Insulting Islam

I came to know of Uthman Badar recently via the news that his talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, titled “Honour Killings are Justified”, had been called off. It’s certainly a provocative title. My instinct was not to take it at face value, and Badar himself said it would be “ludicrous”, but it’s difficult to make an assessment of a talk that never happened.

Since information is scant on that topic, I’d like to address something else Badar has raised in this article (in a publication called 5Pillarz, which describes itself as “an opinion and analysis-based website which concentrates on British Muslim news but also looks to the wider Islamic world”).

I’ll start at the end, where Badar finally says:

Hence all beliefs and sanctities should be protected from insult, including that which is most sacred to billions around the world: God and His Prophets, peace be upon them all. This should be done, in our present context, by the elevation of values, not imposition of law. You can’t regulate civility. You can’t force people to be respectful. This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

(My emphasis.)

Badar would have done well to say this up-front. Up until those final sentences, you get the distinct impression that he is talking about the imposition of a blaspheme law, or something like it.

After all, he spends a fair bit of time tearing down the notion of free speech; indeed, the piece is titled “Free speech is a liberal tool of power”. Badar does make a some reasonable points when he argues against the notion of an absolute right to free speech. Many of us are quite open to being persuaded, in particular situations, that free speech is absolute. It clearly isn’t, though, and there are many times where, for good reason, we simply cannot (or should not) say whatever we please. All of us know this, at some level, but we do not always remember it.

I agree with much of what he says, but his free speech argument doesn’t really support his broader point about the protection of belief from insult. It looks like it does, on the surface, but it’s a subtle non-sequitur. By “protection” Badar means something other than by means of the law. But free speech is fundamentally a legal notion. It implies that we have (at least some) legal protection, not necessarily moral virtue, when we choose to say something controversial. Libertarian defenders of free speech are often happy to concede the moral argument entirely (focusing instead on what they conceive to be a higher principle — individual rights).

The upshot is that free speech is the apples to Badar’s oranges. Badar’s argument that we should encourage (not enforce) civility by the “elevation of values” does not require a step back from free speech. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the legal protection of free speech at all, either in theory or practice. (Some people, particularly committed ideologues, do often mistake criticism of their ideas for an attempt to silence them, but we need not give their complaints credibility.)

Putting the free speech issue aside, Badar also runs into trouble when he tries to distinguish between “insult” and “critique”:

When it comes to critique – as opposed to insult – I’d say, bring it on. Any attempt to quash or stifle serious debate is unacceptable in Islam. Critique of any ideas or beliefs is kosher. It’s halal. Insulting any beliefs or people is not. Critique Islam all you want. Write in measured, considered tones about why Islam is not the truth, or why the Prophet was not a prophet. Such books fill bookstores across the West as it is. Never have any of these books resulted in a riot. But to mock, to denigrate, to provoke, to agitate – that is something else, and is unacceptable.

A very fine line indeed, you might think. Badar tries to make it concrete by praising “critique” and damning “insult” in the strongest terms he can, but that’s emotional reasoning, and doesn’t actually serve to distinguish the two very well.

The real problem here is that the magnitude of the disagreement between religious groups, or the religious and non-religious, is so large that speaking honestly, openly and concisely about what you think of someone else’s beliefs is almost inherently mocking, denigrating and provocative. A debate? What “debate” would you have with someone who sincerely believes that the sky is green, or that we’re inhabited by ghosts who came from a volcano blown up by an ancient extraterrestrial? Your inner voice is not weighing up the evidence and formulating critiques. It’s saying “WTF?! Okay, just smile and nod. Smile and nod”.

Sure, we can, in theory, sit down for a few months (or even years) to meticulously explain in a weighty treatise where some belief system went wrong. “Never have any of these books resulted in a riot”, Badar claims, for those books that address Islam. I don’t actually know if this is true, but there is a logic to it — the longer and more detailed the explanation, the more opportunity the writer has to demonstrate (or fail to demonstrate) that they operate from a position of intellectual rigour and not malice. But writing books is a pretty high bar to set. A little forethought is always a good thing, but I don’t think one should be asked to refrain from commenting on a contentious issue unless or until one has devoted months of one’s life to researching and expounding the topic. This would just create a kind of intellectual aristocracy that shuts out most people.

Of course, we can be diplomatic and simply not point out how absurd we find the claims of (other) religions. For the purposes of maintaining harmonious relationships across belief systems, such discretion is necessary much of the time. But we must also be seekers of truth. Falsehoods have real consequences (see Iraqi WMDs, doomsday cults, vaccine denial, climate change denial, etc.), and we cannot always sit idly by while people are lured into believing something we know to be false. We know people are hurt by having their beliefs questioned, especially if those beliefs are held as dearly as religion often demands. But the same people, or others, or the wider community, can often be hurt even more if those beliefs are left unchallenged.

And so we must at least occasionally speak up, not because “it’s a free country” (as if there was any logic to that), but because we’re sincerely trying to do the right thing. I don’t excuse the trolls whose motivation actually is to upset people by mocking their beliefs. If Badar is only talking about genuine trolls, then so much the better. But removing the trolls will not stop people taking offence at the comments of others; the problem is more complicated than that.

I’ll address other aspect of Badar’s article: his take on “secular liberalism”, which comes off as a little defensive:

But, let’s be honest, the reason this debate over the freedom to insult others is still a live one is because secular liberalism has dominated both East and West, not by the strength of its values, but by the strength of its militaries.

