Last January I received a wake-up call from Paris when, during their first editorial meeting of the year, eight staffers at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by humourless crybabies. Since then, I’ve been writing unwaveringly in defence of freedom of speech and other important civil liberties.
As I found out, there was no shortage of whom Popehatter Ken White calls “censorious asshats” in 2015. The category contains a diverse cast of characters, with everyone from Goldsmiths student “diversity officer” Bahar Mustafa to the president of France providing grist for the mill. At approximately 40,000 words spanning 66 posts, enough to fill a short book, or a rather lofty owner’s manual for a coffeemaker. While an improvement over last year’s anaemic 10,000 word count spanning 16 posts, I hope to ramp up my output in 2016.
There was much that I missed, or neglected to write about, topics reported on elsewhere by writers whose wealth of knowledge, clarity of vision and exhaustive coverage made throwing in my own meagre two pennies seem a little bit redundant. For this reason my focus has been stories that didn’t make the headlines, an approach that led to an unexpected collaboration with a fellow blogger in December. To make up for slacking-off, I’ll give topics I didn’t write about a line or two as I recap those I did.
I mainly travel between the UK and US. However, I occasionally find myself further afield. Some items might only be of interest to fellow residents of Northern Ireland. Stay with me and I’ll try to repay your interest in full. Without further ado, the year in blog.
Direct quotes are italicised/indented. Excerpts of articles/press releases and other media are screenshotted (with certain exceptions).
Down the Barrel of a Gun
On the morning of January 7, Islamic terrorists forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, known for its fearlessly satirical swipes at Islamic fundamentalism. Armed with assault rifles, they murdered 12 people, including eight staffers who were the intended targets of a prior attack on the magazine in 2011 over cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad.
The social media-born “Je Suis Charlie” movement defied the shooters by marching in support of the victims; supporters further combated the threat to western freedoms in the Capitalist-Democratic tradition, voting with their wallets and buying what was dubbed the “survivors’ issue” of the magazine in droves.
Their efforts were apparently lost on French police, who in the week following the shooting demonstrated their love for free speech by arresting 54 people in a nationwide crackdown on “hate speech, anti-Semitism” and statements “glorifying terrorism.” Among those detained by the state was French comedian Dieudonné, who allegedly made statements sympathetic to Amedy Coulibaly, said to be responsible for three related shootings.
Exhibit A: this January 11 Facebook post (since deleted), in which Dieudonné wrote that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” – a combination of “Charlie Hebdo” and “Amedy Coulibaly.” In a separate Facebook post, he wrote an open letter to French prime minister Manuel Valls pleading his case.
Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I’m trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie.
Alas, the crime of nameplay is serious – in March, Dieudonné was found guilty by a Paris court of, quote, “apologising for terrorism,” for which he received a two-month suspended sentence. Je suis Dieudonné.
In my January 14 post, I asked whether there was a principled difference between a terrorist who shoots a satirical cartoonist in the name of his religion and a policeman who arrests an offensive comedian in the name of national security.
In France, both are faced down the barrel of a gun.
The Right to Discriminate
In August 2014, a Belfast, Northern Ireland bakery whose owners run their business on the word of the Bible, was told it would face legal action after refusing to bake a cake in support of gay marriage for a member of a local gay rights group.
In December that same year, Paul Givan of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) introduced the “Conscience Clause” bill which, had it passed, would have allowed business owners to refuse service to customers whose order conflicted with their religious beliefs.
In my January 25 post, I argued that the rights of service providers are necessarily unequal to those of consumers, who are free to discriminate with their money but who also have the right to shop free from discrimination.
The Crusaders for Truth and Justice
This under-reported story out of San Francisco involved the vandalism of anti-Islamic advertisements by anonymous graffitists.
What happened was that an organization called Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) took out a series of anti-Islamic adverts with San Francisco’s transport agency, which could be seen on the sides of public buses in downtown SF.
Taking exception to SIOA’s appeal to “end all aid to Islamic countries,” anonymous graffitists obscured the offending message with anti-hate speech slogans and cartoons.
Their actions were met with applause and salutations from media pundits like Susana Polo and Amanda Marcotte.
We have only one thing to say about this, and that is Excelsior! – Susana Polo (via themarysue.com)
Taking a break from the usual doom and gloom that comes with the territory of political writing to highlight a heart-warming tale out of the (sic) San Francisco… – Amanda Marcotte (via rawstory.com)
One writer, Jude Terror at The Outhousers, went so far as to try to dissuade readers from reading dissenting opinions.
Censorship gives heft and gravitas to words and ideas which they wouldn’t ordinarily have. Corny, but true: the best way to counter speech you hate is with speech you love (just not when it means nobody else gets to speak).
In Other News…
• On January 9, 31-year-old secularist blogger Raif Badawi received his first public flogging after Saudi Arabia’s criminal court sentenced him to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for “insulting Islam.”
• On January 12, it was revealed that a widely circulated photo of European leaders leading the Paris “Unity Rally” had been carefully staged. A second photo, taken from a different perspective, showed our elected leaders marching down a guarded, closed-off street.
• In a January 18 article, The Express Tribune reported on comments made by Ambassador Zamir Akram, Pakistan’s envoy to the United Nations, about the western media’s coverage of Charlie Hebdo. According to the article, Ambassador Akram said that free speech is subject to limitations, specifically to prevent incitement to violence.
• In a January 20 article, Campus Reform reported on an email survey distributed by the University of Kentucky’s student government that asked students to choose their preferred policy for limiting speech on campus.
• On January 28, French president François Hollande announced that he would present a draft law allowing the French government to charge Internet operators, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, as “accomplices” to hate speech offences.
Tipping the Scales
Following criticism over a drop in the conviction rate for sex offences for the year 2013-14, Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders unveiled new guidelines for police officers investigating alleged sex offences.
Controversially, the new guidelines suggested that police officers look for signs of guilt in the behaviour of suspects, which many (non-lawyers) in the media believed shifted the burden of proof from complainant to defendant.
Hailed as “a huge step forward” for women, the guidelines were intended to increase the number of prosecutions for sex offences, although it remained unclear to this non-lawyer whether this would result in an increase in convictions.
My interest was instead drawn to the language used by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), specifically to this list addressing some of the “myths and stereotypes” about rape, and to the CPS policy for prosecuting cases of rape, which appears to be biased against defendants.
Digging into the archives, it’s evident that Saunders has allowed personal bias to influence what should be a fair and objective view of crime, to the extent that the CPS now takes up causes on behalf of advocacy groups.
For example, in 2012 Saunders served as a spokesperson for MumsNet’s “We Believe You” rape awareness campaign, which encouraged women to report to police if they’d been the victim of sexual assault, on the basis that they’d be “believed.”
Advocating on behalf of victims is fine. Unlike MumsNet however, the CPS is not an advocacy group, sworn neither to “believe” nor “disbelieve” allegations, but to objectively weigh the evidence before making a decision whether or not to prosecute.
It’s my opinion that telling complainants they will be “believed” is wrong for three reasons: first, it’s untrue. Second, it presumes that the defendant is guilty. Third, it creates unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system.
A news story from a few years ago illustrates the point.
In early 2013, a woman named Eleanor de Freitas made a claim to Chelsea police in which she alleged she had been drugged and raped by a man named Alexander Economou. Her claim failed to meet the evidential standard and no charges were brought against Economou.
To remove any doubt, Economou put up £200,000 of his own money to pursue a private prosecution against de Freitas, which was subsequently taken over by the CPS. No longer the perfect victim, de Freitas had the rug pulled from under her feet. With her right to anonymity and victim support withdrawn, she hanged herself three days before her trial was due to start.
Following de Frietas’ suicide, Saunders released a statement addressing the problems with the way the CPS handles rape claims.
Lest we forget, this case was to do with a potentially false rape claim and had nothing to do with “behaviours previously thought as potentially undermining to some allegations of rape.” Undermining de Freitas’ allegation of rape was a lack of evidence.
The work of “raising awareness” is best left to those outside of the criminal justice system. Arguably, it’s campaigning of this sort that leads women like de Freitas to have unrealistic expectations of the criminal justice system in the first place.
