Sunday, 16 September 2012

Is Compromise A Weakness Or A Strength?

I've been in debates with people on the internet about a range of subjects, usually political. Now that a certain video is causing consternation in Muslim countries, the issue of free speech is crowding out a more urgent debate on the importance of compromise.

In America, people have moved so far to the right that my moderate conservatism is seen as liberal and socialist. Socialism is such a dirty word over there that when I told a visitor from Virginia that the UK has a socialist lite government, he visibly jumped. Add to the mix the furore over the badly-made, roughly-dubbed audio-visual abortion that is "The Innocence of Muslims" and you've got a recipe for trouble. You see, on the right, compromise is a dirty word. I've been trying to work out why it troubles me so much, then I remembered this:

Like Bub the zombie here, they think of me as lunch — or something that is lesser than they are, at least. I rarely get it on the left or from liberals. I'm in a particularly fraught debate at the time of writing with two men who appear to be Libertarian-leaning. They're unwilling to consider that there's any other way of looking at this apart from an absolutist position. They're calling me a troll in the comments of this thread because I'm moderate. They're like Gollum about their precious opinions and won't even properly evaluate them, no matter what. For them, freedom of speech is not just a licence to insult, it's an obligation to push the envelope of what is acceptable in our society. I muted the thread because there's just no give with these people and quite frankly, it's creepy. And now I know why I find it creepy; I'm convinced they think of me as lunch. They don't respect me, that's for sure.

What's going on?

Part of it's to do with the rather complicated relationship they have with racism. To cut a long story short, the white population is slowly being outnumbered and they're used to seeing themselves as a privileged group. Take away their specialness by giving other people the same opportunities and they freak out. Hilariously, the most religious ones are opposed to contraception — for anyone. One of the funniest things is the mad conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama is not actually American at all, and is therefore ineligible to be President. People who believe this are called Birthers and some of the ones in Kansas are trying to get his name off the ballot for the election in November.

Hilariously, Birthers conveniently forget that Mitt Romney's father was born in Mexico and actually ran for president in 1968 with no questions or comments about his eligibility.

The Innocence of Muslims

The Innocence of Muslims is a one-fingered salute to Islamic beliefs and their prophet, and to cut a long story short, they're very angry about it. Years of American foreign policies that treats Muslims like idiots in their own countries and interference in their domestic politics had made them furious anyway. When the trailer (there may not be an actual movie) was discovered on YouTube, all hell broke loose and the American embassies all over the world were attacked by protestors. The person behind all this has asked for police protection and been taken in for questioning and his associates are in hiding, reviled by their own communities or trying to distance themselves from it.

Emerging evidence points to a conspiracy by right-wing extremists to foment unrest in the Middle East with a view to supporting an attack on Iran. It's my own idea that they're trying to kick off WW3 so they can act out their Mad Max fantasies. I might not be too far off the mark given the efforts that have been made to convince the law enforcement agencies that all Muslims are radical, and to prepare the military for "total war" on Islam. Meanwhile, US Muslims suffer abuse daily; even more now that violence (and FUD) is spreading around the world as a reaction to that stupid, badly-made abortion of a video.

It doesn't help that the evil views referred to in those Wired posts I linked are mainstream. The idea of the video as an effort to provoke them as a pretext for genocide gains more credence as more people emerge to make such horrible comments. Meanwhile, all kinds of political hell are being raised. Mitt Romney's not helping, he's either getting in the way or making things worse by calling for "American leadership" in the world, particularly in the Middle East. Well if they're going to play Daddy to us kids, they need to demonstrate a maturity that goes far beyond calls for tolerating insults in the name of freedom.

Google, YouTube, and the perils of censorship

Although the reasons for the current unrest in the Islamic world isn't all about the video, its presence isn't helping. It's a lightning rod that draws on the hatred and legitimate anger of Muslims and gives them a flag to rally behind. All the rage they have ever felt towards us for the admittedly nasty things we've done can be pointed in the direction of a badly-made film. It's the perfect storm. And it's entirely deliberate, a call to arms for extremists on both sides. They're not content to only hit each other, they want to drag the rest of us into this maelstrom too. So what the hell do you do?

