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Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’

Occasionally I see someone in an internet argument call the person they’re arguing with a faggot, at which point I stop paying attention to anything else that person has to say.

I mean, if you’re the sort of person who not only uses purely demeaning personal attacks in place of actual conversation, but picks “faggot” of all things to try and put someone down, then you’ve just raised the bar pretty high for me to rediscover any interest in your opinions.

Recently I’ve started seeing “cuck” being thrown around as well. It’s an abbreviation of a term for a man whose wife is unfaithful, if you’re not familiar. Yes, it’s something people really do call each other when they want to be mean, even outside of 16th century literature. No, I don’t think that will ever stop being funny.

The most prominent equivalents I can think of that come from my side of the political/feminist spectrum are “pissbaby” and “fuckboy”.

All these terms serve essentially the same purpose: they’re used to sum up in a single word all the negative and dislikable characteristics possessed by the Outgroup, which explains why we should hate them and ignore them and interpret anything they say in a deliberately uncharitable way, and why their sentience and humanity basically doesn’t count due to their stupid shitty opinions about important stuff.

Of course, it’s not exactly the same thing going on in all these cases. Culture is big and messy and complicated, and rarely do two parallel or equivalent things truly mirror each other. And the main difference is that, well, you’re right. You might use these terms sometimes, but only directed at people who really deserve to be put down, because of the horrible and appalling things they do and say. Your epithets are describing an actual, real-world set of behaviours in other people, which ought to be noticed and castigated.

It’s entirely different from the way they just lash out and call people names as soon as they realise they’re “not one of us”.

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There was a major fracas in Florida a couple of weeks ago.

A guy got killed in a shoot-out, and some bystanders were hurt badly in the crossfire.

Someone who happened to be nearby started filming it on his phone. Maybe he was hoping it would be useful to somebody later, maybe he just wanted an awesome memento of what was going on, I don’t know.

However, one of the men with guns noticed what the camera guy was doing, and started pointing the gun at him. The guy was dragged out of his car and told to lay on the ground, at gunpoint. He then had his phone taken off him and smashed, though not before he managed to take out the memory card with the footage on it and keep it safe.

Some of the men with guns may have also done this to other people’s phones, and a local news team reports one of their cameras being illegally taken as well.

There’s one crucial point I’ve left out of the story, though, which stops this being a tale of assault, theft, destruction of property, or some other kinds of serious crimes, for which these gunmen would no doubt face serious charges and hefty retribution.

Can you guess what it is?

(h/t Ed Brayton)

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There’s an oft-quoted line among free speech advocates, often in response to religious types insisting they deserve special treatment:

Nobody has the right not to be offended.

It’s a succinct way of expressing a basic freedom, and reminding people that you’re not entitled to forcibly inhibit others from saying what they want in a public space, just because it upsets you. It’s a handy little truism.

Only, in Tennessee, it’s no longer true.

Here’s the wording of the relevant Tennessee law, as it was amended last month:

(a) A person commits an offense who intentionally:

(4) Communicates with another person or transmits or displays an image in a manner in which there is a reasonable expectation that the image will be viewed by the victim by [by telephone, in writing or by electronic communication] without legitimate purpose:

(A) (i) With the malicious intent to frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress; or

(ii) In a manner the defendant knows, or reasonably should know, would frighten, intimidate or cause emotional distress to a similarly situated person of reasonable sensibilities; and

(B) As the result of the communication, the person is frightened, intimidated or emotionally distressed.

This is a frighteningly low threshold that has to be met before people are guilty of a criminal act. It’s not just addressing death threats or harassing midnight phone calls any more. If it’s something you “reasonably should know” will cause “emotional distress” to someone who might see it, you’re expected to keep your damn mouth shut. If that someone then claims to have been “emotionally distressed” – something there’s really no way to measure except by taking their word for it – then you’ve broken the law.

I’ve heard directly from people who find a drawing of a featureless stick-man labelled “Mohammed” to be unconscionably offensive. I have no doubt that a competent lawyer could make the case that every one of the above points applied to some of the things I’ve posted on my blog, if any religious people ever made the complaint and claimed emotional distress.

Just not visiting my site would be the obvious solution. And in practice, even with this law in place, that’s what most people will do, and what most of the lawmakers would support, in such truly trivial cases. But the law is still frighteningly broad in scope, and leaves ample room for just this sort of abuse.