The case of Eleanor de Freitas is a tragic example of what can go wrong when the interests of the law are so heavily skewed in one direction. The tragedy is compounded by the fact that there are simple measures the CPS could have taken that might have prevented her death.
• By remaining neutral on crime. Promoting the message that the CPS will automatically “believe” allegations gives the false impression that evidence is not a prerequisite for criminal prosecution.
• By extending the right to anonymity to the accused. Had both parties been afforded the right to anonymity, Economou might not have felt the need to pursue a private prosecution against de Freitas in order to clear his name.
Unfortunately, Saunders seems unwilling to remove the blinders of advocacy to examine the ways in which the CPS might have contributed to this young woman’s death.
Tolerating the Intolerant
This minor news story out of Sydney, Australia involved a busker named Alex Winter, who used an amplifier to drown out a Christian preacher at a Mardi Gras festival.
A video of the incident went viral and the story was picked up by several mainstream newspapers in the UK and US, including The Independent and The Huffington Post, none of which seemed particularly interested in getting the preacher’s side.
According to Winter, the preacher said “some very demeaning things” about homosexuals and homosexuality. What they were we don’t know, rendered inaudible in the video by Winter’s painfully hipster rendition of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
In the spirit of tolerance, Winter received plaudits for refusing to allow the mean, bigoted Christian to say anything we – the enlightened few – might find disagreeable.
How far we’ve come.
Married to the Mob
In April, opinion columnist Katie Hopkins received well-deserved criticism for a particularly nasty article she wrote for The Sun newspaper comparing migrants to cockroaches.
Soon after the publication of her article, Hopkins was reported to police by the chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers D. Peter Herbert for “inciting racial hatred.” The complaint followed a separate complaint by Labour MP Simon Danczuk.
It should come as no surprise, in a country where celebrities successfully lobby for press regulation, that the opinion of an unpopular newspaper columnist should be deemed worthy of investigation. The fact that the complainants are a lawyer and a politician only makes the allegations against Hopkins that much harder to swallow.
In Other News…
• On February 14, a gunman killed a bystander and wounded three police officers at a seminar where Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was to be the main speaker. Vilks, who had depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a roundabout dog in three drawings, was understood to be the target.
• In a March 6 article, Campus Reform reported on the decision of the Associated Students of University of California, Irvine to remove all flags from the university’s main lobby because “flags in inclusive spaces” can be “interpreted as hate speech.”
• On March 10, the University of Oklahoma expelled two students who played “a leadership role” in singing a racist chant that went viral after it was caught on video.
• On March 14, cartoonist Lars Vilks, who survived an attack by a gunman that killed two people in February, received a free speech award from the Danish Free Press Society.
• On April 8, it was reported that Turkish journalists Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Cetinkaya had been charged with “insulting people’s religious values” after they reprinted the cover of the Charlie Hebdo “survivors’ issue,” which depicted an Islamic man holding a sign reading “Je suis Charlie,” under the headline “Tout est pardonné” (French for “All is Forgiven”).
• Following the death of 25-year-old African American Baltimore, Maryland resident Freddie Gray while in custody of local police, riots broke out in Baltimore. On April 27, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and activated the Maryland National Guard. In the days that followed, dozens of people, including journalists, were arrested, and there were numerous reports of police using heavy-handed tactics to deter protests. The state of emergency was lifted on May 6.
• According to an April 22 email obtained by the Washington Post, Youngstown University Vice-President for Student Affairs Jack Fahey told student leaders to take down “Straight Pride” posters that had been posted throughout the Youngstown campus.
• On April 22, Queen’s University in Belfast cancelled a lecture on Charlie Hebdo due to security concerns (the university quickly reversed its decision following mounting criticism).
• On April 26, a letter protesting PEN America’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo claimed over 200 signatures, including those of several prominent writers.
Doublethinking the Election
During the 2015 UK election, Labour Party leader Ed Miliband cheerily announced his intention to outlaw “Islamophobia” if he won (he didn’t).
As he told The Muslim News:
“We are going to make it an aggravated crime. We are going to make sure it is marked on people’s records with the police to make sure they root out Islamophobia as a hate crime.”
Post-election, newly re-elected prime minister David Cameron took one step further in the opposite direction, announcing a new counter-extremism bill handing powers to police and government ministers to limit the “harmful activities” of individuals and groups deemed a “threat to democracy,” with additional powers to close religious schools found teaching views intolerant of other religions.
The announcement came couched in language so vague and totalitarian to make George Orwell swell with pride/roll in his grave.
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.”¹
These vastly differing views on Islam point to a crisis in British politics about how to deal with the threat posed by religious extremism. On one hand, the view that Islam is beyond reproach. On the other, that otherwise law-abiding Muslims be treated with suspicion. Both would curtail the rights of British citizens for the purpose of creating a more tolerant society, and both would do well to consider these questions.
• For saying Islam has a problem with extremism, is Cameron guilty of Islamophobia?
• For attempting to suppress criticism of Islam, does Miliband qualify as an extremist?
Orwell coined the term “doublethink” to describe the ability to hold two mutually contradictory beliefs simultaneously. Considering the current state of British politics, he would be proud indeed. Or aghast. Or both.
¹As cleverly illustrated by comic book enthusiasts, these ominous words are fairly convincing in the metal mouth of Doctor Doom.
The Illiberality of Liberalism
In June, the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland (PPS) announced that Belfast pastor (now retired) James McConnell would be prosecuted for “improper use of public electronic communications network” – meaning the Internet – to broadcast a “grossly offensive” sermon in May 2014.
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which McConnell was charged, pretends there is some sort of objective standard for what is “grossly offensive.” But as the saying goes, offence cannot be given, only taken. The definition of “offence,” gross or otherwise, is utterly meaningless – unless the purpose of the PPS is to enforce laws based solely on a complainant’s personal sensitivities.
The offended party and chief witness for the prosecution was Dr Raied Al-Wazzan of the Belfast Islamic Centre. In January, Dr Al-Wazzan found himself in hot water when he said that Islamic State, the terrorist group that has carried out mass executions and forced millions of people to flee their homes, had been a positive force in Mosul, his home city in Iraq.
As he told BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme.
“Since the Islamic State took over, it has become the most peaceful city in the world. Yes there are other things going wrong there…they are murdering people, I agree, but you can go from east to west of the city without fear. My family is living there at the moment and that’s what they are telling me.”
To recap: the person who led the charge against a Christian pastor for speaking ill of the Islamic faith believes ISIS is creating a modern utopia. Offended yet?
The Crime of Attempted Humour
Speaking to a room of female scientists and journalists at the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, Nobel prize-winning scientist Sir Tim Hunt made the single biggest miscalculation of his career. He tried to tell a joke.
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.”
Naturally, women inside and outside the scientific community took issue with this so-called “joke,” which was not just sexist and unfunny, it was barely a joke at all. Hunt was quick to apologise, but not quick enough to assuage the collective anger of the madding crowd.
The damage was done. The cage had been rattled and those inside were not content to sing from their chains. Dozens of articles were written. Thousands of tweets were tweeted. Self-proclaimed “social justice warriors” demanded a head on a plate.
Two days after making the offending remarks, Hunt resigned from his honourary position at University College London (UCL). In an interview with The Guardian, he claimed the UCL had forced his hand. So awful were his comments, there was apparently no need to consider his version of events. So egregious was his behaviour, the only suitable punishment was automatic dismissal.
The crime of attempted humour is serious. One thoughtless comment made in jest and – just like that – a brilliant scientist can be terminated at the height of his career. The demands of social justice have trumped science.
Fortunately, Hunt was not without his defenders. Distinguished scientists of both sexes, from all stratas of public life, extended support and a petition to have Hunt reinstated was started online. Gestures in kind, which despite clear and convincing arguments in the name of reason and science proved ineffective.
In my June 25 post, I termed what happened to Tim Hunt “a matter of ethics in journalism.” Many in journalism seemed willing to forgo ethics for the sake of furthering their favoured causes, engaging in vindictive media campaigns and cementing over gaps in knowledge with baseless assumptions – in other words, telling lies.
