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Imagine yourself, a human being. That should be easy enough. Now, imagine yourself relatively young. Since those of us who are not currently young were once young, that should still be easy. Imagine you have hopes and dreams for the future. You see yourself as person capable of independent thought and you want the freedom of action you believe should go with it. Perhaps you would like to be a dancer, or a film-maker, or a writer.

But you live in a country where you are not permitted to dance. Or where the government tells you what to write. Or where religious authorities tell you what to film. Despite this, you are determined to be a human being capable of independent thought and action. You write, you make films, and you find you are threatened with prosecution and violence.

So you flee.

You flee to a country where you have heard that you will have freedom of expression, a country where that is enshrined in law and an inherent part of that culture.

When you get there you are told that you can’t write what you want, you can’t make the films you want. The people who have denied you your humanity at home have followed you to your new country. They speak on your behalf. They say that you do not want this freedom of expression.

Now, what do you do?

I wrote this after listening to Lila Ghobady speak at the Secular 2014 Conference. In the 1990’s she was an active part of the Iranian underground cinema, making films that were not supported by the government.

According to an interview she gave to Bitch Magazine:

After secretly shooting these films, we had to leave the country since it was not possible to distribute the underground films we had made, which we wanted to edit and distribute abroad to introduce the underground cinema of Iran to the world to show that an alternative cinema to the official government cinema exists. Living abroad, we could also help our friends working inside Iran to continue their work on underground cinema. Our friends in Iran have been working on films on issues such as self-immolation and teenage suicide – both of which occur at an unbelievably high rate in Iran today. They are also working on the topic of the role of government gangs who have started sex trade businesses to export sex workers to an international market. In addition, they are working secretly on films about labour and student protests in Iran.

The dark reality is that by creating censorship and phony turmoil, the Islamic Republic of Iran succeeds in deviating paths of artistic and social expression. It tries to dissipate the confrontational energies of the Iranian people and prevent them from organizing. For this, it creates phony social movements. When it cannot hide public poverty, prostitution, trade in children, and the overall devastation that has overtaken Iranian society, it presents itself as a critic that objects to its own doings. With a variety of tactics, it controls social protest by suggesting that transformation and change can come from within the government. It engages in thievery, and plays the role of the anti-thief. It is the executioner that plays the role of the defending attorney. It plunders public wealth and then creates charity boxes for the poor. The underground cinema exposes these tactics, especially in the art and cultural arena.

Ghobady moved to Canada. She attended Carleton University in Ottawa where she recieved a master’s degree in Canadian/Women’s Studies. During her talk, she mentioned how disturbing it was to hear some students ask that speech at the university be limited to shelter the feelings of some Muslim students. She says that she still has nightmares about living under a theocracy.

The reason I started this post using the second person pronoun, was because I really think it is necessary to see these questions from the point of view of the persecuted. There are Muslim women say, “I do not want to be saved.” To them, I say, “I wasn’t thinking of you.” I am a fairly powerless person myself, and not in a position to save anyone. However, to the extent I can support people like Lila Ghodaby, who wants for herself the same things I want for myself, I will.

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Several times in the past I have linked to Maryam Namazie’s blog. She is, among other things, a spokesperson for the organization Fitnah, a women’s liberation organization with a particular interest in the liberation of women living in Islamic societies. From their website:

Fitnah is a protest movement demanding freedom, equality, and secularism and calling for an end to misogynist cultural, religious and moral laws and customs, compulsory veiling, sex apartheid, sex trafficking, and violence against women.

In their regular publication, Unveiled, this month they have an interview with Kenan Malik which I found particularly interesting. Elsewhere, I have written about how multiculturalism presented a challenge to the leftist political views with which I had grown up. The Salman Rushdie affair seemed to have played the role of catalyst in Malik’s political transformation that female genital mutilation played in my own.

In the interview, Malik addresses a subject that has been of much concern to me, that of freedom of speech. I have been disturbed by the call for censorship under the guise of limiting hate speech. As I see it, censorship is inevitably the prerogative of those who have power. Malik’s reasoning mirrors my own. From the interview:

Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged.  To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

…. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance.  The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them.  And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

Malik’s most recent book, From Fatwah to Jihad, discusses the rise of a fundamentalist form of Islam that has arisen in UK against the backdrop of multicultural policies. I haven’t yet read this book, but it looks very interesting, especially in light of my interest in how multiculturalism, due to the fact that it considers the group to which an individual belongs as being more important than the individual himself, is inherently illiberal and dehumanizing.

Apparently, The New Republic has teamed up with a British publication and they are now sharing material. The first article I’ve read is beyond being inauspicious. I take for granted that publications, especially those that deal with politics, will regularly publish things with which I disagree. However, the shoddiness of this article is beyond compare. It’s “The New Intolerance” by Cristina Odone, and it’s so awful that I don’t know where to start, except by picking up the phone and cancelling my subscription.

