Free Speech Morality Religion

The naked truth about porn on television

Originally published in the Mail & Guardian, 22 March 2013

p14082_01_obr01When TopTV announced that they were planning to launch a fresh bid to screen adult content, a number of the self-appointed guardians of South Africa’s moral fibre rushed to our aid. The usual suspects (like African Christian Action or the Family Policy Institute) spoke of the “flood of filth” that would destroy our families, corrupt our children, and in general violate more rights than I was aware we even had.

The Icasa hearings on these adult content channels took place on March 14, and I was one of only two people who presented in favour of TopTV’s application (besides the applicants themselves, of course). The written submissions received by Icasa were overwhelmingly disapproving (440 against, with only 16 in favour), while at the hearings the ratio shifted to a more balanced two in favour and six against.

That’s where the impression of greater balance began and ended, for the most part. If you were keen on getting examples of how to marshall anecdotes, logical fallacies and statistical innumeracy in favour of a moralistic conclusion, the Icasa offices were the place to be on that day. As I said in my submission, porn seems to reliably increase only two things: arousal and religious outrage, but perhaps negative causality in relation to common sense needs to be added to that list.

It is not true, as some might think, that you need to think pornography entirely unproblematic to defend the right of a broadcaster to screen it, or viewers to watch it. Personally, I’m quite convinced that pornography can alter expectations in the bedroom, or in relationships more generally. But so can just about any entertainment product you can imagine, and pornography only becomes particularly interesting if it causes harms by necessity, or harms that are more severe or of a distinct type.

For some, pornography does seem to be particularly interesting by virtue of simply being pornography. It’s about sex, and sex is about families, and families involve children and healthy societies. We don’t like to talk about sex, or watch it – especially not the kind of sex they show in pornography. Ergo, porn harms children and families.

Except, we don’t have any compelling reasons to believe that it does, in ways attributable to the pornography rather than to other variables such as poverty, communication breakdowns, or the pressures of fulfilling Calvinist, heteronormative, nuclear family-related social expectations that are increasingly ill-suited to the various interests and desires of the 21st-century human.

Introducing one or more pieces of research here will mostly only serve to stoke up a cherry-picking contest in the comments and letters, so I’ll say only this: the past few decades have allowed for a global social science experiment involving being able to compare class, income, race, gender, religion and whatever else you like with porn and sexual violence. And when you look at that data, it requires a fair amount of contortion to avoid the conclusion that people who are educated and living in a functioning and responsive state commit fewer crimes of all sorts, regardless of porn access.

Pornography is a red herring in this argument, particularly with regard to the anecdotes regarding the effects of porn that the Icasa commissioners got to hear about. There’s no question that South Africa is experiencing obscenely high levels of rape (not that any level is not obscene), but it’s not possible to blame pornography for this, given that the sexual violence clusters in areas that are poor, and have less access to pornography than the average reader of this column does. The middle and upper classes should be doing most of the raping, and they are not.

Yes, of course there may be a correlation between pornography and sexual violence – just as they may be a correlation between hours spent on church pews and lower-back ache. But correlation does not imply causation. It’s easy to use correlation and “science-y” language to contribute to a moral panic – but less easy (although far more useful) to demonstrate a clear causal link.

It adds no evidence of causation to wheel out a young man to testify that his cousin’s consumption of Etv pornography led to his rape, at age 13. For every example of this type, we could find thousands of South Africans who watched Emmanuelle without resorting to sexual violence. Note also the apparent contradiction between the “rape is about power, not sex” narrative and the “porn on your TV screen causes rape” narratives.

Then, asserting that porn is as addictive as heroin or cocaine, and that it takes only 5 minutes exposure for a child to be irreparably harmed, doesn’t make it so. The editors of the DSM-V chose not to include pornography as an addition – evidence that it’s at least a contested claim, rather than something to be bandied about as fact.

The real, and honest, narrative here is simply one of a contest between various moral preferences, where pornography, sex worker trafficking and rape start being treated as inter-related just because people say they are so. But the facts of the matter can never be settled by shouting, by our (legitimate) fears for our safety, or by anecdotes involving claims like Ted Bundy “got started in porn” – as if porn should now be understood as likely to turn all kids into Ted Bundy’s.

The joy (albeit one experienced all too rarely) of living in a constitutional democracy that is mostly secular is that you don’t have to watch consume porn if you don’t want to. There are risks in allowing people choice, yes: it’s difficult to predict or control what choices people make, and therefore what you – or your children – might be exposed to.

This means that the task of parenting, or of providing moral guidance in other contexts, is a difficult one. This is as it has always been, and as it should be. But none of us has the right to prescribe morality for others, especially not on the basis of cherry-picked data and moral hysteria.

Free Speech Religion Secularism

Inconsistency and intolerance

As you no doubt know, in April 2011 France introduced legislation barring women from wearing the niqab. There’s some immediate irony in that, in the sense of telling women what they aren’t allowed to wear, in an ostensible effort to liberate them.

I’m conflicted about that particular ban, because as much as the niqab seems such a powerful symbol of subjugation, it’s impossible to rule out the possibility that some women wear it out of genuine choice, rather than because it’s the only choice they have, or the obvious choice thanks to years of programming. And if these women exist, a ban certainly violates their freedom, even if you might disagree with the ways in which that freedom is used.

As much as I – and all of us, I imagine – want to find ways in which we can maximise the freedom of others, it challenges preconceptions about the oppressive nature of the niqab to see headlines talking about French Muslim women effectively being “under house arrest” as a result of this bans. It also doesn’t seem to be winning any public relations points – not only is this sort of thing fuel to extremists, it’s also fuel to those who want to cast secularism as intolerance.

