Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: freedom of speech

Antisocial

This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 20 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/antisocial-thinking-before-you-speak-is-not-repression

thinking before you speak is not repression

We live in a strange world today. Democracy seems meaningless and governments have no control over tech and communications behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. It is odd to think that not so long ago the founders of these enterprises were seen as almost saintly gurus bringing nothing but good to the world. Google used the phrase “Don’t be evil” in its corporate code of conduct. On 16 May 2013, Margaret Hodge MP, the chair of the UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, told Matt Brittin, head of Google UK, “I think that you do evil”. According to Shona Zuboff, in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.

Much of the evil that is done relates to hate speech and fascism. Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at the New Yorker. He has been writing for the magazine since 2011 and has also contributed to Harper’s, New York, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and many other publications. His new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation deals with the time he spent embedded with a variety of people along the spectrum of right-wing politics from ‘respectable’ republicans, through lite-right, alt-right, cuckservatives, paleoconservatives, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, white-supremacist thugs  and  “white nationalists—not the old skinhead type but the more polished, just-asking-the-question variety.” Marantz brings a good deal of wry humour to his story but in the end the book is a depressing picture of rancid extremism becoming normal, of distortion of the truth becoming acceptable and unsurprising, of a vicious buffoon with no moral centre ruling the globe’s most powerful nation with the assistance of those amoral right-wingers.

Marantz declares: “I knew what it was like to experience much of life through the mediating effects of a screen. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine how anything—a dead gorilla, a gas chamber, a presidential election, a moral principle—could start to seem like just another thing on the internet.”

 

The interesting thing about the book is the way Marantz interweaves his encounters with right-wingers using the internet to further their aims and the technocrats who use the internet to further their fortunes. “What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naïveté and reckless technoutopianism, built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities, and how a motley cadre of edgelords, motivated by bigotry and bad faith and nihilism, exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.”

 

One person he encountered in both worlds. Peter Thiel is a billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He is a co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies and Founders Fund. Thiel was Facebook’s first outside investor when he acquired a 10.2% stake for $500,000 in August 2004. He sold the majority of his shares in Facebook for over $1 billion in 2012, but is still on the board of directors. Thiel mixes with fascists and also supports Trump. “Why would a capitalist grandee, the cofounder of PayPal and one of the most revered investors in the country, risk tarnishing his reputation by mixing publicly with pariahs?”

 

After the 2016 election, Marantz was in the lobby of the Trump Hotel in Washington He sees “tatted-up Proud Boys” (middle-class young men in Fred Perry shirts who go looking for trouble at left-wing rallies), “notorious 4chan shitlords who seemed flummoxed by the mechanics of face-to-face conversation”.

 

A term used in the book is Overton window. This means the range of socially acceptable opinion, which can shift over time. Social media has extended the opportunities to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable. “Some norms—such as welcoming the stranger, or respecting the dignity of women, or resisting the urge to punch random pedestrians in the face—really are worth preserving.”

 

Some critics have a problem with the problem Marantz has with freedom of speech. J Oliver Conroy feels Marantz is too nostalgic for the days of old media, when journalists were relied upon to be the gatekeepers but failed in that mission in relation to Vietnam and Iraq. “What if our media gatekeepers – overwhelmingly white, coastal, secular, educated at a handful of elite universities and only 7% Republican – suffer from profound myopias and bias?”   Marantz has doubts about unfettered freedom of speech. “When it comes to core matters of principle, though, it’s not always possible to be both evenhanded and honest. The plain fact was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, at least by implication, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” When it comes to racism and misogyny: “To treat these as legitimate topics of debate is to be not neutral but complicit.”

 

The people Marantz encounters would never have got employment in the old media but social media enables them to spread their poison. They “espoused opinions that were so politically retrograde, so morally repugnant, or so self-evidently deceitful that no reputable news organization would ever hire them. And yet, in the twenty-first century, they didn’t need traditional jobs. Instead, they could mobilize and monetize a following on social media.”

 

Marantz quotes the philosopher Richard Rorty who warned back in 1994 of the gains which could be lost. I quoted Rorty myself in these pages in 2017. Rorty wrote in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” It is not elitist to want to retain the gains that were made; it is not PC to mourn the loss of civility that Trump and the worst excesses of social media embody.

Marantz concludes: “The Constitution guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech; it does not guarantee anyone’s right to threaten strangers in the public square, or to shout obscenities on TV, or to use a social media platform to agitate for the physical removal of your fellow citizens, or to promote racist ideas without being made to feel like a racist.”

 

 

 

 

Hate Speech and Free Speech

This article appeared on page 7 of Ceylon Today on Tuesday April 28 2015.

 Colman's Column3

I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope. Julie Burchill on calls to ‘silence’ Katie Hopkins.

 

Hate Speech Law for Sri Lanka

Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne announced that the government plans to revise the Penal Code to make hate speech a crime a crime punishable by a two -year prison term. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) had asserted that hate speech had exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions in Sri Lanka.

Rwanda Example

Kigali, capital of Rwanda is the safest city in Africa today. Twenty years after the genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, Rwanda has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous nation.

In Rwanda in June 1983, a new radio station called RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines) began broadcasting. Drunken presenters found a large receptive audience of resentful thugs. David Yanagizawa-Drott, a Harvard political scientist, estimates that nine percent of the deaths in the genocide, forty-five thousand Tutsis, can be attributed to incitement by Radio RTLM.