She starts with a dramatic statement.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to discuss traditional marriage—and the state was trying to stop me.”

In my mind, I see her standing there, at a cocktail party. Little black dress, a glass of plonk in hand. A giggly, glowing, younger female friend sidles up to her. The friend holds out her left hand. There’s great big diamond ring on her finger. “Guess what!” she giggles. She seems so adorable and so happy.

Cristina puts a supportive arm around her friend. “Congratulations!” she cries.

No sooner have the words left her mouth than the door to the party is kicked in. Blam! The assembled party goers gasp in fear. “It’s Judge Dredd.”

I’m eager to read the rest of the story, how she was hauled before the courts and sentenced to hard labor for expressing her support. Um. Not quite.

Quickly, right after that first line that makes your heart race, she changes the subject. She says that she supports “traditional marriage.” She doesn’t bother to define that. Let’s call this undefined contract “Odone marriage” so I can get rid of the quotes. However, whatever Odone marriage may be, she is disingenuous when she says that her concern is to support it. There are many ways she could support it, but giving talks trying to prevent marriages between individuals of the same sex strikes me as an odd way to go about it. What she is doing is not supporting marriages of which she personally approves, but she is trying to prevent marriages of which she doesn’t personally approve. Not the same thing.

It turns out that “the state” wasn’t trying to stop her at all. Organizations who do not believe that the only marriages in the world should be Odone marriages did not care to host a conference. So, the first sentence is a lie. The state wasn’t trying to stop her, at all. Several organizations, which were not the state, did not want to be complicit in her efforts to stop marriages she doesn’t like. They would not let Christian Concern use their premises for a conference.

The title, “One Man. One Woman. Making the Case for Marriage for the Good of Society”, could hardly have sounded more sober.

That it sounds sober to Odone hardly makes it so. It puts me in mind of a post about my own marriage I recently wrote.

Before we go further, we should take a look at the group who organized the conference, Christian Concern. They are not, as the name might indicate, a support group for Christians suffering from anxiety. Christian Concern was founded by evangelical activist and young earth creationist Andrea Minichiello Williams.

Christian Concern states, that as a result of society turning its back on Jesus the growth of ideas such as “secular liberal humanism, moral relativism and sexual licence” has led to “widespread family breakdown, immorality and social disintegration.” The organisation views the “fruit” of ideas that are alternative to Christianity as “rotten” and seeks to remedy the situation by engaging politically with a broad range of issues, including: abortion, adoption and fostering, bioethics, marriage, education, employment, end of life, equality, family, free speech, Islamism, religious freedom, the sex trade, social issues and issues relating to sexual orientation.

Ironically, considering that they currently think not being aided in the theocratic agenda is “intolerance,” Christian Concern opposed the Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006, which created “an offence in England and Wales of inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion.”

The conference was finally held in “the basement of a hotel.” That makes it sound rather clandestine, but it also makes me curious to know their budget. I’ve only ever been to London once, but I distinctly recall that hotels in central London are quite expensive.

The Christian Concern had difficulty finding a venue to host its conference which did finally come off. Odone now feels that her “rights as a taxpayer, citizen and Christian had been trampled.” This melodramatic retelling of a rather mundane matter of a right-wing extremist group trying to find a venue for a conference, which they eventually found, is not her point. It’s only the introduction, a heavy-handed attempt to arouse the reader’s sympathy and emotions and to portray the writer as a persecuted, marginalized minority.

Well, I guess the wealthy and coddled are a minority, although I don’t know if I would call them persecuted an marginalized. She was born in Nairobi to a World Bank official. Her father was Italian and her mother was Swedish. She attended a private school in the United States and a boarding school in England. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be so marginalized. Poor dear.

Then, the article veers off the well-trod path of poor propaganda into the wilds if incoherence.

Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.

Does she understand the word “liberal?” The New Republic is very much a liberal magazine, so I’m surprised that they would publish, or republish, an article with such a confused view of the term. Liberals did not support “alternative culture” out of some weird impulse to just be in opposition to the prevailing society.

Just a quick aside. Odone doesn’t mean the sanctity my life. I know what “sanctity of life” really means. It means I should have had a fist land in my face on a weekly basis because I was knocked up by an abusive man. She’s so concerned about great injustice of the “state” preventing her from speaking, but she probably wouldn’t flinch at the notion that my own life should have been a living hell because she thinks a three-week old embryo has more sanctity than an adult woman. An embryo that would have almost certainly turned into a child growing up in extreme poverty with two emotionally messed up parents both of whom had bad tempers. Forcing two people into a future they didn’t want is exactly where her support of one man/ one woman marriage ends.