I won’t deny that the military might of the West (and others) has won it great power over the rest of the world. But are we really blaming liberalism for that? Liberalism is just one part of the political spectrum, not a banner under which Western armies march. Consider the internal politics of a country going to war — the nationalistic fervour, the secrecy, the paranoia over enemy propaganda and enemy infiltration. This is not liberalism, nor is it secularism. It was not liberalism nor secularism that advocated for the US invasion of Iraq, nor the Russian war in Chechnya. Liberals in the west are constantly being criticised by conservatives for being too weak to confront Islam, a charge to which they respond (broadly speaking) by calling for peace.

If there is peace to be made between the Western and Muslim worlds, secular liberalism will be a vital ingredient. The whole point of secularism is the peaceful coexistence of different belief systems. Where the word is co-opted to mean something else, this (I think) usually means the speaker feels threatened by such a heterogeneous society. For instance:

This is about elevating the human condition -reviving the sacred and the most basic value of human decency, which has been eroded by secular liberalism in the most hideous of ways.

There is also a certain level of hypocrisy in railing against insult while simultaneously levelling accusations of “hideous” erosion of “the sacred and the most basic value of human decency” at one’s opponents. Surely, if beliefs are sacred, then secular liberalism is entitled to the same basic level of respect as Islam.

Besides, the above statement is simply wrong, and demonstrably so. Consider the changes in Western society over the last fifty or so years. Erosion of human decency? What about the advancement of women’s rights, gay rights and the rights of (at least some) racial and religious minorities? What about the advancement of medicine and health care and the de-stigmatisation and management of mental illness and disability? None of these are fixed problems, of course, but you can’t easily deny that there’s been progress. Are these things not elevating the human condition?

Badar is thinking of Western militarism, and (though he doesn’t say it) he could also be thinking of the widening wealth gap between rich and poor, both of which are arguably erosions of human decency. I’m not sure that Western militarism has any particular philosophical basis, other than the basic tribal instinct to be as big and powerful as you can. You might legitimately blame the wealth gap on economic liberalism — the philosophy of small government. Economic liberalism has tended to ally itself politically to religious hardliners, who are opposed to liberalism in the secular/social sense.

While Badar is right about the limitations of free speech, and right about the importance of civility, he seems bent on hitting the wrong target. But then, the same thing happens when the ABC’s Scott Stephens writes about the perils of the faltering influence of Christianity. The ills of the world are arrayed before us and, whatever they are, we can be sure that it’s the damned secularists wot dun it. The varied religions of the world are getting quite good at this, and it serves their purposes (at least temporarily) to have an adversary who won’t get righteously outraged at being insulted.

It’s not even really secularism that they spurn (because, as mentioned above, secularism is merely peaceful coexistence among religions). Their true adversary is the absence of religion, including atheism and agnosticism, but also apatheism — a category for those who essentially don’t care. Defenders of religion devote so much of their human compassion, morality and civility to their cause that they conflate these qualities with their religion, and they forget, I think, that the same qualities exist outside of religion too.

Don’t mock George Brandis

He’s trying to be intellectual.

In fact, today’s xkcd comic about free speech is delightfully well-timed, considering yesterday’s remarks by George Brandis about free speech in an online magazine called Spiked.

The magazine quotes Brandis as follows:

He isn’t a climate-change denier; he says he was ‘on the side of those who believed in anthropogenic global warming and who believed something ought to be done about it’. But he has nonetheless found himself ‘really shocked by the sheer authoritarianism of those who would have excluded from the debate the point of view of people who were climate-change deniers’. He describes as ‘deplorable’ the way climate change has become a gospel truth that you deny or mock at your peril, ‘where one side [has] the orthodoxy on its side and delegitimises the views of those who disagree, rather than engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong’.

Quite so, George! It’s deplorable that we’re arresting climate change deniers, gaoling them after secret trials, banning their books, preventing newspapers and TV stations from repeating their claims, and…

Oh wait, sorry, that’s what isn’t happening. It’s confusing, isn’t it?

What’s more confusing is that, while George has identified authoritarianism as the problem, he himself is the Attorney General. I don’t know if you quite understand how authoritarianism works, George, but it usually involves the government, or at least whoever is in control of the military. Is your government in control of the Australian Defence Force, George? I know this isn’t your portfolio, but perhaps you could quickly reassure us that someone else isn’t in control of the military.

And having made said reassurance, perhaps you could then explain how a bunch of scientists and activists can, without military force, engage in “authoritarianism”. Unless said scientists have developed some sort of mind-control weapon with those mysterious fountains of grant money they (apparently) keep swimming around in.

Oh, but I think I see the source of the confusion. You see, it’s not that deniers are being prevented from speaking. Indeed, they are some of the most outspoken people in the world. Rather, it’s that gangs of merciless intellectuals are refusing to take the deniers seriously. Now that is a deplorable violation of human rights if ever there was one. The deniers’ views are being delegitimised, George says. I mean, nobody has even contemplated “engaging with them intellectually and showing them why they are wrong”.

Except, now that I think about it, everyone. It’s a fine line, I suppose. I mean, it’s easy to mistake intellectual engagement for authoritarianism when your arguments are repeatedly shown to be an exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger effect. I say “repeatedly”, because no denier argument, however frequently refuted, ever just goes quietly into the night.

Of course, there is the outside chance, as deniers endlessly regurgitate long-refuted arguments and complain that nobody has “engaged” with them, that some of us may tune out.

Sorry George, I know I shouldn’t be “authoritarian”, but sometimes, when I’ve had a long day, it’s difficult to accord due respect and deference to bullshit, even yours.

Help! Help! I’m being regulated

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation by Ray Finkelstein (which I shall henceforth refer to as RIIMMR, more enthusiastically had it come in holographic form) was released about 3 weeks ago1.

