joeldurston

Posts Tagged ‘Censorship’

Dawkins controversy

In Opinion on August 13, 2013 at 6:14 PM

I know the Richard Dawkins controversy has now, arguably, been blogged about to death, but the rubbish that comes his way from even respected and well-paid thinkers refuses to abate and still confounds common sense – most egregiously, I find, from lefties (although I often think the ‘right’ are ironically more left on this issue). N.B. I realised after writing this Dawkins has recently addressed criticisms similarly but I’m still publishing this because it addresses many general issues I have with the hyper-sensitivity from Islam – and perhaps importantly, towards it (at least Muslims get offended and defensive over something they actually believe in).

For example, Owen Jones, who launched a Twitter diatribe in the wake of Dawkins comments, and a subsequent Independent article, in which he performed a strange contortionist act of simultaneously claiming to be a secular atheist in favour of critiquing religion and calling Dawkins’ stating of fact ‘bigoted’ – an act which would seem logically impossible (because it is, to all but the wettest ‘liberal’ apologists). As a slight aside, I always find it darkly comic how defensive some passionate advocates of gay rights, often strong leftists, are of Islam. I saw one bloke, who presumably feels similarly, tweeted Jones, who is gay, a video of gay teenage men getting executed in Iran, which highlights the absurdity of this confluence of ‘left/liberal’ Westerners (I parenthesise with reason) and censorious Muslims. (I recognise by no means all Muslims are, and by definition the many Muslims who haven’t seen or given a shit about Dawkins’ comment won’t have come to my attention, but several have, and it’s hard to deny Islam has previous in this area.)

The telling fact about this (confected) controversy is that, at least as far as I have seen, no one has really disputed the brunt of what Dawkins said. The immediate reason for this is that it is, well, true (and neither have I seen anyone dispute his implication – which I share – that the Nobel Prize is a worthy benchmark of achievement). Yet we could have seen impassioned defences of Islam’s/Muslims’ gifts to literature, language, art, mathematics and – historically at least, as Dawkins himself admits – its advance of science. Or we could have had arguments for how ‘narrow’ and ‘unsatisfying’ a scientific worldview is compared to that offered by Islam (and/or religion in general). I’m not convinced by the latter, but it can be argued.

But all there was was obfuscation, irrelevance and false analogy, leading to suggestions – some overt, some covert – that Dawkins shouldn’t have even tweeted it, as if there’s a list of banned facts no-one is allowed to quote from in socio-political debate. Among the bluster and bunkum I saw was the following attempts at refuting Dawkins, which I’ll address with as much attention as they merit, sometimes not much…

He’s arrogant and rude – To some people yes, and it may explain why little fuss was made when Neil DeGrasse Tyson said it. But it’s an ad hominem argument. Even if one thinks this, it in no way makes him wrong.

The comment was irresponsible – What responsibility does anyone have to be responsible?! Besides he was only tweeting it. People can choose not even to listen, let alone agree with the implication Islam is not a positive force in the world. After all, Dawkins is a secularist, which doesn’t mean making everyone atheist but advocating societies in which religion is personal choice, not imposed by the machinery of state and/or church. As such, he clearly wasn’t advocating a moral imperative for everyone to agree with, like some Muslims. And as for the idea he didn’t make a balanced inference from fact, god knows how many political commentators would be out of a job if this wasn’t allowed, not least Leftier-than-thou Owen Jones.

He’s singling out Islam – Only if the ‘liberal’ thought police, in connection with the chosen minority du jour, insist people must be balanced (fair is not necessarily the same) to everyone within individual tweets – which, in 140 characters, is pretty hard, even for an Oxford professor. Even if this criticism was valid – which it’s not –  it’s not even applicable to Dawkins, who’s spent years, probably more time, campaigning against Christianity, and addresses many logical points against Abrahamic religions as a whole, as they have somewhat similar origins, and to a lesser extent religious belief in general.

