Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Perceptions And Perspectives: What Freedom Really Means

Hate on the internet - cartoon me at PC confronted by a hateful man frothing at the mouth
It's trendy in left-liberal circles to celebrate "the right to offend" as if defending it is a sacred trust. However, if you're not in a "protected group" you're unlikely to get much in the way of support. In tonight's post I'm going to discuss how the right to offend can actually chill freedom of speech and expression, not enhance it.

As I've said here on my blog any number of times I'm basically conservative but I abhor right-wingers, can't stand socialism, and can't be dealing with authoritarians of any stripe because I don't like being told what to do by people who don't care about me. This should put me firmly on the side of the liberals but I'm not keen on those people, either. These are the people who often impose political correctness on us (don't get me started!*), dictate the terms by which we relate to people whose social, political, and sexual preference differs from the mainstream, and who insist that theirs is the measure we use to determine how much freedom we actually have. However, the trouble with letting such people take charge of the social narrative is that they then become gatekeepers and curators, deciding what is and is not socially acceptable, and that's what creates the chilling effect. I'm going to look at four cases where this is clearly delineated and examine the implications for personal freedom.

The Naked Rambler: the right to roam in the raw?

I don't think I'm going to get an answer from liberal law blogger Jack of Kent RE: the Naked Rambler and his insistence in going everywhere letting it all hang out, as it were. Personally, I believe from what I've read online that it's some kind of infantile exhibitionism. I mean, why wear a hat but not a pair of shorts? It fascinates me that in his Wikipedia article it says he has refused a psychiatric evaluation that might shed light on his insistence on going unclothed in public. Now Mr. Gough's plight is being held up in liberal circles as an example of how We Must All Be More Tolerant, the implication being that those of us who don't want to spend our lives not knowing where to look when confronted with such a person are unreasonably prudish.

I've had to look hard to find a dissenting voice and found it in the Scots newspaper the Daily Record, which calls him "the most selfish man in Britain, who has threatened a return to Scotland." That just made me laugh but it really does stand out from the crowd of other media outlets, which mostly seem to want to avoid being seen to be condemning his behaviour and attitude.

What I'm saying is, it's "not the done thing" to say anything against Gough's choice and doing so can invite questions such as "What harm is he doing?" This is framing. No one is suggesting he's in any way harmful, we just don't want an eyeful when we're going about our daily routine and we don't want to be hammered for saying so. To suggest that being considerate of your neighbours and of the general public is an imposition on your personal freedom is pretty damn selfish, I say. It's also a violation of the Twofold Principle:

The individual must be free to act and the will of the people must be respected.

Personal rights will always be in tension with your personal and social responsibilities. That tension is the limit of your freedom in real terms. To deny that is to infringe on the freedoms of others, and that's not fair. I shouldn't have to walk around with my eyes on the ground because I don't want an eyeful of some random stranger's meat and two veg while I'm minding my own business. Let him go and live where public nudity is considered to be normal and acceptable instead of demanding that we accept it. I don't want to.

Feminist tropes: who defines gender identity?

Feminism is too broad a philosophy to distil into one blog post. There are far too many strands of opinion to classify, for a start. Feminists are not all man-hating, dungaree-wearing, makeup-eschewing harridans, despite the assertions of the right-wing press. The truth is they come in many different shapes and sizes. It's the strident ranty ones I tend to step away slowly, then turn and run away from, as a rule, due to the toxic echo-chamber atmosphere that tends to form around them. It's not just the Síle na Gig-ery (or Síle na Giggity) of making their privates public that annoys me, it's the effrontery of their insistence that they alone have the right to define femininity itself, and woe betide anyone who argues with their dearly-held point of view.

When supporter Sister Trinity expressed support for this position I was surprised but when I questioned it she doubled down. This is precisely the kind of mid-century moral backlash to the fin de siècle excesses I've been expecting to happen kicking in sooner than I'd thought it would, but I'm really surprised to see it coming from feminists. And what with trans people being considered a protected group I'm doubly surprised, but there you go. These women are expressing their right to offend minority groups and members of the LGBT community in particular, but I can't help thinking of the chilling effect it can have on someone who might be thinking of coming out or may simply need a bit of guidance in terms of establishing a gendered sexual identity they're comfortable with instead of being shoehorned into identities defined by their bodies.

It's bad enough trying to be yourself in your everyday community but when the pressure to conform to normative values comes from the kind of people you'd expect to stand up for you, how much freedom do you really have?