One of its more interesting recommendations appeared to be that blog sites having 15,000 hits per year or more would fall under the jurisdiction of the hypothetical News Media Council. This has a personal interest for me, because Dave’s Archives would be caught in this net (along with, I imagine, thousands of other small blogs). The NMC does not yet exist, but according to RIIMMR it would:

…set journalistic standards for the news media in consultation with the industry, and handle complaints made by the public when those standards are breached.

Now, the Internet, having largely been a bastion of libertarianism ever since its inception, tends to Really Hate this sort of thing. Libertarians tend to rally against any sort of regulation, no matter what context it may occur in.

To be fair to them, 15,000 hits is a very low threshold indeed, and doesn’t sound particularly workable. To be fair to RIIMMR, however, that’s not quite the whole story. The actual text says this (paragraph 11.67):

There are practical reasons for excluding from the definition of ‘news media’ publishers who do not have a sufficiently large audience. If a publisher distributes more than 3000 copies of print per issue or a news internet site has a minimum of 15 000 hits per annum it should be subject to the jurisdiction of the News Media Council, but not otherwise. These numbers are arbitrary, but a line must be drawn somewhere.

The implications of that last sentence (my emphasis) are rather missing from the analysis so far (as far as I can tell). Although clumsily-worded and with insufficient consideration, RIIMMR is clearly not proposing a threshold of 15,000 hits; that figure is merely an example. To compare, 3,000 copies per issue for a weekly print publication would come to 156,000 physical copies per year (and each of those is much more substantial unit of exposure than a mere “hit”). It is unlikely the authors intended these numbers to be taken seriously at all. They are are plainly leaving any deliberation on the actual criteria to whoever comes next.

I fancy I can hear the echoes of the aftermath of the Andrew Bolt racial discrimination case. Then, so much of the edifice of our democracy seemed to hinge, for reasons unknown, on Bolt’s inalienable right to launch vicious, unprincipled and unprovoked attacks in a major newspaper on a group of perfectly respectable individuals. All our freedoms were at risk, it seemed, when it turned out that Bolt had to pay the ultimate penalty: a public apology for being an arseclown.

So, without jumping to conclusions, let’s just sit back for a moment and work through the issue.

My first major criticism is that RIIMMR does not appear to establish any solid, explicit reason for extending the regulatory process to blogs. Perhaps the case could be made, but RIIMMR does not really make it; blogs seem somewhat incidental to the main focus. RIIMMR does point out (paragraphs 5.106-5.110) that “defamation is not an effective check on journalistic excesses” due to long delays, costs, and complexities, but this is an argument for overall media regulation in general. RIIMMR also points out (paragraph 4.17) that people don’t trust blogs nearly as much as news sites anyway. Presumably, then, issuing corrections on blogs is not quite as crucial as for professional news organisations. I also personally hold hopes that, in the long run, projects like Hypothes.is will succeed. If they do, they may prove more workable than any government-backed media regulator.

Nonetheless, let’s say for the sake of the argument that we do have a good reason to regulate blogs. What practical problems, if any, might there be with regulating blog sites in the manner proposed by RIIMMR?

To keep things in perspective, we’re not talking about punitive measures to silence dissent for political ends. The News Media Council would be government-funded, but otherwise independent2. Its powers would be as follows (paragraph 11.74):

  • To require publication of a correction.
  • To require withdrawal of a particular article from continued publication (via the internet or otherwise).
  • To require a media outlet to publish a reply by a complainant or other relevant person.
  • To require publication of the News Media Council’s decision or determination;
  • To direct when and where publications should appear.

And the NMC would not be able to fine you (paragraph 11.76).

There should be no power to impose fines or award compensation. Powers of this kind are likely to involve constitutional difficulties. In any event, inevitably they will make the complaints-handling process more complex and time-consuming. One of the main advantages of the proposed News Media Council will be lost. The incentive to resolve a complaint quickly will also be lost.

The proposed remedies do not strike me as inherently Orwellian in themselves. They are not punishments. It would not be especially difficult for anyone running a WordPress blog (like this one), for instance, to perform any of the actions mentioned.

That said, there are practical problems to overcome in administration. How would the NMC actually contact a blogger? Owners of small sites often do not list any contact details on the site itself suitable for official/legal correspondence. If the blogger holds a .au domain name, the details are there for the taking from the domain name registrar. Web hosting companies within Australia could also probably be compelled to divulge a blogger’s postal address. However, any blog with a non-.au domain and hosted outside Australia is potentially beyond reach, even if all the content is Australian (whatever you consider that to mean) and the blogger lives and works in Australia. This is the case for any blog hosted at wordpress.com or other such sites providing ready-to-go blogs, and anything posted on most social media sites.

RIIMMR declares (in paragraph 11.69) that:

…if an internet news publisher has more than a tenuous connection with Australia then carefully drawn legislation could enable the News Media Council to exercise jurisdiction over it.

This seems rather optimistic. In reality, bloggers would need much more than a “tenuous” Australian connection to be subject to regulation, no matter how the legislation is written. (We’ve had similar arguments before, such as back in 2001 over our ability or lack thereof to ban child pornography on the Internet.)

A related problem occurs in trying to determine whether a blog is “big enough” to fall within NMC jurisdiction. If one criterion is a threshold number of hits per year, then the NMC first needs to acquire that data. Australian hosting companies might be forced to report it, but any foreign hosting company won’t have to. Thus, NMC jurisdiction will be impossible to determine in many cases. Where contact details are available, could the NMC compel an Australian blogger to reveal their own traffic statistics? That opens a whole other can of worms. What if a blogger doesn’t collect those statistics, or doesn’t know how to find them, or simply makes them up? And in any case, what if a potential complainant realises that they can cause a blog to be subject to media regulation simply by reloading the page a few thousand times (with or without a script)?