She seems to miss the fact that liberalism a word that covers several strands of political thought with a similar origin in ideas about individual liberty. I am not familiar enough with liberalism in the UK to be able to speak about it intelligently, so I’ll limit myself to liberalism in the US, since her accusations would apply equally well to liberals here. The belief in the importance of individual liberty leads liberals to be highly supportive of civil rights. Odone may see the equality liberals seek as “superficial”, but I do not. The fight for equal rights is one of the core values for most liberals, although we may often disagree on the best means to that end.

In the early years of the western liberal state, self-governance was generally reserved for only men, usually men of a certain race and class, although the specifics of that varied by location. As the liberal project has progressed over the last two or three centuries, the categories of individuals included in this group of competent adults capable of self-governance has expanded to include women, people of color and individuals not owning property.

During the course of the twentieth century, many liberals have focused on the liberty of previously marginalized groups beyond the bare bones of the franchise. The ability of women to control their reproduction, and therefore control their lives, is one. The freedom for consenting adults to enter into a marriage contract is another.

I believe that religious liberty is mean­ingless if religious subcultures do not have the right to practise and preach according to their beliefs. These views – for example, on abortion, adoption, divorce, marriage, promiscuity and euthanasia – may be unfashionable. They certainly will strike many liberal-minded outsiders as harsh, impractical, outmoded, and irrelevant.

By this point in time, I believe we all know that the people who make this complaint are not speaking the truth. They do not want simply the right to speak. The want the right to force others to behave according to their own ideas. There is no sanctity of life, only domination over others. They do not want to bear a child they didn’t want to conceive themselves. They want others to do so. They don’t want to be put up for adoption themselves. They want others to be so. They don’t want to remain in a loveless marriage themselves. They want others to do so.

Yes, you are harsh. The life to which you would have seen me condemned would have been a living nightmare. You are not merely outmoded. You are cruel, callous, sadistic and sick.

So why force the closure of a Catholic adoption agency that for almost 150 years has placed some of society’s most vulnerable children with loving parents?

As someone who was adopted, I object to being treated as a pawn in this manner. Don’t care for me as a fertilized egg if you won’t care for me as an adult. Catholics oppose contraception.

Finally, Odone gets to her real point. She sides with the people who would like to overturn the Enlightenment. Will somebody please tell me, what kind of horrid ultra-conservative rag is The New Statesman?

Churches were every­where – one for every 200 inhabitants in the High Middle Ages – and oversaw every stage of life: “hatch, match and despatch”.

Yes, we all know how famously wonderful the Middle Ages were. I mean, how the fuck do I even argue about a point so absurd? How the fuck does The New Republic publish this tripe? Can I have a job? Really.

The Founding Fathers crossed an ocean to be free to practise their faith.

This is simply wrong. Generally, the Founding Fathers are considered to be the people who signed the Declaration of Independence and worked on the Constitution. The people who “crossed an ocean” were other people. Many came here in the pursuit of profit. Many poor people came here as indentured servants. Those who came over here for their faith tried to found a theocracy. We generally don’t consider them Founding Fathers. I have roots that go back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony on one side and to Jamestown on another. Don’t try to tell me about my history.

Church attendance has slumped to less than 30 per cent. Only in two Greek Orthodox countries, Cyprus and Greece, does the overwhelming majority of the population attend services regularly (98 per cent and 96 per cent respectively). Europeans may walk in the shadow of church spires but biblical literacy is so unusual today that a recent survey found that, of 900 representative respondents, 60 per cent couldn’t name anything about the parable of the Good Samaritan, while only 5 per cent of people could name all the Ten Commandments.

So? There are lots of things Europeans no longer do. Bull Baiting. Pogroms. Witch Burnings. Debtor’s Prisons. I bet you don’t thatch roofs as much as you used to or heat your homes with peat fires.

She then goes onto extol the attitudes towards religion in the U.S. There is so much that is a problem with those two short paragraphs I’d need to write another post the length of this already long one in order to talk about it. Please pardon me if I skip it.

Next up (Sorry for the rough segue, but she changes focus yet again.):

Can the decline in the social and intellectual standing of faith be checked, or even reversed? Yes. Ironically, believers can learn from those who have come to see themselves as their biggest enemy: gays.

Think of how successful gay rights activists have been, in both Europe and America. Twenty-five years ago, Britain’s first “gay pride” march took place in London. It was a muted affair, remembers the campaigner Ivan Massow, which “struggled to fill half of Kennington Park and a disco tent”.

Perhaps, but the first gay pride parade in New York followed Stonewall, which was anything but a muted affair. Gay pride started with people fighting back for their lives. If Odone doesn’t know anything about the history of the contemporary gay rights movement, maybe she shouldn’t use it as a model.

She then goes on in a way that I can only imaging that she’s hallucinating.

Practising Christians, Jews and Muslims should also step forward into the limelight, dismantling prejudices that they must be suspect, lonely, losers. Believers should present themselves as ordinary people, men and women who worry about the price of the weekly shop and the size of the monthly mortgage. They should not appear to be religious zealots or gay-bashers or rabid pro-lifers. They should reassure critics that religious people are not a race apart – but just happen to cherish a set of ideals that sometimes places them at odds with the rest.