But the niqab is an extreme example, because of the way it seems to eliminate the person wearing it. You, as a Muslim women, are represented entirely by the item of faith, with only your eyes visible to the external world. You could be anyone, at least to those of us on the outside, who might not be able to pick up the subtler clues of identity that no doubt exist.

So I can at least have the conversation around whether this should be permitted or banned, because it is at least plausible that something so extreme can’t be a matter of free choice. But when it comes to other, less extreme statements of faith like the fez, kuffiya or hijab, it seems immediately false to me that we should prohibit Muslims from wearing them.

These thoughts are prompted by a South African example from a couple of weeks ago, where two children were sent home from high school for wearing a hijab and a fez, and told that they could not come back wearing their respective headgear. They were allowed back a week later, but only after intervention from the provincial school board. Meanwhile, talk radio had a field day, with one person making the absurd suggestion that religious clothing is good, because then we’d know who all the atheists are (they wear black, you see).

And then, there were some callers and letter-writers who we can be quite confident in thinking would be happy for children to wear a crucifix to school, because it’s Islam that’s the problem, not religion. One even spoke of the Muslim “infiltration and indoctrination”!

A confounder in this case is of course that the children in question are 13 and 16. As Dawkins often points out, it’s an error to referr to Muslim children, Christian children, or [insert any other religion] children. Until a child is old enough to choose for itself, it is the parents who are religious rather than the children. Indeed, this particular case is notable for the fact that it’s the mother who is quoted as saying “I can’t allow them to take it off because it is against our Islamic beliefs.”

She’s then quoted as saying “It is very sad. It is very disturbing” – and while she clearly means the actions of the school, those words could easily apply to some cases of children who are given no option but to believe what their parents do – and thus also easily apply to her previous quoted sentence.

As I wrote in a recent column on this case,

a 13 and a 16 year-old could also be Muslim by choice, even if we think the choice flawed. Unfortunately, we often only get to know how much volition is possible when people try to change their minds (through observing how their families and community react), but it’s certainly possible that these two children are contented in this particular faith, and proud of being identified as members of it.

We can’t guarantee that these sorts of choices are made freely. But we can help to create a climate that encourages free and rational choice, and also taking responsibility for choices. Forbidding the hijab while permitting the cross encourages inconsistency and bigotry. Permitting them both – as well as any other outward signs of religious affiliation – can be done alongside restrictions that encourage civic virtues such as understanding and compassion.

I mean two things: first, that allowing the hijab, but insisting that it be in the colours of the school uniform, reminds the scholar that a plurality of values are competing, and that none should be assumed to have priority until the relevant debate has been held. And second, allowing religious headgear avoids sending a signal of prejudice, which will hopefully result in an increased chance for people like me to argue against the choice to ever want to wear the headgear or the crucifix.

The system of thought – or sometimes lack of thought, to be more honest about some forms of religious indoctrination – that forces some women to cover themselves near-completely does merit opposition, as does a tradition that won’t allow women to be priests, or to have abortions, or whatever the case might be.

But expressions of those ideologies are not equally thoughtless, and treating them all as if they are – or not allowing them at all – runs the risk of acting no differently to that which you’re protesting. If you don’t think children should wear a hijab or a fez, persuade them and their parents that they shouldn’t. As David Mitchell puts it, “It bears restating that it’s not bigoted to disagree vociferously with people’s choices, as long as you’re even more vociferous in defending their right to make them”.

A final thought takes me back to inconsistency, though – can such neat distinctions be made between the niqab and the hijab? If I’m happy to allow the latter, am I inconsistent to think the former permissible? And if this inconsistency needs resolution, should it be through banning both or permitting both?

On the too-large pile of unread books, which probably looks similar to your too-large pile, my SkepticInk colleague Russell Blackford’s Freedom of Religion and the Secular State awaits. Perhaps it will contain a clue or two.

Free Speech Morality Religion Secularism

Labelling Jews with a “mark of shame”?

Dr Ivor Blumenthal - one Jew one jobWhile on campus for what I hope will prove to be the last meeting of 2012, a clear-out of the mailbox revealed a holiday-themed, ambiguously Christmassy card from the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies. The card reminded me of earlier this year, when I appeared on a panel with Khaya Dlanga and Brenda Stern at the Board of Deputies CENSOR/TIVITY conference. During the session I participated in, I was rather pleased to observe what appeared to be a fairly consistent and principled commitment to both free speech as well as the benefits of being sensitive to the emotional harms speech acts can cause.

Even though various contentious matters were under discussion (there’s a podcast at the link above, if you want to listen) – Zapiro’s cartoons, the Labia not screening Roadmap to Apartheid – most of the audience, as well as the executive members I chatted with, seemed to realise that demonising your opposition and their point of view would usually have to entail being fairly liberal with the truth. But also, and unsurprisingly, many people spoke of their deep and continuing hurt at being stereotyped or the subject of religious or other slurs. Zapiro’s cartoons were held out as an example of caricatures against Jewish folk, especially in Israel, that served no purpose but to harm.