Nonetheless, suppose the NMC can contact bloggers as needed, and suppose we can resolve jurisdiction issues. Most bloggers write for free in their spare time, and many probably do not have the time or energy to comply with formal regulatory and legal processes. Many more may find the regulatory process intimidating, and overcompensate for the complaint received by ceasing to blog altogether. Further, if the regulatory process imposes hard deadlines on responses to complaints (as it would probably have to), casual bloggers might find themselves in legal hot water simply by forgetting to check their mail for a few days.

You could perhaps devise a more sophisticated set of criteria to distinguish between high-volume blogs that ought to be equipped to deal with complaints and smaller blogs that aren’t. I don’t know what this would look like, and it would require a great deal of thought.

There are also countermeasures that a small blog can take if the blogger is inconvenienced by or philosophically opposed to regulation. The simplest option is to move the site to an off-shore hosting company, to hide traffic statistics and contact details. This would only work as a pre-emptive measure, prior to the blog itself being brought to the attention of the NMC, before the NMC can acquire the details it needs.

But there is another, more dangerous consequence that may apply if the NMC attempts to exercise its power to “require withdrawal of a particular article from continued publication”. Censorship is a hot button issue for the online community. The interest generated by anything perceived to be censorship can lead to much wider dissemination of the material in question, and possibly active retaliation. I don’t agree with this mentality in many cases (because there are good reasons to not publish certain information that have nothing to do with manipulating the public), but we can’t ignore its existence. If the material in question is indeed something that is not in the public interest, then trying to have it removed might perversely cause more harm than good. Opponents of regulation may look to actively facilitate precisely this sort of event, and so any small-time blogger may be capable of triggering a privacy/defamation nightmare.

This perhaps isn’t a problem where large organisations are concerned, because people are naturally less sympathetic towards them. We are used to the idea that they should be held to account. However, the NMC ought to be extremely cautious when wielding that particular power where bloggers are concerned. Its other powers (e.g. to “require publication of a correction”), while perhaps still not greatly appreciated by the blogger, might avoid the same level of discontent and retaliation.

You might think, if you agree with me so far, that I’ve raised enough problems to comprehensively damn the notion of regulating blogs. However, I’m reluctant to say it can’t be done, given enough forethought. I don’t think I would suffer for it, in principle.

Yet, the notion of regulating online articles may be overtaken by other events, described in my previous post. If Hypothes.is can produce a working prototype — a peer review system for the Internet — and if it can attract a critical mass of users, then the News Media Council may be obsolete.

  1. I’m a bit late to the party, but the wheels of government do turn rather slowly. []
  2. Cynicism and paranoia notwithstanding, there are various existing government-funded institutions in Australia that aptly and routinely demonstrate their independence from the political considerations of the government. []

Non-consensual wisdom

Previously, Shane Greenup brought to my attention two very interesting software projects, with somewhat similar goals: his own rbutr (currently in beta testing), and Dan Whaley’s Hypothes.is (currently being planned and prototyped).

Rbutr (pronounced “rebutter”) allows its user base to link together web pages that rebut one another. These links eventually form conversation chains and webs that may span any number of websites, without needing or seeking the consent of the website owners. I, as a blogger, would have no control (or, at least, no veto) over rbutr links connecting my blog posts to someone else’s refutation of them, but these links would be available for any reader (who uses rbutr) to see and follow.

Hypothes.is has the even more ambitious goal of providing an “annotation layer” for the Internet. Any arbitrary passage of text (as well as other media types, including images, video and audio) within any web page may be adorned with a critical remark, visible to anyone else using the software, again without the consent of the web site owner. It aims to be a fine-grained peer-review system for, well, everything.

The minds behind Hypothes.is are open about the fact that others have tried and failed (to varying extents) in the goal of creating a “web annotator”. However, they seem very determined to identify and learn from past mistakes. Perhaps the most important of these has been the lack of quality control in creating annotations. In a previous post I mentioned a similar project called Dispute Finder. I now gather that Dispute Finder’s database itself may have been overrun by misinformation. As one article explains:

Third, and most critical in my thinking, there will be [in Hypothes.is] an extensive reputation system to qualify and rank comments based on the expertise of the commenter. The lack of this was part of what doomed an earlier project called Dispute Finder. I thought for a while that it would evolve into the tool skeptics needed, but very quickly the data in that tool was awash in conspiracy theories and other nonsense, with no way provided to sort by quality.

Hypothes.is is bringing together a pool of experts to determine how to create a “reputation model” to prevent this sort of thing from happening again. After all, Wikipedia seems to manage commendably well to resist incursions from interest groups1. Even the Slashdot moderation system seems to successfully raise up interesting and insightful comments at the expense of mundane and simplistic ones. I feel that our collective intelligence, though sometimes disorganised, is often under-appreciated.

Projects like this might prove an attractive middle road between (a) the Internet as a anarchic incubator of (mis-)information, and (b) the Internet as an oppressively-sanitised, centrally-regulated newspaper. Join the dots, for instance, between Hypothes.is and the current debate over media regulation in Australia. Libertarian-minded newspapers and bloggers take furious offence to any suggestion that their activities should be overseen by The Government.

It would be hard to mount quite the same argument, with quite the same emotive imagery, against Hypothes.is or rbutr. While non-consensual, there is certainly no coercion involved — no fines, no censorship, no forced apologies, etc. There is nothing here that need be sanctioned by those in power. The system operates on a purely informative level. Affected websites are not required to do anything, and nobody is required to use the system in the first place. Such systems can only succeed if people choose to use them. That (presumably) will only happen as long as they meet a socially/psychologically acceptable level of reasonableness and transparency.