Notice the use of the word “appear.” They may be gay-bashers or rabid pro-lifers, but they should lie and dissemble. They should hide their true goals.

Let outsiders see the faithful as a vulnerable group persecuted by right-on and politically correct fanatics who don’t believe in free speech. Let them see believers pushed to the margins of society, in need of protection to survive. Banned, misrepresented, excluded – and all because of their religion? Even the most hardbitten secularist and the most intolerant liberal should be offended by the kind of censorship people of faith are facing today. If believers can awaken a sense of justice in those around them, they may have taken a first important step in reclaiming the west as an area where God is welcome.

Notice the clumsy attempt at propaganda. People who believe that freedom of conscience is best protected by a secular state are turned into “hardbitten secularists.” I would be greatly offended by that kind of censorship if it was happening. When someone says, “I am a Christian,” and the police come along and bash his head with a billy club, when the churches are raided and Christian must meet in secret, when they are in need of a Christian “out” campaign, then I will see them as persecuted. Until then, this hand wringing is laughable.

Communities will no longer be able to rely on the selfless devotion of evangelists and missionaries who happily shoulder the burden of looking after the unwanted, the aged, the poor.

Oooh, I’m shaking in my boots. The amount that religious organizations contribute to aid for the poor is a drop in the bucket compared to government programs. I’m far more worried by conservative who want to dismantle government programs than by religious people taking their ball and going home. Besides that, I’m not even sure what she’s talking about. Does she mean if religious people don’t get their way in the political sphere they won’t help out the hungry. Not very, ahem, Christian, I’d say. Or does she mean if the individuals who would have been nominally Christian in a world in which people are forced to profess belief whether they believe or not would give significantly more to a church than they would to charities without a religious affiliation? (Don’t forget, most money given to religious organizations, although technically charitable donations, do not go to aid to the poor.)

Religion has long been synonymous with authority. This was no bad thing when, for millennia, traditional hierarchies were respected for ensuring that the few at the top protected, organised, and even ensured the livelihood of, the many at the bottom.

Is Downtown Abbey rotting your brains over there?

Bloodthirsty authoritarians from Hitler to Pol Pot drove a tank through this vision: they turned authority into authoritarianism.

Right. Because until Hitler everything was hunky-dory. Everyone knew their place. The rich took care of the poor and the poor… aw… fuck it. This is just too crazy. Anyway, I’m just getting too worn out now.

(Note to self: Nothing this crazy woman can do can hurt you. She’s totally impotent. This has no real effect on your life. It’s okay. Deep breath. Calm down. She can’t make you go to her church. She can’t make you believe in her god. She can’t even stop you from having sex. Oh, right. Marriage. I forgot. That’s what this whole smoke screen was about in the first place. She can hurt people. She can impose her views on them.)

The whole thing is just hideous. Just hideous. I’m really upset that a magazine I support has chosen to lend their weight to this garbage.

Earlier in this post I put in a link to a video about the Stonewall Uprising. If you don’t know much about the incident, I really recommend watching the video: The American Experience: The Stonewall Uprising. It’s inspiring.

By now, everyone must have heard the big news coming out of the UK. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has announced a nation wide filter to block pornography. Internet service providers in the UK already offer optional pornography filters. For the new nation wide filter the default setting will be to have the filter on. Customers will have to choose to opt out. I’ve read about half a dozen general articles on the topic as well as another half a dozen narrower articles about specific aspects and, outside of the “default-on” requirement, I am confused about what it being proposed. Child pornography, which was already illegal in the UK, will continue to be illegal, however the police will be given new, unspecified, powers to pursue it. Images of simulated rape, which was previously illegal to create, will now also be illegal to possess. Furthermore, wi-fi in public places will be required to have a porn filter in use.

As an adult woman going on fifty, I don’t feel that I should spend my life relegated to the children’s section of the library because lax parents don’t know how to protect their children.

A sketch of a naked woman lying on her back.

One of the reasons I don’t call myself a “sex-positive feminist” is that many of the people who use that term appear to me to be less concerned than they should be about a person not being exposed to pornography at moments when they do not want to be. They deny any potential downside to pornography. Although I almost always actively oppose restrictions on pornographic content, denying that there can be any negative side to it strikes me as wishful thinking. If what we read and view didn’t shape our perspective on the world, many artists and writers would stop tomorrow.