Sadly, this sensitivity to offence turns out to be mono-directional. When a member of the Jewish community calls for Jews who are anti-Israel to wear a “mark of shame” – and expresses regret that stoning them is not possibile – the Board of Deputies declined comment. Here’s an extract from the blog post in question, written by Ivor Blumenthal:

We have to “out” them, their families, their children, their businesses and their friends. We have to make it as politically incorrect to be associated with them as they, with their BDS mates are making it for the majority of the Jewish Community in South Africa. We need to name them. We need to shame them. We need to make sure that their ability to make a living dries up. We need to label them and their families with the “mark of shame”. They are traitors and must be painted on as such. There is no space or place for half measures here. This is not something that can be negotiated. It is absolute casting into the wilderness which is required so that the next “humanitarian” will think four times before taking the same steps to attack the Jewish people, our values and our beliefs.

The question however is whether we have the courage as a community to do this?

You might think these words were written a number of decades ago, if it were not for the reference to the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. But no – these are the words Ivor Blumenthal, a Jewish man himself, published on his blog yesterday, in reference to Jewish folk who are anti-Israel. For more on Blumenthal and his history of controversy, read this post by Nathan Geffen and Mary-Anne Gontsana. In a response typified by complete tone-deafness to history, the Cape Town Jewish Board of Deputies said:

Dr Ivan Blumenthal expresses a personal opinion in his blog titled “You cannot fight it darling – a Jew is a Zionist. By birth, not by choice.” The Cape SA Jewish Board of Deputies feels no need to comment on the opinions of an individual within the Jewish Community who is not speaking on behalf of any Jewish communal organisation.

But offering any response at all (ie. acknowledging the existence of the case) without expressing judgement is already a comment of sorts, because the response entails the Board of Deputies declining a clear opportunity to say something even as benign as “obviously, we don’t share his views, but he has the right to hold and express them”. The Board of Deputies might well think Blumenthal’s position correct, even if they would not go as far in expressing it (through a “mark of shame”, for example) – but through not condemning his excesses, they align themselves with the sort (regardless of degree) of intolerance and prejudice I was led to believe they were vehemently opposed to.

Blumenthal also says:

Centuries ago we would have stoned people like this to death. Death is today not an option because, it just so happens that in South Africa we have some of the most stringent Human Rights legislation, ironically developed and forced through Parliament by – Jews, most of them who are the turncoat, ant-semetic (sic), self-hating, treacherous Jews.

While this (for me) stops short of a call to violence, it’s still reprehensible – and whether or not it counts as hate speech under South African law, it’s nevertheless worth denouncing, loudly and wherever possible. Including by the Cape Jewish Board of Deputies, who you’d think would be more sensitive to the potential that words hold to cause harm.

Free Speech Religion Secularism

IHEU report on social media and discrimination against the non-religious

The IHEU is today releasing a report on discrimination against non-religious people, with examples drawn from all over the world. It makes for interesting reading, because in addition to all the cases that get widespread media attention, the problem of discrimination against the non-religious is perhaps a larger one than many people realise. The report offers many examples of such discrimination, sometimes in the expected places, but also in jurisdictions where you’d hope for freedom from persecution on grounds of non-belief.


Blasphemy prosecutions rise with social media

New report highlights persecution of atheists

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) has produced the first report focusing on how countries around the world discriminate against non-religious people. Freedom of Thought 2012: A Global Report on Discrimination Against Humanists, Atheists and the Non-religious (pdf) has been published to mark Human Rights Day, Monday 10 December.

Freedom of Thought 2012 covers laws affecting freedom of conscience in 60 countries and lists numerous individual cases where atheists have been prosecuted for their beliefs in 2012. It reports on laws that deny atheists’ right to exist, curtail their freedom of belief and expression, revoke their right to citizenship, restrict their right to marry, obstruct their access to public education, prohibit them from holding public office, prevent them from working for the state, criminalize their criticism of religion, and execute them for leaving the religion of their parents.

The report highlights a sharp increase in arrests for “blasphemy” on social media this year. The previous three years saw just three such cases, but in 2012 more than a dozen people in ten countries have been prosecuted for “blasphemy” on Facebook or Twitter, including:

  • In Indonesia, Alexander Aan was jailed for two-and-a-half years for Facebook posts on atheism.
  • In Tunisia, two young atheists, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, were sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison for Facebook postings that were judged blasphemous.
  • In Turkey, pianist and atheist Fazil Say faces jail for “blasphemous” tweets.
  • In Greece, Phillipos Loizos created a Facebook page that poked fun at Greeks’ belief in miracles and is now charged with insulting religion.
  • In Egypt, 17-year-old Gamal Abdou Massoud was sentenced to three years in jail, and Bishoy Kamel was imprisoned for six years, both for posting “blasphemous” cartoons on Facebook.
  • The founder of Egypt’s Facebook Atheists, Alber Saber, faces jail time (he will be sentenced on 12 December).

“When 21st century technology collides with medieval blasphemy laws, it seems to be atheists who are getting hurt, as more of them go to prison for sharing their personal beliefs via social media,” said Matt Cherry, the report’s editor. “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, welcomed the research. In a foreword to the report Bielefeldt notes that there is often “little awareness” that international human rights treaties mean freedom of conscience applies equally to “atheists, humanists and freethinkers and their convictions, practices and organizations. I am therefore delighted that for the first time the Humanist community has produced a global report on discrimination against atheists. I hope it will be given careful consideration by everyone concerned with freedom of religion or belief.”


An advance copy of the Freedom of Thought 2012 report is available from: Freedom of Thought 2012.pdf

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is the world umbrella group bringing together more than 100 Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, and freethought organizations from 40 countries.