But neither is Hypothes.is or rbutr a “toothless tiger”. It would surely be a blow to authors’ and editors’ egos and credibility to have third-party corrections publicly scribbled over their otherwise majestic prose. They would have to contend with new, publicly-known metrics that assess aspects of their intellectual integrity, not just “hits” and the like that demonstrate their popularity. They would no longer enjoy the same flexibility with the truth, considering that their errors may be almost immediately visible. Any third-party annotations could easily become the most attention-grabbing parts of an article, destroying at a glance whatever the original (accidental or deliberate) misinformation may have been.

As a result, there would surely some backlash from tabloid newspapers and bloggers upon discovering that they no longer have absolute control over what their readers read when visiting their sites. They might even consider it a threat to their business model. Operators like Andrew Bolt certainly seem to make a career out of saying things that need to be corrected (while at the same time exhibiting extraordinary defensiveness).

If it works, Hypothes.is could initially make a lot of people very, very angry. There could be lawsuits — particularly of the defamation variety, I imagine — and that could be a problem for a non-profit organisation. But, if it gets that far, the idea of a peer-reviewed Internet has already won.

 

  1. That isn’t to say I’d rely on the quality of Wikipedia, necessarily. However, for a publicly-editable resource, it is curiously bereft of the kind of backhanded misinformation and puerile simplicity you find in many — even professional — online news articles or blog posts, and the outright lunacy you find in the comments section underneath (present company excepted, of course). []

Glossary of politics

I thought I’d iron out some common appropriations of English words and phrases as used by politicians and journalists. Let me know if you have any more suggestions.

accountability. 1. (n.) The state of being duly sniped at while virtuously refraining from voicing any counterargument that would draw attention to the ridiculousness of the snipes. 2. hold to account (v.) To uphold democracy by sniping at one’s opponents.

ban (v.) To voice an opinion that something is perhaps not entirely constructive. Examples include: (a) to suggest that Lord Monckton is not conducive to an informed debate on climate change, and (b) to suggest that junk food advertising during children’s TV programming is not conducive to public health. Also, fascism.

balance (n.) A journalistic ideal whereby truth and rationality are kept in check by things that aren’t true or rational.

come clean (v.) In response to an innocuous misunderstanding, to suddenly, unreservedly and inexplicably admit the most outlandishly horrible interpretation of events. This is entirely hypothetical but nonetheless widely anticipated, as shown by its most common usage, “When will _____ come clean on …?”. For instance, in response to the question, “When will the minister come clean on budget figures?”, said minister may choose to either truthfully describe the dry nuances of the budget, or “come clean” by spontaneously blurting out that tax revenue is being siphoned off for secret genetic experiments on pregnant mothers.

debate. 1. (n.) A choreographed joint press conference held by exactly two people who hate each other. 2. (in parliament) (v.) To toe the line by reiterating talking points, after all decision making has concluded.

democracy (n.) A system of government in which the protagonist wins.

free speech (n.) The right of the media to report in an unrestricted fashion anything that is misleading, voyeuristic, harmful to powerless individuals, or demonstrably false.

hypocrisy (n.) An assumed failure to adhere to someone else’s distorted interpretation of one’s own principles. Hence, a hypocrite is a person who has principles that are possible to misinterpret.

mandate (n.) An obligation of government to behave according to whoever is talking.

message1. (n.) A narrative invented by politicians to alleviate journalists from their own jobs. 2send a message (v.) To commit an act of extraordinary and disproportionate stupidity in the blind hope that others will back off.

not rich (adj.) Having a second percentile income (excluding those who can’t work or can’t find work).

political correctness (n.) A diffuse, pathological quality of all progressive social movements that utterly devastates the lives of the well-off.

public interest (n.) The set of things that people will pay money for despite their better judgement. Hence, the sexual activities of famous people are in the public interest, whereas information on their public responsibilities is not.

tax (n.) Anything complicated done by the government that involves money. Hence, poker machines involve money, so any government policy concerning poker machines is a tax.

values (n.) A set of unspecified attributes we possess that makes us better than everyone else. Hence, a “values”-based electoral campaign is one in which voters are simply reminded of how wonderfully amazing they are.

win (in a debate) (v.) To voice arguments with which the speaker broadly agrees.

Unhinging the Bolt

I’m going to contradict myself on Andrew Bolt. In a previous post, I defended Bolt’s right to free speech, as have so many others, in the face of his court case. At the time, my esteemed nemesis, the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist, came to a different view. Since the judgement, I find myself changing my mind, and I feel I ought to say something.

David Marr eloquently describes just how low Bolt actually sank, and also gives this important context:

The nine [who took Bolt to court] chose not to sue. They did not want damages but a public correction and a promise not to print such stuff again. So they brought an action under the Racial Discrimination Act, which has embedded in it a strong freedom-of-speech defence: insulting or humiliating people because of their race or colour is not unlawful when it is done “reasonably and in good faith” in pursuit of a matter of public interest.

Jonathan Holmes maintains that this is nonetheless about free speech, and discusses the relevant sections from the Act: 18C and 18D. Section 18C describes the kinds of behaviours considered racially intolerant and thus unlawful. Section 18D overrides it, making allowances for (basically) anything done, as Marr quotes, “reasonably and in good faith”.

Holmes is concerned that Justice Bromberg has set the bar too high, making 18D essentially useless:

[Justice Bromberg] specifically mentions, not just the wrong facts, but “the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides.”

In other words, if you want the protection of section 18D of the act when writing about race in a way that’s likely to offend, you need to be polite, not derisive, calm and moderate rather than provocative and inflammatory, and you must eschew ‘gratuitous asides’.

