Today’s episode of Sesame Street is brought to you by the number 96 and the colour red

Well, this is an unusual state of affairs; the city of Liverpool takes offence at a t-shirt.

What features does the offensive t-shirt have that has insulted the normally stoic Scousers?

It’s red, has the number 96 and the title of a Bob Marley song printed on the back.

I think you’ll agree this is an excellent case for us to consider making an exception to the principle that freedom of speech is paramount. Real harm could occur if people were to be seen walking around in public with such an egregious display of offence on their torsos.

For those who may be confused as to the reasons why Topman’s t-shirt is so terrible, some background;

96 Liverpool football fans died in a crowd crush in 1989 at the Hillsborough stadium.

Liverpool Football Club’s colour is red.

That’s it.

Bill’s Opinion

Get over yourselves Liverpool. You don’t have a copyright on the number 96 and the colour red.

Perhaps, if you are the grieving family of one of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, you should consider not answering the phone to journalists seeking a renta-quote 30 years later and, instead, get on with your life.

Mining the deep seams of offence

Being offended is the new sport for all to play so our outrage du jour involves a group of rugby players at university throwing a themed party.

What was the theme of said party?

The Holocaust, with attendees dressing up as camp guards and victims?

Nope.

A slavery party, with some plantation owners and the rest dressed as chained slaves?

Nada.

Perhaps the theme was Hollywood sex scandals with the fat front row forwards dressing up as Harvey Weinstein and the thin backs as nubile actresses about to be violated for the sake of their career?

Try again.

The theme of the massively offensive party was going to be (it was cancelled, obviously) the Miners’ Strike of 1984.

Outrageous, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

Bill’s Opinion

Offence is something we choose to take. Similarly, if the theme of a party you aren’t even invited to upsets you, why not simply ignore it and certainly don’t bother gatecrashing it.

Of course, if you really must find offence in things that are none of your business, perhaps a party to celebrate the death of Lady Thatcher thrown by a mining community might be of interest to you.

Who regulates the regulator?

More calls for the State to protect us from the consequences of our choices courtesy of the Legacy Media ™ Guardian;

Facebook and Google give us services and experiences we like, therefore the Government should intervene.

The main thrust of the argument is that, because the interface is addictive, it’s bad for us. A conclusion is then leapt to that the only way to moderate any negative impacts is State intervention.

Let’s go back a few steps before we decide to open the Ministry of Responsible Social Media.

What harm is being incurred and by whom?

Addictive screen layouts and content?

Would we prefer the screen design to be clunky and unusable?

Would we prefer content to be curated for us by a government regulator? Good grief, no!

But the author doesn’t take long to get to the real point of the article;

Ah, the worn out “Russians hacked the election” line. It’s not the addictive nature of the free services these companies provide, it’s the inability of people like us to curate the content.

Scratch the surface of most Guardian readers and every Guardian contributor and an authoritarian will soon be revealed.

Bill’s Opinion

Freedom of speech is the foundational right upon which all others stand or fall.

With the freedom of speech comes the freedom to be wrong and the freedom to follow false information. If you doubt that statement, ask a Guardian reader whether they think a Ministry of Truth to moderate fake news would be a good idea. I bet, with a little encouragement, they will agree.

Over at Tim Newman’s place, there’s a conversation ongoing about anti-Semites. Anti-Semites are offering an idea to the market place of ideas. The best way to deal with them is to give them the publicity they crave and let the paucity of their arguments be exposed for what they are. Shutting them down as “fake news” simply breeds conspiracy theories.

Shame doesn’t scale

There are many reasons to celebrate the internet, not least the availability of the vast majority of written human knowledge at the fingertips of anyone with a browser and a connection. We are only scratching the surface of the possibilities of this incredible increase in the “velocity” of ideas and the interconnections between previously-disparate areas of study. The marketplace of information and thought has become exponentially more free in this generation. Who knows what marvelous inventions and discoveries might result?

There are many well-documented negative consequences of the internet too; groups of people with destructive or malicious intent can more easily find each other and work together.

There seems to be a growing trend, uniquely facilitated by the internet which, on the face of it, has the appearance of being positive and for the good of society but perhaps has regrettable long term consequences.

The concept of “shame” is a highly-efficient mechanism developed though evolution  to ensure socially-compliant behaviour by people in small groups. A tribe will ostracise and shun a member who acts against the common good, not using the designated latrine area, for example. This shaming has served us well as a species over thousands of generations, enabling us to live and work together far more effectively with surprisingly few conflicts. If you think that last sentence sounds incorrect, consider how many more fights and blood feuds we’d have in society if we did whatever we wanted without considering what the neighbours might think.

