Censorship, Justification, Youtube and Business Vs Individual Rights

6219961958_f51291fba0_oAlright, let’s do this as a blog, rather than a video as the internet is still playing up and it might be better to do this in this format.

Introduction

In the wake of the recent Youtube demonetisation scandal – a surprise to some, not to others – abrupt in its revelation and unexpected in its extent, a lot of my fellow sceptics, atheists and members of that broader community have reacted on two poles. One group, much like me, treats this as another example of creeping online censorship of social media. Another group seems to brush this off and to claim is isn’t censorship, disturbingly echoing many SJW arguments as they do so.

While some people in the first group may be overreacting, people in the second group are just flat out wrong. Some of this is down to not understanding the principle of free expression or the meaning of censorship. Some of it seems to be ideological, where free market, economic libertarianism seems to come into conflict with the principles of individual rights and freedoms and they seem unable to negotiate the clash between the two.

In large part I tend to blame the dominance of the American First Amendment over these kinds of discussions. It turns these arguments into legalistic and governmental ones, when the right to free expression is a universal human right, enshrined in but not deriving from documents like the US constitution, the United Nations declaration on human rights and many, many others.

The discussion and argument is far, far bigger than American law.

What is Censorship?

The Oxford English Dictionary is about as definitive a guide to the meaning of the English language as you can get, and defines censorship thus:

The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.

In other words, anything that reduces or eliminates expression, on any basis – legitimate or otherwise – is censorship. Anything. The argument is usually not whether something is censorship, but whether said censorship is justified.

The ACLU has a noteworthy, modern understanding of censorship and describes it thus:

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional. In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period.

Freedom of expression is, meanwhile, perhaps best expressed in the UN Universal 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.

To reiterate. Your right to free expression is that to hold and impart opinions without interference, through any media, regardless of frontiers. Clearly a great deal interferes with that, some justified, some not, but that’s the ideal. Anything that does interfere with that is censorship. That censorship can come from government but also from private groups, companies, individuals and even from oneself, either through free personal choice or under pressure and duress (it can be hard to disentangle the two).

When the government bans and prosecutes child pornography it is justified on the grounds of protection of children. When the government bans pornography created by and for consenting adults it is, arguably, not justified.

When a pressure group, such as those operated by former campaigner Mary Whitehouse tries to shut down ‘lewdness’ and ‘immoral content’ on television they’re largely unjustified, but are engaged in attempted censorship. When a pressure group has indisputable evidence that certain content can harm the development of children they may justifiably argue for censorship or constriction. Pressure groups on campus no-platforming speakers are engaged in censorship. Again, anything that suppresses or prevents speech is censorship. The threats of violence from Islamic extremists against cartoonists, causing them to self-censor – again, censorship.

All of this is censorship.

The only good justifications for censorship are under the harm principle:

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” – JS Mill, On Liberty.

Can we, then, say that what is going on at Youtube is censorship?

That it is a private company makes no difference here. Censorship does not require government involvement to be censorship. Youtube does censor certain content, but this has been deemed reasonable by most of the community (nudity etc is disallowed). I would disagree there too, but that’s a different argument. Youtube has not outright banned any additional content, so it’s not outright censorship, it has ‘merely’ removed monetisation on the basis of some rather opaque and vague criteria.

This loss of monetisation, which is tied to ‘controversial topics’, politics, news and other forms of content may not be outright censorship but it is ‘suppression’, refer back to the definition. Content that can’t make creators money will become less common, the livelihoods of people who produce Youtube content full time will be threatened. Certain forms of commentary and news coverage will be affected as will support organisations, charities, fiction of certain types, tutorials and more. ‘Controversial topics’ is particularly contentious, I’ve had perfectly lucid, explanatory videos on ‘Gamergate’ demonetised.

That people the sceptic/atheist/anti-SJW community have beef with have also been censored doesn’t make the problem less of an issue, it just means it’s affecting more people. That they’ve had their demonetisation reversed (Laci Green) while others have not does lend some weight to this being a political bias, or at least fear on Youtube’s part of bad publicity from some quarters and not others.

Whatever the specifics, yes it’s censorship as it is suppressing certain forms of expression.

Is it Justified?

It’s censorship, but since anything that suppresses or bans speech is censorship the question is whether it’s justified or not. So where’s the harm being done?

Ostensibly this censorship is being made at the behest of the advertisers, but why?

Youtube only benefits from more people using and watching their platform. It costs them very little to host any particular person’s content and the more there is and the more variety the more people are likely to watch. The more creators and the more content they put out and promote, the more to watch. It’s in Youtube’s interest to have the least amount of restriction possible.

Users do not have their experience improved by the censorship, they are harmed by it (less content, less entertainment). Some may say they’re harmed by seeing expression they don’t like, but the solution is simply not to watch it.

Creators are harmed directly by the censorship. Some might say they want it – there was a push against ‘roasting’ and other response videos recently, but again the solution is simply not to watch it.