I know ‘Muslim’ isn’t technically a ‘race’ but his implication is obvious – Leading on from the above, this piece of rubbish suggests Dawkins is hiding behind ‘Islam’ to actually denigrate races – Pakistanis, people from the Middle East and such – some even suggesting it has connotations for UK immigration policy. It is of course true the areas with high prevalence of Islam are the Middle East and Africa, but it doesn’t change the fact that Islam is a religion, involving a choice (at least in theory), meaning people have a choice to continue believing it or renounce it, unlike with race, sex and – probably – sexuality. In fact, sadly, believing Islam isn’t a very free choice in several Islamic countries, where there is popular support, and even state sanction, for apostasy or encouraging others to leave Islam. So in practice, Islam does largely align along racial lines, but surely there’s some dark irony in left-liberals using this as a stick with which to beat ‘Islamophobes’ (a pretty meaningless tag, personally).

He knows better than to use cheap soundbites – Maybe he does usually, but surely he’s best to decide what is beneath him and not. He chose to tweet it and defend himself, so surely the best person to speak for him is him, not commentators imposing their own views on him. He has written books, speeches, lectures and had debates on how religion stifles the advancement of knowledge. Why should he be constrained to these ‘sensible’ forums. God knows journalists aren’t.

He’s got a really narrow version of history; Islam has done great things for knowledge in the past – He mentions this. And for fuck’s sake we live in the present. It’s impossible not to.

He’s being mischievous and deliberately provocative… – So was Rosa Parks. Was that wrong?!

…especially by saying it on Eid – So what? If, like Dawkins (and me, and all non-Muslims), you don’t believe in the central goal of Ramadan (service and obedience to Allah), the logical consequence is that it is a pointless exercise – as food is, you know, good for humans. Sure it’s impressive, but logically only in the same way someone hopping around on one leg during daylight hours is impressive.

The fact was technically true but he could replace Islam in the fact with many groups and thus imply they are intellectually inferior, like footballers or women – True, but this doesn’t really address the issue; just shifts the buck. For example, it is true of footballers, but they don’t make nearly the same professions to ultimate truth as Islam does. And as for women, well that just demonstrates exactly the influence beliefs and societal structures can have on groups. Take Islam in theory and practice. The first pillar of Islam, the shahada, roughly translates as “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except God and Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger.” And, in practice, Islam is invoked in, among other things, calling for death for those responsible for apostasy, novels and cartoons and, earlier this year with Malala Yousafzai, advocating education for girls. Is it really such a stretch to suggest all this retards the advancement of knowledge? I don’t think so.

I think many people, including me, see Muslims, friends or strangers, fitting in well to British society despite difficult issues and far-right groups opposing multi-culturalism on reactionary grounds. So there’s a predisposition to defend Muslims, which in itself is probably a good thing. But having a few nice Muslim friends in Britain is pretty irrelevant to big questions about freedom of expression and global Islam in theory and practice, and the extremes people take the defence to can prove paradoxical. When you’re perpetually defending various groups, it becomes increasingly hard to actually stand for anything. (Interestingly Christianity isn’t defended very often. Take Mormonism; how many liberals jumped to the defence of Romney’s much-mocked Mormonism?! And, as Sam Harris notes, can you imagine Trey Parker and Matt Stone making The Book Of Islam with no controversy and near universal acclaim?!). As journalist Nick Cohen notes, ”liberal muliticulturalism contains the seeds of its own negation. It can either be liberal or multicultural but it can’t be both.”

Joel Durston

Why Should Pleasures Be ‘Guilty’?