On Twitter, science journalist Connie St Louis led the charge.
From the above tweet, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hunt was deadly serious when he declared himself a male chauvinist in favour of single-sex labs. That is, if you weren’t aware of the fact that Hunt met his wife, Mary Collins – herself a distinguished scientist – while he was directing her studies at Cambridge University. Or that Hunt is considered “an inspiring and supportive mentor” by his female colleagues at UCL.
Addressing criticism from friends and supporters who claimed Hunt had been unfairly misrepresented, St Louis wrote an article in The Guardian titled “Stop defending Tim Hunt,” in which she maintained she had not taken Hunt’s words out of context.
An excerpt from St Louis’ article.
Call it a case of bad timing. The next day, a transcript of Hunt’s speech was leaked to The Times. It provided some much-needed context, supporting Hunt’s version of events and revealing St Louis as having misrepresented what was said.
At the cost of her credibility – a small price to pay in the name of social justice – St Louis has made a name for herself. Meanwhile, science is one Nobel prize-winner short. Never mind, the work of raising awareness is sure to pay-off at some (as of now) undetermined point in the near future. Three cheers for social justice.
In Other News…
• On May 3, two gunmen were shot dead at a “Draw Mohammed” contest in Texas. The event was organised by Pamela Gellar, who in January took out a series of anti-Islamic adverts with San Francisco’s transport agency.
• On May 12, 16-year-old video blogger Amos Yee was convicted on charges of “obscenity” and “insulting religious feelings” after posting a video critical of Lee Kuan Yew, who has been described as the founding father of modern Singapore.
• On May 20, Blinn College student Nicole Sanders filed a First Amendment lawsuit against her college based on an incident in February when an administrator told her she would need “special permission” to display a gun rights sign and collect signatures for her student group on campus.
• In a May 24 interview with The Guardian, Scotland Yard commander Chishty Mak expanded on David Cameron’s definition of “extremism” to include subtle changes in behaviour, such as the shunning of certain shops, and asserted the need for a “move into the private space” of Muslims.
• On June 1, 29-year-old painter and activist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to 12 years and nine months in prison for her cartoon depicting Iranian leaders as monkeys and cows. In mid-June, Farghadani was charged with having an “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery” following allegations that she and her lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, shook hands during a prison visit.
• On June 12, French national data protection authority the Commission nationale de l’informatique et des libertés (CNIL) ordered Google to filter its worldwide search engine results in compliance with the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” ruling.
• On June 18, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favour of an Arizona pastor who was told by his town he had to adhere to stringent rules and time limitations for posting signs advertising church services. In a separate case, the US Supreme Court ruled that a Texas ban on Confederate flag license plates did not violate the First Amendment.
Waving the Fleg
In July, it was reported that two men from Belfast and Lisburn, Northern Ireland, had been charged with waving a flag in a provocative manner.
According to an article that featured in the News Letter, the men allegedly waved an Irish tricolour at supporters of the Orange Order, a long-standing Protestant fraternity that in 2013 was banned from marching past the Catholic neighbourhood of Ardoyne.
Bizarrely, the fact the victims of this terrible crime happened to be fellow flagwavers didn’t appear to be of any consequence.
The article also reported that one of the men had been charged with a further three motoring offences, on top of the provocation charge – namely, driving dangerously, driving with no insurance and driving without a licence.
In my July 15 post, I argued that waving a piece of printed cloth, however gracelessly, is a perfectly legitimate expression of national pride, and a right exercised annually by tens of thousands of Orangemen on the Twelfth of July.
The tacking on of unrelated driving charges is to remove any doubt that these men might be decent, law-abiding citizens – a common tactic used by journalists to make otherwise ridiculous charges seem justifiable.
Turning asshats into unwitting free speech martyrs is fast becoming a cause worthy of prosecution. Kudos to the News Letter for clarifying why these two deserve all they get.
A Royal Denazification
UK newspapers were in a tizzy after historical footage appearing to show the Queen as a young girl giving a Nazi salute was leaked to The Sun. On close inspection of the footage by expert lip reader Jessica Rees, the Queen was found to have merely waved innocently. Those gripped by Royal anxiety could once again feel at ease with their patriotism.
The article, in all its comedic glory (courtesy of The Sunday Express).
Due to the innocent, wholesome nature of the footage, the Royal Household subsequently launched an investigation (the results of which have yet to come out) to try to ascertain how it was obtained by that filthy rag, The Sun. So utterly unscathed was the Queen, the Royal Household is reportedly even considering taking legal action following the investigation.
Of Art and Offence
The Index on Censorship, a London-based campaigning organisation that promotes and defends the right to freedom of expression, in June published a series of legal guides intended to equip arts organisations with a working knowledge of the law.
Three booklets, covering child protection, counter terrorism and public order laws, were made available online. Two more, covering obscene publications, race and religion laws, were set to be published in Autumn (they have yet to appear).
Speaking to The Guardian, the Index on Censorship’s head of arts Julia Farrington spoke about the need to help artists better understand laws around freedom of expression.
Her point is well-taken.
In September 2014, on the advice of police, the Barbican Centre in London cancelled a performance of Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, an art installation intended as a critique of so-called “human zoos,” ethnographic displays that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-century showed black Africans as objects of scientific curiosity.
In November 2014, anti-racism demonstrators stormed the Gérard Philipe theatre in Saint-Denis in an attempt to stop a performance of Exhibit B. The following month, an artists’ collective submitted a complaint to a Paris court demanding the suspension of Philipe’s exhibit, on the basis that it violated the “dignity” of the performers.
Shortly after the publication of the guides, a group called Boycott the Human Zoo made a direct appeal to the Galway International Arts Festival in Ireland to remove Exhibit B from its programme, branding its inclusion “racist and immensely offensive.” Echoing the cries of censorious philistines everywhere, the group claimed the appeal was “not about censorship” but about “anti-racism.”
With respect to your delicate sensibilities, this is nonsense. Good art is supposed to challenge and provoke, educate and enlighten. Should the rest of us be deprived of that challenge, simply because the fearful few couldn’t bear to look?
In Other News…
• In early July, it was reported that Home Secretary Theresa May was preparing new rules requiring universities to regulate the activities of student unions and Islamic societies, amid concerns undergraduates were at risk of being radicalised by so-called “hate preachers.”
• On July 10, Ellen Pao resigned from her position as interim chief executive of Reddit less than a week after firing well-liked employee Victoria Taylor, who had managed the popular “Ask Me Anything” subreddit.
• On July 14, Gov. Jay Nixon signed the “Campus Free Expression Act,” effectively banning state universities from instituting specific “free speech zones” on campus. Despite their pro-free speech seeming name, these “free speech zones” made it against university rules to hold protests, speeches and other forms of speech on parts of the campus not designated as such.
• In a July 16 content policy update, CEO and co-founder of Reddit Steve Huffman stated that his website was not created to be “a bastion of free speech.”
• In a July 28 article, Campus Reform reported on the University of New Hampshire “Bias-Free Language Guide,” which was intended to “invite inclusive excellence in [the] campus community.” The guide deemed terms such as “American,” “Caucasian,” “homosexual,” “mothering” and “fathering” to be “problematic.” Shortly after Campus Reform reported the story, UNH President Mark Huddleston disavowed the Bias-Free Language Guide.
• In a July 30 blog post, Google said it refused to recognise an order by French national data protection authority CNIL to filter its worldwide search engine results in compliance with the European Court of Justice’s “right to be forgotten” ruling.
PETA’s House of Pain
Anthropomorphism means the attributing of human characteristics to animals and inanimate objects. We say that the blobfish has a frowny face and that the dolphin has a smiley face. We are human; this is the lens through which we view the world, our way of comprehending that which is beyond our range of comprehension, of empathising with that which is beyond our scope of empathy.
In July, the concern of the western world was drawn to the plight of Cecil, a Zimbabwean lion that was killed and decapitated by Walter Palmer, an American trophy hunter. Though Palmer had a hunting permit, journalists were unwilling to entertain the notion that he was misled into believing the hunt was legal. Additionally, Palmer’s critics seemed unaware of the fact that dozens of lions are legally hunted in Africa each year.
