I’ve written in the past about my thoughts on the UK and why it’s spiralling towards chaos. I’ve discussed the impact of limiting free speech on comedy (and the larger impact this would have), the Royal Family and why they should be given the boot, the incredibly negative effect of alcohol on society (and why marijuana legalisation would fix this), and why Scottish Independence would have been the better move 4 years ago! Some of these posts will apply to everybody, some won’t…but today’s certainly does. I’m going to walk you through the problem with free speech and why fear of being considered a troll, racist or a free-thinker could land you in the hot seat, ultimately leading to the collapse of our society. Sound a little dramatic?
Gregory Alan Elliott: Background
If you follow my blog then you’ll be fully aware that I’m not a fan of social media. I’ve written about Facebook before and I only have Twitter as a landing page for my various followers from different sites. So it frustrates me when I hear on the news that people are being charged with crimes because of behaviour on these platforms. Before we look at the UK, I want to discuss Canada (as I feel like it’s somewhat responsible for allowing these nonsensical cases to be brought forward).
So, with that in mind I want to discuss the Gregory Alan Elliott story. This is an important turning point because it was the first prosecution for “harassment” solely through twitter. Way back in 2012, Gregory was arrested on allegations that he harassed several women via Twitter. These women had blocked Gregory but accused him of using hashtags to ridicule them and include others in his mocking of them. Such a technique has been coined “weaponized hashtagging”.
All of this stems from an entirely different issue that I don’t want to discuss in too much depth here. To cut a long story short: Anita Sarkeesian began a kickstarter campaign to raise awareness of female character tropes within the industry. Bendilin Spurr created a game whereby you can punch a photograph of someone’s face (including Anita and Jack Thomson). Stephanie Guthrie then started to contact employers and news organisations in an attempt to derail Spurr’s life. At this point, in steps Gregory Alan Elliot who highlighted that these actions carried more real world implications that the silly game that Spurr had created.
Gregory Alan Elliot: Outcome
So this is where the GAE (Gregory Alan Elliott) case really begins. After sending a tweet to Stephanie Guthrie, herself and others blocked GAE and reported his account to Twitter. He hadn’t violated any of the terms of service and so no action followed. GAE continued to tweet about Guthrie and others until they eventually held a meeting to discuss how to handle the situation. This led to the police being notified, leading to the trial.
It’s important to note that this was not a one-sided debate. GAE wasn’t simply going online and harassing people, he had simply shared an opinion on an issue he felt strongly about and in response he got into a debate (something the judge would ultimately agree on). The women claimed that GAE was being homophobic, inciting violence but also personally threatening them with violence (including that of a sexual nature).
Throughout the 3 year trial which cost GAE his job, his life, about $100,000 in legal fees and a ban from the internet smartphones during that time, the media largely misrepresented the case, often siding with Guthrie and her friends. As of 2016, all accusations have been dismissed by the judge. He found no evidence of threatening tweets (sexual or otherwise), no calls to violence against the women and the only tweet which was homophobic in nature has since been revealed to have been fake.
Back to the UK
So that may have felt like a bit of a detour but I promise that it is relevant. We have to keep in mind that this case started in 2012 and ended in 2016. So how have things changed since then both in the world and specifically in the UK? Well, people being arrested for online activity wouldn’t be something new to the UK. This is largely due to Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 (we’ll touch on that in more detail in a moment).
Consider that in 2010 Paul Chambers (25) was arrested under this act for stating that he would blow an airport “sky high” after his flight was cancelled because of snowy weather. Chambers would go on to win his appeal against the court two years later but only after losing two jobs. We can also look at Matthew Woods (19) who was sentenced to 3 months in prison for making a joke about a missing girl. I don’t think that what they said was clever or should be encouraged but are either of these individuals really deserving of long legal battles and prison? I’d have to say no!
The problem that we have (that we always fucking have with shit like this) is that what is deemed “offensive” is entirely subjective. What offends you might not offend me. I think we always need to consider the context which brings me onto a more recent example: Count Dankula.