Advertisers are supposedly the ones asking for this as it is ‘advertiser friendliness’ that is the excuse given. How could an advertiser be harmed here? The kinds of content being targeted are clearly popular and draw a lot of eyes, which is what the advertiser is paying for. This is not sponsorship, there is no direct link between the product and the content and while seeing adverts for Barbie showing next to ‘Uncle Anaconda’s Underage Trouser Power Hour’ might be amusing, nobody except the basest moron would associate the one with the other unless there was sponsorship. Advertisers already advertise around news programmes, edgy comedy shows and more on television. What’s the difference here, if there is any? None.

Nobody appears to gain from this and everybody is harmed – even the advertisers who end up with less exposure.

There’s no justification for it that holds up under scrutiny.

Are we then, those who protest, justified in seeking to exercise control over a privately owned media platform?

Youtube is not like an art gallery. It has – essentially – unlimited space to host content. A gallery could justify turning you away based on limited space or lack of talent or not fitting their remit. The cost/benefit is in favour of them. On Youtube however it costs them virtually nothing (per individual case) to host content and they gain. There’s not much of a defence there on economic or practical grounds.

Moral grounds? This becomes more tricky. If they don’t want certain kinds of content then to an extent that’s their prerogative. However, we live in interesting times. The public square is privately owned and the hard won freedoms we have when it comes to things like free expression, that protect us from the government, do not protect us – at least not in law – from private companies. This becomes an issue in the case of social media giants like Youtube, Twitter and Facebook because they now own the public square and their censorship has a massively deleterious effect.

There’s precedent for the state (acting as the will of the people) stepping in to protect people’s rights form private entities. Some of these are obvious – regulation on dumping waste, not being allowed to make false claims in advertising and so on, others are less obvious or more contentious. Is it right that we step in to protect a homosexual couple’s access to services for their weddings, or should we allow private businesses to be conducted according to their own conscience? What if they want to turn away blacks, or women? Is that OK?

This appears to be the sticking point for many, especially the economic libertarians, anarcho capitalists and so on. The abuse of power that comes in a wholly free market appears to be inevitable and this kind of censorship is an example of that – albeit a mild one. This is especially a problem when the company in question – such as Youtube – has such a de-facto monopoly.

This is where our argument and discussion should be occurring. Where individual and business rights collide, how monopoly status and the cheapness of digital storage interfaces with that.

Some Practical Solutions

1. First I suggest that anyone who runs into advertising on Youtube make a note of who is advertising and then contact them later. Express – politely – the issue with demonetisation and that blame is being placed on the advertisers. Tell them you prefer Youtube as a free speech platform and you do not want to support a company that suppresses free speech. If enough people do this to enough companies (explaining that advertising and content is divorced) then there may be some traction and a shift.

2. Give advertisers the freedom to advertise on ‘edgy’ content if they wish. Flag content as ‘limited monetisation’ if you wish, but let the advertisers choose if they want their adverts to run there or not, rather than simply demonetising. Many advertisers probably don’t care. Many would probably like to advertise next to very popular, controversial and topical content as it may fit their product profile better. Advertisers that don’t want to do so wouldn’t have to, advertisers that did would benefit, creators and viewers would continue to benefit from monetisation.

3. Allow Youtube Red to apply to the content you’re limiting. This would allow ‘edgy’ content to get money as if advertising were present, coming from the Red subscription. It would also encourage creators to encourage their followers to support Youtube Red, with a knock-on benefit for Youtube itself.

Conclusion

It is censorship. It’s not justifiable under the harm principle. Holding Youtube (and similar companies) to uphold free expression is a controversial and arguable point – an interesting discussion to have – but there were other ways to deal with this problem, and better ways than springing it on people.

People need to understand that censorship is more than governmental. That free speech is not limited to the US constitution. That the media landscape has changed and that rights and legislation need to catch up.

Pax.

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How Free Speech was Actually Threatened

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Political comics aren’t just limited to newspapers. You also find them online, related to various issues. This one’s been doing the rounds lately and while all such political cartoons are simplistic, this one is particularly terrible. I don’t think I’ve seen one that misrepresented the issue of free speech so badly since the somewhat notorious XKCD one. That was a shame, as XKCD normally has something of a level head. This one, however, is just ludicrous.

It is, of course, alluding to various online spats from Gamergate to ‘Ghostbros’ to the regular Hugo Awards side show, but it utterly misrepresents.

Panel 1: Title – Ironically, it may well turn out to be accurate rather than sarcastic.

Panel 2: The idea that feminism attacks free speech is meant to be seen as ridiculous, but it does – indeed – happen. There are any number of examples from building moral panics about video games (now the idea is that they cause ‘sexism’ rather than ‘violence’) to collusion with government to ban forms of pornography (Gail Dines and the UK kink porn production ban) to No-Platforming and Safe Spaces. It’s not just limited to feminism, but it is found across a swathe of people who – ironically and laughably – consider themselves progressive even as they attack people’s free expression, sex lives and other fundamental human freedoms they should be fighting for.