For more information contact:

Bob Churchill, +44 207 636 4797, [email protected]

Or Matt Cherry, +1 518 632 1040, [email protected]

Daily Maverick Free Speech Politics

Brands vs. personal identity on Twitter

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Should people be suspended for having a terrible sense of humour? Or were Lance Witten and McIntosh Polela suspended because of terrible judgement instead? Both their own, in terms of what they found humorous, as well as on the part of their respective employers, who allowed themselves to be forced into action by the moralistic masses on social media.

Terrible judgement seems the more likely option, but it’s perhaps not only Polela and Witten who are guilty of it. They know that they are public figures, and they know that this makes them a target for the sort of finger wagging we seldom direct at our own behaviour. But do we – and their employers – have to enforce groupthink, or can we separate the brand from the individual?

In case you don’t know what these two did to deserve suspension (in the eyes of their employers, at least), Polela made a joke about prison rape on Twitter after Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye was sentenced to prison for murder, and Witten made a joke (also on Twitter) about people “dying to see Linkin Park”.

Given that prison rape is reportedly a significant problem in South African jails, and that Florentina Heaven-Popa died after scaffolding collapsed on her and others at the Cape Town Linkin Park concert last week, these jokes were certainly in very poor taste.

However, having poor taste is something that’s only directly relevant to people who work in fashion, food, or whatever areas involve being an authority on discerning what the most desirable product on offer might be in a given situation. Suspending someone for having poor taste in humour – for saying something that many would find offensive – makes the statement that we must all have the same values, and that dissenting from those values is not permissible.

It also makes the statement that we (as a company) don’t trust our customers to be able to distinguish between our employees as people and the company as a whole. This is where one has to consider the possibility that their respective employers are also guilty of poor judgement, in that they’ve played a part in letting hyperbole win, and in helping to feed an appetite for sensation that we should instead be doing our best to quell.

One reason that social media policies are necessary is that people seem incapable of realising that what you say on Twitter or Facebook can reflect negatively on your employers. Another reason that social media policies are necessary is because employers are willing to bow to the demands of the pitchfork-wielding public, who make threats of boycotts over every perceived slight. And then, forget about it the next week, when some new offence is paraded in front of them through a hyperbolic headline.

Seriously – how often have you heard of someone who was not killed “execution style”? When last was a person or a report “criticised” or “challenged” rather than “slammed”? And why can’t eNCA have the option of saying, “Lance Witten might be a tosspot, sure, and he really shouldn’t have made that joke. So ‘unfriend’ him if you like, but he works for us as a sports anchor, and he’s good enough at that that we see no reason to suspend him”.

They can’t have that option because we don’t allow them that option. Our thirst for sensation, and our inability to separate the various roles that people perform in professional and private lives, makes it impossible for a company to say that perfection is an unreasonable standard to expect from our employees, and that there are other ways of distancing yourself from comments or from employees than by suspending or firing those employees.

All that we are doing is satisfying the desire for some public flogging, after all. The idea that anyone learns any sort of lesson here (besides the lesson of “keep your views to yourself”) is implausible. Because we always forget, and because all that’s necessary to speed up our forgetting is a brief period of suspension, a public apology, and some new distraction – which is usefully always around the corner.

And so it goes, again and again, and the main loser is our sense of perspective. Yes, jokes can be offensive. But Witten, Polela – or you, or me – won’t stop making offensive jokes, or come to agree with each other on which jokes are permissible or not as a result of suspensions like these. We’ll just tell the same jokes, more privately, while our public spaces become more homogenised, and thus (one suspects the thinking goes) “safer”.

Companies must, of necessity, have an interest in their brand and how the market perceives it. This would certainly entail avoiding any real scandals, especially those perpetrated by senior figures in that company. But if reputational harm comes to implicate every tweet of every employee, there’s little chance of preserving reputation.

It’s become a truism to say that the brand and the person can’t be separated – but that isn’t necessarily because it’s true. One possible social media policy doesn’t seem to attract the attention it seems to deserve, and it would go something like this:

Our company values are x. While we try to hire people who share those values, there are also other job requirements that sometimes have an equal or higher priority. So, unless informed otherwise, please assume that individuals are responsible for their own comments on social media, and that none of their comments should be understood as expressing the company’s views.

We don’t believe that we are the best judges of what should be a universal morality. We respect our customers enough to want to avoid the paternalism of assuming that they are incapable of telling difference between individual employees and us. And finally, we respect our customers too much to think that they need our protection from things they might find offensive.  Have a nice day.

Postscript: Via 6000, here’s an example of sanity prevailing in this area. The Christian whose case is discussed in the article is of course a homophobe and a bigot, and that’s not good. But he’s allowed to be those things, especially on his own time.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality

More on dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

(Note to pedants: I realise that the previous post – and this one – uses the word “troll” atypically. This is both because I think the definition could usefully be broadened, and because it’s a useful, evocative word).

If you don’t believe that hostility (or sometimes, something more accurately describable as abuse) on Internet comment threads is a problem, then this post will be of no or little interest to you. I say this to let you know that you should cease reading, rather than skipping to the end to leave a hostile comment. You always have that option, even though people seem more and more reluctant to exercise it.

But if you do think this a topic worth discussing, you’d most likely recall that last week I discussed what appears to be a marked decrease in civility on the Internet. What used to be localised has arguably been generalised, and we’ve now got a significant chance of encountering a troll in the comments thread of Daily Maverick, never mind their ancestral homes of News24 and PoliticsWeb.

One thing that we can all do about this is to temper how we respond to provocation, whether perceived or otherwise. This is part of the remedy for situations in which we might be perceived to ourselves be the troll, or perhaps where we provide one of them with a useful provocation. The advice to not feed trolls remains sound, but it perhaps doesn’t go far enough.