Worst of all, the story eclipsed Zimbabwe’s ongoing violation of human rights under dictator Robert Mugabe, most recently the abduction of journalist Itai Dzamara by police in May. No tears would be shed for him. For Cecil was not just any lion, he was a rare, black-maned lion. He had a name. He was beloved, a national icon. His death was an outrage.
A court in Zimbabwe has since deemed Cecil’s death worthy of prosecution, which to the bemusement of resident Zimbabweans did nothing to assuage the collective outrage of the western world. International poaching laws failing to sufficiently validate our feelings, we demanded nothing less than a head on a plate. Thankfully, we could always rely on PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to inject some sane, objective analysis.
Lest you think Newkirk’s call to hang this “Minnesotan father of two” is just her manner of rhetorical flourish, try considering her view on the rights of man.
“There’s no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”
Her view on humankind in general.
“Humans have grown like a cancer. We’re the biggest blight on the face of the earth.”
The eradication of human life is a fate from which she does not spare herself.
“I am not a morose person, but I would rather not be here. I don’t have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am. This will sound like fruitcake stuff again but at least I wouldn’t be harming anything.”
Newkirk’s worldview is a bizarre and unnecessary perversion of animal rights, in which human beings, as perpetrators of violence and death against animals, are unworthy of life. So long as we co-exist, euthanasia is the preferred option for our animals and pets.² Mankind is evil. Life is cruel. Death is the only out.
The topic of illegal poaching of lions in South Africa is ripe for outrage, and justifiably so. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, a lion is no more a boy than a rat, a pig or a dog. In our rush to empathise with our animal friends, it’s important not to lose sight of this fact, or we risk losing touch with our own humanity.
²PETA’s Virginia shelter has an abnormally high euthanasia rate, at 86%. For the years 2006 and 2009, it rose as high as 97%.
The Apology That Wasn’t
I missed this article by readers’ editor Chris Elliott addressing The Guardian’s coverage of “the Tim Hunt affair” when it appeared in July.
Of the numerous problems of Elliot’s article, first is his willingness to repeat Hunt’s comments out of context. This was perhaps the most egregious aspect of Connie St Louis’ original hatchet job, in which an innocuous joke, framed as a sexist diatribe, cast Hunt as the living embodiment of a male chauvinist pig.
Second is his unwillingness to acknowledge the more substantial questions raised by The Guardian’s coverage of Tim Hunt, glossing over St Louis’ article in favour of a lesser contribution by nobody in particular. The omission is glaring. No reference is made to the factual accuracy of St Louis’ anecdotal account, where she stated that Hunt had not praised the role of women in science.
Third is his failure to understand why purposefully misrepresenting Hunt’s comments might be considered unethical, framing the fallout as a mere difference of opinion. In a cowardly move to determine whether the paper acted less than honourably, his mea culpa comes in the form of a question.
Last but not least, this deeply disingenuous closing gambit, in which readers’ editor Chris Elliott, writing on behalf of The Guardian, pats himself on the back for helping highlight the Issues Affecting Women in Science.
One more cheer for social justice.
Politics as Usual
In an August 12 letter to the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) called for action to be taken against the Wolfe Tones, the Irish trad band who played at last year’s Ardoyne Fleadh.
Allister’s letter (via the News Letter).³
By tempting criminal investigation, Allister demonstrates the political myopia of Northern Ireland. Blinded by party politics, he is incapable of seeing the big picture, that in trying to censor the Wolfe Tones for their endorsement of the IRA he is fact arguing against Pastor James McConnell’s right to use politically incorrect language during sermons.
³Allister’s letter is a good example of what is known in Northern Ireland as “Whataboutery,” a logical fallacy Wiktionary defines as:
1. Protesting at hypocrisy; responding to criticism by accusing one’s opponent of similar or worse faults.
2. Protesting at inconsistency; refusing to act in one instance unless similar action is taken in other similar instances.
An Ethical Kill
On August 28, Bexar County deputies Greg Vasquez and Robert Sanchez shot and killed Gilbert Flores outside his home in San Antonio, Texas. Speaking at a press conference that evening, Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau addressed the shooting.
“Earlier today, deputies were called to a home for a domestic disturbance. And when they arrived they found a woman, who had suffered a cut on her head, and a baby, an 18-month-old child who appeared to have possibly been injured.
“Two deputies attempted to arrest the individual and he resisted. They also tried to use non-lethal weapons to try to detain him and after a lengthy confrontation both deputies fired shots causing the man’s death.”
Pamerleau also alluded to the existence of a video of the shooting, which was subsequently published, unedited, to the website of KSAT 12 News.
The video, seemingly at odds with Pamerleau’s version of events, shows a shirtless Flores motioning to surrender moments before Vasquez and Sanchez opened fire.
Understandably, its publication was something of an inconvenience for local authorities. In a Facebook post (since deleted), the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office did not hold back.
Translation: Bexar County authorities wish to make clear that any deviation from the official narrative will not be tolerated.
Shame on KSAT 12 News for its ruthless exploitation of this tragic, yet completely unavoidable series of events (for no less than 100 bucks!).
Journalists need to be told that this sort of “sensational behavior” leaves law enforcement officials vulnerable to “inappropriate comments.”
Help end this sad, unethical practice by calling 1800-GOOD-COP. Let the local media know that this shit just won’t fly in Bexar County.
Je Suis (Encore) Charlie
Ignoring the obvious ramifications on their chosen profession, some journalists remained unsympathetic to Charlie Hebdo and the “Je suis Charlie” movement.
In April, a letter protesting PEN America’s decision to bestow its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo claimed over 200 signatures, including those of several prominent writers.
In August, media pundits were quick to complain when a cartoon depicting severed arms clutching a pair of breasts appeared to make light of the search for Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 (the caption reads: “We’ve found a bit of the pilot and the air hostess”).
In September, two cartoons aimed at the twin pillars of western civilization – capitalism and Christianity – reopened the floor to charges of insensitivity and “hate speech.”
The source of offence: Hebdo cartoonist Laurent Sourisseau’s reimagining of Nilufer Demir’s widely-shared photo of Aylan al-Kurdi, the drowned Syrian toddler who became a symbol for the refugee and migration crisis.
The cartoon, as in the photo, depicts a child face down on a beach. In the background, a promotional billboard for McDonald’s advertising “2 children’s meals for the price of one” (the caption reads: “So close to making it…”).
A second cartoon depicts Jesus walking on water beside the drowning child (the caption reads: “Christians walk on water. Muslim children sink” – proof, the headline tells us, that Europe is Christian).
In an article for the Morocco World News, Aziz Allilou accused Charlie Hebdo of “hiding behind freedom of speech,” which suggests the magazine had invoked the right to freedom of speech, when it hadn’t.
In an article for Scoop Whoop, Manimanjari Sengupta retracted her support for the magazine, writing: “This isn’t the Charlie Hebdo we identified and stood in solidarity with earlier this year. Je ne suis pas Charlie (I’m not Charlie).”
On Twitter, D. Peter Herbert of the Society of Black Lawyers barely managed to keep within 140 characters.
A second tweet announced his intention to complain to authorities.
Oh the horrors of free speech!
As the sting of January 7 fades from our collective memory, the media backlash against Charlie Hebdo draws near to a disavowal. Once defenders of free speech, we now act as arbiters of moral decency. Somehow we’ve lost all sense of proportion, unable to distinguish a pencil scratch from a bullet wound.
Blame our tendency to idealise the dead. In death, Charlie Hebdo sat on a pedestal beyond reproach, martyrs shrouded in myth. Now the veil has dropped from our eyes, it’s clear that the magazine’s continued publication has become an inconvenience to those who prefer the ideal. Who could have predicted that the survivors would bravely rise from the dust, then so spectacularly fail to meet our expectations?
Under threat of violence and facing censure, the magazine won’t stay dead, nor is it willing to suppress its appetite for the profane. Instead, it continues to do what it has always done: slay sacred cows, puncture pieties, highlight hypocrisy left and right, picking wounds most would rather go unpicked.