I’m also unsettled by the phrase “without legitimate purpose” which qualifies the whole thing. The implication that expressing yourself needs to be justified before it can be permitted is chilling. My legitimate purpose is “I will say what I fucking like”.

I’m not aware of any recent events in Tennessee or elsewhere which would suddenly necessitate such a change to the legislation. If you know of any cases of legitimate harassment, against which no action could have been taken under the previous law and which justify the changes, do send me a link.

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Maybe, if I keep blogging about politics, I’ll eventually learn something about politics.

I don’t think Obama’s a bad person, whatever that even means. I don’t doubt that he wants to do good and believes that he can.

But in a way, that’s even more distressing. The current system imposing itself on America is such that someone with sincere intentions can end up with the kind of track record he has.

I supported Obama’s Presidential campaign, breathed a heavy sigh of relief when he won, and continue to find Republicans utterly repugnant by default. But I’m finding it harder to identify as being part of the Democrats’ “team”, even though they’re ostensibly on the side of reason and good these days.

Sometimes, I look at a funny and well-delivered speech given by the President, and wonder if we wouldn’t all have found such light-hearted self-deprecation to be frustratingly lackadaisical if it had come from Bush.

And sometimes, the standard liberal position needs a reality check.

[O]ne can still be a “liberal or a progressive with a broad sense of the common good” if you support a guy who blows up little children with cluster bombs, as Barack Obama has in Yemen. You can still be a liberal or progressive in good standing if you support a man who has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of Pakistani civilians with flying death robots. And you can still be a liberal if you back a guy who has shown not the slighest inclination to reform, much less do away with, a war on drugs that has led to 2.3 million Americans being placed in cages, the vast majority minorities.

That the president has doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan, ordered more drone strikes in Pakistan than his predecessor did in eight years, and launched another war in Libya without so much as getting a rubber stamp from Congress is of no concern to the good party-line liberal. The president, after all, is a Democrat.

And if you think someone like Ron Paul is just an extreme nutcase outsider, consider it in context.

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A new law in France, in effect as of today, forces women going out in public to show their faces.

The rationale behind the idea, supposedly, relates to the fact that the country’s more conservative and authoritarian Muslims insist that women cover their faces when out in public. This infringement of people’s rights is what the new law seeks to counteract.

Lawyer and political blogger David Allen Green is against the law, and sums up a good portion of his reasoning in his closing paragraph:

Many secularists and liberals would prefer a world where individuals do not want to hide their faces a part of their social interactions; many secularists and liberals would welcome a world without any face veils. But for such a world to be imposed by legal force makes it a secular and liberal world not worth striving for.

I would certainly prefer some versions of this world to others, and everybody feeling comfortable to make their own decisions regarding how much of their face to show in public seems like a better state of affairs than any alternative. But passing laws to coerce everybody to abide by how I would prefer the world to be is a dangerous road to go down. Even if I’m right, dammit.

Every time the Westboro Baptist Church do anything newly obnoxious, there’s much liberal hand-wringing from the left about the dilemma of supporting free speech but abhorring this speech. And it is a wrench to forego the desire to impose your preferences on society, even when it’s perfectly clear to everyone with an ounce of sanity that your world would be a lovelier place.

In the case of the burqa, some law-makers have decided that it’s time for action. But I’m not sure if they know exactly why they’re doing it.

According to the BBC’s reporting, it’s the way the veil “undermines the basic standards required for living in a shared society” which has prompted the French government to deem it unacceptable, and is why women wearing it risk being fined. Apparently wearing the veil is an undesirable and antisocial act in itself, whether forced or not, and enacting laws against antisocialism is presumed to be within the government’s purview.

From this angle, I suppose there is a worthwhile discussion there to be had about whether this form of “personal expression” causes society sufficient outrage or discomfort for the state to clamp down. Indecency laws no doubt have some place in the world, notwithstanding disagreements on whether their influence should stretch as far as, say, public breast-feeding. A private shopping centre might choose to take a more authoritarian stance on groups of teenagers wearing hoodies on its property. And you may want to insist on seeing people’s faces unobstructed, both in person and on their passport, before letting them fly on your airline.

But the argument that a few thousand Muslim women in France wearing veils is to the general public detriment isn’t one that’s been made a lot. Instead, the decision to pass this law has generally been sold as a liberal one, which stands up for women’s rights and defends them against a more virulent form of oppression. It’s not the veil itself that’s bad, so much as women being forced to wear it by men with purportedly divine justification.

