Tag Archives: hate speech

Breaking your social contract

Following on from yesterday’s blog about social contracts, but not requiring you to have read it…

Civilization is, in practice, underpinned by co-operation. There will always be those who try to compete and exploit, and to a degree, that can be coped with. A grouping of people that goes too far into power hunger or exploitation is likely to experience conflict. The laws held by countries, and the rules held by groups of people exist to try and keep everyone co-operative enough for things to work.  Crimes are things that have the capacity to undermine your culture.

Any culture, community or civilization has the right to resist behaviours that will undermine its viability. This is not at all the same as having the right to make laws and rules that destroy the freedom of others. There’s only so much rigid control you can inflict on a group before it will shatter under the pressure of that.  Those who wish to restrict reasonable freedoms will often justify what they do as being a way of upholding and protecting culture, but that doesn’t make it so. Those who do not want their ‘freedom’ to break social contracts restricted, will call any effort to protect the basis of society an encroachment on their rights.

I think these are the things we need to bear in mind when talking about the right to free speech and the limits of tolerance. If we allow the kind of speech that undermines social bonds we move towards a more oppressive arrangement and if we keep moving that way, we get massive social unrest and violence. If we tolerate people who want to make society intolerable for some, then we’re moving our group towards a state of unviability.

We can afford to accommodate any amount of difference if that difference doesn’t prevent anyone else from quietly getting on with their own lives. Women wearing headscarves are not stopping anyone getting on with their own lives. Women forced to wear headscarves are being prevented from getting on with their own lives. Being LGBT doesn’t stop anyone else from quietly getting on with their own life. If being LGBT is illegal, or encounters violence, then people aren’t being allowed to quietly get on with their own lives.

Tolerance must be limited by whether being tolerant will undermine the feasibility of your people. Tolerance that allows people the maximum freedom it can to live in their own ways, is a good thing. Tolerance that allows people to restrict the freedoms of others is problematic and sows the seeds of its own destruction. The only freedoms we should not allow each other are the freedoms to harm each other. As the intention of hate speech is to bring harmful practices into a culture, hate speech should not be tolerated.

Intolerant societies have violence hardwired into them, and/or break down into violence. Peaceful societies are inclusive, and only restrict freedoms in so far as that’s necessary to prevent harm.

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Hate speech and activism

Here’s a thing I’ve seen too often. A woman does or says something unacceptable. She is rightly called out for it. But then the tone changes and it becomes an opportunity for anti-female hate. Rather than talking about the issues, words like bitch, witch, and cunt enter the mix. We will hear that she’s old, fat, ugly, unshaggable. In the worst cases, there will be threats of rape, violence and even death. This has got to stop, because there is nothing, nothing a person can say that makes it ok to threaten them.

There are a number of things that happen when this occurs. Firstly, it derails the actual issue. Whatever we should have been talking about gets lost in the noise of hate speech. That’s not good activism. Tory women subject to threats online became a bigger story last year than the shit they had been dealing out. That’s not a win for your cause. Hate speech justifies more hate back at you. That’s not a win for your cause. There isn’t a good cause out there well served by directing hate towards women. Nor is there a good cause well served by perpetuating rape culture.

Last time I did a stall in the street, and old Labour supporter- a guy – explained to me that this kind of political situation is what you get when women are allowed power, because women are basically awful. I’m not prepared to accept that. I’m not prepared to let Theresa May be judged for her gender rather than her actions. It’s her actions, and lethal inaction we should be calling out, for as long as it takes to get real change. Hating her for being a woman doesn’t actually help.

It’s all too tempting to give the person holding your banner a free pass. They are on your side, apparently, they turned up to support your cause and bash your enemies and so we accept them and even welcome them. It doesn’t help that we treat so many issues as fights, us and them, my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Except they aren’t, and what we’re doing is giving room for haters and people who are totally at odds with our causes and values.

If your allies are using hate speech and making threats of death and rape, they are not your allies. They just happen to hate your opponent more than they hate you. They find your banner a convenient thing to hide behind. They may even be there for the harm they can do to your cause. I’ve seen it so many times online this year – people on the right complaining about the vile hate speech and threats coming from the left. Making death threats to Tory women does not advance any cause for the common good, it harms it.

Do we trust everyone who turns up and says they are with us? Do we trust everyone who claims to be our ally that they really are that? It seems rather naive to me. The people holding your banner have the most power to destroy your credibility, especially if you stand by and let them do it.