Panel 3: Case in point. ‘Calling out sexism in video games’ doesn’t mean that there is sexism and ‘criticism’, coming from the likes of Anita Sarkeesian or Jonathan McIntosh is not ‘criticism’ in the sense most people would understand it. This is not “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work,” or even “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes.” This is claiming that these things do harm and should not exist. It is not presented as a matter of opinion or a disagreement that can be discussed, but something that ‘is’, and something that is ‘bad’. It is a bald assertion and any attempt to discuss, debunk or otherwise counter that claim is treated as confirmation of that claim and as a crime or violence in and of itself.

So ‘feminist criticism’ is, indeed, a threat to free expression because it’s not criticism, and it presents calls to action to change, remove and to force artistic works and other expression to change or be removed. If you think censorship is limited to governmental action, this kind of ‘criticism’ works there too, but even so, the ACLU has a fairly up to date definition which includes:

Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are “offensive,” happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.

In contrast, when private individuals or groups organize boycotts against stores that sell magazines of which they disapprove, their actions are protected by the First Amendment, although they can become dangerous in the extreme. Private pressure groups, not the government, promulgated and enforced the infamous Hollywood blacklists during the McCarthy period. But these private censorship campaigns are best countered by groups and individuals speaking out and organizing in defense of the threatened expression.

This isn’t differences of opinion. They are presented as facts, beyond question and to reiterate – since its important – any rebuttal is treated as confirmation and as an ‘attack’ of its own.

It’s also important to note for later that these kinds of ‘critics’ seem genuinely incapable of telling the difference between thought and action. So they will see a cultural artefact that includes – say – violence against women as violence against women (and approving of and encouraging it). This also works in reverse as we saw in the Charlie Hebdo shootings. It allowed many people – even artists and writers – to refuse to commemorate and support Charlie Hebdo because they could not see a meaningful difference between Charlie Hebdo’s criticism of Islam and the ’emotional pain’ it caused, and the violent, actual, physical backlash they suffered.

Panel 4 & Panel 5: One of the great things about social media is that it empowers people to criticise, comment and debunk. This is, of course, not popular in some quarters which is why many sites of various kinds, but tending to have common ideological slants, have taken to removing comments sections or even up and down votes. This stifles the ability of people to point out problems in the assertions directly and such ‘fighting back’ is often conflated with the trolling etc that goes on, making a handy excuse to dismiss, deflect or drown out criticism. The irony here of course is in ‘critics’ lashing out at things people love and then recoiling in terror when they get the same kind of treatment in return. When their ideas are picked apart and tested – as they should be.

Panel 6: Here we see the conflation of criticism and trolls. Anyone and everyone who posts a controversial opinion of any sort online will get blowback and everyone gets trolled. Some people seem to advertise their soft-spots to trolls though, and yet still act surprised when they get attacked on it. A fat acceptance activist will be attacked for their weight, a feminist will receive trolling masquerading as misogyny, black people will receive trolling masquerading as racism. Trolls are not sincere, that’s the definition of a troll – someone who says something horrific or controversial simply to get a response. There are genuine crazies as well, of course, but – again – what happens is that all criticism and rebuttal gets lumped in with the trolls, and the trolls treated as sincere.

Panel 7-8: Nobody is being actively silenced here. They are deciding for themselves to stop speaking. All they have had is disagreement, sometimes strident, online from people they have insulted and tried to censor. The people coming at them have no ‘institutional power’ to do so, while in the reverse you will often find people going to authorities (see earlier) or abusing site rules, DMCA rules etc to silence people. In this instance there is no censorship going on. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone amongst the enemies of these ‘critics’ who advocates that they should not be allowed to speak or present their views. Rather they’re happy to have a free exchange of views, a ‘marketplace of ideas’. This is a very real and important difference. If they truly believed in their ‘criticisms’ they should be willing and able to stand by them, argue for them in the teeth of criticism. That instead they run, hide and attempt – again – to censor dissent suggests that their ideas are indefensible.

Panel 9: Indeed they did. They didn’t silence anyone, they stood up against people who attacked them and forced them to retreat. To any rational and reasonable onlooker who genuinely understands the terms and the differentiations, this is a victory for free expression – just couched in sarcastic terms by someone who knows nothing about it.

No More Private Lives

3ff432767a926da1c4b53b41e0c30fce.1000x750x1There used to be a sharp divide between your public life and your private life. There were a few exceptions, of course, public officials who pronounced on the importance of propriety and the family or who represented people by common mandate could find themselves undermined by revelations about their private life, but otherwise the two were kept fairly separate. The exception was when facets or details about someone’s private life became ‘in the public interest’.

That didn’t mean simply that ‘the public find this interesting’, but rather that their lives, health, livelihoods or other important life-aspects were placed under threat. It wasn’t really in the public interest if Lord Whatshisname was gay, particularly (unless he was making rulings on gay marriage etc) but it would be relevant if he were being blackmailed over that by criminal or other interest groups.