In Culture, Opinion on August 19, 2012 at 1:38 AM

I like Coldplay, Kylie Minogue, Adele, Harry Potter, Jason Statham movies, R & B music and The Sun (or many examples of their work at least). The typical thing is to qualify declaration such typical yardsticks of ‘bad taste’ with an ‘…and proud!’ (‘I am a Potterer…and proud!) or by describing them as guilty pleasures. I don’t – because why should I feel guilty about any of my tastes if they bring me enjoyment and don’t hurt anyone else?! I’m neither particularly proud nor guilty of reading Harry Potter. It’s just something I like, or at least liked (and in the relationship of creator and consumer, I think it’s fair to say most of the effort was JK Rowling’s). Of course, ‘guilty pleasure’ is just a harmless little phrase, and I recognise I’m reading a lot into this, arguably too much, but the phrase does raise some interesting issues about our appreciation and consumption of art (in the broader sense – music, art, film, photography, theatre etc etc.). Principally, it follows if a pleasure is ‘guilty’, there’s something or things to whom or which people should feel guilty. I don’t know; some kind of existentially depressed cultural muso like High Fidelity’s protagonist up in the sky perhaps? An omnipotent cultural entity which peers down on us disapprovingly every time he sees us reaching for a Scouting for Girls album or a Michael Bay DVD? I jest of course. I understand there’s a set of nebulous understandable binding principles for what critics (with a small ‘c’) consider ‘good art’ – invention, technical skill, wit, lyricism, emotion, intelligence, sincerity, moral/political message, resonance with the audience etc etc. Most, but by no means all, will largely agree on these. But everyone’s view of these is different, as shown by the massive disparity in people’s music tastes, even among critics working for similar media outlets. People need to remember there are a lot of (subjectively) boring arthouse films and a lot of (subjectively) shallow and annoying experimental bands. The inevitable response is: so Girls Aloud are just as good as The Rolling Stones? The Wanted as relevant as Hendrix? Well, in a way, I think yes. Pop – in the narrower, One-Direction-and-Saturdays sense – is not meant to change the world, just be something catchy to brighten the walk to work or dance to. And if does that, then to a large degree it can be called, in a kind of Aristotelian way, successful. Relativism is a philosophically tricky position in any field, not least one which arouses such strong convictions in people. But given the massive difference in tastes and the intrinsically abstract nature of art (it can’t be so easily measured by profit or yield as in business, or scores such as sport), I think a largely relativist, subjective perspective of art is the only plausible one to take. As Roy Sutherland explains in this brilliant speech, reputation and perception are vitally important, often obscuring the true worth or efficiency of things, or the fact that there is no intrinsic value: (of English upper-middle-class people “rebranding” unemployment) “having a son who’s unemployed in Manchester is really quite embarrassing, but having a son who’s unemployed in Thailand is really viewed as quite an accomplishment.” Also, with ‘guilty pleasures’, we have sort of ‘obligated pleasures’. I don’t know if this is necessarily so, but it’s certainly so. The idea, held to different degrees, that we should like certain things – Bob Dylan, world music and Mike Leigh films. Some will even say, to varying extents of sincerity, that it’s blashphemy to criticise, homage or satirise these kind of things. Well, to these – I hate Bob Dylan. Deal with it. I find his music grating, nasally and pretty much devoid of anything so apparently base as a good hook. I also don’t like him as a person, from my albeit limited personal knowledge of him. (Yes, I gather he’s a great lyricist, an acute observer of the human condition – but one can get this from literature…without the nagging voice.) This is not to suggest he shouldn’t be regarded as a legend, because he’s obviously moved and provoked millions with his music, just that I shouldn’t feel obliged to like him. The kind of appreciation and almost universal devotion may not seem a real problem. This trait of Dylan fandom (or lack of it) isn’t really a huge issue, at least on the face of it. No one’s going to really have their world’s changed for me not liking him (not least him as it seems he’s doing pretty well for himself). What is concerning, though, is when all this grand importance we imbue in art makes people close-minded, restrictive and censorious. In music, the trait often comes to fruition when a ‘shit’ artist covers a ‘better one’ (with the former often more successful, commercially at least, than the latter), and all the musos admittedly somewhat in