Perhaps shame loses its utility with scale, that is, the damage done by shaming a behaviour becomes too extreme compared to the benefit it may bring?

The most recent example that springs to mind is that of James Damore and his now infamous dossier as a response to a request for feedback following his attendance at several internal Google diversity seminars.

Despite the fact that the original document (here, complete with the charts and citations most media reports edited out) reads as a well-argued counter argument as requested, the internet outcry was intense enough to result in Google firing him.

The vast majority of criticism (maybe use alternate search engines to look for it) was ad hominen rather than explaining where Damore’s arguments were flawed.

Similarly, Justine Sacco was subject to an internet campaign of shame following an ill-advised poor taste joke on Twitter. She too lost her job as a consequence.

Regardless of whether or not the content of Damore’s dossier was accurate or had worth or whether Sacco’s joke was in poor taste, in an earlier age the consequences of both would have been unlikely to be so extreme.

There is a tendency to “pile on” on social media to shame individuals with whom we disagree. The left-leaning are particularly adept and enthusiastic in this but it is not exclusive behaviour by any end of the political spectrum.

Shame does not scale up well.

What might be the consequences of this increased consequence to shame at scale?

Bill’s Opinion

This blog itself is a great indication as to the consequences; anonymous and hosted in a country with some of the better internet privacy laws. I’d prefer to write this under my own name but the risk to my livelihood and privacy is too great.

But more broadly, how many of us have witnessed situations on social media where you would have wished to make a contrary statement or at least debate the point but were conscious of the risk of being subject to being labeled with one of the words with the ‘-ist’ suffix. My personal LinkedIn timeline is a classic for this; I see so much that I take issue with and would want to call out as incorrect or at least logically-flawed but the risk of collateral damage is too great.

So, the consequence is silence.

Note, the consequence isn’t that the contrary opinions go away, just that they are not aired in the company of those who will disagree with them.

So the ultimate consequence is increased polarisation of opinions where opposing views are rarer exposed to each other in the marketplace of ideas to compete to discover which is contains more truth.

It’s fashionable these days to suggest reasons for Brexit and Trump winning and often these might be only tangentially-related , but this silence of the shamed might have a very strong correlation.

One does not like green eggs and ham

Our recent investigation into the accidental UK Conservative Party leadership contender, Jacob Rees-Mogg, led us to discover the perfectly rational, balanced and sober Guardian columnist, Suzanne Moore.

One of her recent offerings was on the subject of “hate crimes” and “online hate”.

Something must be done, she opines, there must be consequences.

Definitions are always a handy starting point when searching for the truth of a statement.

Firstly, what is “hate“?

In the English language it can have several related but different meanings; the opposite of love, for example. An extreme dislike of something or someone, perhaps. Without wishing to put words into Ms. Moore’s mouth, she seems to be defining it moore (see what I did there?) as an action than a feeling. Online hate, is the term she uses to describe this version of the word, suggesting the use of the verb rather than the noun version of hate.

Presumably she isn’t suggesting all hate must be banned? Hatred of olives, for example, would be a frivolous and difficult thing to legislate against. It might be straightforward to enshrine in law a ban on publicly-expressing one’s hatred for little green and black fruits however. Would that make the olive-haters suddenly, or even gradually, become lovers of olives? Of course not.

Defining the standard for what is hateful is equally tricky. Are you calling me rude names on the internet because you disagree with my point of view (here’s a few hundred words from Ms. Moore doing exactly that to JRM, without ever once critiquing his arguments)? At what point does that name-calling become online hate or even a hate crime? On Planet Guardian, it seems to be once we invoke certain physical, religious, racial, gender or sexual attributes.

At risk of invoking the slippery slope fallacy, who gets to define the limits of this definition and where does one apply for the job?

We might speculate that the flip side of online hate is offence. If the recipient of online hate takes offence, the hurt is amplified, which is perhaps the original motivation of the online hater?

Maybe there’s a clue in the way we phrase offence as a verb in the English language; we say that people take offence, suggesting that it’s a choice made by the recipient, not the hater offering it. The power is actually with the recipient.

Bill’s Opinion

Although we all know that we should strive for civility in our online discussions, we don’t always hold ourselves to that standard. However, to legislate to shut down those who are abusive risks collecting those with dissenting opinions or those with arguments we simply find uncomfortable in the same net.

Those of us who attract the attention of insulting or abusive online hate have several options available;

  1. Report threats of violence or incitement to violence to the police; this is an actual crime and has been for generations.
  2. Use the block button on whichever social media platform the abuse is arriving from.
  3. Log off, make a cup of tea and get on with real, not virtual, life like a grown adult.