Critics who accuse the magazine of being culturally insensitive, as if satire ought to pander to sensitivities, want it both ways. They want satire, but to be spared the twist of the knife. They seek truth, but can’t bear to look when someone holds a mirror to the world. They support freedom of speech, but within limits.
The best satire serves to focus our moral judgment. It directs our indignation inwards, forcing us to confront our worst prejudices. Sometimes it cuts too close for comfort, eliciting not a laugh but a groan. Very rarely, a satirist’s aim is so good, people won’t be aware of the arrow hitting the bullseye.
When Jonathan Swift’s essay, A Modest Proposal, was published in 1729, there was outrage at Swift’s suggestion that impoverished Irish families might alleviate their financial burdens by selling their children as food to “persons of quality and fortune.” People were less concerned about the reality of poverty than they were about Swift’s modest proposal.
Charlie Hebdo might not be Jonathan Swift, but our reaction is telling. We are less concerned about our failure to protect a three-year-old child than we are about Hebdo’s cartoon critique.
Educating Against Extremism
Government initiatives preventing “hate preachers” from speaking at universities took effect in September. Downing Street laid out its agenda in a press release. Citing research supposedly conducted by the government’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), the release stated that over 70 events involving speakers “known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy” were held on university campuses in 2014.
Honouring the prime minister’s pledge to “name and shame” institutions that give platforms to extremist speakers, four universities were singled out for our contempt. Casting doubt on the government’s claims, spokespeople for all four denied having hosted the speakers named in the release. The EAU’s findings were then discredited by Times Higher Education, after it was discovered that the release lifted its most inflammatory passages – without attribution – from a misleading report by Student Rights, an arm of The Henry Jackson Society.
The Guardian’s report in September on Muhammad Umar Farooq, a post-graduate student at Staffordshire University falsely accused of being a terrorist, served only to poke holes in the theory that Britain’s universities are hotbeds of terrorist activity.
One of the groups alluded to in the report, the National Union of Students (NUS), called for an “all-out defiance” of Cameron’s counter-terrorism strategy. Its president, Megan Dunn, recently told the Huffington Post:
“I believe it is absolutely unacceptable for individuals or groups of students to be targeted because of their race, religion or mental health conditions. I have consistently raised several serious concerns over the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and Prevent. Students must feel free to learn, explore their politics and campaign on social justice issues while at university.”
As admirable as it is that Dunn has chosen to take a stand against unwarranted government intrusion into universities, why is it only when a student is targeted because of their race / religion / mental health that it becomes a matter worthy of our concern? Why only students involved with, quote, “social justice issues?”
Slowly but surely, we have been led to believe that restrictions on freedom of speech are justifiable where the state deems it necessary to preserve public order. Activists like Dunn, who with the best of intentions advocate on behalf of those deemed most vulnerable in our society, help sell this idea.
With their insistence on “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” they promote safety and security over free speech. When they demand to be protected from words that make them feel unsafe, prosecutors are all too happy to oblige.
Freedom of speech is not an ideological issue. If you’re willing to defend speech you agree with, you should be willing to defend speech you disagree with. Otherwise, when it comes back to bite you in the ass you’ll be left wondering: how did it come to this?
In Other News…
• In an August 21 policy statement, The Bias Prevention & Education Committee at Rutgers University declared: “There is no such thing as ‘free’ speech.” Shortly after Campus Reform reported the story, the university removed the statement from its website.
• On September 14, police in Texas arrested 14-year-old MacArthur High School freshman Ahmed Mohamed after he brought what school officials and police described as a “hoax bomb” on campus. The device later turned out to be a home made clock.
• On September 17, it was confirmed that Faisal bin Hassan Trad, an official from Saudi Arabia, had been appointed to a major leadership position for the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. On the same day, it was reported that a 17-year-old Saudi Arabian protester named Ali Mohammed al-Nimr had been sentenced to death by beheading and crucifixion.
• On September 18, several students at the College of DuPage were told by an Illinois police officer to cease or be “locked up” as they attempted to collect signatures for a petition urging the school to improve its free speech policies.
• On September 21, French national data protection authority CNIL rejected Google’s appeal against the global enforcement of “right to be forgotten” removals.
• On September 22, PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the animal rights organization determined to recast animals as humans, furthered the cause with a lawsuit claiming copyright of a photograph taken by a crested black macaque.
• On September 25, prominent secularist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie was banned from speaking at an event at Warwick University due to fears her speech would “incite hatred” against Muslim students. Following criticism from high-profile figures like Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox, Warwick Students’ Union reversed its decision, issuing an “unequivocal apology to Maryam Namazie” for its “highly regrettable error.”
• In late September, student protesters at Wesleyan University dumped large quantities of a student newspaper following its publication of an op-ed piece critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. A petition to defund The Wesleyan Argus stated that the newspaper had “failed to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body” and neglected to “provide a safe space for the voices of students of color.”
• On September 26, an artwork that showed ISIS invading the fictional village of Sylvania was removed from a free speech exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries. According to a report by The Guardian, gallery curators consulted with police, who raised “a number of serious concerns regarding the potentially inflammatory content of Mimsy’s work.”
• On September 30, a group of libertarian students handing out copies of the US Constitution during a free speech protest at Penn State University were told by police that they needed a permit from the university in order to demonstrate or protest on campus property.
The Tyranny of Values
David Cameron’s long-awaited Counter-Extremism Strategy was finally unveiled in October. Its proposals included:
• A full review of public institutions such as school, further and higher education colleges, local authorities, the NHS and civil service to ensure they are protected from “entryism” – or infiltration – by extremists.
• An official investigation into the application of Sharia law in the UK.
• Extremism disruption orders to stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour.
• Closure orders for law enforcement and local authorities to close down premises used to support extremism.
• Tougher powers for broadcasting regulator Ofcom so action can be taken against radio and television channels showing extremist content.
• Demands that internet service providers do more to remove extremist material and identify those responsible for it.
The new law would also give parents worried that their 16 and 17-year-old children might travel to join Islamic State the power to apply to have their passports removed, while anyone with a conviction for terrorist offences or extremist activity would be banned from working with children.
Index on Censorship CEO Jodie Ginsberg reaffirmed her view about the chilling effect the strategy will have on free speech.
“We are concerned that the extremism strategy outlined this morning has the potential to massively damage the reputation of the British educational establishment – universities in particular which should be the home of debate and academic inquiry. This will have the effect of ramping up a climate of fear where both lecturers and students are afraid to speak.”
Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, said that the government’s enforcement of “British” values actually undermines one of the fundamental values of democracy.
“The government has created an impossible bind for itself: in the name of protecting our values, it’s now seeking to undermine the most fundamental value of all for democracy – freedom of expression. This is a deeply misguided policy that will not only stigmatise minorities, it will criminalise political speech across society and introduce a culture of caution.”
The nail in the coffin, however, came from none other than former chief constable of Greater Manchester police Sir Peter Fahy, who spoke out against the proposals in his last week before retiring (Via The Guardian).
“There is a concern that efforts to control extremist narratives will limit free speech and backfire if we don’t get the balance right. The efforts to control extremism and limit protest by those caught by too wide a definition may undermine the very rights and British values you seek to protect.”
Letting Katz out of the Bag
At the start of October, I decided I would write one post per day for that month. Although I only made it to 22 posts (my fault for catching the flu), the effort wasn’t all in vain.
Aside from the academic benefits, the exercise put me in touch with US reporter Peter M. Heimlich, whose fascinating/funny September 30 item (via his whipsmart blog, The Sidebar) – about prominent Yale professor and Huffington Post columnist Dr. David Katz posting a sock puppet review of his own novel on Amazon – I gleefully reblogged.
Coming up with adjectives to describe Peter’s blog has been one of the highlights of the blogging year. But the most fun I had was venturing beyond my little corner of the internet, given the opportunity to collaborate with a fellow blogger on two posts in December.
More on that later. For now, here’s Dr. Katz reviewing his own novel on Amazon.