Satanic cults and conspiracy theories:  when counter-speech doesn't work

We've been told over and over again that the solution to unwelcome speech is counter-speech. However, while it sounds great in theory, it doesn't always work out for targets in practice.

Counterspeech is exhausting and distracting, but if you are the target of hatred you have little choice. “Speak up! Remind us why you should not be lynched.” “Speak up! Remind us why you should not be raped.” You can stay silent, but that internalizes the on counterspeech effectively forces that very choice onto victims of hate speech. - The Atlantic: The Limits of Free Speech, by Kent Greenfield

While I decry authoritarian approaches on principle, I can fully understand where Kent is coming from in this article. He's made my "But populism!" argument better than I did in my blog post on how populism undermines counter-speech as a remedy for abusive speech. The truth is, we all love a flippin' good scandal laden with forbidden fruit and authority figures caught with their pants down so let's face it, we're not going to pay that much attention to debunkage if it spoils our prurient fun.

The Hampstead Satanic Cult story is a case in point. Behind the screaming headlines of Evil School Staff Getting Up To No Good With The Kids are real, normal, everyday people thrust into a maelstrom of unfounded accusations by some lying toerags out to cause trouble. The damage these "truthers" do to the parents, pupils, and members of staff at the schools being "named and shamed" all over the internet by eager gossip-mongers is incalculable. Even though the stories are unproven and no evidence has been brought, the fact that it's being repeated over and over again causes the credulous to accept them as true without question, the "reasoning" being that it must be true since so many people are saying so.

When the right to offend trumps the right to due process and inclusion in the community at large, how much freedom do the people on the receiving end of libel and slander have? It's prohibitively expensive to pay for defamation lawsuits, and when it happens on the internet and it's gone viral, you've got no chance. You can only hope that if you keep your head down it will eventually go away.

The oldest profession: who has the right to decide what you do with your own body?

I've been in a fair number of arguments with prostitutes and feminists over prostitution. That my church is in an area that used to be a red light district has helped me to understand that taking an authoritarian approach to dealing with the sex trade is always going to be a bad idea. First of all, good luck with enforcing it and secondly, you're just going to make things worse for the very people you believe you're protecting.

The pro-prostitution (they prefer to call it "sex work" and present it as a normal job) faction promote the idea of the sex trade as a positive empowering personal choice while the anti faction present it as a facet of patriarchal oppression and rape culture. Needless to say the social justice bullies don their identity politics cape, mask, and undies-on-the-outside combo and come down on me like a ton of bricks if I dare to enter their echo chambers with an unapproved point of view. I mean, why take the time to win me over if you can bully and shame me into agreeing with you in the hope of your being my friend and inviting me to your birthday party, etc.?

Personally, I tend to agree with the anti faction on how bad and harmful prostitution is to the individuals involved while invoking the Twofold Principle as a tool for working out how to address what is essentially a demand-side issue. The way I see it, people have a right to make their own choices whether the rest of us approve of them or not. That's what freedom is, whatever your choices.


I believe I have proved that the right to offend is an effective tool of oppression, given that it can be used to promote outright propaganda under the flag of freedom of speech. However, I am also aware that setting controls on the freedom of speech on the grounds that some speech is offensive can and does cause problems. It can and does get used to shut down criticism and dissent, and as a dissenter I am at risk of being shut down myself, somewhere down the line, if I start advocating for outright censorship as a remedy for the abuse of freedom of speech. I'll leave it to Ken "Popehat" White to explain why:

Somewhere between grinning and bearing the abuse heaped upon you online and in real life because Many People Are Saying Things about you and getting items removed from the internet or making it illegal to Say Mean Things Online is a solution that's got to be better than hoping that the people responsible will experience some form of enlightenment and be kinder to others from now on. I'm not holding my breath but I do think that Something Must Be Done. I'm not sure what, but it's somewhere along the lines of setting up or supporting an effort to provide the counter-speech that targets who have little or no support require to even the odds that are stacked against them. What do you think?

*I believe that political correctness is a load of post-colonialist paternalist bunk with a heavy dose of White Man's Burden in the mix. It alienates and others non-wealthy non-white people by presenting them as a volatile, thin-skinned Other who must be carefully tiptoed around, and referred to using only the terms supplied by the PC High Command, or whatever. Its authoritarian slip shows most when one approaches an "effnick minori'y" to ask if they have been consulted about the terms used to describe them. The answer is always "No."

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