Freezing Peaches

I’ve been thinking for a while about the biggest disconnect that seems to come up in what one might loosely term “progressive” circles at the moment — the issue of “free speech”.

On the one side you have the people who argue against “no platforming”, and “silencing”, the people who said “Je Suis Charlie”, the people who are mocked by the other side as overprivileged white men shouting about “muh freeze peach!”
On the other, you have the people who argue in favour of trigger warnings, complain about things being “problematic”, and who are mocked by the other side for being stupid children who want to be wrapped in cotton wool.

Now the interesting thing to my mind is that, with obvious exceptions, these two groups tend to be roughly those forty-five and older, and those twenty-five and younger, with those around my age often being a bit confused and saying “well, I can see points on both sides…”

Obviously, some of this comes down to older people patronising younger people while trying to keep their privilege, and to younger people being angry at the compromises made by the old and with a lack of experience of how the world works. But I don’t think *all* of it does.

I think, rather, that people have come of political age in two very different political worlds, and that that makes a profound difference in the way people think about issues surrounding speech. Giving everyone the benefit of doubt, it looks to me like the two groups are talking past each other because they’re honestly not aware of each other’s experiences.

The first group, you see, came of age politically in the 70s and 80s. This was a time when government repression of speech was one of THE big threats to progressive activism. The Oz trial, when the kind of stupid collage jokes that now happen constantly on geek message boards got several people sent to prison. The Spycatcher affair, one of my earliest political memories, when the British government spent three years trying to stop people *in another country*, not just their own, reading a book. The Gay News “blasphemous libel” trial, which saw a poem being declared illegal. Manchester police constantly raiding Savoy bookshop. The government changing the whole landscape of broadcast TV with the ITV shakeup of 1990, largely because they were angry at a single documentary. Section 28

There are always attempts to infringe freedom of speech, but in the twenty or so years from roughly 1970 to roughly 1990, there was a constant, all-out, assault against the most basic liberties, in which authoritarians who wanted to protect the government from scrutiny used theocrats who wanted to eradicate the very idea of homosexuality as useful idiots. Those people needed to be fought, and one of the most important ways of doing that was to carve out universities, in particular, as areas of absolutist free speech, with an *obligation* to give a platform to, and listen to, the most extreme viewpoints. Only the ultra-authoritarian SWP, on the left, called for “no-platforming” then, and they were largely despised for it. Platforms *needed* to exist, or no-one would ever *hear* alternative views.

Of course the system didn’t work perfectly — far from it. It often entrenched various kinds of privilege, and so on. But when you are fighting for the very right to even mention the existence of homosexuality, for example, you want a system like that. And so many people became, understandably, free speech absolutists, especially around universities. This is also why, for example, Private Eye — a magazine that normally has little or no interest in people’s private sexualities — suddenly starts dropping completely unsubtle hints as soon as superinjunctions come into play. It’s an immune reaction against repression.

Fast forward twenty-five years or so.

Anyone under thirty, now, has never experienced this (I’m thirty-seven, and I only have dim memories of the tail end of it, and that only because I was about the most politically-aware seven-year-old you’d ever meet). The government, in general, doesn’t try to censor much “normal” speech (there are plenty of things that still get censored, of course — the extreme porn laws are a particularly egregious example — but there’s not the ongoing systematic repression that there was). You can say literally anything you think on the Internet. You can get access to any opinion, any images, you want.

And often, anything you *don’t* want. YouTube comments, Twitter harassers, spam email, banner ads… the big information problem in the Internet age isn’t censorship, it’s how to create an effective filter that lets you just see the stuff that you actually care about in the midst of all the other stuff. When you’re dumped into what is, to a first approximation, every single thought that any human being has ever had, without an effective guide, you know, on an instinctual level, that censorship isn’t threatening. On the contrary, you *need* to censor stuff — not for other people, but you need to create filters and barriers, just to get anything done at all.