However, government imposed filters will tend to support the status quo and anyone seeking to question it will run afoul of the censors. For this reason, I have always felt that feminists in particular should not support bans on pornography. In an article about the new content filter, The Telegraph mentioned that unnamed “children’s watchdogs” speculate that “boys’ attitudes to women and girls were in danger of being shaped by their easy access to pornography online.” I would like to humbly suggest that boys’ attitudes to  women and girls is being currently shaped by everything from advertizing, to movies, to novels, and perhaps nothing shapes their attitudes towards women as much as the interaction of their very own parents. Would the government like to censor the behavior of children’s parents at home? Furthermore, would difficult access to pornography tell them something significantly different from easy access.

Then we still haven’t answered the question of “what is pornography?” Will Courbet be filtered? (I was going to do my own sketch of that painting, but WordPress does not permit close-ups of genitalia.)

Maybe next, the government of the UK will work on the meaning of life and get back to us.

While poking around news from the UK, I couldn’t help noticing in a sidebar some woman was called “brilliant” for producing a boy. I hope the filter isn’t going to block some basic information about how babies are made because apparently Britons need a little more information about how that works.

As an American I’m a little bit concerned by the statement:

A joint British and American “task force” will be created to tackle obscene websites, while Google and other search engine providers will be required to draw up a “blacklist” of the most depraved and illegal search terms, the Prime Minister will announce.

It would be very nice to know exactly what our own government is doing in this regard.

Few people my age failed to see the movie The Blues Brothers. A few years would pass before that movie came out and gave my generation some repeatable lines like, “We’re on a mission from God” and “I hate Illinois Nazis.” Why Illinois Nazis?

Our suburban town, of course, was not isolated from the rest of the world. As a suburb of New York, we watched the news on New York stations and read, along with a local paper, the New York Times. The adults in our town tended to have more education than money and keeping up on, and discussing, current events was an important part of the social life of our town. A news event that dominated that year became known by the name of the town in which it took place and that town’s name has become synonymous with a prominent court case: Skokie.

For those of you who don’t know, the facts of the case are relatively simple and can be summed up quickly. The National Socialist Party of America, the Illinois Nazis of Blues Brothers fame, announced plans to march in Skokie, Illinois, a small town outside of Chicago where one sixth of the residents were holocaust survivors. The town of Skokie banned the display of swastikas and Nazi uniforms during the March. The National Socialists challenged the injunction and eventually it made its way to the Supreme Court of the United States.

As I’ve already mentioned, about one-third of the residents of our town were Jewish. However, there was a significant demographic difference between the people in our town and in Skokie. Most of my classmates’ families had come from Eastern Europe shortly before or after the beginning of the twentieth century. They owed their position in the middle class to progressive politics and the union movement of early twentieth century. For the most part, they did not have any direct family connections to the Holocaust. As it happens, in my extended family there were two Auschwitz survivors, originally from Hungary, one of whom still lives in upper Manhattan, but since our family was not Jewish I did not make the connection between our family and the events in Skokie.

The situation in Skokie attracted national attention and, given the demographics of our town, it was discussed quite frequently. I cannot remember getting into a discussion with my peers, but I do remember overhearing many discussions among adults. It was by means of this incident that I was taught to understand the principle behind the saying frequently misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to your death your right to say it.”

It is not uncommon, as a 1978 editorial in The New York Times noted, that civil libertarians find themselves in the “uncomfortable position of antagonizing those who consider themselves friends of freedom by supporting its enemies, such as Communists or Ku Klux Klanners.” The editorial goes on to say:

Perhaps the oldest lesson in the civil liberties primer is this: If the rights of those whom civil libertarians have most cause to despise are slighted, then everyone’s rights are placed in jeopardy.

This is not always a principle that is easy to keep, but it’s important to keep in nonetheless.

In the end, the Nazis did not march in Skokie. They marched in Chicago instead.

A squirrel checking me out.Last night, I did a bit of searching around the internet to see if I could find any concrete information on what, if anything, has happened to the young woman. I originally became aware of Amina’s situation due to a post by Maryam Namzie, an Iranian born feminist and human rights activist, who is also a former Muslim. Pretty simply, I went to Google and typed in Amina Tyler under their new search. What I didn’t find was as interesting as what I did find. Not seeing, the New York Times on the list of articles, I went directly to that site and typed in “Amina Tyler” and came up with nothing. Apparently, the The New York Times did not see this as a subject deserving coverage of any sort. I went back to the Google search results and followed the link to an article on Aljazeera, which I usually find to be a high quality source of information, especially on international issues. However, the only article they had was entitled “Muslim women decry topless gender protests.” I typed “Amina Tyler” into their search box and came up with nothing else.

The most complete articles in English have been in the UK version of the Huffington Post. I consider the Huffington Post to be too sensationalistic to be reliable.

Aljazeera has a page devoted to Human Rights, but no story about Amina appeared there. This left me wondering whether or not women’s rights have the same standing as other human rights. Amina’s photos were clearly intended as political speech, not pornography. To charge her with any criminal charges would definitely put it in the realm of persecution for political activism. Will mainstream human rights groups take up her case?