If you did all that, of course, you’d be unlikely to offend anyone in the first place. So there doesn’t seem much point in section 18D. And you’d also struggle to express your view in a way that would attract readers in a popular newspaper.

But consider Justice Bromberg’s whole sentence (in paragraph 425):

The lack of care and diligence is demonstrated by the inclusion in the Newspaper Articles of the untruthful facts and the distortion of the truth which I have identified, together with the derisive tone, the provocative and inflammatory language and the inclusion of gratuitous asides. For those reasons I am positively satisfied that Mr Bolt’s conduct lacked objective good faith.

I have underlined the parts quoted directly by Holmes, and made bold certain parts not quoted. To my untrained, unqualified eye, Holmes is misreading the judgement. From my reading, Justice Bromberg is not suggesting that offensive language in itself renders 18D inapplicable; he is talking about offensive language in the context of untruths and distortions. The combination of those two is damning in a way that neither can be by itself. To me, it seems entirely possible that the protections of 18D could apply to anyone who (a) is wrong but avoids derision, provocation, etc. or conversely (b) is right but in a derisive, provocative, etc. manner.

Thus, I have no problem imagining, hypothetically, that Sections 18C and 18D might both apply. That is, someone may be insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated (18C) by material that is (a) wrong but politely worded, or (b) right but derisively worded (18D). (In fact, people can often be insulted and offended by things that are both correct and polite.)

I do have a great deal of respect for Holmes. Maybe I’m misreading the judgement and Holmes is correct. Even so — even if the Racial Discrimination Act is too broad and infringes genuine free speech — consider the consequences for those violating the act. As Malcolm Farnsworth points out, in an article delightfully named “Help, help, I’m being repressed“:

There is no penalty for Bolt.  Removal of two blog posts and an apology will satisfy Justice Bromberg. It’s slap on the wrist time, but the confected outrage has poured forth.

So what are we getting worked up over? Why should we fear this judgement, when the most onerous consequence of engaging in racially offensive speech is the requirement for an apology?

I think we’ve been programmed by contemporary political narratives to treat free speech as one of those places where, perversely, we stop thinking. We exhibit such conditioned deference to the term “free speech” that we consider it an absolute right. As a result, we have a tendency to focus on the most minute of infringements. It’s all-or-nothing, we assume. The pedants in all of us seek out the most trivial, technical, legalistic injustices. We then swing wildly into conspiracy theorist mode, and extrapolate this to the whole of human experience, imagining that tyrannical oppression is upon us.

Of course, free speech has never been an absolute right; not in the freest societies on Earth. We are constrained by myriad factors in what we can say, which makes worrying about technical infringements all the more ridiculous. Defamation law is the closest approximation to the Racial Discrimination Act, and we don’t blink when people are sanctioned for spreading malicious untruths to damage the reputations of others. As the Slightly Disgruntled Scientist puts it:

The difference is that defamation affects one person. Humiliation based specifically on sexuality, gender, ethnicity, or any other class of institutional marginalisation affects (a) the person targeted, and (b) any other member of such a group. Gay people still have to choose between publicly disclosing incredibly private information up front, or not running for any kind of publicly scrutinised office. Indigenous Australians now have to consider just whether their skin is dark enough to go for, say, an Aboriginal liason position, or risk being targeted by the likes of Bolt (who implicitly undermines the legitimacy of such positions, with the consequence of further marginalisation of a whole group of people).

Now, I do think that free speech is essentially about protecting our right to say things that others would prefer remained unsaid. Powerful political parties and interest groups do tend to find certain facts and opinions inconvenient, and have certain means of persuasion that need to be countered by legal protections. But it’s hard to find a justification for speech that is racially offensive and factually bogus and not in good faith. This sort of thing does not serve democracy at any level, and in fact causes real damage.

If Mr Bolt’s right to speak freely has been infringed, it is the most minor infringement imaginable. He has maliciously spread damaging untruths in publications read by millions of people, and been given a slap on the wrist.

No satire or ridicule please – this is parliament

I had not previously been aware that the rules of parliamentary broadcasting preclude “satire and ridicule”. Annabel Crabb raises the issue at the ABC, and reports that many politicians themselves are unaware of this.

First, prohibiting ridicule does seem a little redundant. One may well decree that there shalt be no ridicule, but it’s meaningless when the regular vacuum of sanity and cool-headedness in the chamber simply pulls in ridicule from all angles, irrespective of intent. An analogy might involve trying to bail water out of a ship that is not merely full of holes, but simply lacks a hull altogether. The attempt to prohibit ridicule is itself just a little ridiculous.

Satire, meanwhile, might actually make Question Time watchable at some level, without immediate risk of brain malfunction (see my previous Venn diagram). The provision against satire reminded me, of course, of the royal wedding, in which ABC2 and The Chaser were prevented from making the whole viewing experience worthwhile. More seriously, satire is essential for a healthy democracy. It is one of the most important forms of free speech, because, unlike political slogans, rhetoric and the like, it works with and gives force to nuance. It tears down idiocy mercilessly and reveals inconsistencies in public discourse that might otherwise be blunted by conventional narratives and sensibilities.

A satirical take on Question Time would not just be more entertaining than our current straight broadcasts, but ultimately even more important. It is important that we laugh at our leaders’ attempts at manipulating public opinion, because that’s our best shield against it.

However, there are conceivable technological workarounds for this sort of thing. A satirical broadcast could, in principle, be split into the original footage and some set of superimposed or overlaid video, audio and programmatic instructions for automatically combining them. These elements, when combined, could produce a seamless work of satire. However, imagine further that the actual combining is done by a piece of software on the viewer’s television, computer, etc., and that up until that point they are separate data streams, provided even by separate organisations.