We have to stop giving free passes to anyone who claims to be ‘on our side’. When you’re working for cultural change, the ends do not justify the means. If the means take you in exactly the wrong direction, then what you’re doing is creating a cultural change that goes in exactly the wrong direction. You don’t make people safer by making death threats. You don’t further your cause by letting people with a hate agenda speak loudly on its behalf.

We have to start dealing with each other based on how we behave, not based on whose side anyone says they are on. If we see our ‘enemies’ as inhuman and deserving the worst we can do to them, we have lost already. To win at radical cultural change, we have to persuade. We have to argue over the ideas and the methods. We have to deal with the issues. Hate speech doesn’t do that. Ever. We have to be the change we want to see and our methods matter, which means we have to speak up against hate no matter where it comes from. We have to say no, this person does not speak for me. No, this behaviour is not acceptable.


Comedy for Druids

Comedy often has a political dimension even if it’s not ostensibly about politicians. You can subvert and undermine with laughter, draw attention to issues, and raise awareness. This is the kind of work we might want to associate with the Druid satire tradition. Such comedy is a means by which those who have little worldly power can call to account those who have a great deal of power over them.

There is another kind of comedy. It is used by the powerful to crush the less powerful, through mockery, ridicule, stereotyping and misleading. It is used as a cover for hate speech and prejudice. I am seeing this online a lot, and it troubles me greatly. Abusive, humiliating and cruel, hate speech is easily framed by joke shapes. Object, and you will be told that the problem is you, for having no sense of humour. Feminists who object to rape jokes are told they have no sense of humour. “Just a laugh” is used to excuse reinforcing the idea that women are inherently inferior, that it is ok to judge women purely on looks, and all manner of other unsavoury things. I’m prepared to bet that other groups subject to hate speech also have to endure ‘jokes’ that aren’t funny.

The first rule of comedy is that it should get a laugh. Lines like “You’re so fat and ugly” are not innately comedic. Using words like ‘lame’ and ‘gay’ as criticisms is not ironic, or clever, or funny, it’s just lazy language use that needlessly reinforces prejudice. I’ve seen far too much of this. If you are using comedy to attack someone who has less power than you, then you’re doing it wrong. If you spot someone making gags of that shape, it’s worth calling them out. The point of satire is to keep the powerful in line and civilised, not to bash the disadvantaged.

Calling out unfunny bigots who claim comedy as an excuse for airing their hate, is not a safe or easy business. Expect to get a dose of it too. If you say “that’s not comedy, that’s racism” to someone online, then a response like “you’re an ugly bitch who can’t take a joke” is likely. Probably even if you’re a guy. I think guys who challenge are more likely to be told they aren’t ‘proper men’, that they must be ‘gay’, have a vagina, or otherwise not be macho enough to laugh. Hate pedlars come in both genders, and will justify and defend their hate without a second thought. Usually by giving anyone who questions it a thorough dose of their poison. If you’re calling someone out, you have to weather this. Take it personally, and they will call you weak and ridicule you, while their prejudices go unchallenged because they can avoid taking you seriously. I can’t say reasoning with the unfunny brigade works, but if you try it, do it calmly, without anger and without resorting to hate speech yourself. There are forms of sympathy that can get under people’s skin. “I really feel sorry for you. Life must be pretty grim if this counts as funny. I’m guessing you aren’t a very happy person.” A ‘poor you’ approach can confuse, challenge, break down defences and leave no room for a really angry comeback.

Refusing to get the joke is an interesting strategy for dealing with the unfunny. Even good comedy suffers when you have to explain it. Play clueless, and try and get them to explain to you why the ‘joke’ is funny. There’s nothing like having to break it down and expose the core prejudice to make it clear to someone exactly what they are saying. Conveying the idea that it doesn’t work as a joke helps reduce the incentive to keep pedalling it.

People use comedy to draw attention to themselves, and to show off how clever they are, in part. Failure to get a laugh, drawing the wrong kind of attention, or getting feedback that tells you that no one thinks you are clever, makes trying to pass hate speech off as humour less appealing. If the aim of being unfunny is to make sure that you are the aggressor, not the victim, getting laughed at is not the outcome you wanted.

It’s one thing laughing at the foolish things people do. It’s another laughing at the things people have no control over. Laughter that deflates arrogance is a good thing. Laughter that crushes the vulnerable, is not. Far too many people either do not know, or do not care that there is a difference. We need a culture shift, to which end it may be productive to start laughing at the people who are not funny, rather than laughing with their hate speech or being silent in a way they will understand as tacit support.