In the meantime, over at Jezebel, in some sort of “more pc than thou” fit, Callie Beusman wrote the shockingly stupid “Muslim Women Shockingly Not Grateful for Topless European Ladies Trying To ‘Save’ Them.” Well, two can play that game. Callie Beusman, are you so prejudiced against women who are not of European descent that when you see women speaking up for themselves you assume they must be European? Because in this video posted on the Femen site, one of the demonstrators appears to identify herself as an Arab woman. It should be noted that most of the protesters were protesting against Salafism or Islamism, the radical, highly politicized form of Islam, not necessarily Islam in general. The counter protest isn’t just Muslim women protesting against Femen, it’s Muslim women protesting against a Muslim woman who won’t conform. We had anti-feminist women, like Anita Bryant, here in the U.S. In fact, it’s very important for Western feminists to lend their support to women like Amina because we can’t lead the struggle there.

It should be fairly obvious that Amina would not be in her current problematic circumstances if she were not living in a country with a population that is mostly Muslim. She is not an isolated case. There are Egyptians who have participated in Femen protests. Maryam Nazmazie has recently put a post about a feminist Egyption political cartoonist. (Unfortunately the FTB site is not working – as usual – so I can’t give you a link. fixed!) It would be naive to think that all feminist activity in Islamic countries is the result of imperialistic Europeans.

I hope the left doesn’t fall into the trap of making this about racism, islamophobia and imperialism, rather than about free speech, the right to political expression and right of women to control their own bodies. Let’s make sure the focus remains on Amina and other women like her.

Which leads me to some thoughts about her. We should keep in mind what we are supporting when we say “We support Amina.” There is relatively little information on her. She has become best known for having disappeared from the public view. All I have seen are a handful of photos and one video in Arabic that I couldn’t understand. Right now, she is a blank screen onto which we can project almost anything. We should be prepared that when she surfaces, she may or may not live up to our expectations of her. What we need to remember is that we are supporting the principle of freedom of speech and the right of women to have control over their own bodies.

As it happens, I don’t belong to Femen and I don’t agree with many of their stances, especially as regards pornography.

In case anyone wants to do something other than take their shirt off, here’s a petition.

Well, this has gotten a bit longer than I expected, so I’ll just give you this link to an article about how atheists lack imagination and let you… well… imagine what I must think of it.

The Seine with Notre Dame in the background.The main reason I started posting links to things that I’ve read and found interesting but that didn’t prompt me to write a full post was the hope that other people would respond by giving me links to things in return. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Still, I hold some hope that this may occur in the future, so I continue to post, from time to time, “Links.”

I didn’t spend as much time this week poking around on the internet. (“Surfing” sounds like ridiculous self-aggrandizement.) While waiting to board the train earlier this week, I looked around the newstand for my usual train magazines. MIT Technology Review had a cover story entitled “Free Speech in the Era of Technological Amplification.” Needless to say, I picked it up since the story fit in so well with my ongoing research on the subject. (Yes, I promise I’ll write more. Or perhaps I should say threaten.) What a disappointment. I feel so lame giving you a link to a crummy, poorly thought out article, centered around a conceit so clumsy that it’s downright embarassing. It seems as if it was written off the cuff by someone who did not one whit of research. It might be acceptable as a post on a private blog, but, when someone is writing for a living, I expect them to do some useful work, not indulge their own vanity. I can indulge my vanity because I do this for free. I wondered how the editor of the magazine let that crap pass muster until I got to the end of the article where the author was identified as the editor in chief. Sorry, but this all I have to offer for this week.

Related to the subject of freedom of speech, I saw Searching for Sugar Man last night, a movie about the muscian Rodriguez. It was a reminder that censorship is used to maintain the position of the people who have the power to censor. A woman working for an archive in South Africa that maintains material that had been censored during the aparthied era takes out a vinyl record of Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact. She shows the track Sugar Man, which has been physically scratched to render it unplayable. Obstensibly, this track was forbidden because it was about drug use, but the viewer is made to understand that the real threat posed by Rodriguez had less to do with drugs but with the deeper message that we need to question society’s assumptions.

A close up of a gnarled bit of exposed wood on a tree where the bark has been damaged.Well, well, well. I was reminded this week that I’ve become lazy and dropped the ball on my freedom of speech project by several news items. The first was, at least to me, a real shocker. Reminding us that the K in UK stands for Kingdom, the Queen of England has issued a royal charter that has severely curtailed her subjects’ freedom of expression. To me, this is a mind-boggeling outrage. The ostensible reason for this seizure of power is the phone hacking scandal which, it is important to remember, was not revealed by the police or other authorities, but by competing newspapers. Clearly, the phone hacking scandal is nothing more than an excuse and a pretty poor one at that. To have your liberties taken away by a Queen issuing a decree. . . .  Really, I just don’t know what to say. When are you getting rid of that medieval remnant?