Public interest, of course, became ‘prurient interest’ and those living in the public eyes (celebrities of all sorts) became the subject of gossip magazines, paparazzi houndings, wild speculation and more. Even the legal recourse of taking people to trial for libel and slander was little deterrent. Too expensive and too time consuming given the sheer volume of material.

Now most of us live, to some extent, in the public eye via social media and this is having a massive, erosive effect on the institution of having a private life. Increasingly businesses believe they have a right to monitor and hold us responsible for our conduct outside of business hours and, furthermore, people who disagree with our stances and politics in our private lives seek to censor us by threatening our jobs and opportunities.

If you’ve read Trigger Warning there’s some fine examples of this issue relating to football, wherein private – somewhat racist – cell phone and text message conversations were leaked, revealing a side to certain managers, staff and players that had been entirely opaque in their public lives. One has to ask then, if such was undetectable in their public conduct, why it would matter what they said to each other in private. Especially when it’s not entirely clear how much may have simply been non-PC banter and blowing off frustration.

Away from there, to pick one of many examples from people’s normal lives there’s the Clementine Ford/Michael Nolan incident. He called her a slut, in response to other responses to her provocative pseudo-trolling style of journalism.

Is calling a woman a slut a nice thing to do? Even a contrarian controversy-baiting hatemonger like Ford? No, obviously not.

Is it any of Meriton’s business (the company he worked for) what he does in his own time? No, obviously not.

Is it acceptable or proportionate to go after someone’s livelihood over an online disagreement, however vociferous? No, obviously not.

Yet this happens more and more. Social media occupies a strange place between private and public communication and straying more towards one or the other depending how you use it.

If your Twitter is locked and you only use it for conversation and to follow a couple of hundred people that’s much more akin to a private account than one that doubles as a business outlet and which has a few thousand mutual follows.

Your personal Facebook should not be considered the same as any product or business pages you happen to run on there as well.

I tend to use the analogy of the pub to explain what social media conversations can be like. You’re out in a public space, with your friends, having a conversation at your table and with many other conversations going on around you, but others can eavesdrop, join or leave the conversation and even argue with you. It’s neither a fully public nor a fully private space.

Something has to change and the reassertion of the private space may be a part of that. It may even require changes in the law, so that it would be unfair dismissal to fire someone for their lawful expression outside of work hours. This is also another aspect of private censorship that we need to worry about, along with the ‘public square’ now being in private hands and immune to the protections free expression is afforded by the government.

If we respond with a ‘so what?’ to people’s private expression, made public, if companies can say “We can’t fire him, it’s a privately held opinion unrelated to the business,” then maybe we can claw back some of our collective freedom. After all, someone thinking ‘jet fuel can’t melt steel beams’ has no effect on their ability to fold t-shirts at GAP.

Meditations on Cultural Libertarianism

Allum Bokhari, a liberal fellow writing for – of all places – Breitbart, has posited that we are experiencing a new cultural phenomenon, which he dubs ‘Cultural Libertarianism‘, and which has been somewhat discussed – critically – by the Centre for a Stateless Society, pointing it out as one side, or an emerging counter-revolution, in the increasingly vicious culture war.

Mr Bokhari defines this Cultural Libertarianism largely by defining what it is in opposition to, rather than what its values and positive characteristics are. He does cover, briefly, what he identifies as Cultural Libertarian values which I’ll use as the basis for this discussion.

  • Championing free expression.
  • Resisting Identity Politics and public shaming.
  • Defending and understanding humour.
  • Opposing nannying and ‘safe spaces’.
  • Defending personal freedom.
  • Facts over feelings.
  • Valuing consumers and producers over third parties.
  • Celebrating culture in all its forms.

Some of these seem redundant to me and the aspects which are oppositional to what is being called ‘progressivism’ often stem from existing values. In promoting that positive value you inevitably come into opposition with others.

If I were to identify what I thought of as the core values of this emerging phenomenon, I would identify them as such:

  • A belief in the inherent value of free expression.
  • A belief in the equality, potential and strength of human beings.
  • A belief in the power and value of personal liberty.
  • A belief in the power, utility and relevance of reason.

It is, probably, necessary to define ‘libertarianism’ (small ‘l’) before going any further. If you say ‘libertarianism’ to most people, they picture some some of Ayn Rand worshipping anarcho-capitalist with an absolute belief in the free market and no sense of fairness or life-goals beyond unbridled profit.

This isn’t necessarily an unfair assessment of many economic Libertarians (big ‘l’) but libertarianism is not so specific an idea. The toxic and specific definition is so pernicious it has even begun to infiltrate dictionaries. Scruton’s Dictionary of Political Thought includes the extreme laissez-faire economic perspective, but also describes more classical libertarianism as a form of liberalism which…

…believes in freeing people not merely from the constraints of traditional political institutions, but also from the inner constraints imposed by their mistaken attribution of power to ineffectual things. The active libertarian is engaged in a process of liberation and wages war on all institutions through which a man’s vision of the world is narrowed… …among them the institutions of religion, the family and the customs of social – especially sexual – conformity.