This is because what I’ve always understood as not feeding a troll is simply not responding to their provocations. While mocking someone who seems deserving can provide pleasure – both to other commentators and to spectators – it’s mostly just a way of feeling superior. It usually won’t change anyone’s mind, and serves simply to affirm a group identity as one of the smart, sophisticated set (or so you might think of yourself), rather than the sort of person represented by the ingrate you’re now making fun of.

In other words, directing your scathing wit at a troll might be encouraging another sort of negative aspect of character, while doing nothing to modify the target’s behaviour – except for encouraging him (sadly, it usually is a him) to try harder. It’s perhaps these sorts of considerations, among others, that led Jean Kazez, a philosopher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, to offer what I thought to be three quite useful prescriptions.

The first prescription she offers has already been addressed, above and last week, and calls for some reflection on appropriate uses of our time and energy – particularly for those of us who do act like trolls online. The second and third, however, call for a complete disassociation from those who do, rather than the more typical exhortation to not encourage them.

Kazez suggests that we should cease any participation in fora where significant bullying takes place, and also cease from interacting with people who do participate in those fora. In summary, both those who bully and those who enable the bullies need to discover that they will lose their “seat at the table” of adult debate.

In a local context, perhaps this could mean never even attempting to engage in a comment thread on certain sites, or promptly removing oneself once certain commentators arrive to hijack the discussion. If the chances are high enough (and sometimes they seem certain) that the usual race-baiting will ensue, what’s the point of yet another attempt to call for a nuanced consideration of how (for example) neo-liberalism is being used as a catch-all term meaning “an economic stance that I don’t agree with”, and is therefore not a useful contribution?

My primary concerns around the advice to disengage involve the potentially instructive role that more sober comments can play. Even if it’s true that engagement typically encourages, because trolls love being given attention, there are nevertheless some fence-sitters lurking who are potentially receptive to productive disagreement.

Withdrawing entirely from debate costs us those opportunities. Limiting or ceasing interaction with those who do participate is even more radical, and involves forsaking the opportunity to set an example, persuade or encourage others to be more reasonable. But perhaps this is the point – we are still too optimistic about how often such opportunities arise, and about how often there’s any reward from taking them.

As someone who has by now spent more than two decades at a university, it’s perhaps easy to accuse me of naiveté here – maybe this is just how people talk in the “real” world, and it’s the Socratic dialogue that was always the fantasy. If it is civilised conversation you want, in other words, have it with carefully selected friends or in a filter bubble you’ve created for that purpose.

Outside of those environments – which bring with them a limitation on our own capacity to learn from difference, and from debate – it sadly seems true that most of the time, our engagements with abusive elements of the Internet are doing nothing to stem the tide of anger and misunderstanding. In the meanwhile, though, they do give the trolls something else to scream about.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

On dealing with trolls

As submitted to Daily Maverick

One of the things that the Internet has been good for is broadening the range of perspectives in any given conversation. Of course certain barriers need to be overcome: to participate, you need an Internet connection and a suitable gadget. Nevertheless, conversations have been democratised, thanks at least in part to being able to more easily discover who is interested in talking about the same things as you, and the fact that it’s relatively inexpensive to join in.

However, the filter-bubble remains a problem. Not only do the personalisation features of search engines like Google give you results that reinforce existing prejudices; we also like it that way – it’s called confirmation bias, and too few of us take active steps to combat its negative implications (if we’re even aware of the potential need to do so). There’s another concern though, one that I’ve mentioned in the past but would like to explore a little further today: the question of online abuse and the extent to which it might cause some voices to withdraw from the conversation entirely.

An example from a few minutes ago will serve to illustrate: “screw u, u doos, first of 90% of big business in S.A is owned by whites and top man is white, so cry me a river!!!” is what someone just told me on Twitter after I repeated an overheard joke about members of the UCT Senate’s prospects of employability at Woolworths.

Now, seeing as some folk have been calling me a racist for a few weeks now, thanks to my defending  Woolworths and SAA’s affirmative action policies, we can be sure that the grammar-impaired person who tweeted that at me is clearly unaware of this context. That’s fine – I’d expect most people to be. However, just in case there is some context, one might think a little tempering of the hostility is merited when (over)hearing something that offends you.

Not so for this person, it seems, and increasingly not so for those who comment in these pages and elsewhere. And then there’s the next layer of trouble, which is where the filter-bubble ends up resulting in a congregation of these hair-trigger folks into one “room”, as it were. At some point, all possibility for debate ceases to exist because of the mutually-assured idiocy of a collection of angry people, each paying less attention than the next.

Because there seems to be no chance of changing anyone’s mind, some of those who might otherwise try to do so eventually resort to measures like turning off comment functionality, stop engaging in comment threads, and eventually – stop engaging with certain pockets of the Internet at all. This has two consequences: the collection of trolls and angry folk are made more homogenous, and thus apparently stronger, and likewise, the collection of those who consider themselves “virtuous” is furnished with another example of why they are special, and right – and their homogeneity increases too.

So, one day we’ll end up with half the Internet grunting angrily at each other, while the other half recites passages from Plato. Unless we find some way to arrest this escalation of hostilities, or unless I’m wrong about the trend (and I hope I am). In a future column I hope to explore potential legal remedies for online bullying, such as those currently being considered in New Zealand and elsewhere. But because less regulation is always preferable to more, we should also consider what each of us could or should do, simply in our capacity as members of the Internet community.