jest decry ‘blashphemy’ against something so ‘sancrosanct’. And even call for the death of the ‘offending artist’, as Mark Ronson found, with numerous death threats from sanctimonious and no doubt crying-because-they-stepped-on-a-slug Smiths fans for having the supposed temerity to, god forbid, produce a cover of one of their songs (which were never real threats and, to his credit, he took in good humour, but it doesn’t change the mindset of these morons). Harmless, you may think, but the same trait of oppressive censorship for critique of art has led to the actual deaths of millions, even in our modern, supposedly advanced world. Salman Rushdie was subject to a fatwa calling for his death merely for writing a novel (and a rather good one according to the Booker Prize), and riots all over the Islamic world caused around 100 deaths on the basis of a fucking cartoon. (Of course, there are similar cases across many belief systems – including a similarly-themed case last week of New York rabbis branding “evil” plans to make them get parental consent for sucking a baby’s bleeding cock – and there are arguably relevant, complex geo-political issues at play, but the most egregious examples do seem to surround Islam). Just last week, a Christian girl of just 14 with Down’s Syndrome has made UK news for being arrested for burning a Koran. Would people get so up in arms if the book had been Harry Potter? I daresay they wouldn’t. Superficially, a ridiculous analogy, yes – but hear me out if you will. All holy books definitively are is art – literature which moves people to great things, awful things; criticism, indifference. But ultimately just art, as evidenced by the fact millions, if not billions, do not consider the truths contained within literal (and increasingly so). Some people choose to think it’s divinely inspired (and it may be), but that’s their interpretation, not brute fact like 2+2=4. In principle, one could just as easily consider the described world and characters in the Harry Potter books to be true, and then take offence and call for restriction of (unharming) freedoms when others ‘disrespect’ their sincerely held view. So, people have no logical reason not to criticise the Bible, Torah or Quran – unless you somehow think, you shouldn’t also critique Harry Potter for the same reason. (There can be a lot of fear of criticising religion for fear of being branded ‘racist’, but this is illogical. To discriminate on the basis of what colour skin one has is nonsensical because they have no choice in the matter and it doesn’t necessarily make them anything, but criticising actions or beliefs is fine as these are chosen so should be stood by.) But wouldn’t it be preferable to engage in the debate? Consider if the actions or words really are so ‘immoral’ or ‘untrue’. And then if it is, spread that message; and if it’s not, have the humility to admit faults and change actions or taste accordingly. Not indulge in this culture of identifying onself vicariously through people in the media, most evident in a load of humourless whingers complaining about new BBC sitcom, Citizen Khan, the Muslim (or ‘Muslim’) protagonists of which have the nerve to (shock horror!) not to read the Quran and to laugh at themselves. To not be offended is not a democratic right, far from it. It’s only a right, in this respect,  not to be physically harmed. The trait is even more nonsensical when applied to real people, such as in the uproar at Rihanna (seemingly) choosing to take Chris Brown back after his domestic abuse. For one, the moral issues are debatable; she wasn’t exactly the person who did the Bad Thing in the first place, and for all we know they could find each other genuinely repentant and forgiving (respectively). If that ‘s the case what’s wrong with that?! But that’s not the point. The point is that it’s a personal, moral (i.e. not legal) choice. She has no fucking duty to do what you want her to do, because she’s a musician, not a member of the clergy, nor a social worker. She makes music – if people like it, they support her and she continues; if they don’t, they don’t and she doesn’t. Simple. Besides, Rock ‘n’ Roll history is filled with many who have actually perpetrated crimes and/or ‘immorality’ and been venerated despite, or probably because, of it. And, I don’t know if you’ve watched any of her videos, but Rihanna hardly markets herself as a paragon of (traditionally held) virtue, to be held up as a moral examplar. We can only be ourselves so let’s just live our own lives, and let others get one with theirs if it doesn’t do us any actual harm, by just changing the channel instead of imposing our own cultural tastes on others to the point of character assassination of strangers, death threats or calls to essentially shut up. Surely, they’re things to feel more guilty about than listening to the odd Katy Perry song?! Joel Durston