Count Dankula and the Nazi Dog
If you haven’t heard the case of Mark Meechan (a.k.a Count Dankula) then allow me to summarise it for you: Mark is a comedian and to annoy his girlfriend, he taught her dog (a pug) to do a Nazi salute. His reasoning was that his girlfriend always talked about how cute the dog was and so he wanted to turn it into the “least cute thing in the world… a Nazi”. Outside the court he reiterated the point by saying it was comical because of the “juxtaposition of having an adorable animal react to something vulgar”. Once again the 2003 Communications Act comes into play here. In the video Mark says things like “Sieg heil” and “do you want to gas the Jews?” to which the ugly dog responds with a Nazi salute or an excited look on its face.
A GoFundMe was started in order to cover the trial costs that Mark had to pay. The goal was £100,000 and as I type this post it currently sits at £193,545. The worrying aspect of this case actually goes beyond the charge of “inciting racial hatred” and the accompanying £800 fine (plus legal fees). The real concern comes from the fact that the judge sided with the prosecution, agreeing that “context and intent are irrelevant”. Isn’t context pretty much all that matters? As far as I’m concerned anything can be said within the context of a joke.
One hilarious moment ensued following the trial whereby Mark discusses the importance of context with a reporter. The reporter disagrees with him, saying that context isn’t important as Mark was ultimately found guilty of the crime. He goes on to say “You said the phrase gas the Jews 23 times, what’s funny about that?” and Mark responds that it’s entirely about the context. So if context isn’t important, why can the reporter say “gas the Jews” but Count Dankula can’t?
Frankie Boyle and the Importance of Context
Frankie Boyle (another Scottish comedian) would be a great example of this. If you’ve never watched Frankie Boyle then let me summarise his approach to comedy: he doesn’t care about your comfort zone. He says offensive things and his fans love it. Frankie Boyle sued the Daily Mirror “newspaper” for labelling him a racist and said himself that context is vitally important as the instance the Mirror referred to was Boyle pretending to be a person with racist views.
This claim by the Mirror ultimately led the comedian to quit the TV show ‘Mock the Week’ and as such, the payout from them was even larger (£50,400 + £4,250). Boyle has always stated very clearly both in his comedy and outside it that context is essential! During his trial with the Daily Mirror, he stated that he uses racial points of view and opinions to highlight the fact that such views exist. He isn’t approving of them and certainly isn’t supporting those who hold such views, but rather he wishes to ostracise them.
I’m not going to discuss comedians too much within this article as I’ve written a little about this before but I think it’s important to highlight one point: comedians are only considered funny if people laugh at their jokes. When you watch a comedian, you understand that whatever they say is purely to make you laugh. Sure, they may include some societal issues in there but ultimately their goal is to have you leave their show with positive things to say. Otherwise, they would fail as comedians and wouldn’t make it in the industry.
Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act
Considering that in 2017, it was reported that an average of 9 people are being arrested per day in the UK for “posting allegedly offensive messages online” and with the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, starting a £1.7m (over two years) crime hub for online activities, despite knife crime in the capital being at a 4-year high and with Theresa May slashing police budget left, right and centre, you have to wonder: are internet trolls really a priority?
Ultimately, this brings us back to the dreaded 2003 Communications Act. I’m not going to bore you to death (unless I have already) by copy and pasting the entire document. Instead, let me just highlight some of the important phrases used within Section 127 of this Act. What makes a person guilty of this offense? Well, if they: “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
What does that even mean? Grossly offensive…Grossly offensive to who? I’m grossly offended by the fact that the UK government wanted to go on holiday a week early despite Brexit being as far from being organised as it was 2 years ago. I’m grossly offended by the final verse of the “British” national anthem containing the line “Rebellious Scots to crush”. So who defines what is offensive? At the end of the day, we are leaning more towards some sort of system of social justice whereby we’re supposed to essentially cave into mob demands. Thanks…but not thanks!
The thing that is perhaps most concerning about all of this is that there exists a very noticeable double standard. It’s perfectly acceptable for these same individuals who complain that being offended should result in arrests to do the exact same thing to other people. This in part is my problem with social justice. If you don’t agree with the mob then whatever you’re doing is essentially wrong…but if you agree with the mob then you can basically do whatever you want. Why is it acceptable to phone somebody’s work to try and get somebody fired but it’s unacceptable to send a tweet saying that that is unacceptable? Why can a reporter say that context is irrelevant while also saying “gas the Jews” in the same sentence?