First, I’d argue that we can sometimes be accused of placing too little or too much emphasis on history, and not enough on our own conduct. Too little, in the sense of the tweet I quote above where zero effort was made to see if an interpretation is the correct one. And then too much, in the sense that we sometimes expect new entrants to a conversation to know minute and technical historical details of that conversation – and then abuse them when they get a detail wrong. There’s sometimes too little patience for any kind of induction period, and so-called “newbies” need the thickest skins of all.

To remedy this problem, I offer one suggestion: that when a debate gets heated, we should try to remember that no matter what’s come before, we’re constantly at a new decision-point, where we – and only we – are responsible for what we say in response to something we find provocative. Sure, someone else has committed a wrong, and we can be inflamed by that. But essentially juvenile questions of “who started it”, while diverting, seldom help illuminate the question of how it can be ended. In other words, I’m suggesting that we learn (or remember) some manners.

Daily Maverick Free Speech

Voracious and mostly dumb: Lehrer, Daly and the Internet audience

First published on The Daily Maverick

It’s somewhat of a cottage industry to point out yet another way in which something new in the world will transform our lives. Whether it be social structures, economic systems or modes of communication that are changing, it’s the stuff of pop-psychology, -science or -economics to point out what it is that we need to adapt to, and to make suggestions for how we should do so.

Some people make a living from making these suggestions. Or did make a living, until being discovered fabricating Bob Dylan quotes as Jonah Lehrer recently was. (If we’re lucky, a similar fate might soon befall Malcolm Gladwell, sparing us from “Slurp: What kitten’s tongues teach us about derivatives”.

Yes, of course I’m jealous. And also sympathetic, in the case of Lehrer, because it seems likely that he didn’t so much intend to deceive as simply to entertain. This isn’t to excuse him, because clear distinctions can be drawn between cleaning up quotations and simply making them up. The latter remains, and should remain, unacceptable in anything purporting to be non-fiction.

But one of the things that has transformed and requires adaptation is the relationship between writers and readers, on at least two fronts. Even in the market for pabulum, where the likes of Lehrer and Gladwell often trade, the attention economy conduces to style becoming as important as substance if you’re looking to sell your books.

In the latter decades of last century, you could perhaps count the popular science writers worth reading on ten fingers, and “popular” was still compatible with “rather challenging”, at least for laypersons. Now the bookshelves seem packed – frequently with books from the discipline dubbed “neuroscientism”, in which Gladwell and Lehrer arguably both work. To have your books sell, rather than a competitor’s, you need to become a brand.

The need to become a brand is not new. Perhaps, though, what it means to be a brand these days is new, because brands appear to no longer be built on who has the best ideas, but rather on ideas that spark the imagination and can be captured in headlines and slogans. The aversion to complexity that many of us in the audience seem to have incentivises the sort of shortcut-taking that Lehrer is guilty of.

The changing expectations we have for what our “experts” should deliver, and how they might adjust their output in response to those expectations, was one sort of adaptation that was widely discussed over the past week, mostly in response to the Lehrer case. A second sort of adaptation can be found in (and is necessitated by) the fact that many of us seem to have forgotten what free speech is for.

As I argued in last week’s column, we can be wrong about what we believe to be true. Our prejudices and biases might stop us from realising that we’re wrong, and worse still, they might cause us to silence those who disagree with us. So, free speech is largely good for protecting vulnerable (but often valuable) speech acts.

What it’s not for is claiming protection from ridicule or criticism for saying stupid, bigoted or hateful things. So, just in case anyone missed or misunderstood last week’s column, in it I argue that Americans have just as much right to ridicule Chick-fil-A’s president as he does to express his homophobia, because the morality of both of these actions is a separate issue from their permissibility.

This background is relevant to the second adaptation because of the size of the market for opinion – both the producers of it and those who respond to it, increasingly on platforms like Twitter. I’ve previously asked the question of whether comment facilities on the Internet help to turn decent folk into raving loons (temporarily, one hopes), so won’t revisit that territory here. Instead, the question I’d like to raise is what we’re supposed to do about it.

To put it simply, as an audience grows, so too does the number of trolls. As any of you reading this will know, the troll is frequently louder and more persistent than any other contributor to debate. A common refrain on comment threads has for years been “don’t feed the trolls” – in other words, ignore them and hopefully they’ll get bored and go somewhere else.

But this attitude is starting to seem somewhat naïve. Not only because groups like 4Chan and LulzSec have been known to express their views through damaging hacks, but also because the idea of what free speech is good for is perverted when we start using it to justify the level of abuse that Olympic swimmer Tom Daley was recently subjected to.

In his explanation of why Rileyy_69 (the Twitter user who taunted Daley) is no free speech hero, Graham Linehan makes a number of good points. These two paragraphs are particularly worth reading, and clearly illustrate why we somehow need to adapt our norms – and even perhaps our laws – to accommodate the different ways in which people can and do engage in a world of electronic media.

Being able to locate someone–even on the other side of the world–who has suffered a bereavement, and whisper in their ear words calculated to break their heart, is a new chapter in our development, and I think we can all agree that the arrival of hyper-empowered bullies is far from being the most positive aspect of our current connectivity.

And “don’t feed the trolls” won’t cut it as a solution. That’s just victim-blaming. Often it comes from people who have never had to deal with the level of abuse that many in the public eye receive, and never will. New rule: If you don’t experience it every day, you don’t get to tell anyone who does to suck it up.