And a lot of people who didn’t grow up with the Internet (and anyone under thirty or so now has no real memory of a time when the web wasn’t a near-ubiquitous thing — and there are adults now who are nostalgic for getting their first social media accounts when they were still in primary school) don’t really understand how this works. The late Simon Titley, for example, got a lot of flack on the Liberator blog for instituting a “real-name” policy in the comments, because he thought this would keep discussion civil. Anyone who’s spent most of their life online knows that that’s the *last* thing it does.

But anyone who’s spent that much time online also knows that discussions need moderating, or any forum turns into a festering cesspool. Newspaper comments threads are actually surprisingly *mild* in this regard. Try being a woman talking about video games online and see what happens.

So for the younger generation, the problem isn’t that they don’t get to hear alternative views. It’s that they hear them all the time, whether they want to or not, and that they would like some way of getting them to just SHUT THE FUCK UP for a little while, in some situations and at some times. When they ask for safe spaces, and no platform for bigots, and for trigger warnings, what they’re saying is “I spend my life having men who want me dead send me unsolicited videos of themselves ejaculating onto photos of me, because I said a thing about a video game. Can I please have a little bit of not-that? Just for a change?

The free-speech absolutism is an absolutely right and proper response to repression — and we need those people around as an immune system, to warn us if that ever starts happening again. But likewise the trigger-warning, no-platform side is an entirely right and proper response to constant, unending, exposure to toxic ideas.

No doubt in twenty years there will be a whole new set of problems to deal with, and the trigger warning people will be screaming about the kids of today with their insisting (for what are good and adequate reasons at the time) that all conversations have to be in Mandarin and speaking English is racist. I promise I’ll try to understand them, too, like I try to understand both sides of the current row. I suspect I’ll fail, though…

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19 Responses to Freezing Peaches

  1. andrewducker says:

    Just a note – “trigger warnings” feels different than the other examples you’ve used. Trigger warnings are additional speech. They censor nothing, they just give additional information about the thing you’re about to experience.

    Oh, and I entirely agree with you about why this is happening.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      They are additional speech, yes, but they’re perceived by the other side of the argument as being attempts at restraining speech, and I think the motivation is the same as the other examples, if not the mechanism.

      • andrewducker says:

        Yeah, I’ve never been able to see how they restrain speech.

        But yes, the motivation is to be able to filter what you view, because of how much stuff there is to wade through that you really don’t want to.

    • po8crg says:

      Depends. Some discourse about trigger warnings proposes punitive measures against speech that does not contain trigger warnings, or contains inaccurate or incomplete ones.

      Punitive measures could at least potentially include censorship.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Really? I’ve never seen that, and I’m rather glad I haven’t. I’m close enough to the free speech absolutist side that I’d find that deeply disturbing.

  2. Tom E says:

    Yes, I think it’s a generational divide too. Look at the speech-related stories of the 10s in the US and Europe – surveillance, Snowden, doxxing, Twitter harassment, even Ashley Madison – the common theme is the impossibility of hiding speech. When censorship is complained about it’s in terms of “the media” ignoring, skewing, burying a story and needing to get the word out by other means – all about territoriality and emphasis, not on suppression vs revelation. (Of course, in other parts of the world, governments still have a good old try at the suppression end of things.)

    Short version: old arguments = about control of speech. New arguments = about control of a space.

  3. Mike Taylor says:

    “The government changing the whole landscape of broadcast TV with the ITV shakeup of 1990, largely because they were angry at a single documentary.”

    What does this allude to?

  4. Mike Taylor says:

    Excellent post, Andrew, thank you for laying out these two different (and both valid) perspectives so clearly.

    For what it’s worth (and I’m 47, so I fit your generalisation) I err on the side of allowing more freedom of speech. Why? Because the only reason we wouldn’t need to hear uncomfortable ideas would be because right here and now, in this society, just happens to the single one out of all of space and time has got everything exactly right. (And it’s amazing how many people do seem to believe that, to a greater or lesser extent.)

    But of course “we need to hear uncomfortable ideas” isn’t “some few of us need to be exposed to a stream of vitriol”, and it’s even further from “and those few need to read all of it”.