In order to understand this further, I want to draw upon some real-world examples of terms like “bigot”, “racist” and more being used solely because an individual shared a point of view or comment that went against the mob.
Terry Gilliam: The Black Lesbian
Take Gerry Gilliam for example. The legendary comedian, famous for his involvement in Monty Python, was subject to many disapproving tweets after he stated “I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian”. Out of context this may seem a little strange but it was after a comment was made against the lack of diversity within Monty Python where Shane Allen (BBC comedy chief) described them as “six Oxbridge white blokes” under the assumption of that being a bad thing. I have views on this but perhaps they are better saved for another post.
Ultimately, while Gilliam’s comment may seem offensive to some, what is he saying is a reflection of our current society. People are defining gender irrespective of their biological sex, are they not? There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s the truth. On top of that he’s simply commenting that a lack of diversity in today’s society is only ever an issue with white men. If it was a group of white women then there wouldn’t be a complaint, if it was a group of only black men there would be no complaint. He’s simply highlighting this issue and relating it to the fact that today, anyone can be anything so why is diversity within a group that hasn’t worked together (properly) for decades such a major issue?
In one sense, it’s a witch hunt (interestingly something the Monty Python have covered before) since people are simply searching for issues to get offended by. Why does the race or sex of Monty Python members matter in today’s world? I’m shocked that Gilliam hasn’t been chased from Twitter yet, which brings me to Richard Dawkins.
Richard Dawkins Doesn’t Give a Fuck!
I think this example will work perfectly for highlighting exactly what I’ve been talking about: offense is entirely subjective. Let’s look at a recent Tweet by the famous atheist Richard Dawkins. While outside a church he stated:
“Listening to the lovely bells of Winchester, one of our great medieval cathedrals. So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding Allahu Akbar. Or is that just my cultural upbringing?”
Now…is it possible to be offended by this comment? Sure…but should you be? No. Here’s what I see why I read such a tweet: someone has an opinion…that’s it!
First of all, we all have individual preferences. I don’t like EDM and I think it sounds absolutely moronic. Do people have the right to be offended by that just because they enjoy the music? Nope. What if I say that the Bible is a violent book, should that offend people? No. What if I move on to the Qu’ran? Tensions would certainly begin to rise but any idea should be able to be criticized. Right?
What I’m trying to get at is that certain people have a right to be offended more than others (apparently). So if Richard Dawkins can’t share his preferences for church bells over yelling, then what can we share opinions on? Dawkins was instantly slammed as a bigot and a racist but why? He even mentions within the Tweet that it could be his cultural upbringing. I’m quite surprised that Twitter didn’t remove the tweet.
Noticing the Double Standard
The double standards, particularly in relation to Twitter, do not come few and far between. Just at the end of last year Ben Shapiro called Twitter out on the double standard by reporting Rosie O’Donnell for targeted and abusive Tweets. Only after Shapiro repeatedly called out Twitter for the double standard, claiming that “Everyone knows if Rosie were conservative, Twitter would suspend her in a hot second.” did Twitter remove O’Donnell’s tweet.
Twitter is the prime suspect in many of these cases. Why? Put simply, they have an allegiance to one side and not the other. Just recently, Candace Owens, a famous (or infamous) conservative recently demonstrated the hypocrisy of Twitter. Sarah Jeong (editor of the NY Times) tweeted the following:
“White people are only fit to live underground like grovelling goblins. They have stopped breeding and will all go extinct soon. I enjoy being cruel to old white women.”
Twitter took zero action against this Tweet. Yet when Candace Owens retweeted the exact same thing but swapped the word ‘white’ for ‘black’ she was banned from Twitter, leading to the company issuing an apology for the oversight. Varying theories surround this event with some believing that Twitter doesn’t agree that you can be racist towards white people, and other suggesting that it was Candace Owen’s status as a conservative that led to her ban.
Twitter Isn’t Alone!
Interestingly, Twitter isn’t actually the worst example of this form of censorship (although it’s certainly the most common). Just the other day, both YouTube and Facebook banned Alex Jones and InfoWars, deleting much of their content as they did so. Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey stated that the reason Twitter didn’t delete Jones is because he didn’t violate any of the terms of service. He went on to say that others started to “succumb and simply react to outside pressure”. Considering Twitter’s blatant overview of other similar matters, it’s hard to give them any brownie points for being in the right just once.