This doesn’t quite describe what we’re talking about here either, though you can see the spirit of it within it. You can see echoes of what we’re talking about in both economic and social libertarianism though. An economic libertarian advocates minimal – or no – societal (governmental) interference in the conduct of business, a social libertarian advocates minimal – or no – societal (governmental) interference in social conduct and, then, a cultural libertarian would advocate minimal – or no – societal (or governmental) interference in cultural conduct.

  • An economic libertarian might argue against business regulation.
  • A social libertarian might advocate for the legalisation of sex work and recreational drugs.
  • A cultural libertarian might advocate against any and all constrictions of free expression.

To me, much of this seems to be what I have often longed for in the past five years, a reassertion of Enlightenment values and of classical liberalism.

All of western society which, love it or loathe it, has been powerfully successful, derives in its modern form from Enlightenment values of reason, empiricism, skepticism, independence, individualism and, you might say, an attempt to bring about the maturity of society by separating it from political and religious tyranny.

Classical liberalism, to finish contextualising cultural libertarianism, has the asserted values of:

  • Belief in the supreme value of the individual, their freedom and rights.
  • Belief in natural rights, inherent and independent to society and government.
  • Recognition of the supreme importance and value of freedom, with the view that interference should be limited and minimal and only justifiable to the extent that it maximises freedom.
  • A humanistic view of human affairs, rather than a theological view.
  • Universalism, that rights and duties transcend place and time and that the human condition is our common experience.
  • Advocacy of tolerance in morality and religion.

I believe we can see a common thread, then, running from the explorations of the Enlightenment, through classical liberalism (and democratic socialism, much as that may shock and horrify some cultural libertarians) through to today’s new cultural libertarians.

That’s a noble tradition.

Of course, there are points of confusion where the values from this heritage also seem to be held by cultural libertarianism’s opposition, or where it seems to run at odds to some of the other values of people who might be dubbed cultural libertarians. I don’t want to dwell too much on the negative – as I stated at the start – but some aspects are worth pointing out.

It confuses many how people of such opposing values on other scores can find themselves in common cultural cause. I, for example, have little I agree with – say – Adam Baldwin or Katie Hopkins on, but however obnoxious I find them or they find me, I think we all would agree on one thing. That we each have the right to our opinions and the right to express them. Supporting a person’s right to free expression does not entail agreeing with their economic or social positions. People are so quick to slap an identity on someone – friend or foe alike – that nuanced discussion becomes impossible because you’ve been written off as a ‘conservative’ or a ‘misogynist’ or whatever else.

People are more than their identity tags.

Another point of contention might be the nature of freedom and of rights. There’s always a tension between ‘freedom from’ and ‘freedom to’ and between a person’s right to do something and another person’s right to be free of something. ‘The right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose’, so to speak, but how much nasal protection is in order?

Cultural libertarians will tend to favour ‘freedom to’ and JS Mill’s formulation of the Harm Principle would seem to offer a good guide to where intervention is morally and ethically justified.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

‘Harm’, of course, is the centre of much of the modern debate, what constitutes actual harm, whether it includes emotional harm, whether it includes taking offence and whether it’s acceptable to take offence on behalf of someone else. I would argue that cultural libertarians mean genuine and actual harm – such as direct advocacy of violence – and not insult or offence.

Tolerance is the last arena I shall briefly touch on, where confusion might arise. Tolerance, in common parlance, has come to mean ‘strenuously not offending or upsetting anyone’, whereas tolerance in this sense – and more properly if I’m any judge – means putting up with and coping with running into contradictory views and being able to cope with their existence. Ironically the opposite of what ‘tolerance’ has come to mean.

These are some initial thoughts on a phenomenon and proposed ‘new’ social movement that I find fascinating and I shall probably continue to discuss and attempt to identify what it means as time goes on.

#JeSuisCharlie Ceci N’est pas un Bomb

charlie-hebdo

A paedophile, a murderer, an epileptic madman and the prophet of a major religion walk into a bar.

“Morning Mohammed,” says the barkeep.

Did you laugh, did you even smile? Then you’re marked for death, as I am for writing it, as anyone could be for drawing a stick figure and writing Mohammed beside it.

Cartoonists have been gunned down for standing up against the increasing censorship in our society. This makes me feel terrible and pathetic because I recently backed out of one the other important fights about free expression that are going on simply because I was told to by my friends. While others are standing up and being shot, taking on Islam’s hatred and arrogance, I am sitting down and stepping back from fighting the far less violent forces of ‘social justice’.

In the face of what we’re seeing now, that seems like it was a mistake, however good the reasons for doing so.

Still, it’s clear that even in the face of an atrocity like this, people are still unwilling to admit there are problems. Problems with censorship, problems with religion, problems with Islam in particular.