There are many more adaptations than just these two that might be necessary, and the two I discuss here might not even be at the top of the list. The Lehrer case is arguably an example of what one might call the “shortcut culture”; and Rileyy_69 an example of what can happen in a world where everyone seems to think they’re entitled to just any opinion, and who have lost the internal censor which might otherwise have told them that a given opinion was not worth sharing.

Linehan says, “the question of how we protect free speech is no less important than the question of how we deal with abusive behaviour online”. While that might be putting the case too strongly, the latter is certainly an important question. It is also a complex one, and this is where the two adaptations intersect. Complex questions require careful deliberation, but fabricated Dylan quotes might sell more books.

Daily Maverick Free Speech Morality Politics

When fried chickens become homophobic

As submitted to Daily Maverick

You’ve probably heard about the Washington, DC. chain of dry-cleaners who have been barred from opening a store on Dupont Circle after their CEO admitted that she favoured a qualified franchise. In an interview with the Washington Post last week, Kate Parker of GreenClean was reported as saying that “anyone should be allowed to vote, so long as their families have been in the US for at least 3 generations”.

You haven’t? Well, neither had I until I made it up a few minutes ago. But the story that has received a significant amount of coverage are the calls for boycotts and attempts to block the expansion of American fast food chain Chick-fil-A, after their president Dan Cathy was quoted as saying “We are very much supportive of the family – the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that.”

Conservative activists (including ex-presidential no-hopers Rick Santorum and Sarah Palin) have rallied to Cathy’s defence, while defenders of gay rights and marriage equality have been quick to denounce the company for offences including not only offensive remarks such as those quoted above, but also their financial support for anti-gay organisations and therapy groups that aim to “cure” gays.

But while companies that are anti-immigration attract only very occasional and fairly disorganised backlash, Chick-fil-A is experiencing a nationwide campaign calling not only for boycotts of their franchises, but also statements from lawmakers including Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel indicating support for Joe Moreno, the Chicago alderman who blocked Chick-fil-A’s expansion in that city following Cathy’s homophobic comments.

It’s been said before, but bears repeating: the only way free speech arguments can ever be taken seriously is if we apply them consistently, and especially to speech that offends us. If free speech is only about forcing people to listen to what you have to say, you’re missing the point. That sort of “free speech” typically only entrenches the privilege of those who already have something to say, and a platform from which to say it.

Meanwhile, the very views that are marginal and unpopular might be worth hearing, and protecting. Sometimes, because we learn that we are wrong through being exposed to them, and sometimes because we learn why we can consider ourselves right through hearing how weak the opposition’s point of view really is. But if we don’t allow for the possibility that we are offended, we can’t describe ourselves as campaigners for free speech.

Emanuel said that “Chick-fil-A’s values are not Chicago values. They’re not respectful of our residents, our neighbors and our family members. And if you’re gonna be part of the Chicago community, you should reflect Chicago values”. If it’s freedom that’s at issue – whether in the form of gay rights or freedom of speech – the question of whether Emanuel’s comment is as offensive as Cathy’s is not a trivial one, because Emanuel is giving a moral principle the same status as a legal one.

It matters not that I – and ideally all of you – share a commitment to the moral principle at issue, namely that heterosexuals don’t have a monopoly on “family”. What matters is that having the sorts of views that a Mogoeng Mogoeng or Jacob Zuma have can be condemned through the use of one’s own right to free speech, rather than effectively stripping that right from others by threatening to (illegally) discriminate against them in terms of where and how they can trade.

Following an outcry from liberal commentators in the US, both Emanuel and Boston Mayor Tom Menino have subsequently admitted that any such restraint on Chick-fil-A’s operations would violate the chain’s rights. If Chick-fil-A could be shown to discriminate against gay employees in terms of who they hire or what they pay, or perhaps in their treatment of gay customers, legal action is both permissible and proper. In the absence of that, much of the outrage has rested on a confused conflation of morality and legality.

Part of speech being free is that we can be outraged, whether for good reason or not. In this particular case, even the question of whether the outrage is merited is an open one. While there’s no question in my mind that homophobia is a bad thing, it isn’t clear that it’s a failing that trumps all other potential failings.

We know this one thing about Chick-fil-A and their values, and what we know obviously can’t be measured up against the attitudes of any other fast food chain, where presidents might hold more odious views and simply choose not to air them.

Then, we also know other things about Chick-fil-A, for example that the roughly $2 million they donated to anti-gay causes over each of the last two years is trivial in light of both their $4 billion annual sales, and also that they donate substantial amounts to non-homophobic organisations also (and, as a result of the same conservative Christian principles that motivate their homophobia).

Calling for a boycott might sometimes be exactly the right thing to do, although it remains unclear that we should feel compelled to mix every aspect of our lives (including our fast food choices) with moral debate. But seemingly knee-jerk moral outrage is something to be treated with suspicion, whether or not it happens to agree with your viewpoint. This is perhaps especially true if it’s a bandwagon that you can’t avoid joining, for fear of being labelled a homophobe.

Academia and teaching Free Speech

The 2012 TB Davie lecture: Introductory remarks

On August 1, 2012, Ferial Haffajee delivered the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture at the University of Cape Town. As chair of the Academic Freedom Committee, I had the privilege of introducing her, and this is the text of my introductory remarks.

TB Davie led the university as Vice-Chancellor from 1948 until his death in 1955. He is remembered as a fearless defender of the principles of academic freedom. He championed this cause and the autonomy of the university, defining academic freedom as the university’s right to determine who shall be taught, who shall teach, what shall be taught and how it should be taught, without regard to any criterion except academic merit.