An Inconvenient Necessity?

In Opinion on August 13, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past week, you will be aware of the riots and their aftermath and the way they have been largely conducted over social media, for good and for ill.

I have already explained in a previous article, my idea that short, snappy soundbites that abound on social media sites largely foster a polarisation of public opinion (probably unintentionally). The good in the case of the riots is the proliferation of movements such as Riot Cleanup, Operation Cup Of Tea, Something Nice for Ashraf and Youth Against Violence, which aim to clear up the physical and metaphorical rubble. Alas, as much as these groups deserve more publicity than the bad, they are not nearly as controversial and in need of discussion.

The difficulty is what, if anything, to do about the fact that much of the criminal rioting was organised via social networks. Many rioters instantly (and selectively) communicated to friends the timings and whereabouts of the commotion, thus playing a large part in turning what was initially a small, localised demonstration into widespread civil disorder. In this manner, it is very similar to the Arab Spring, which spread exponentially with the help of social media after an equally particular catalyst (Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, in reaction to the confiscation of his goods and harassment and humiliation at the hands of officials).

While admitting social media can be used for ‘good’, Cameron asserted it can also be used for ‘ill’, such as the London riots which had been “organised via social media”. He also claimed and that the government was “working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality”. To this end, Cameron and his cabinet have communicated with social media companies such as RIM (the company that produces Blackberrys), Facebook and Twitter regarding the possibility of shutting down networks in emergency circumstances. All the above responded co-operatively, expressing a willingness to at least discuss the matter. While nothing to this end has been implemented so far (and looks unlikely to in the immediate future given the dissipation of the current riots), the idea is a very real possibility for the future. This is given the companies’ express willingness to co-operate and statements from the Prime Minister, such as: ‘When people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them’. In a similar vein, the government may grant police greater freedom to remove scarves or hoods (so people may be identified by CCTV) and to stop and search.

This topical idea is very contentious because it is so intrinsically linked to the ever-controversial topic of civil liberties. Such curbing, even ‘denial’, of freedom of expression is always met with suspicion and condemnation in many quarters, and this situation is no different. The Open Rights Group – an organisation which aims to raise awareness of digital rights and civil liberties issues – has attacked the idea. Executive director Jim Killock claimed: “Clearly, a service will be used by people for legitimate activities, some of which will mitigate or deal with the problem encountered. In any case, innocent people should not be punished for the actions of others”. He furthered to declare the measures would be abused and generally “seized upon by oppressive governments to justify their own actions”. My posing of the issue on the aforementioned Youth Against Violence Facebook page was also met with disapproval, even vitriol: ‘helllll no’, ‘foolish’ etc.

...to liberate?

...to liberate?

So, on the surface at least, it seems like a somewhat scarily authoritarian idea. I, and I daresay nearly everyone else, is in general agreement with the right to freely express oneself, whether on social media, in person, on the phone or whatever. Indeed, this is a right is enshrined in the cornerstone of utopian governance – The UN Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’. This is all gravy, until it is seen to conflict with other freedoms set forth in the declaration, as it often is in the argument about what views on race/cultural heritage it is acceptable to air. An infamous case of this is the debate over whether BNP leader Nick Griffin should have been allowed to speak on Question Time (he eventually was). Some asserted that he was a legitimate party member with the freedom of expression to air his views. Others claimed that his ‘racist’ views would unduly infringe upon others’ freedoms – variously, rights to freedom of movement, equality, even ‘life, liberty and security of person’ through the supposed increased racial hatred/violence. The latter freedom is probably the most conflicting in the case of the riots.

Look beyond the admitted slippery slope to nightmarish visions of Orwellian societies, though, and Cameron certainly has a point. By nearly all accounts, the riots were largely organised by social media, and with a consequent alacrity and spontaneity that made them very, very hard to effectively police. Moreover, social media companies are suggesting that such widespread censorship is at least technically feasible. Essentially, if we ignore all undeniably sensible considerations of ethics/principles and ‘slippery slopes’ for just a second, the idea is practical and would in all likelihood be effective at quelling violence.