Organisation A provides the original, unadulterated footage, while organisation B provides the satirical overlay. Organisation A cannot be held responsible because it has nothing to do with the satire. Organisation B cannot be held responsible because it isn’t broadcasting the footage. (None of this is especially novel, I suspect, though I haven’t really investigated.)

Maybe I’m missing some legal subtlety here. Maybe there’s still some arcane legal case against organisation B – I don’t know – but if the technological means fell into place (and it’s really just a matter of writing the software), I don’t immediately see how any legal avenue could plausibly stop it.

More Monckton hyperbole

Fresh from pontificating on the principles at stake in allowing Lord Christopher Monckton to receive the support of a university in his inane ramblings, I find myself unable to let go of the subject.

My comment on an article by Anson Cameron at The Drum didn’t apparently make it has now past moderation1. (That might seem like poetic justice, perhaps, given that the letter I supported was widely characterised as an attempt to deprive poor Monckton of his right to free speech. Except, of course, that I was trying to point out that the letter was no such thing, and that I myself support Monckton’s right to free speech.)

This post isn’t the comment in question (which was more of a condensed version of my last post).

Cameron is clearly not a fan of Monckton, and does an admirable job of listing the Lord’s many and varied acts of ignorance, dishonesty and outright madness. However, then comes this paragraph:

I implore the academy not to add Viscount Monckton to the long and distinguished list of the gagged and banned. He does not deserve to stand alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela, Darwin or Mick Jagger. If the Academy gags Lord Monckton it will reward  him with a wholly undeserved gravitas, and afford him the glow of the messiah among his flock. Censored by lefties and eggheads sponging off our tax dollar, the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity. The flock will be whispering of NATO, a world government, thought-control, and only fearless mavericks like the Viscount standing in the way of a global communist dystopia.

I’m not sure what Cameron thinks academia can possibly do to place Monckton in such a hallowed (and inexplicable) company. Academia is not the Burmese military junta; it does not have its own private army waiting to whisk away those who dissent. You might think I’m being a little patronising here, but really – stopping someone speaking at a university compares to locking them away for decades as a political prisoner? You don’t get to compare yourself to Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela just because you’ve been declared a fruitcake by a group of lecturers and researchers. That sounds rather too much like the Galileo Gambit. Cameron’s further mention of Mick Jagger sounds rather too much like taking the piss. You think academia is going to turn Monckton into a rock star? I’m not sure that’s how it normally works.

The next bit is also a bit of a giveaway: “the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity.” That’s logically impossible. How can anyone know what things Monckton would have said but didn’t? He would have said them regardless, of course, as Cameron no doubt realises. That means, of course, that Monckton was never in danger of being silenced – a fact that ought to be perfectly obvious, but nonetheless has been shoved aside in order to perpetuate the censorship narrative. Cameron’s concerns are also rather redundant, since Monckton’s words already have taken on grossly unwarranted profundity, through no fault of academia. It’s hard to see how his Lordship’s blatherings could be inflated further still (without sending those involved into a coma of self-righteousness).

Cameron goes on to conclude:

If a person can be banned from University for speaking ignorantly and superstitiously Jesus will have to set up his soapbox across the road from Notre Dame when he returns and shout through the chain-link fence with a bullhorn.

“Ban” is rather misleading here. Except in matters of criminal law, as I understand it, you cannot really be banned from a university (at least, not the kind of university I’m familiar with). Any member of the public is free to stroll across campus and even attend lectures. There just isn’t any chain-link fence to be self-righteous behind. The intent of the letter was simply to not give Monckton the podium at a university. Most people do not and will never have that privilege anyway, so it’s hardly a matter of fundamental rights. Monckton (or Jesus) can set up his own soap box, but he’ll look a lot less dignified gesticulating by the roadside than in a university lecture theatre.

Moreover, in spite of Monckton’s lecture going ahead as planned, I’ve heard barely a whisper of information on what was actually said. The whole event was essentially self-censored (it was invitation-only), irrespective of the letter itself. We ended up with the worst of both worlds: a quarantined lecture, and the symbolism of a university lending its podium to a raving self-promoter and purveyor of nonsense. Free speech indeed.

  1. I’m very slightly suspicious of the fact that only 18 comments did appear, when such controversial topics often seem to attract a hundred or more. Perhaps I’m being overly suspicious, though, and people really do have better things to do. The comment count suddenly jumped from 18 to 195, presumably thanks to some mind-bendingly tedious and thankless work by overwhelmed moderators. []

Poor persecuted Monckton

His Great and Wondrous Beneficence the Lord Christopher Monckton did, after all, give a lecture at Notre Dame University. Attempts (initiated by Natalie Latter) to dissuade Notre Dame from lending Monckton its credibility did not come to fruition, though drawing attention to his Lordship’s rank lunacy is always a small victory in itself.

As the letter puts it:

We all support academic freedom and the freedom to express our ideas and beliefs. However, Notre Dame University has a responsibility to avoid promoting discredited views on an issue of public risk. Notre Dame’s invitation to Lord Monckton makes a mockery of academic standards and the pursuit of evidence-based knowledge.

This has been laughably characterised as an attempt to “gag” Monckton (who has a minor obsession with characterising people as fascists and war criminals, suggesting for instance that climate scientists ought to stand trial for genocide). Does anyone honestly think that Monckton actually could have been gagged?

This call to preserve academic standards morphed (perhaps predictably) into a spurious fight for free speech. Tell me, dear reader: when was the last time you exercised your apparently fundamental democratic right to give a public lecture at a university?1 Do you believe that you have that right; that a university has a duty to invite you to give a lecture if you see fit to give one? Why should Monckton be afforded this privilege, when clearly “ordinary” members of the public are not?

