Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘free speech’

Don’t make me hurt your free speech

Many have noted that Donald Trump shows all the traits of a serial abuser in his dealings with other people, and now with other nations. (Josh Marshall has written perceptively about DT’s Mexico policy in these terms.) So advocates of human rights and personal liberty know to treat it with less than unalloyed relief when Trump said in his CPAC speach

I love the First Amendment — nobody loves it more than me.

One imagines him signing  his executive order to shut down the NY Times and arrest its editors while muttering to the First Amendment, “I don’t want to have to hurt you, but you shouldn’t have tried to protect those bad dudes. They don’t know how to love you like I love you, baby.”

On a related matter, has anyone tried to assemble a list of Donald Trump’s self-attributed superlatives? Just in the last week he has described himself as the least racist, least antisemitic person, and the greatest lover of the First Amendment.

The Rhodes goes ever on and on

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.

National Union of Students causes division… by criticising government anti-Muslim policies

From The Guardian:

In a pointed letter to the NUS president Megan Dunn, higher education minister Jo Johnson has said he is disturbed by a motion passed at the NUS conference to oppose the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, the government’s main piece of counter-terrorism legislation.

Although he concedes the NUS is doing some good work, he also asserts contradictory statements made by NUS officials, including those that described the government’s approach as a “racialised, Islamophobic witch-hunt”. Earlier in the year, another officer claimed that strategies such as Prevent “ultimately exist to police Muslim expression”.

He said such views cause division, and points to motions passed by student unions in a series of institutions opposing Prevent, including King’s College London, Durham and Soas, University of London.

We can’t have people espousing “views” that “cause division”. Because uniformity of views is one of those British values that immigrants need to learn about.

You may think it’s all fun and games, passing motions at your conference in opposition to certain government policies. But you have to be aware that these “motions” lead to other people making “contradictory statements”, then you’re on a slippery slope to other student unions also opposing the government policies, and before you can stop it you’ve destroyed the House of Lords:

The Home Office is concerned peers could reject the regulations, which are due to come into force next week, on the grounds they inhibit free speech and thought on campuses.

Stupid kids! Not thinking about the consequences of their actions. Presumably that’s why David Cameron said

Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds.

The last unbreakable code?

I noticed a brief article in The Guardian with the captivating headline “Can Google be taught poetry?”.

By feeding poems to the robots, the researchers want to “teach the database the metaphors” that humans associate with pictures, “and see what happens,” explains Corey Pressman from Neologic Labs, who are behind the project, along with Webvisions and Arizona State University….

The hope is that, with a big enough dataset, “we’ll be delighted to see we can teach the robots metaphors, that computers can be more like us, rather than the other way around,” says Pressman. “I’d like them to meet us more halfway.”

That sounds utopian, magnificent, turning away from the harsh and narrow-minded informaticism to grand humane concerns. And yet, it reminded me of a recent article in the New Yorker “Why Jihadists Write Poetry”:

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

Whatever the motives of Neologic Labs — and I’m guessing they have a pitch to investors that doesn’t rely upon the self-actualisation of smartphones, nor on the profits to be turned from improving the quality of poetry — can we doubt that sooner or later this technology is going to be applied to improving the quality of government surveillance, escaping the literal to follow human prey down into the warrens of metaphor and allusion. It will start with terrorists, but that’s not where it will stop.

Imagine, just to begin with, China equipping its internet with a cybernetic real-time censor that can’t be fooled by symbolic language or references to obscure rock lyrics, which the software will be more familiar with than any fan. Protest movements will be extinguished before people are even aware that they were ever part of a movement.

Heckler’s veto in Southampton

A couple of weeks ago I signed a petition in support of a conference planned for 17-19 April at the University of Southampton, on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that had been threatened with cancellation because of pressure from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the UK Zionist Federation; ubiquitous-parking enthusiast and Communities minister Eric Pickles also contributed his opinion. It seemed to me an obviously legitimate academic conference, on a subject of both academic and public interest. If the choice of speakers does not cover all possible opinions on the matter — my impression is that my own view would not really coincide with any of those represented, and the framing of the topic is too politically tendentious for my taste — well, that’s unfortunate, though I’d wait until after they’d spoken to comment on what they have to say, and then opponents are free to organise their own conference.

Now the university has decided to cancel the conference because of specious “health and safety” concerns: because protestors threatened violence, or because the university authorities consider them the protestors — or the conference organisers — inherently deranged. I recognised long ago that “health and safety” is the leading weasel word in the British bureaucratic vocabulary. Pretty much anything can be justified with it, and it sounds so much more decisive and incontrovertible than saying “I am worried that someone could get hurt” (or “someone could catch Ebola”).

This is a dangerous decision. As someone whose grandparents’ generation was forced out and/or murdered by brownshirt thugs who came to power in Germany and then most of Europe after applying the strategy of directed violence against opposing political and intellectual viewpoints, I am dismayed to see that Jewish organisations in the US (see, e.g., the Salaita affair) and UK have come to the conclusion that the main problem with the Third Reich was too much free speech. Never again!

This is a dangerous step. Either Southampton will make itself a pariah by this move, or it will make itself an example to other universities, who increasingly find that all that academic exchange-of-ideas mumbledy-goop just gets in the way of the free exchange of money and services with well-connected donors.

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