Pull the video

The White House asked YouTube to review the incendiary clip, but YouTube said it didn't violate their policies. It was a very tough call, but it was the right one. Think about it: suppose for a moment that YouTube agreed and did as requested. Have you any idea of the number of anti-Islamic videos there are on YouTube? Okay, imagine that every one of those got pulled. Five minutes later, they'd not only all be back up, they'd be back up with back ups. Block the URL? A mere change of file name gets around that. Okay, block the search terms. Chaos ensues. What Google actually does is observe the censorship laws in the various countries so that what's not available in China is available here. This is usually on copyright grounds but it's also done for political reasons. Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge has advocated for an end to all censorship for any reason. That's available now via TOR, in case you're interested in finding out what an internet free of censorship is like. I think it's better to just reform copyright and leave it in place. At this point, it wouldn't make the slightest difference if the video was pulled now that the cat is out of the bag.

Where compromise comes in

I am personally of the opinion that every right we have should be balanced by our obligations to our fellow human beings. To deny this is narcissism. Think about it; on the road, when you're driving you observe the rules to make driving safe for everyone. When our internal traffic lights are working properly, it's not necessarily censorship to think "Stop," "Wait," or "Go" before we open our mouths or post something online. As commenter David Beck pointed out, freedom is not free and we have to face the consequences of our actions on and offline. On the internet, however, there is less accountability so people tend to be bolder online than they would in real life.

Is free speech a license to offend?

Apology to Libya over dead ambassadorRight now we're having to deal with people who think that freedom of speech obliges them to be offensive at every possible opportunity, after which they run to their mummies the authorities squealing like pigs for protection when the resultant mess blows up in their grubby faces. They paint their opponents as aggressors who make them walk on eggshells, terrified that one word or gesture will set off a bomb. There's no middle ground, no leeway. This picture sums it up. This is the person who posted it. I uncircled the person who reshared it because I really can't be dealing with ignorant bigots.

Is being considerate self-censorship?

The point I'm making is, we need to do more to get along with people. This means that making inflammatory, deliberately offensive videos, then translating them into Arabic and supplying them to Egyptian journalists to create a flippin' war doesn't occur to us. I'm trying and failing to imagine a man shaking, sweating, and rocking back and forth muttering, "Must... insult... Islam!" over and over again, restrained only by the knowledge that he might end up causing WW3 if he does.

Is it really censorship to sit back and think before you post an item or make a film and put it online? Is it really free speech to engage in or to promote hateful behaviour? Some people are convinced that the limits of free speech are determined by how downright offensive we can be while completely forgetting about Anton Vickerman and Richard O'Dwyer, who are both in jail for linking to copyrighted content. Google links to copyrighted content. What's the difference? Google makes money in the exact same way — advert revenue, when linking to the copyright content so it should in theory be subject to the same laws as those two.

We have censorship anyway

What about the dreaded child porn? Yes, I'll go there. That is censored. If I were to link to one of the many illegally-hosted films and clips that befoul the internet, I would almost certainly have my website blocked and be hauled off to jail. Make no mistake, I would thoroughly deserve it if I deliberately sought it out. Accidentally falling over it is another matter and even that can get you into a world of trouble. I do believe that a clear distinction ought to be made between deliberately hunting for it and downloading it by accident with a knock-off song file.

No rant on censorship and the limits of free speech would be complete without a reference to people who have unwisely posted items or comments on Facebook that subsequently got them fired. What I'm saying here is, freedom of speech is already limited by the likelihood of your losing your job over unwise comments on the social media websites you use or the limits of public decency laws. People chafe about that, let's be honest, but what I'm saying is, most of us accept those limits without getting all riled up about it. Insulting behaviour can get you taken to court on slander, libel, or harassment charges as it is. Why are religions exempt from that?

I suppose what I'm asking is the same question Rodney King did back in 1992: can't we all just get along? We all know what the answer is: yes, when we learn to be more considerate to each other, and that begins with compromise.

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