Some, such as Professor Chris Doepel at Notre Dame, argue that all points of view must be heard. This is the refrain we hear from creationists asking that “Intelligent Design” be taught in schools. It’s a convenient rhetorical tool for engineering doubt. The consensus of virtually all the relevant experts, arrived at by considering the entire gamut of objective data collection and analysis conducted over decades, is made to look like only one set of opinions, rivaled by another set of opinions formed simply by making things up. Doepel makes the following self-refuting remark:

The university does not take a view one way or the other on the positions advocated by Christopher Monckton.

But that is a position on Monckton. An individual person might legitimately claim not to know enough to form an opinion2, but it beggars belief that a university – a place wherein truth is uncovered and disseminated – would have formed no position on one of the most outspoken and controversial figures of our time. A refusal to condemn Monckton’s views, for an institution that cannot possibly claim ignorance of what he stands for, is effectively an endorsement of those views. We certainly know where Notre Dame stands on legitimate climate research and climate action, then.

Others (such as the Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt) believe we should just let Monckton speak, and take the time to refute his claims. But this is to accept the false dichotomy that either he be allowed to speak wherever he likes, at any institution, or we tie him up in the basement. Monckton was clearly never in any danger of actually being silenced, not even if Notre Dame had heeded the call to preserve its academic integrity. Universities have credibility in the first place precisely because they discriminate between views supported by evidence and views not so supported (the same as scientific journals, and the scientific process in general). One can delude oneself into thinking that this is somehow undemocratic, but then reality isn’t democratic. At some point, for the sake of advancing the human cause, we must stand up and pass judgement; not on each other, but on our ideas. Science, technology, economics, etc. are not served simply by sitting and listening politely and “fairly” to endless regurgitations of refuted arguments. We have the media and the Internet for that; universities should know better.

Some believe we should just ignore Monckton. However, the man is steering the public debate in ways that are fundamentally detrimental to the prospects for sensible policy making. We cannot just ignore him. Academic institutional credibility aside, he already has all the media coverage anyone could dream of. This isn’t the result of some PR folly by his critics, but rather his oratory skills and the cozy hardline ideological relationship he has with some very loud and obnoxious media personalities.

It is incumbent upon academics to preserve the integrity of their institutions, and to confront misinformation that threatens to derail rational decision making. Free speech is a right, no doubt, but credibility must be earned.

  1. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that you have indeed given a public lecture at a university, but I think you’ll agree that it’s not exactly a right. []
  2. I sometimes admire those willing to admit ignorance rather than pick whichever view “feels” better. []

Enforcing enlightenment

I agree wholeheartedly with Jonathan Holmes’ article (and his April 4 episode of Media Watch) on Andrew Bolt. There are probably a few essays now floating around expressing a similar sentiment on Bolt’s run-in with the Racial Discrimination Act.

Australia doesn’t have an institutionalised right to free speech (except political speech, as narrowly implied by the electoral provisions of our constitution). However, there is near universal agreement that free speech is a fundamental right. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, in part:

The advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.

Most of us do acknowledge that speech cannot be completely free. There are privacy rights to consider. There are libel and defamation laws that offer a defence against malicious untruths. There are also security, diplomatic and intellectual property issues that require a degree of secrecy.

Most of us also abhor racially-motivated hate speech. I can support laws against incitement to commit acts of violence or discrimination (e.g. Section 17 of the Racial Discrimination Act), because (though I’m not a lawyer) that offence seems fairly easy to define and has an immediate impact on the safety and opportunities of others. Not so the consequences of speech that is merely “offensive, insulting, humiliating or intimidating”, as outlawed in Section 18C. Those criteria are more than enough to publicly condemn the speaker, but not nearly enough to deserve legal proceedings.

The kinds of acts being outlawed in Section 18C might be vicious, cruel, and stupifyingly inane, but they are not defamation and not incitement, and nobody’s safety or opportunities are compromised by them. Most of us (I hope) would loosely agree that things should be legal unless there is a compelling case to make them otherwise, and I simply don’t believe that case has been made here. The law is not a scalpel we can use to extract cancerous thought – it is a blunt instrument to help prevent tangible wrongdoing.

Andrew Bolt is a true test of our commitment to free speech, because he says almost nothing of value. Any reasonable person would deride almost everything he stands for. His sneers at people of other races and cultures, at the scientific and academic establishment, at anyone else tenuously associated with “the Left”, are worthy of nothing but pity and derision. If he were to engage in defamation or incitement, throw the book at him by all means, but otherwise leave him to his deranged ramblings.

In the general case, Section 18C has clearly not been enforced with much conviction. Bolt and like-minded ideologues have so far gotten away with a great many acts that would seem to be prohibited. If enforcement ever did suddenly become an overwhelming priority, I expect the situation would rapidly descend into farce, with a million bigots mobilised and screeching obscenities into every possible medium. Their White Christmases would all come at once. It would, in other words, backfire spectacularly. The instinct to ban hate speech is motivated by a commendable desire to change minds (or at least to prevent them being perverted by hatred), but the law is exactly the wrong tool for the job.

Free speech is not about saying nice things. We have no need of laws to protect our right to talk about the weather, sports or cooking. Free speech is about protecting those who offend us, because it is precisely this group that is otherwise perpetually in danger of being shut down, or sent underground. Sometimes, the offending remark is itself more enlightened than those offended by it, and so does more good than harm, but not always. Even when the message has no redeeming value whatsoever – even when it demonises the most vulnerable – free speech is about protecting society from itself, while also providing the only useful way to fight back.