is bad news. There is an argument that the internet is not a PECN because it primarily provides content services nowadays, but this got us nowhere in the courts.
(1)In this Act “electronic communications network” means—
(a)a transmission system for the conveyance, by the use of electrical, magnetic or electro-magnetic energy, of signals of any description; and(2)In this Act “electronic communications service” means a service consisting in, or having as its principal feature, the conveyance by means of an electronic communications network of signals, except in so far as it is a content service.
(b)such of the following as are used, by the person providing the system and in association with it, for the conveyance of the signals—
(i)apparatus comprised in the system;
(ii)apparatus used for the switching or routing of the signals; and
(iii)software and stored data.
Tuesday, 31 July 2012
Friday, 9 March 2012
Dear Mr Raab,