(The truth might in fact be some odd mixture of the two: we don’t like the idea of the burqa, for reasons we’re disinclined to closely examine, and so justify legislating against it with claims that it’s the liberal thing to do.)

So the world we’d prefer isn’t necessarily one in which women didn’t wear the veil, but one in which they weren’t forced to by some patriarchal authority. But the laws against this latter case are, presumably, already in place. I don’t know exactly how some women are being forced to wear clothes they don’t want to, but if it’s through physical violence, or detaining them against their will, then these are already illegal means.

If the ban on the burqa is intended to make these laws easier to act on, then I don’t see how. Making criminals of the women who might have been so coerced won’t obviously bring to light new evidence of the coercion. Nor will inducing them to be urged simply to stay indoors.

In some cases, perhaps the brutal oppression that forces women into adopting a veil isn’t physical, but rather depends on the social pressures of a misogynistic system, and ends with the women themselves choosing the veil through a seemingly contorted form of free will. But when does the state stop passing legislation which claims to know what we want better than we do, once it’s started? If a woman does her best to honestly and sincerely express the desire to wear a veil, and the government insists she mustn’t because the patriarchy have probably just brainwashed her into wanting to do so… well, I can think of a number of worlds preferable to that one.

It seems likely that the burqa is a central part of some Muslim men’s efforts to keep some Muslim women under the thumb, and that this policy will cause more social damage and injustice the more widespread it becomes. The same could be said of Fred Phelps’s clan’s picketing, much of which is solely intended to induce grief and anguish as they gloat in others’ misery. But I don’t want anyone’s right to use placards curtailed, and I wouldn’t even if there was almost nothing they were used for except homophobic fury.

Of course, in the case of the WBC, few liberal commenters simply express a defense of their rights to spew what bile they like, and then leave it at that. They emphasise that these are terrible, wrong-headed people whose hateful message deserves to be utterly reviled – and this tends to play a more significant part in the conversation than the fact that, much as we would like to, we can’t really justify oppressive legal action here.

Although I oppose the ban on the burqas, that shouldn’t be the end of the ongoing conversation, or even the biggest part of it. The problems of oppression and social injustice which the ban seeks to address are still there. So what can we do about them? Is it just a matter of continuing the conversation, adding to the public discourse, and hoping that a free flow of information and opinion will lead inexorably to a freer society?

That’d certainly be handy for me. It’d mean I’m already doing everything I need to do to save the world.

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First of all, let’s not ban the burqa.

David Mitchell wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian recently, on the subject of the illiberality of the recent French parliamentary decision to ban the traditional Islamic face veil in public. I agree with just about every word he writes, and even flatter myself that he even expresses it in a similar tone to mine, when I’m on especially blinding form. (It’s the part where he starts calling people dicks that particularly rings true.)

I’ve no doubt that many extremist conservative Muslims of religious authority are assisted in their efforts to oppress women by the burqa. But outlawing it altogether is just oppression in a different direction, because we’ve decided that “our” values are superior to “theirs”. And even if we’re right – which, let’s be honest, we totally are – the fact that we don’t legally force other people to go along with our way of doing things is vital to our retaining any sort of moral high ground.

A lot of people claim that the ban is a way of standing up for women’s rights, by preventing their tyrannic oppressors from telling them how to behave. No matter that a ban would also tell them how to behave, but with the full weight of the law behind it this time – again, our values are superior, so that’s apparently fine. But it’s not even fair to say that supporting a ban is the only way to stand up for the rights of oppressed Islamic women.

David’s whole point is that the respect/ban dichotomy is false, and there is a “huge gulf of toleration” in between the two. It’s absolutely possible to object to this unfair treatment, without calling for sweeping legislation to make criminals out of anyone who does what we don’t want them doing. Just because we don’t want those laws made, doesn’t mean we support anyone’s right to force women to dress a certain way.

And, in fact, the law already doesn’t support them doing that. I don’t know how senior Muslims in France or Britain would normally enforce their own personal rulings on women’s dress, but if it’s by violence, or threats of violence, or imprisoning women indoors until they comply, then that’s already illegal. If it’s just through less legally problematic routes, like social castigation or religious pronouncements, then it’s really not the government’s place to get involved.

(Also, let’s not confuse the burqa-specific ban, supposedly enforced on grounds of religious tolerance, with the more general legislation about the visibility of people’s faces in certain public arenas. The latter certainly has a place, but then religion is an entirely moot point. If you’re having your passport photo taken, it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing a burqa or a Guy Fawkes mask, it’s got to come off.)