    As always, it helps to make explicit the distinction between the right to speak and the right to an audience.

  5. po8crg says:

    I remember when spam was invented – I was using Usenet on April 12, 1994 and I saw the Green Card spam.

    I also remember watching the process of first inventing retromoderation (the ability to remove posts after they had been made; originally moderation required a moderator to read and approve posts before they were made) and trying to determine agreed rules for what constituted spam, because we didn’t want to do content-based moderation.

    The ultimate answer for usenet was the Breidbart Index (named for programmer Seth Breidbart, nothing to do with the American conservative Andrew Breitbart) – this to deal with spam in a space where there isn’t an owner/moderator who can arbitrarily remove posts on content grounds.

    Those concerns, about censorship, seem positively quaint now, but censoring usenet then was like censoring the web now, not like censoring a website, but obliterating things entirely from the web. You’ll notice that very few of the people who want moderation in quasi-public spaces like Twitter or Reddit want to see racism removed from Stormfront, and when governments try to take the power to censor entire websites off the internet entirely, many people who are pro-moderation come out as strongly anti-censorship and support things like ORG and EFF.

  6. gavinburrows says:

    Mmm… not sure. I’m white, male and forty-mumble-mumble, so fit fairly firmly in the first group. And from what I remember about student politics was that no-platforming was a fairly widespread position, not just confimed to the headbangers in the SWP. It was mostly confined to anti-fascism, which is perhaps a particular case. (You don’t need to be a genius to see the irony in a fascist claiming their right to freedom of speech.) But it was widespread. And to this day I think no-platforming can be entirely justifiable.

    Probably not what you were suggesting, but also important to state that official threats to free speech haven’t gone away. They just tend to trigger-happily label it ‘incitement’, so they can claim it wasn’t really free speech in the first place. There were the infamous Gandalf trials in the Nineties, where people were prosecuted for reporting direct action as if they were the ones who carried it out. Frankly, pretty much every defendant in that trial was the walking, talking definition of a political nutter. But people supported their legal case regardless, because we figured this was the thin end of the wedge. Which, of course, it turned out to be. ‘Terrorism’ has become a scare-word to justify any ‘response’ they feel like.

    A few more random thoughts… When ‘freedom of speech’ means a public address system for one person and the right to shout in a bucket for another, then it’s a meaningless concept. To talk about it as something that exists now, rather than something we want to create, is ridiculous.

    Also, no-platforming is not the same thing as denying someone freedom of speech, despite endless attempts to conflate the two. (As last seen by Ian Hislop on HIGNFY.) It’s more like saying “if you intend spewing that poisonous filth, I am not going to actively assist you”.

    Finally, there is no automatic association between State censorship and what the rest of us do. We can no-platform people at the same time as arguing laws shouldn’t be passed against them without fear of contradiction. I’ve always been suspicious of well-meaning suggestions like “the government should ban the BNP”, because I’ve always thought “then who’s going to be next?”

    Excuse the randomess. I am forty-mumble-mumble.

  7. Nick says:

    I think a lot of it is also down to people making mountains out of molehills thanks to the internet. I was involved in student politics (as a student, then an SU employee) for most of the 90s and much of the nature of the arguments I see now isn’t that much different to what was going on then. It’s basically people in their late teens and early twenties discovering what it means to be political and having discussions and arguments over things that seem really important at the time and in that context.

    What’s changed is that what used to be little things that barely touched on the consciousness of anyone who wasn’t involved in the Union or an avid reader of the student newspaper now have the potential to be blown up out of all proportion by the internet. There’s a whole army of keyboard commandos out there just waiting to jump on the latest ‘threat to free speech on campus’ and opine about it on twitter, blogs and their newspaper columns, which turns what would have been barely a nine days wonder on its campus a few years ago into some epochal struggle for Enlightenment values. There’s also a huge element of bullying to it as middle-aged men with massive platforms pull out random students who’ve said something silly and pillory them for the amusement of their disciples, all the while very glad that the silly things they said at university weren’t captured by the internet for others to see.

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