Here is an unreformed, barbaric religion whose followers, globally, support – in the majority – stonings, Sharia Law, the death penalty for ‘disrespecting the prophet’. Even in the UK alone, with its relatively progressive Muslim population, 40% are in favour of imposing Sharia Law, 20% had sympathy with the 7/7 bombers and some 78% thought mocking the prophet deserved prison with 12% agreeing that it should be punished with the death penalty.

Even today it is virtually impossible to get even moderate Muslims to condemn the killings. They simply, at best, stay silent.

Islamic sensitivity is far from our only issue though and perhaps those incapable of or unwilling to examine their own censorious issues and hypersensitivity are excusing Islam for more personal reasons. We’re not so immune to this creeping madness. One need only look to the Twitter Joke Trial, the recent arrest of the gentleman who made an off-colour joke about the Glasgow Truck Accident or Criado-Perez’ prosecution of her (predictably pathetic) trolls for ‘threats’ that were obviously spurious. One could also look to Gamergate and gasp at the sheer hypocrisy of those who ARE standing up for free expression against gun-toting Islamists but who didn’t dare to raise a peep against other – less violent – forms of censorship.

While they may not be shooting anyone, yet, is there really any difference between the claims that insult amounts to ‘real harm’ from the religious:

Because it is, and I pick my words carefully here Mr Choudary, ‘fucking insane’. You’ll note, also, how he uses the ways in which we have already chipped away at the edifice of free expression in his arguments:  

The answer is not to ban or prohibit Islam, or indeed any other form of expression, no matter who thinks it is hateful or dangerous (unless it can be show that it actually is). The answer is virtually always ‘more speech’.

  • Holocaust denier? Hit them with stats and mock them.
  • Anti-immigration racist? Show them the economic data, and mock them.
  • Climate change denier? Show them the data, then mock them mercilessly.

Anything and everything must be open to mockery and it is these same, vital, Enlightenment principles of free expression, satire and free society that also make us free to protest and expose the actions of our governments, which are sometimes blamed as being the ‘true reason’ behind these barbaric attacks upon artists, writers, comedians, film-makers and others.

#Gamergate – Not Everything is Political.

gamergate1One of the aims of #Gamergate is to de-politicise the consumer media, at least with regard to reviews (editorialising belongs in editorials). Gamers want to know about the features and qualities of the games and systems they are buying, they don’t want to read a treatise on the failings of pre-Franco anarchistic Spain in the middle of a feature on Farmville.

Even when game plots are explicitly political, injecting politics into professional reviews is pointless. A libertarian reviewer who can’t set their politics aside when reviewing the original Bioshock is going to be about as useful as a chocolate fireman for discerning what the game is about and whether it’s any good – and so it goes for all shades of the political spectrum and for causes like radical feminism.

There’s two articles which have brought this problem to my attention.

In Game Design is Always Political Owen Grieve spectacularly invalidates his own article with this passage:

To begin: Understand that, in real life, there is no such thing as objective neutrality. Everything that everyone does, at all times and places, occurs within some kind of political context – even if you’re stranded alone on a desert island, the absense of society still contributes towards this context. You can assume you will not be arrested for scrumping the odd coconut, for example. 

I reject this premise and in so doing reject everything that stems from it within the entire article – because if your base premise is wrong, then everything built upon it necessarily collapses. How and why can I reject this PoMo viewpoint? Because science exists and because science depends on objective neutrality. Gravity works the same way whether you acknowledge reality or whether you think it’s because Buddha is pressing down on your head with his finger. If objective neutrality and a fact based outlook wasn’t possible, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, because without it we wouldn’t have mathematics or science or the fruits of those enterprises such as electricity, computing and so on.

Can we apply the principles of objective neutrality and reason to other spheres? Yes, we can. Which isn’t to say there aren’t subjective experiences and values also, but even subjectivity can succumb to objective examination. Indeed, it’s possible to assert that many of the problems we face as a species are down to failures to think objectively and neutrally, so encouraging or excusing that behaviour strikes me as a dangerous game.

One need only look at the clash between Sam Harris and Ben Affleck recently on Bill Maher’s show to see this clash of ideals. Harris has a more objective, neutral outlook and believes that we can use reason to determine the most effective moral good. As such he objectively examines the issues surrounding Islam and sees it as a problem. Affleck, however, is not remotely objective or neutral and responds – not intellectually – but by hurling slander (racist) and making content free emotive arguments.

Gamergate, if you’ll allow me to skirt with hyperbole, is just another battleground in this current culture war which manifests as intellect versus emotion, objectivity versus subjectivity and authoritarianism versus libertarianism (small ‘l’). You’ll note the same problems arising in regard to Gamergate. Gamergate is about ethical, objective journalism and de-politicising games media as well as preserving the right to free expression for game developers and artists.

Gamergate’s opposition doesn’t address these, at all. Instead they make emotive arguments that devs should moderate their creativity for fear of offending people. They pretend that Gamergate is responsible (somehow) for doxxing and threats (while ignoring doxxing and threats made against Gamergate) and where Affleck disingenuously invoked racism as his silencing tactic, those against Gamergate invoke misogyny in much the same way.