This legacy is honoured through the TB Davie memorial lecture series, beginning in 1959 with a lecture by former chief justice and UCT chancellor, Albert van de Sandt Centlivres, after whom a building adjacent to this one is named. In subsequent years, the lecture has been delivered by, among others, ZK Matthews, Walter Sisulu, Wole Soyinka, Kader Asmal and Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert.

When the Academic Freedom Committee invited Ferial Haffajee to deliver the 47th annual TB Davie Lecture, it was in the knowledge that we were inviting one of South Africa’s media luminaries. Her career started with an internship at what was then the Weekly Mail in 1991 – a publication at which she gained immediate exposure to the challenges of working in a medium where a desire to reveal and discuss matters in the public interest would frequently be met by powerful dissenting voices, requesting (and sometimes requiring) that you refrain from speaking.

After leaving the Weekly Mail, Ferial worked in radio as a producer and reporter at the SABC, before joining the Financial Mail as Political Editor, and later Managing Editor. In 2004, she rejoined what had by then become the Mail & Guardian, where she served as editor for 5 years. In 2009, she was appointed editor in chief at the City Press.

Throughout these 20-odd years, Ferial has been no stranger to controversy and having to fend off attempts at censorship. In 2005, the High Court barred the Mail & Guardian from publishing a story on the Oilgate scandal, detailing how the Imvume oil company had paid millions of taxpayers rands to the ANC. Just as the publication had done in the 1980’s, Ferial insisted on running the story, but with the banned segments blacked out.

In 2006, she published one of what became known as the Danish cartoons, to illustrate a story about the protests generated by the infamous depictions of the prophet Muhammad. Threats to both herself and her family resulted from this choice.

The committee knew all of this when inviting her to address us today. What we did not, and could not, have been aware of is just how appropriate a choice of speaker Ms Haffajee would end up being. I refer of course to the events of May this year, when Brett Murray’s painting The Spear was hung and then defaced at the Goodman Gallery, and published then later retracted by the City Press.

The Spear highlighted various fractures and absurdities in South African society. One absurdity, for me at least, was in hearing a sitting Minister of Education call for the destruction of an artwork. Another was the inconsistency between the near-complete silence from social media pundits as well as government spokespersons when members of the political opposition are racially slurred or crudely insulted, and the contrast between this and the outrage generated by the alleged lack of respect shown by this painting, and the publication of it. A morality that appears to be selective is difficult to fathom, and sometimes difficult to respect.

For some, it was of course always absurd that an act of satire could be this divisive, this inflammatory. For others, the lack of sympathy or understanding for the outrage was the real absurdity – and a real travesty of decency. In South Africa, these fractures are sometimes quite shallow beneath the surface. A key question is of course how to deal with them. Another key question is how one gets – and perhaps stays – in a position to be able to address them, and at what cost.

Academic freedom and media freedom are natural bedfellows, perhaps most obviously because of the symbiosis between a media revealing things that might benefit from academic study, and through academic activity frequently being newsworthy. But more crucial, perhaps, is media freedom simply as a barometer of a country’s freedom more generally.

In a 2009 interview, Ferial said “Until just over a year ago, I was singing that we enjoyed world-class media freedom, especially compared to some other African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, where four radio journalists were murdered last year, or Ethiopia, where all independent journalists are in jail or exile. But the ratcheting up of rhetoric against journalists since Polokwane is very, very dangerous. There is a fundamental philosophical difference between how the ANC perceives media freedom and how we journalists see it.”

Explaining her decision to withdraw The Spear from the City Press website earlier this year, she remarked “I hope we are not crafting a society … where we consign journalism to a free expression constrained by the limits of fear. This week society began the path of setting its mores on how we treat presidents in art and journalism; what is acceptable and what is not.”

Expression is at most partly free when one is afraid to speak. Arguably, it’s not at all free. Demands for silence on the grounds of culture, tradition or offences to dignity can sometimes be self-serving in that they forestall much possible debate or reflection on the merits of an artwork or speech act. Not the merits in terms of quality and originality, which are a separate matter, but the merits in terms of the discomfort and self-reflection the artwork could inspire.

The easiest way to justify poor arguments or mistaken ideas is simply to refuse to discuss them – and if it is a mistaken idea that presidents, for example, merit special protection from these sorts of insults, playing the race card or the culture card serves to rule that discussion out of order, leaving us unable to discuss those ideas.

It’s easy to agree that a painting like The Spear is disrespectful – I’d imagine that’s part of the point. You might think the painting in unacceptably bad taste, but your aesthetic preferences and cultural norms are of no more consequence than anyone else’s – at least in theory.

Many of you might share my hope that we can learn to deal with insults without feeling the need for protection from the courts, or from a Film and Publications Board which exhibits a very dubious moral authority in listing a known homophobic organisation as a “useful link” on its website.

I have this hope because it remains true that any restrictions on free speech on the basis of offence or slights to dignity threaten to put us on an unprincipled and very slippery slope. These sorts of things are perhaps easier for some of us to believe, and say, than it is for others. But it’s also true that some of us have easier access to the courts than others do.

Absolute freedom, including the freedom to offend, is usually not the only value at issue in contestations such as these. It is sometimes the case that one might be free to speak, but chose not to exercise that freedom – or simply, to regret having done so because the harms seem to far be outweighing any possible benefits, making absolute principles difficult to defend. As someone who experienced these dilemmas at first hand, we look forward to hearing Ferial Haffajee’s thoughts on creeping censorship, and the spearing of freedom.

You can download the audio of Ferial’s talk via this UCT page.

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