I consider myself a liberal, a progressive, someone who’s moderately left of center and all that, so I don’t think I need to tell anyone what I think of Rupert Murdoch. However, principles are principles. The hacking scandal should have landed the creep in jail with criminal charges. The current decree doesn’t seem to address the real problem.

Interestingly, back in Murdoch’s birth country, new media regulations have already come and gone.

A rather different situation emerged recently in Canada.

One subject that I intend to eventually take up, and one of the main reasons I’m moving slowly over the historical development of the freedom of speech and trying to wrap my head around the principles involved, is the question of laws against hate speech. Here in the U.S., we have few laws of this sort. However, they represent a growing body of laws around the world and we’ve been hearing more calls for similar laws to be passed here.

I grew up in a world in which people on the left tended to be more enthusiastic supporters of freedom of speech than people on the right. Recently these roles have been reversed, yet I have not changed my own beliefs on the subject, a situation which puts me at odds with many people with whom I am otherwise political allies.

In the province of Quebec, a young man Matthieu Bonin, who sees himself as an internet humorist and comedian (with a maudit bel accent), was charged with the crime of hate speech (in French) for saying, in a context which appeared to not be serious, that he hoped that someone would shoot up the National Assembly, Quebec’s provincial legislative body. The charges were dropped, because, if I understand correctly, members of the National Assembly are not an identifiable group warranting protection. This case has within it all sorts of interesting implications that I think it might be worth examining at length later despite the fact that the charges were dropped. (ht Leonid Sirota at Double Aspect)

When tackling a thorny issue in which well-meaning people with whom I tend to agree broadly are in disagreement with one another and I find myself being pulled in opposing directions by compelling arguments, I often begin by trying to establish some sort of very basic background or component ideas. Before tackling some of the thornier specific ideas related to freedom of speech as it relates to the internet, I wish to review some notion related to freedom of speech more generally.

A stained glass window featuring the image of a young woman.Freedom of speech is broadly assumed to be a good thing these days, as is demonstrated in its inclusion in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 19 reads, “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 document was adopted in the wake of the atrocities of the Second World War.

However, freedom of expression, as a positive good, is of relatively recent vintage. Its existence as a “universal” right was spread by the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” and its appearance in that document can be credited to the philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Our current notions of human rights can be traced through the Enlightenment back to the Protestant Reformation.

The first entry in The Guardian’s “Timeline: A History of Freedom of Speech” in which freedom of speech seems to be broadly advocated for the public is a quotation from Erasmus, the sixteenth century “Prince of the Humanists”. In Education of a Christian Prince he wrote, “In a free state, tongues too should be free.”

Erasmus’ close contemporary Machiavelli famously also wrote a book of advice for a young ruler. Importantly, unlike Erasmus, Machiavelli decoupled the proper exercise of political power from traditional morality and virtue.

In 1517, a year after Erasmus wrote Education of a Christian Prince, Martin Luther famously posted his ninety-five thesis, leading to a break with the Roman Catholic Church. At first, the rights of the new Lutheran Church were asserted against those of the Roman Catholic Chuch, but eventually it became clear that even those individuals that had rejected the authority of Rome disagreed among themselves. The differing interpretations of scripture would lead to competing groups that Brad S. Gregory calls “moral communities.”

Radical Protestants, such as John Milton, insisted that religious belief should be left to the conscience of the individual. In the Areopagitica, he traces out the arguments which will recur in discussions of freedom of speech and expression.

According to Gregory,

Because individuals disagreed about the meaning of God’s word, individuals and not politically favored churches were and had to be the bearers of rights, beginning with the right to religious liberty

Gregory goes so far as to say that the medieval ethics based on virtue was “replaced” by ethics based on rights. The destruction caused by the wars that accompanied religious conflict, and the consequent political instability, needed a solution. Repression of religious minorities was not sustainable. Toleration was the solution and “the discourse of religious toleration was simultaneously a discourse of individual rights.”

There’s a subject I’d like to bring up, having a soapbox, modest though it be. That is the subject of the freedom of speech and the Internet. I would really like to encourage people to take an interest in this because the Internet has become a primary means of communication and any laws or policies regulating its use is likely to have a significant impact on all of us, whether you see yourself as a heavy internet user or not. Thus far, the debate seems to be dominated by a couple of fairly narrow interest groups who have a disproportionate voice on a subject where the public good should be a deciding factor.

A red-bellied woodpecker and some house sparrows at a bird feeder.

Since I didn’t have any images that screamed “Internet” at me, you’re going to have to suffer through my latest bird feeder pictures.

Freedom of speech has long been a concern of mine. The particular set of concerns related to it brought up by the internet was reignited by a post on EOS Horizon. which talked about a debate currently happening in Sweden regarding the regulation of hate speech on the Internet. Reading the article as an American, I had forgotten at first that hate speech is regulated in many parts of the world. The Internet is global in scope, yet many of the laws regulating it are local. That should make for an interesting discussion.

