Tue, Nov 25, 2014 - Page 9 News List

The moronic inferno: Debate in the Internet era

Everyone seems to have strong opinions about everything — and everywhere people want to take offense. One slip — or even a perfectly innocent remark — can mean public vilification

By Helen Lewis  /  The Observer

For the left, the inflammatory accusations are sexism, homophobia and racism — alongside the newer charges of transphobia and “whorephobia.” For the right, it is metropolitan snobbishness, a lack of patriotism, disrespect to the monarchy and denigration of “our boys” in the armed forces.

Any of these subjects can spark an orgy of backlash and counter-backlash, with arguments so convoluted they would leave medieval theologians reeling.

In the last month alone, people have discussed whether a comedian called Dapper Laughs should have had his ITV2 show canceled once everyone realized his career was based entirely on witless sexism. People have wondered whether Sam Pepper, a YouTube star who likes to be filmed grabbing women’s bodies, is simply a misunderstood joker. People have debated whether “pickup artist” Julien Blanc, who recommends seducing women with a “choke opener,” should have been refused a visa to enter the UK. In addition, South Yorkshire police investigating rape threats sent on Twitter to Jessica Ennis-Hill after she warned Sheffield United against re-signing convicted rapist Ched Evans.

It has also been at least two months since Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson said something deliberately crass, so expect another -gate suffix over Christmas.

To move forward, society needs to distinguish more clearly between people saying things with which others disagree, and those who make threats or advocate and incite violence. Blanc falls into the latter camp, and it is right that he should have been refused entry to Britain. Clarkson, on the other hand, is merely the price people have to pay for living in a democracy. A democracy that is bizarrely enthralled by middle-aged men shouting “POWER” as they drive round corners.

His defenders, of course, raise the specter of free speech: equating the right to speak without fear of state retribution with the right to speak without fear of being kicked off the state broadcaster.

In fact, the battle over free speech has become a culture war all of its own. If today’s tech giants can be said to have an ideology, it is the promotion of unfettered free speech. Social media companies trumpet how pro-democracy protesters use their networks to oppose repressive governments. Celebrities are warned of the “Streisand effect” of trying to suppress unflattering information about them, and creating more publicity in the process. Twitter’s former general counsel once described the company as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”

However, amid this orgy of self-congratulation, there is one rarely mentioned fact: one person’s free speech can come at the cost of another’s. This is the kernel at the heart of so many harassment cases: the stalker would insist, with an air of honest bafflement, that they are simply exercising their right to free speech. Unfortunately, they are doing it by shouting through the letterbox of their victim, who is now too afraid to leave their house.

There is no neutral position here. In trolling cases, for example, by protecting the abuser, the abused are being discouraged from entering public debates. The effect of this is profoundly conservative, because the cost of speaking out becomes higher for women — who receive a disproportionate amount of the most serious abuse, according to research by the Pew Institute and others — and other visible minorities.

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