This puffed-up appraisal reappeared in the Huffington Post two days after its Amazon debut, buried nine paragraphs deep within a book review of reVision: Lore of the Corners Trilogy, a science fiction novel that was supposedly authored by one Samhu L. Iyyam.
The sub-heading on the Huff Post review outs Katz as author.
A quick Google search led me to this curious LinkedIn confession, conceived as an April Fools’ joke.
Somehow, Katz’s confession only raises further questions.
• Did Katz contrive to reveal his pseudonym when he wrote his review in February, or was his LinkedIn confession nothing more than a cynical exercise in damage control, having been outed by the Huffington Post earlier that day?
• If he did originally conceive his book review as an elaborate April Fools’ prank, why didn’t he clarify this with Amazon?
• Why confuse things by writing on Amazon at all, where – to quote the man himself – such a “playful deception” was unlikely to touch anybody beyond the reach of fussy Amazon users?
• Lastly, was somebody at the Huffington Post in on the joke?
Presumably, the answers to all of these questions have nothing to do with the sale of books.
In Which the Young Will Eat the Old
There were two high-profile attempts to “no platform” offensive speakers in October, both of which involved third-wave feminists feigning outrage at second-wave feminists.
The first came from the executive committee of the University of Manchester students’ union, which issued this statement banning feminist activist Julie Bindel from speaking at an on-campus debate hosted by the university’s Free Speech and Secular Society.
The ban provided a deliciously ironic answer to the question under debate:“From liberation to censorship: Does modern feminism have a problem with free speech?”
That would be: yes.
Concerned that Bindel posed a potential threat to the safety of students, organisers decided to err on the side of caution. To much confusion, their statement on the matter gave no comment regarding the decision to permit men’s rights activist Milo Yiannapoulos.
Two days after going public with its decision, the executive committee updated its statement.
Rather than intelligent debate between fiercely ideological enemies, there was an empty stage at the University of Manchester students’ union on October 15. Nobody risked benefiting intellectually from exposure to new ideas, but at least students felt safe. After all, what’s the purpose of higher education if students don’t feel safe from new ideas?
The second attempt to ban an offensive speaker came from the students at Cardiff University, who petitioned to cancel a lecture by iconic feminist Germaine Greer.
The October 23 online petition, started by Women’s Officer at Cardiff University students’ union Rachel Melhuish, took umbrage with Greer’s views on transgenderism.
In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Greer questioned the idea that some views are too dangerous to be allowed to be heard.
“What they are saying is that because I don’t think surgery will turn a man into a woman I should not be allowed to speak anywhere. I do not know why universities cannot hear unpopular views and think about what they mean.”
The woman who once stood toe-to-toe with Norman Mailer – the man for whom the term “male chauvinist pig” was coined – is now considered the enemy by third-wave feminists. It’s with bitter irony: Greer fought for women to be heard, who in turn try to silence her.
Bahar Mustafa: Submerged in Rhetoric
On October 6, Goldsmiths “welfare and diversity officer” Bahar Mustafa was called to court charged with sending threatening and grossly offensive messages via Facebook and Twitter.
The Facebook post, in which Mustafa disinvited white men from attending a students’ union meeting, led to accusations of all manner of “-isms” when it appeared in April.
Mustafa’s response leaned heavily on dogmatic assertions that ethnic women are incapable of racism and sexism towards white men.
“I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender and therefore women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”
The subsequent tweet, deploying the popular hashtag #killallwhitemen in the name of snark, did not inspire sympathy for the cause.
Mustafa, whose students’ union policy on “safe spaces” regulates what students are and are not allowed to say on campus, was said to have been hoisted with her own petard. All that remained to be seen was whether her fellow activists would repent for their sins.
Not a chance.
Writing for the Daily Dot, Skylar Baker-Jordan echoed Mustafa’s own comments, explaining in great detail why non-white women are incapable of racism and sexism towards white men.
Is there a judge in England with the patience and understanding to sit still through this spiel?
A semi-anonymous article by the women of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) described the prosecution against Mustafa as a “witch hunt.”
Nice try, however, this fails to account for the recent prosecution of Pastor James McConnell – a man up to his oxters in white, male privilege – after describing Islam as “satanic” during one of his sermons.
Advocates for “safe spaces” on university campuses want the power to censor those with whom they disagree, while enjoying the freedom to speak without restriction. Roger Ebert put it best in his 1990 article about the phony puritanism of American moviegoers: “This is an example of the universal tendency to be censorious on the behalf of others, while retaining full freedom to sin for oneself.” As Bahar Mustafa found out, you can’t have it both ways.
The Oxford Dictionary
The madness continued with the announcement that Annie Teriba, activist and delegate of Oxford University students’ union to the National Union of Students (NUS), was to resign from political campaigning.
The announcement came with an admission from Teriba of having engaged in non-consensual sex at the 2015 NUS Black Students’ Conference. What is meant by “non-consensual” sex is that Teriba failed to adhere to the precept of affirmative consent.
In her own words (via The Oxford Student).
The problem with affirmative consent, as prescribed by the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), is that it allows for otherwise consensual sex to be redefined as sexual violence.
If the definition of consensual sex is the presence of a verbal “yes,” then Teriba along with countless of her fellow students would be in serious trouble right now. Fortunately, nobody outside the bubble of academia is obligated to take their interpretation of consent seriously.
Oxford students remain free to rewrite the dictionary. But as some will find out, it’s a bitter diet having to eat your own words.
In September, that bastion of free speech the OUSU banned the distribution of a student publication over its reportedly sexist, ableist, colonialist and transphobic content.
The union’s decision to ban the publication – ironically named No Offence – cited regulation 13 of the Student Stallholders Regulations. Regulation 13 states: “OUSU reserves the right to remove any materials, or prevent any activity, that may cause offence.”
Jacob Williams, editor-in-chief of No Offence, said that the union’s knee-jerk decision to ban his publication validated arguments by free speech activists (Via the Oxford Student).
“There’s clearly room for disagreement about where to draw the line between satire and needless offence. We twice gave OUSU the chance to take issue with specific parts of the magazine. They declined to do so and simply claimed the whole magazine was offensive. By banning the magazine outright all they have done is prevent the airing of controversial views and confirm everything the ‘free speech’ movement has been saying.”
Student bans on offensive speech usually come front loaded with academic arguments that seek to rationalise the otherwise arbitrary whims of the censor. In its response to Williams, the OUSU made no attempt to pretend that the decision to ban No Offense was based on anything other than it disapproved of Williams’ politically incorrect brand of satire.
OUSU do not want to be associated with the views in this magazine, therefore do not want it to be distributed at our event. The offensive views exhibited in this magazine do not in any way represent the majority of Oxford students, or OUSU. We therefore are very comfortable with our decision not to allow the publication at our event, and would like to emphasise that the editors of ‘No Offence’ are completely free to publish the document online, in the exact form in which it was sent to us, to enable students who wish to read it to do so.
In mid-October, the Thames Valley Police confiscated 150 copies of No Offence following a complaint about its distribution outside Freshers’ Fair. According to Cherwell, the complaint was made by co-chair of OUSU’s Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE) Kiran Benipal, who correctly assumed that “it must be criminal to hand out hate speech against women, people of colour, etc.”
Pointing up the difference between the UK and US when it comes to freedom of speech, reaction to the banning and later confiscation of No Offence was non-existent. Yet when protesters ransacked a student newspaper at a university in America following the publication of an op-ed piece critical of the Black Lives Matter movement, they were roundly criticised for their illiberal behaviour.
Is nobody willing to take a stand when British police enter an institute of higher education for the purpose of shutting down a student publication?
Protesting the Protesters
In late October, cops across America joined forces to confront the single worst injustice since the
murder shooting of Tamir Rice: Quentin Tarantino’s peaceful and lawful participation in an anti-police brutality protest in New York.
Patrick J. Lynch, president of the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), released a statement calling for a boycott of the acclaimed director’s films.
Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), followed suit with a statement describing Tarantino’s comments as “hateful.”
Late to the game was John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge #5, issuing a statement condemning Tarantino’s penchant for movie violence.