There are quite a few overlapping issues and I have not fully developed my own ideas on the subject. I will be publishing a series of posts and I expect that my ideas will develop over time. One of the great things about blogging is the lack of any pretense towards authority. This allows me to engage in some thinking out loud.

Some of the subjects that I will be exploring will be:

  • Hate speech
  • Cyberbullying
  • Copyright laws
  • Copyright violations
  • Internet access
  • Government surveillance
  • Net neutrality

Usually theses subjects are discussed in isolation, but I believe that they are best approached as a group.

Two red-bellied woodpeckers, one male and one female, at a bird feeder.

This is the first time I’ve ever seen both Mr. and Mrs. Red at the bird feeder at the same time.

For this first post, I would simply like to cover some basic information about the technology. If you feel like I’m talking down to you, it’s because this preface is not for you. A great many people have asked me very basic questions about the Internet and the applications which use it, so I have reason to believe there is quite a bit of ignorance and confusion out there that hampers a broad discussion of the topic. For the purposes of discussing laws and policies that affect internet communication, everyone is capable of understanding the basics of the technology.

What is the Internet?

The same two woodpeckers as in the previous photo still at the feeder.

They’re probably loading up on calories and saving their strength for breeding season.

A number of years ago, a United States Congressman was mocked mercilessly for describing the Internet as a “series of tubes.” However, it’s not that bad an analogy. A better analogy might be a phrase that’s fallen out of use, “The Information Superhighway.” It’s that network of phone lines, fiber optic cables, television cables, wireless connections, and whatever else that carries information that can be accessed by a computer, including the little computer you carry in your pocket that doubles as a phone.

The Internet can carry all formats of information. For years most of us used the internet mainly for email and the World Wide Web, which we usually simply call the Web. Since then, we’ve come to use it for voice over IP (VoIP) functions like Skype, as a delivery system for movies and a variety of other things.

Large institutions, like corporations and universities, frequently have their own private networks, called “intranets.” The Internet is the large, widely shared, network that can be accessed by everyone.

Who Owns That Network?

This is an important point, because it’s definitely going to arise in some of the discussions. Networks cost money to install and maintain.

The Internet is comprised of many smaller networks that are connected together. Although no one owns the Internet, those smaller networks are owned by a variety of entities including private companies and governments. The Internet can only exist because these entities cooperate with one another.

What Is the Web?

The Web is a service that runs over the Internet. It is comprised of a huge number of documents, or computer files, that are formatted in a consistent way. This format allows them to be viewed by a web browser.

For our purposes, a characteristic that distinguishes the Web from many other services that run over the Internet is that it is non-proprietary. Everyone can use this format with out paying fees to the organization that created it.

What Are Apps?

The male woodpecker is still on the feeder and the female woodpecker is flying away.

Each spring, these two have a couple of young. That’s when the drumming starts, usually at dawn. This is one instance in which I wouldn’t mind limiting someone’s freedom of speech. They’re a beautiful family, but noisy.

The current usage of the word “app” that I find among my computer illiterate friends and family is a little concerning because people seem to be quite confused about what they are. The word “app” is simply a shortened form of the word “application.” In other words, an “app” is just another word for a computer program. However, these days, when people talk about apps, they seem to be thinking of the applications that are purchased, or downloaded for free, from services such as the Apple’s App Store and are usually intended for mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers.

These applications make an excellent contrast with the Web. Many of these applications access information over the Internet. However, their format is often proprietary. No one else can use that format without permission of the owners. So, for instance, you can read articles published by the New York Times on their website via the Web, using a web browser. You can also have a New York Times app on your tablet computer and use that to read articles published by the Times. The New York Times App performs a function similar to the web browser. Both applications display The New York Time’s articles which have been delivered over the Internet. The difference is that The New York Times App only displays articles from The New York Times. The web browser can display articles from anyone who formats its information appropriately. Anyone includes you, because the format is non-proprietary – and that’s an important point to remember.

A Note to Techies

I’ve left out as much technical information as possible in this description and have tried to include only things that have a direct bearing on policy discussions so the broadest number of people can take part in this discussion. I’m far more knowledgeable than this simplification would suggest. I’ve tried to avoid all jargon, avoiding talking about protocol layering, gateways, routers and so on. In doing so, I have probably made some little errors. I almost certainly have left out some things that will turn out to be relevant. If you think of anything, please let me know, either in the comments or through the contact form on the About page so I can either update this page or include it in future posts. Thanks.

At some point, I’m going to be discussing specific legislation that’s been proposed to regulate the Internet. As an American, most of my familiarity is with U.S. laws. If anyone has links to legislation, either implemented or seriously proposed, in other countries, I’d appreciate the input. I can read articles in French as well as English. Unfortunately, any other languages will have to suffer through something like Google translate.