Another issue that we’re frequently seeing, particularly with YouTube is the use of the word “extremism”. To an average person “extremism” would be flying planes into buildings or blowing up buses…but in today’s political climate pretty much anything can get stuck with the label. Just look at the example of Lauren Southern being banned from the UK for that very reason. Again, as much as I’d prefer to avoid generalising, it seems that people on the left are able to label people on the right “extremists” and ultimately have them denied entry to a country. Southern is just one of many such examples.
Considering that the Theresa May (the old, dry bat corpse) is putting pressure on major companies to speed up the rate that they remove extremist content, I’m a little concerned as to what this means. Are we nearing a society where any opinion could potentially be extremist? We only need to look as far as the Lauren Southern examples to see that criticizing a belief system is enough to have you labelled a “racist” and banned from entering the UK.
The Next Step
Of course we need to consider where such a path leads. If comedians have to consult a censorship panel before going on tour or sending a simple Tweet can land you a prison sentence, what comes next? Will private communications with friends suddenly be used as evidence of racist thoughts? Would calling your brother “gay” for showing affection become grounds for prosecution?
I want to share another quote from Frankie Boyle:
“We don’t live in a shared reality, we each live in a reality of our own, and causing upset is often the price of trying to reach each other. It’s always easier to dismiss other people than to go through the awkward and time consuming process of understanding them. We have given taking offence a social status it doesn’t deserve: it’s not much more than a way of avoiding difficult conversations.”
Personally, I think he hits the nail on the head. He also stated that often the reason people get offended is simply because what is being said hits truth in one way or another. People are too quick to ignore the fact that a commentary on society holds some truth.
Does Hate Speech Exist?
Through writing this post I’ve stumbled across the term “hate speech” on several occasions and it has led me to question whether there really is such a thing. Couldn’t you consider any speech to be hate speech? Where do we draw the line on free speech and hate speech or does free speech include hate speech? If we can’t clearly define an idea then what use is having a label for it? Just to clarify, I’m not implying that hateful things aren’t said but rather I’m suggesting that anything can be deemed hateful and simply because one person labels an opinion as “hate speech” doesn’t entitle them stop others hearing that opinion.
Not that this applies to everyone but it certainly seems that in many cases the term “hate speech” is used simply to shut down opinions: People like Milo Yiannopolous, Ben Shapiro, ETC whose events are being shut down by violent protestors. Having an opinion is now less acceptable than violence! We’re essentially the same as the parents who give in to their child as soon as it throws a tantrum. If somebody is saying something that you don’t want to hear then don’t listen! You do not have the right to decide what other people listen to or what other people say!
This fear of saying something that might offend somebody in itself has consequences. Just look at the case of the Rotherham grooming gangs. Here we have a span of 12 years whereby police and local governments were aware of Pakistani grooming gangs and yet did nothing. Why? Because “police forces lean over backwards to avoid the accusation of racism” and keeping the peace within different parts of a community were viewed as more important than potentially disrupting the community through investigation. The founder of the British Muslim Youth, Muhbeen Hussain said “The fact these guys were predominantly Pakistani heritage men should not be a reason for providing a cloak of invisibility.”
Ultimately, I think it’s important to remember the old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. Considering we live in a society where you can literally block people from contacting you, I don’t understand why people take such offense to certain Tweets (or other platforms). It offends my intelligence that people can believe that the Earth is flat. Do I think that their opinions should be shut down? Absolutely not!
I think we need to all take a step back and ask whether something is really worth being offended over. Even when you are offended, so what? Why does being offended give you power over the voice and opinions of others? Do you really want to live in a world where opinions have to be filtered before being shared? If somebody wants their country to close its borders to migrants (for example) shouldn’t they be able to express that opinion without being called a racist or a fascist? Particularly when such labels don’t even apply to the situation!
I think that everything should be challenged, everything should be criticised and everyone should be able to say whatever they want without being arrested over bizarre and irrational “online troll” charges. If the UK is insistent on heading down this path of speech control then I don’t want to be a part of it.
Thanks for reading! What do you think? Is online censorship becoming a problem and is free speech on its way out in the UK? Let me know down below!
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