There’s an important factor which doesn’t get much play, though.

David Mitchell isn’t simply flat-out against banning the burqa. While professing his antipathy to the ban, he’s also explained clearly, eloquently, and entertainingly the reasons why he’s against it, and made equally clear that this doesn’t mean that he supports in any way the burqa’s use as an “empowering” garment, and that he finds a “massive flaw” in the belief system that requires it.

And I think this is an important part of the debate. If you just say that you’re against the ban, it can seem like your position is callous and unconcerned regarding the plight of oppressed Muslim women. It’s really up to you to frame your argument in such a way that people can’t easily get the mistaken idea that you’re blasé about what many Muslim women are going through, or that you don’t think it’s any big deal.

Just like when everybody drew Muhammad, some people could be forgiven for thinking we were just being provocative dicks, and I argued that it was vital to explain why standing up for this particular irreligious right, in the potentially offensive way we were doing, was important.

So, I hope I didn’t come off back then as being needlessly provocative or obnoxious, and I hope my intentions are clear now as well. Misogyny is a terrible thing wherever it happens, and it can be especially disturbing under Islamic law. This needs to be fought, with education, campaigning for progressivism, outreach, satire, and whatever we’ve got, but I can’t support passing laws banning women from doing things we don’t want to see them forced into doing.

I’m a borderline libertarian nutcase when it comes to freedom of expression and what other people choose to do with it. The best answer to bad speech is usually more speech, and I think we could do with hearing a lot more of that on this subject.

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So there’s this campaign which seeks to fight against the discrimination and prejudice often faced by those with learning disabilities.

And… I’m not really a fan.

Yeah, I think I’m just going to give up on trying to find a way to summarise my main point without sounding like a dick. In context, though, and after a lengthy explanation, I hope it’ll be clear why I don’t feel that I can really get behind this campaign.

It’s not just a free speech thing, for a start. Just because I have some libertarian (or maybe just very liberal) leanings when it comes to free expression, doesn’t mean I think people should go around calling each other retards without a second thought. Almost universally I wish they wouldn’t.

Ofcom recently reversed its ruling on a Channel 4 broadcast from some time ago. They’ve now decided that an episode of Big Brother’s Big Mouth did in fact breach the Broadcasting Code.

I didn’t see the show, and haven’t been able to find a relevant clip, but this seems like the right decision. The way I’ve heard it described, Vinnie Jones used the word “retard”, and performed what sounds like a grotesque and obnoxious imitation of what that word means to him, while the usually lovely Davina was carelessly blasé about it. I’m not keen on censorship merely on grounds of offence, by any means, but there’s a limit to how far people can go in demeaning a minority before you earn some form of public admonishment.

But the punishment – assuming that punishment of some sort will get handed down at some point – isn’t simply because a particular word was used. The whole sequence of events that was broadcast was unacceptably offensive. It’s this careless intolerance that’s the problem, not simply the word “retard” itself.

I think that’s a better idea on which to base a campaign for tolerance – and while I’m sure the people behind r-word.org are doing plenty of good work, I think it’s a mistake to make the word the driving force of the campaign. The result of this is that the impression they give – the thing the people they’re trying to reach are likely to feel – is itself a message of forceful oppression. If someone happens upon the organisation for the first time, the message they take on board might be: “You’re not allowed to say this thing any more, because we’ve decided it’s bad.”

Which is just going to put anyone who cares about free speech on the defensive right away.

The important, fundamental idea – that the way you speak and act affects people, and that if you’re careless with your words and actions you might make things harder for some people who are already having a rough time of it – is in there somewhere. But it’s buried under the surface, which only addresses one of many symptoms, and is less persuasive than the encouraging idea that you can help make the world fairer and better for people who struggle for equality.

I sympathise with the intent behind the r-word campaign a lot, and other attempts at outreach and speaking out are the reason I’m more aware of the impact of my words than I used to be. But this approach lacks nuance. The root problem is people’s attitudes, not this one word, and the attitudes are what we should be trying to change.

Obviously, part of a healthy and compassionate attitude will include being aware of the words you use and how they affect those around you. But if you don’t get people to think about why they suddenly can’t say this word any more, plenty of them are going to find other ways to be intolerant bastards. And people have a track record of finding this an extremely easy challenge to which to rise.

So, I suppose that’s what I think. What do you reckon? Am I being too harsh?

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