In his article ‘A Thing About Gamergate‘, John Walker engages in a lot of hedging and evasion. If there’s no ‘anti-gamergate’, then there’s no Gamergate either, just people with loose sets of similar values. So that invalidates that argument. The claims that Gamergate abuse is somehow the only abuse the counts is disingenuous and it’s amazing how quickly people forget the ‘tone argument’ when they’re on the receiving end of a lot of anger.

Of COURSE people are angry at places like RPS that have been corrupt and which have wilfully misreported Gamergate since the start. Read it yourself if you fancy a good facepalm, I’ll answer some of John’s peculiar questions at the end, since Gamergate has hardly been shy about these I don’t know why he doesn’t know them already.

Here, though, I’m talking about the politics claims and how Gamergate wants reviews, at least, de-politicised.

Here’s his imaginary example of a game and his assertion that you can’t report on it without being political:

There’s a new game out, called Koala Fighters XVII. It’s a game about an elite squadron of fighter pilots, who are taking on the menace of the invading koala hordes. In it, throughout, are cutscenes showing bare-breasted women being kidnapped by the evil koalas, threatened with torture and death, to be rescued by the amazing gang of pilot men. The game is, obviously, brilliantly well made, featuring some of the best koala shooting action ever seen in a game. However, when reviewing this game, gaming site Poltaku comments on how the nudity and sexual stereotypes are disappointing. Meanwhile, Sensible Gaming Reviews, leaving the politics out of games coverage, doesn’t say anything of the sort, not seeing the feature necessary to mention. GameBros4Ever, meanwhile, reviews the game and comments on how brilliantly the breasts are animated, and how great it was to feel like a powerful man in the cockpit of the plane.

All three reviews are inherently political. Choosing to mention this specific feature of the game is a political decision, whether to condemn or celebrate. And crucially, choosing not to mention it is a political decision too. Not thinking it worth mentioning, also, is born of a political position on the matter. Indifference to something of importance to others is, of course, a political position. You cannot “leave the politics out of games coverage”. Politics are inherent. What is instead meant by this demand is, by its nature, “Leave politics I don’t adhere to out of games coverage.”

Of his example reviews, only Poltaku is actually political, and I will explain why.

Poltaku’s commentary on the boobs and nudity is explicitly political and it is bringing politics into an apolitical arena, the recreational experience of playing a game. It isn’t a judgement on the game or its content, it is an extraneous insertion of the idea that nudity and ‘stereotyping’ is somehow bad (this might also be a religious objection, comparisons between the evangelical right and anti-sex ‘feminism’ in games culture is very valid and telling).

In comparison Sensible Gaming Reviews just reports on the game and puts no spin on it, leaving that up to the reader and GameBros, while more subjective and gonzo (in talking about their feelings and experience) talks about the ‘jiggle physics’ which is an objective part of this hypothetical game engine, just as it was for Dead or Alive.

Neither SGR nor GB4E have made any political judgements or recommendations, they’ve both just reported on the game as it is. Only Poltaku has inserted an entirely irrelevant political ideology into its review. While GB4E is subjective, I think the claim that Gamergate wants ‘objective reviews’ is down to poor English skills and what’s really being talked about is the depoliticisation of reviews, or at least saving the politics for editorials rather than messing up reviews with it and allowing ideological bias to prejudice examination of a consumer product.

Are there times when politics does intrude? I would argue yes, there are. I think EA’s treatment of their staff is notably awful, I think Apple and other manufacturer practices are worth covering, but in these cases one can point to actual harm to human beings and while you can make an argument for it being about outsourcing and capitalist business practices at heart it’s really more about basic human empathy.

So, then, to answer John’s queries and wrap up this blog.

What does Gamergate want?

Collective consensus seems to congregate around the following:

1. Ethical Journalism: People have referenced various codes of professional ethics to the websites in question, The Escapist implemented a good, model, set of prospective ethics. What would it actually hurt to implement similar on other sites? Why is that so hard? So objectionable? Don’t fund or fuck people you write about (and vice versa) and declare conflicts of interest. It’s not hard! (Disclosure: I have friends at The Escapist) – see? How hard was that? These standards are just in application to political and financial corruption in Indies, stand up to the AAA bribery and extortion as well and Gamergate will have your back.

2. De-Politicisation: I come primarily from tabletop gaming but I’m also involved in erotica writing and science fiction and fantasy publishing. I may lose your attention if I say ‘radical feminism’ but I’m going to anyway. Radical feminist and ‘social justice’ agendas are devastating the creative fields, especially the nerdy and geeky ones. Free expression and creative independence is seriously threatened by bullies and harassers – often in positions of power – using those positions to gatekeep on an ideological basis. People enjoy all sorts of different things and we don’t think it is the job of games media to tell us – on no basis – that what we like is somehow unacceptable, sexist or whatever else. Personal distaste doesn’t translate to a massive societal issue that must be rooted out and solved. Save it for editorials. Odds are, if we’re interested in Dragon’s Crown – for example – we already know it has fantastic and sexualised art. We don’t need or want a radical feminist spin on unproven concepts like objectification in our reviews thanks, we’re trying to work out whether it’s a good GAME.