Furthermore, the argument can be cunningly flipped around; since these companies are private, their owners arguably have the freedom to choose when to temporarily shut them down, as they occasionally do for maintenance. I’m sure that’d be in the small print somewhere. Despite this idea, I’d still tend towards the theory that these measures would in principle represent an ‘infringement of civil liberties’ (‘opinions without interference… through any media and regardless of frontiers’ etc.). Nonetheless, I still support these measures….

...or, to censor?

...or, to censor?

Very few would argue these ideas are ideal, but we quite fucking obviously don’t live in an ideal society (nor world). We live in Britain; not Utopia, and a fractured Britain at that. In this undoubtedly volatile social context (the reasons for this are a different argument altogether), I’m not sure we can afford the privilege of absolute freedom of expression. The cycle works both ways, but I do think we need to show responsibilities to gain rights. Frankly, some have not shown responsibility by thieving plasma TVs, burning buildings and throwing bricks. The fact is a minority – a significant one, but a minority nonetheless – have committed acts considered by the majority (including myself) to be reprehensible and exacted upon innocent people. Surely, given this, the greater good is to do our upmost as a society to protect and help decent people and livelihoods such as the late Haroon Jahan and the burned Reeves Furniture Shop of Croydon. If the result for this is having to not Tweet or write typically pithy status updates for a few hours, then, personally, so fucking be it.

Similarly, I view increasingly stringent security and CRB checks as necessary; annoying, but necessary. Being what most would class as a ‘white middle class’ Brit, it is hard to realistically put myself in the position of ethnic minorities being consistently stopped and searched. Alike above, though, I would like to think I would have the sense of perspective to see the police officers were merely stopping me being, to their largely unknowing eyes, statistically more likely to be carrying a dangerous weapon than a white person from Chelsea – to make a crass, but largely accurate, generalisation. This can of course be a vicious cycle, and just one of a very complex web of cause and effects of deprivation, but this is not the debate I’m focusing on here.

I sense many people attacking this idea are usually the same left-leaning people that, whilst generally ruing the riots, rightly or wrongly call for lighter punishment for rioters in favour of forgiveness, empathy and societal change (education, bridging the economic divide, re-integration etc.). I regard this view as slightly over-optimistic and unrealistic, but I do think it is an admirable view to hold (indeed, I would generally regard myself as a liberal ‘Guardian reader’, but in light of recent events I’m coming to gradually regard these views and values as somewhat merely hypothetical). Given this, I see an irony in these undeniably innocent people not willing to pitch in by being inconvenienced in their cyber activities for an hour or two. Maybe it’s the fact that Cameron and the ‘bloody’ Tories are proposing them….

Another objection is the supposedly Big Brother-esque implications of it, for which one only has to look to China for support. I, though, have the faith in the politicians and the parliamentary structure for censorship to be only used when some serious, bad shit is going down. This is fully compatible with my support of the popular view that in a democracy one has to be prepared to be ‘offended’, but not physically ‘harmed’. The other argument advanced in this camp is that the government would have to be sinisterly monitoring social media at all times to see when trouble’s a’brewing. They wouldn’t really, however, because they could be alerted to this by the companies themselves, who all cast a somewhat shadowy yet omniscient eye over the blogospheres. How else do you think those Facebook ads are targeted with such unerring accuracy?!

A wise man once said, “you can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once.” I’m not sure this always true, but I think it has a lot of pertinence for this discussion. If in this case, it is the feasible and moral choice I’d incline to say it was, I would most definitely go for peace. ‘Hypothetical simplification’ it may well be, yet I would be perfectly happy to sacrifice for a night virtual organisation of some party, or proffering my two cents worth on things, if there was any realistic chance of stopping some dickhead assaulting just one unwitting bystander or destroying just one innocent person’s business. Wouldn’t you?

Joel Durston