Translation: Movie violence perpetrated against fictional characters is evil and must be stopped. Protesting non-movie violence perpetrated against non-fictional Americans is slanderous and hateful.
By questioning police conduct, Tarantino compromises officers’ ability to do their jobs, which threatens public safety. Henceforth, anything less than glowing approval will be deemed unacceptable.
New Yorkers need to send a message to the Black Lives Matter movement that their lives don’t matter. It’s time we protested the right to protest.
In Other News…
• On October 6, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi – currently in jail for “insulting Islam” – won the PEN Pinter Prize for championing free speech.
• Following David Cameron’s October 7 speech to the Conservative Party Conference, in which he announced new powers to close religious schools found teaching views intolerant of other religions, the Muslim Council of Britain issued this statement challenging the claim that students in Islamic supplementary schools are beaten and indoctrinated.
The prime minister has yet to respond.
• On October 13 came the news that teachers from Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham referred a 10-year-old Muslim boy to police on suspicion of holding extremist beliefs after he requested the provision of a prayer room.
• On October 20, it was reported that a revised version of the “Snoopers’ Charter,” allowing police and security services to access Internet connection records and hack computers, was to be included in a new draft bill.
• On October 21, the Family Division of the Judiciary put out a memo detailing the process by which children, on suspicion of possible radicalisation, will be removed from their homes to be made wards of the state.
• The seizure of a BBC journalist’s laptop by Thames Valley Police showed how counter-terrorism laws are being used to constrain the UK press. The news came less than a month after the same territorial police force confiscated 150 copies of a student publication from Oxford University’s Freshers’ Fair.
The Ban on Everything
“Look at that, a £100,000 in the pocket of the filth that sells it. A big yellow death bullet in the head of some poor user – or custard gannet as the dealers call them.” – Sir David Amess MP, Chair of the Psychoactive Substances Bill Committee
Overturning centuries of British legal tradition, the Psychoactive Substances Bill – which has just passed the “report stage” in Parliament – will place a blanket ban on any substance not included on a government-prescribed list of exemptions.
Sponsored by Lord Bates and Home Secretary Theresa May, the poorly-worded bill comes in response to public upset following a string of deaths linked to so-called “legal highs.”
The National Health Service (NHS) describes legal highs as “substances that have similar effects to illegal drugs like cocaine or cannabis.”
Previous attempts to ban the sale of legal highs have proven ineffective, partly because of “loopholes” in the law that allow for the creation of new legal compounds by making small structural changes to an illegal chemical.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill sidesteps this problem by placing a blanket ban on any substance that:
The scope of the bill could hardly be broader. If passed, it will become a criminal offence to spray perfume or hang an air freshener.
In a letter to the Home Secretary in August, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) took issue with the government’s broad definition of “psychoactivity,” which fails to differentiate legal highs from everyday items like nutmeg, flowers or incense, all of which are substances with a psychoactive effect.
The government’s slippery grasp of the issue was made apparent during a recent debate in the House of Commons, where ministers were unable to agree on a working definition.
The Right Honourable Norman Lamb provided the voice of sanity.
“Is it not extraordinary that at this point of our consideration of a Bill there is such concern about the possible implications of a definition? The view of many is that it is impossible to provide a scientifically or legally meaningful definition of a psychoactive substance. The definition is very broad. At least in principle, it could cover thousands of plants, spices, herbal remedies and over-the-counter medicines.”
Lamb’s gripe highlights the absurdity of the bill, which would require an encyclopedic list of exemptions to ensure that otherwise legal substances are not unintentionally made illegal.
In its current form, the list is far from exhaustive – only alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, food and medical products duck prohibition. The very important addition of homeopathic products and herbal medicines is to be talked over extensively in Parliament.
The government has permitted the use of sugar pills – how very thoughtful and reassuring. But what of incense and scented candles? What of perfume and air fresheners? What of the aroma of a flower, the scent of a woman?
With rational inquiry all but extinguished, the Psychoactive Substances Bill has been allowed to pass through Parliament unchecked. If nothing else, it provides a winning strategy for the war on drugs: ban everything.
Bahar Mustafa: Free Again
Due to a lack of evidence, on November 3 the CPS dropped all charges against “welfare and diversity officer” Bahar Mustafa, who was due to appear in court after allegedly tweeting the hashtag #killallwhitemen.
In an interview with Vice that day, Mustafa defended the use of the hashtag by feminists as a way of expressing frustration at white men.
One of the core arguments in favour of “safe spaces” is that verbal offence is equally damaging to a person’s wellbeing as physical violence. It’s ironic then to find Mustafa downplaying the impact of her words (as an ethnic minority woman, presumably she is incapable of inflicting emotional pain on white men).
She went on to defend the censorious practice of “no platforming” right-wing speakers.
The conflation of verbal offence with physical violence, so that otherwise harmless words and opinions are treated as criminal acts worthy of prosecution, is a disaster for free speech. Students who use this line of argument to justify the banning of right-wing speakers leverage power to authorities to dictate acceptable forms of expression. Although Mustafa pretends the practice of “no platforming” functions as a democratic process, she is essentially endorsing the very measures that were used to prosecute her.
Rejecting support from right-wing opinion columnist Katie Hopkins and men’s rights activist Milo Yiannopoulos, Mustafa draws the issue along ideological lines.
Freedom of speech is not an ideological issue. If you truly care about liberty and the rights of the oppressed, you should be willing to defend speech that offends you, whether the speaker is a Bible-thumping white man or patriarchy-smashing woman of colour.
Student activists like Mustafa seem to believe they are immune to prosecution. They naively assume that British law is sympathetic to their ideals, understands the plight of the oppressed, and is capable of making a distinction between incitement and mere hyperbole.
But authorities aren’t sold on the rhetoric of oppression because they care about the safety of students; they’re sold on the suppression of dissent because hate speech laws make for easy convictions, the standard for what constitutes offensive speech being entirely subjective.
It’s shameful that Mustafa was prosecuted for tweeting, an inexcusable violation of freedom of speech made worse by the possibility that she learned nothing from the experience.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
There were few celebrations over the announcement that Katie Hopkins would not face criminal charges for an article she wrote in April comparing migrants to cockroaches.
An October 29 letter from the Metropolitan Police Special Enquiry Team made it official.
The announcement came mere hours after the news that the CPS dropped its charges against Goldsmiths “diversity officer” Bahar Mustafa.
Although they’d most likely be loath to admit it, Hopkins and Mustafa are two sides of the same coin. Free once more to offend sensibilities without restriction from the state, those of us who despise what they have to say are saved the trouble of having to defend it.
A good day for all.
Qui est Charlie?
On November 10, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that freedom of speech does not protect “racist and anti-Semitic performances.” Judges rejected an appeal by French comedian Dieudonné, who was fined €10,000 in 2009 for giving a platform to a prominent Holocaust denier at a show at the Zenith theatre in Paris.
Dieudonné had previously argued that the fine amounted to an infringement of his freedom of speech. French prosecutors disagreed, ruling that he had “crossed very far over the line of what is acceptable in humour.” Well, that clears that up.
By decree of an enlightened few in Strasbourg, Dieudonné’s taste-free brand of comedy has somehow fallen outside the realm of otherwise free speech, neither “satire nor provocative” but “a demonstration of hate and anti-Semitism.”
Having established what is and isn’t permissible to say under European law, on November 25 a Belgian court handed Dieudonné a two-month prison sentence for remarks he made during a show in Liège in 2012. Is this what the French mean by “Je suis Charlie?” Or have we pinned our ideals on just another meaningless slogan?
Don’t Feed the Troll
On November 23, students put the online policy of “don’t feed the troll” into offline action, staging a walkout on Britain’s most hated newspaper columnist Katie Hopkins as she gave a speech at Brunel University.
Ali Milani, president of Brunel University’s student union, explains.
“Don’t feed the troll” means resisting the urge to respond to rabid claws for attention. The ideal response to someone like Hopkins, then, would be no response at all.