3. Defending Free Expression: We want devs, writers, artists etc to be free to create with as few constrictions as possible, whether individually or as an aggregate. Surely, as writers yourselves you can understand that motivation? Free expression is a fundamental human right as recognised by the UN and even if you can’t accept that this IS censorship at least accept that, for creators, this atmosphere of bullying, harassment and spurious accusations of rape apology, misogyny etc has a chilling and limiting effect on free expression – and that’s not good.

Additionally, and separately, I would also suggest:

a) Report honestly on Gamergate, without obvious bias. When Gamergaters are harassed, doxxed and threatened give that the same publicity you do the antis.

b) Stop trying to split the hashtag. Gamergate rejects the harassment, doxxing and threats and a few outliers say nothing about Gamergate just as the few outliers doing the same to Gamergaters says nothing about the antis. What DOES say something about the AGGros is the disparity in the reactions and coverage. Deal with Gamergaters as they are, ignore the trolls.

c) Stop trying to paint Gamergate as misogynistic, right wing, reactionary etc etc. On aggregate Gamergate is left-libertarian, inclusive (NotYourShield) and all the rest. What’s not agreed on across the lines is the way change is gone about and – to reiterate – the corruption and politicisation of games media and the creeping censorship of creators.

There’s a rather good breakdown of these differences HERE.

Spree Preach?

free_speech

This XKCD cartoon has been doing the rounds with various people agreeing vociferously with it. I’ve written quite a bit about the rise of private censorship before and yet we’re still having this argument and people are being extremely slow to wake up to the changing nature of communication and creativity in the modern world.

This very old fashioned and tightly defined idea of what censorship is, is no longer really useful. The government, despite all the (legitimate) worries about surveillance culture, is not really the main concern for anyone in the modern arena. What is the concern and what has the greatest impact is private censorship in the form of corporations and activist groups (social media being to reasoned discussion what the 24 hour news cycle is to informative current affairs).

As is pretty much usual with capitalism, power and wealth has accumulated in a handful of truly influential groups. Examples would include Google, Paypal, eBay, Facebook and Amazon. These companies have a hugely disproportionate effect on people’s ability to freely express themselves. Google is no longer a truly neutral search engine and on its other products content is filtered and removed. Ebay restricts the sale of legal materials on a ‘moral’ basis. Paypal has repeatedly tried to restrict payments for certain, legal, materials and has confiscated or delayed funds raised by crowdfunding. Facebook’s surveillance is far creepier and intrusive than any other and again, even legal material is censored and banished, even if privately shared or promoted. Amazon has de-listed certain titles, its crowdfunding arm has also cancelled and withdrawn perfectly legal projects.

Are there other channels? Yes. Are they as successful, as broadly available? No. Not by orders of magnitude. To any practical extent many of these channels – perhaps most especially PayPal – are the only game in town.

When it comes to activist groups, especially those calling themselves ‘progressive’, social media shrieking draws the attention of mainstream media desperately trying to remain relevant and lends power and voice to tone-deaf controversies such as Suey Park’s ‘#cancelcolbert’ or pointless campaigns such as No More Page 3. Worse is when these kinds of campaigns are base on lies, such as Gail Dines anti-pornography activities or those of the various anti sex work organisations, lies that drown out, censor and marginalise the voices of those genuinely in the know and involved in these things.

There is precedent for guaranteeing the rights of people in a private context.

We have the right, for example, not to be discriminated against by a business for our sexuality, gender, race or religion. Something that businesses used to be free to do. While there are some backward steps –  such as people within businesses being given permission in some countries and states to refuse services based on religious objections (contraception provision etc) but overall there has been progress in guaranteeing basic rights in the private as well as the public sphere and free expression should be included in that, in my opinion.

That isn’t to say anyone should be forced to see anything they don’t want to – though this attitude is creating dangerous echo chambers – just that those providing services should not be able to censor and control in contravention of one of the basic and most universal of human rights (enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights).

By way of example, say you host internet fora as a company. The individual fora should be able to enforce their own rules and standards for who can use them and what’s acceptable behaviour, but in order to preserve free expression communications companies, such as hosts, should be beholden to host legal material. When it comes to payment companies the idea that they can steal people’s money or block payments for legitimate, legal purposes also needs to be challenged. How can conservative groups that claim to be in support of a free market also support the idea that a person can’t spend their own money on whatever legal goods they please?

This outdated view of what constitutes censorship leaves the door open for huge amounts of injustice from the silencing of dissent in important social debates to the denial of services and the constriction of a free internet to an end to online anonymity and the opportunities for free expression it presents.

Think twice before you smugly, and erroneously, say ‘censorship is just a government thing’ and consider what – exactly – you’re excusing.