Today, journalists criticising the Rwanda government can be prosecuted for defamation. The law prohibits political parties from appealing to group identity, and public statements promoting “divisionism” are forbidden. President Kagame argued that some Westerners define “human rights” too narrowly, defending rights of personal expression while underestimating the importance of stability.

Sri Lankans Hating on Facebook

According to a report by the CPA (Centre for Policy Alternatives), hate speech is a particular problem on the internet and a particular problem in Sri Lanka. The CPA report says that out of a population of 21 million, there are more than 2.3 million users of social media, the majority of them male. Social media provide ”low risk, low cost and high impact online spaces to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted us the license of anonymity and trolls operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable- as Kathryn Schultz puts it:  “like gods and despots, beyond the reach of custom, obligation, and law.”

The CPA report only studies Facebook. One could argue that the CPA’s own website, Groundviews, and its rival Colombo Telegraph, also provide space “to spread hate, harm and hurt against specific communities, individuals or ideas”.

The Offensive Katie Hopkins

Most Sri Lankans will be fortunate in that they have never heard of, or, even luckier, never heard, Katie Hopkins. Masochists among you might wish to look at YouTube to get a flavour. Hopkins first appeared on UK television as a contestant on the reality television programme The Apprentice in 2007. She now writes a column for British “newspaper” the Sun.  She describes herself as a “conduit for truth”. Critics accuse her of expressing controversial opinions to make money.

On 17 April 2015, Hopkins wrote that migrants were “cockroaches”. This appeared in the same week that 400 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean and more than 10,000 were rescued.

An online petition to ban Hopkins from television accumulated over 75,000 signatures. By 21 April, a petition calling on the Sun to sack Hopkins attracted 250,000 signatures.

I note that the CPA report was based solely on research done into Facebook. There has been a lot of noise on Facebook about Hopkins. Julie Burchill is a celebrated polemicist and quite practised at giving offence (and taking it without flinching). Burchill detests Hopkins, her views and unprofessional mode of expressing them. However, she would not want Hopkins to be silenced. “I’m of the opinion that we fought too hard for freedom of speech to have a wrong ‘un like this define the terms of it – one day you’re censoring people who offend you, the next you are being censored by people you offend – it’s a slippery slope”.

No Right not to Be Offended

 

Josie Appleton, a free-speech campaigner, argues that: “Hate speech regulation curtails the moment of ideological conflict, when no crime has been committed. In this, the state appears to be defending the victim. But it is actually defending itself, as the mediator and moderator of public debate, and the judge of what is and is not acceptable.” She describes many frivolous and harmful prosecutions in the UK. We must have the right to offend. No one has the right to be protected from being offended.

 

I am offended when Colombo Telegraph allows someone to call me “a paedophile tourist“.  However, I am inclined to think that the person saying that is just an inadequate boy who feels tough like Gyges hiding behind a pseudonym. I wonder if he would say that to my face. My shoulders are broad and I would not like Uvindu Kurukulusuriya to go to jail for that kind of infantile nonsense.

 

Who Decides?

British journalist Paul Harris offended Anton Balasingham and was punished by being deported from Sri Lanka. Harris gives his own account in his book Delightfully Imperfect published by Vijitha Yapa. Harris wrote in the London Daily Telegraph about flaws in the peace process and called Karuna a “bad egg” and Thamil Chelvan a “rotter”. He called Prabhakaran “Chief Genial Fatty”. It was this irreverent stuff as much as accounts of child conscription and fascist rallies that angered the LTTE. Harris recalls meeting the current prime minister at a Galidari function when Ranil pointedly refused to shake his hand.  The newspaper Nawa Pereliya said that “international arms dealers” were paying Harris’s accommodation bills. That same Rajitha Senaratne who announced the new hate speech law owned Nawa Pereliya. Can we trust people like this to be the mediators and moderators of public debate?

For and Against

 

In his 2007 book, Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: a Biography of the First Amendment, Antony Lewis warns the reader against the potential for governments to suppress freedom of speech in times of fear. Jeremy Waldron, professor of social and political theory at Oxford University, was critical of Lewis’s stance on hate speech. Waldron argues the need for a public climate of mutual respect and tolerance. Waldron believes that it is sometimes necessary to use the law to curtail freedom of speech if speech infringes on the freedom of another.

 

What to Do?

 

Sanjana Hattotuwa writes: “Civility, tolerance and respect for diversity are as hard to find online as they are in Sri Lanka’s mainstream party political framework even post-war.” Incivility, intolerance and venomous hatred are easy to find on Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph.  The comment threads are choked with pseudonymous hate-mongers.  Hattotuwa writes: “It would be a tragedy if the country’s only remaining spaces to ideate, critical (sic) reflect and robustly debate – which are online – are taken over by hate-mongers, to the extent they are allowed to do so in the real world”.

 

Do Groundviews and Colombo Telegraph create the “climate of mutual respect and tolerance” that Waldron desires? Rather than hypocritically neglecting to put its own house in order, CPA could avoid incitement to racial hatred. I recall that, on July 19 2013, during the halal controversy, Groundviews (in an article by no named author)  tried to make something out of a non-issue relating to the brand name on a packet of dates. This could have exacerbated  tensions.

 

Without resorting to law, most publications and websites can use their editorial powers to reduce hatred.  Groundviews tells potential contributors: “Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved. Comments that seek to inflame tensions on the ground, or are of a defamatory nature, will not be approved, or will be taken off the website as soon as possible.” It is not self-censorship to enforce your own sensible rules.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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