By writing a celebratory screed, Milani has turned the straightforward policy of “don’t feed the troll” into a statement. Rather than deprive “oxygen to her fire,” putting words to action has served only to fan the flames, giving Hopkins the attention trolls so desperately crave. In other words, Milani fed the troll.
Hopkins’ uncharacteristically measured response to an “Offended Young Nation” can be read here. Taking her lead is freelance journalist Charlotte Gill, whose relatively unmeasured response targets the “mollycoddling student culture that hates free speech” she says Hopkins has “fallen victim to” (Via the Independent).
Gill is correct in that the refusal of students to listen and debate offensive opinions and ideas is symptomatic of a wider problem currently sweeping university campuses, the censorious practice of “no platforming” speakers with opposing views rightfully a cause for concern.
But by no stretch of the imagination can it be said that the students who walked out were denying Hopkins a platform to speak. “Muting Hopkins with their silence” is an oxymoron. If anything, these students were exercising their own right to free speech to make a clever if not totally ineffective statement.
Katie Hopkins isn’t a “victim,” she’s a strong, bullheaded woman with a national platform from which to give her strong, bullheaded opinions. She doesn’t require Charlotte Gill to run to her defence just because a few mollycoddled students wouldn’t listen.
In Other News…
• In a November 5 video, students at Yale University were shown confronting Professor Nicholas Christakis over an email that his wife, Associate Master of Silliman College Erika Christakis, had sent to students suggesting university administrators shouldn’t be allowed to dictate to students what is and isn’t appropriate Halloween attire.
• In a November 9 video, Concerned Student 1950 activists were shown forcibly removing student photojournalist Tim Tai from a public area of the University of Missouri campus, where a protest against racism was taking place. Later that day, Mizzou system president Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin announced they were to resign following criticism from students that they weren’t doing enough to tackle racism on campus.
• In a November 10 campus-wide email, the University of Missouri Police Department encouraged students to report “hateful and/or hurtful speech.”
• On November 12, student protesters at Amherst College issued a list of demands that included disciplinary action and mandatory “racial and cultural competency” training for students behind a series of pro-free speech signs on campus.
• On November 17, Yale President Peter Salovey and Dean Jonathan Holloway declared their support for Erika and Nicholas Christakis via an open letter addressed to the Silliman College community.
• On November 18, prompted by a query by Peter M. Heimlich, Amazon scrubbed a review by Dr. David Katz that described in glowing terms a book he wrote under a pseudonym. On November 20, citing an “undisclosed conflict of interest,” the Huffington Post followed suit, deleting not one but two similarly-worded columns.
• On November 30, members of Goldsmiths Islamic Society disrupted an event organised by the university’s Atheist Secularist and Humanist Society in an attempt to prevent human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie from speaking.
Starting December 7, students across the UK participated in Downing Street’s week-long Hour of Code campaign.
Launched in 2013 by non-profit computer science website Code.org, the UK Hour of Code “aims to help demystify that coding is difficult and enable parents, teachers and students across the nation [to] get a fun introduction to coding.”
With Downing Street doing all it can to promote the cause of coding amongst young students, what better time for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to issue this rather ominous warning to parents on the various evils of cybercrime, which treats ordinary teenage behaviour as an indicator of criminal conduct?
To the chagrin of women who have worked hard to distinguish themselves in the field of computer science, the campaign focuses solely on boys aged 12-15. Teenage girls obviously don’t have the wherewithal to code at a criminal level.
Gems from the official NCA list of “things to look out for” (which can now only be viewed via the Wayback Machine).
Next up: the NCA parent’s guide to whether your teenage girl’s obsession with her mobile phone points to involvement in the drug trade.
Katz and Co
In 2015, Dr. David Katz provided this blog with some much-needed comic relief. What I didn’t expect was that the comic relief would lead back to the serious stuff.
As mentioned earlier, Katz was caught reviewing a novel he wrote under a pseudonym, without disclosing authorship. Damning evidence came in the form of a glowing, five-star Amazon review (caveat emptor), plus two similarly-worded Huffington Post articles. Peter M. Heimlich had the scoop; I merely reblogged the story.
Following queries from Peter, Amazon and the Huff Post pulled Katz’s reviews. Rather than admit he was wrong, thus allowing the story to die a quick and quiet death, Katz went on the attack, claiming – wait for it – that a “cabal” backed by “the beef industry” was working to undermine the work of the 2015 US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). This was news to me, not least because I’ve been vegetarian almost 15 years.
Katz’s October 24 Huff Post article – “National Nutritional Policy, Imperiled by Bullies” – in which he stated that criticism about his failure to act ethically helped put public health itself in jeopardy, clues in to his motives (take note: he makes no distinction between criticism and censorship).
Translation: Why waste time reading about boring old me – hey, what’s that over there?!
After the Huff Post retracted his articles, Katz ran to LinkedIn to publish this discursive, rather paranoid screed directed at journalist Nina Teicholz. To spare you the effort of wading through it, Katz clumsily connects the Huff Post retractions – the result of Peter’s query – to an investigation by Teicholz that featured in the BMJ in September. In the process of trying to distract attention away from his various conflicts of interest, Katz had inadvertently given us our next story.
What we learned was that in November, Katz was one of over 180 signatories to an open letter organised by Bonnie Leibman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) that requested that the BMJ retract Teicholz’s investigation – “The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?” – criticising the methodology and findings of the 2015 dietary guidelines. If there’s any doubt about whether this constituted an attempt to quash dissent, all 14 members of the 2015 DGAC signed their names to the letter.
After all the hype about a shadowy, industry-backed plot to overthrow science for beef and profit, it was somewhat surprising to learn that Katz was himself part of an industry-backed effort – “cabal,” if you will – to disappear a journalist’s article. Remember that all-important distinction between criticism and censorship? Who’s the censor in this scenario – a journalist asking unwelcome questions about government science, or a government scientist rallying to excise unwelcome questions from public debate?
On November 19, the BMJ asked the authors of the CSPI letter to submit it as a “rapid response” on thebmj.com. This required all signatories to declare their competing interests. Peter, doing what he does best, went about asking questions and filing records requests. One such request to the University of Colorado, regarding former president of the American Heart Association (AHA) Professor Robert Eckel, was particularly intriguing. On November 25, Peter received a letter from the university’s legal counsel stating Eckel was intending to remove his name from the retraction letter. Here’s what happened (via The Sidebar).
Click here to read and download the Heimlich-Eckel emails.
Following Eckel’s decision to remove his name from the CSPI letter, more signatories started to disappear. As reported in this item Peter and I co-authored and cross-posted to each of our blogs, on December 17 the BMJ posted an updated version of the letter, absent the names of 18 scientists and graduate students. Result.
Bringing the story full circle is our man at Yale, Dr. Katz. A few weeks after Amazon and the Huff Post pulled his self-reviews, I discovered yet another five-star rating Katz had awarded his novel on a website called Goodreads, where he failed once again to disclose the obvious conflict of interest.
As we would our item on Nina Teicholz and her run-in with the CSPI, Peter and I co-authored and cross-posted this latest chapter in Katz’s storied history of shameless sock puppetry to each of our blogs. No sooner had Peter queried the Goodreads team than the rating disappeared into Internet ether.
In Other News…
• On December 1, over 80 faculty members at Yale University signed a letter in support of Erika and Nicholas Christakis, who had received criticism for an email Erika had sent to students supporting their right to wear offensive Halloween costumes.
• On December 3, Erika Christakis announced that she would resign from her teaching position at Yale. In an email to The Washington Post, she said that her decision was due to the censorious climate on campus, which – in her words – is not “conducive to the civil dialogue and open inquiry required to solve our urgent societal problems.”
• On December 4, lecturer Reza Moradi announced he would complain to police over death threats he allegedly received during a November 30 speech by human rights campaigner Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths University, during which several men from Goldsmiths Islamic Society tried to prevent Namazie from speaking.
• In a December 9 interview with Time, Dean of Yale Jonathan Holloway defended the concept of “safe spaces.”
• In a December 16 viral video, comedian Ami Horowitz succeeded in convincing more than 50 Yale students to sign a petition to repeal the First Amendment.