Monday, 15 October 2012

Why we should be getting outraged about Matthew Woods

Matthew Woods is an unfortunate soul. Thinking himself the comedian he posted, from what I have been able to find out, a slew of jokes that would have found any mortal comedian on stage booed off.

Booed off stage that is, not...as is the case in Matthew Woods' case... imprisoned for 3 months with a judge cursing the system that didn't allow him to be jailed for longer due to the fact that Matthew pled guilty to the "crime" of posting an offensive message on an "electronic communication network"...otherwise more nefariously known as Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.

Matthew is unfortunately not the first, nor will he be the last; despite the seemingly PR motivated moves of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Crown Prosecution Service in the UK trying to find a more reasonable way to react to people's outbursts of bad taste.

Perhaps the highest profile case, certainly due to it's eventual collapse with the conviction being overturned in the high court, was that of Paul Chambers and his "Twitter Joke Trial". We celebrated that day thinking that never again would the authorities be able to risk abusing what is ultimately a flawed law to secure flimsy convictions against people simply speaking out of turn.

But then came Azhar Ahmed, Neil Swinburne (Warning, Daily Mail), and on a different law Barry Thew.

Azhar Ahmed is, by all accounts, simply an angry young man. Are we doing the right thing by making him both angry and motivated to further hatred of the state? Barry Thew is, reportedly, someone suffering from mental health problems...who's son died in the custody of the very police force that he was protesting tastelessly against with his t-shirt. What part of his attitude towards the police is to be forced out of him by subjecting him to the full repression that the state can put on him?

Maybe some people need to reacquaint themselves with the notion behind "First they came...", because quite frankly it is not enough for us to sit here and claim that it is ok for people to get locked up for saying things that we don't like, or expressing views that we are not comfortable with. When that expression turns to action, or when it is actively used in the purpose of brainwashing and motivating other people to commit crimes, or where it is negligent to the direct effect it will have on people's safety, that is when expression in itself becomes a crime...but not before.

It may be cliched, but can you imagine if we were having the discussion about equal rights for homosexuals, women or black people during a time where twitter and facebook existed? How offensive to the populace would some of the comments and arguments presented by those fighting for their equality seem, and how much would their causes have been hampered by a state so readily able to lock them up for their non-conformist views?

I think it's a stretch trying to say that Matthew Woods has anything meaningful to say, of course, but it is the underlying principle that is important...are we happy to scare the general public in to not speaking out against the social norm? Are we happy to force conformity on people with the threat of jail time? When laws are based on what is "reasonable" and "offensive", measures that can only be sized against what the majority of the public feel at that time, how can we protect those who have something to say even if we don't want to hear it?

Maybe it's a lack of understanding in modern society about what we almost lost in World War 2, but I for one get a little terrified by the prospect of any nation "needing" a law like s127, or even of the section 4a of the Public Order Act 1986, for these incidents.

We need a distinction, and we need it sooner than later now that the world has been brought so close together with it's communication networks. Harassment, bullying, intimidation and attempts to create public disorder are not crimes that we should allow to go unpunished. Speaking your mind in a manner the majority wouldn't be comfortable with? Punishing such things is an unacceptable practice.

What's worse is that this is a liberal issue at it's core. Where someone is saying something that brings no detriment to another (and no, hurt feelings may be something unpleasant, but no-one should have a right to never hear anything that offends them), their right to say that thing needs to be protected. For a few years now this has been a very real issue. What have the Liberal party of the UK done about this, the Liberal Democrats?

The answer is nothing, unfortunately, which leaves me wondering why it is that they should be voted for. If the Lib Dems cannot stand up when laws are being abused to silence opponents of the norm, and while in power make those laws go away, to alter them to be much more specific to expression that is used to commit crimes, then they simply aren't fulfilling their role.

I expect Labour to keep these laws in place...state control is their mantra. And despite Tories being "small state", I also expect them to keep these laws in place, since they are ultimately terrified of anyone who isn't them. I also expected Lib Dems to make liberalism a priority, so am utterly confused why this isn't happening.

Right now we're letting people get locked up for their emotions having boiled over, and for extraordinary poor taste in comedy. That is the base level of using the powers the state have. What we do not need is conferences and discussions on how the police are to determine whether or not to charge against that law or not; we need the laws that allow such a process to be gone, so that the police do not have the option of charging people for unpopular sentiment.

I'd like to just end with this, from Wikipedia, on the Gestapo...

According to Canadian historian Robert Gellately's analysis of the local offices established, the Gestapo was—for the most part—made up of bureaucrats and clerical workers who depended upon denunciations by citizens for their information.[35] Gellately argued that it was because of the widespread willingness of Germans to inform on each other to the Gestapo that Germany between 1933 and 1945 was a prime example of panopticism.[36] Indeed, the Gestapo—at times—was overwhelmed with denunciations and most of its time was spent sorting out the credible from the less credible denunciations.[37] Many of the local offices were understaffed and overworked, struggling with the paper load caused by so many denunciations.[38] Gellately has also suggested that the Gestapo was "a reactive organization" "...which was constructed within German society and whose functioning was structurally dependent on the continuing co-operation of German citizens".[39]

It's all too easy for us to say "Oh, don't be absurd, the times we live in now are nothing like what the Nazi's did", but to say that is also wrong. We are now listening in on each other on Facebook and Twitter, with the same curtain twitching level of anonymity that allowed Germans to pass on information about their fellow nationals to the authorities and get them punished. Whether they did this out of genuine concern or because they aligned with the Nazi's views is barely relevant...what is important is that their society fell in to the worse kind of way because they let the differences between one another become more important than what bound them together, because they assumed that some people had less rights because they were different.

I look at our society and I don't see one that is any morally superior to that of the German people that allowed Nazism to take a grip and poison the world, and the fact it is allowed to continue while we have a party in power that is about as well poised to help stop that kind of society from developing, through it's inaction, is unforgivable upon that party.

Some people don't like the police, some people don't like the army and our foreign operations, and some people don't know when a joke isn't funny. They also go to work, enrich their friend's and family's lives, maybe they support charities and their local communities. Why are we so happy to steal away the latter part of what a person gives to the world because we aren't comfortable with how they express the former? To me, it's that brazen disregard of the complexities of individual opinions and views that is the most offensive thing of all.