Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Creeping Culture of Censoriousness

The British actor Rowan Atkinson — better known to many of his fans as “Mr. Bean” — gave a much-noted speech a few days ago on behalf of the “Reform Section 5” campaign, which aims to overturn the provisions of British law that allow people to be criminally prosecuted if their words cause insult (or might cause insult) to someone.

Anticipating the need for translated and subtitled versions of the speech, Vlad Tepes has transcribed it, and used the transcript to subtitle Mr. Atkinson’s words in English:

If I’m not mistaken, a German translation is in the works.


00:08 My starting point, when it comes to the…
00:13 consideration of any issue relating to free speech, is my passionate belief that the second most…
00:18 precious thing in life is the right to express yourself
00:22 freely. The most precious thing in life I think, is, food in your mouth
00:26 and the third most precious is a roof over your head.
00:30 But a fixture for me in the number 2 slot is…
00:34 free expression just below the need to sustain life itself.
00:38 That is because I have enjoyed free expression in this
00:42 country all my professional life and fully expect to
00:46 continue to do so. Personally I suspect I am highly unlikely
00:50 to be arrested for whatever laws exist to contain free expression…
00:55 because of the undoubtedly privileged position that is afforded to those…
00:59 of a high public profile. So my concerns are less
01:03 for myself, and more for those more vulnerable
01:07 because of their lower profile. Like the man arrested in
01:11 Oxford for calling a police horse ‘gay’. Or
01:15 the teenager for calling the Church of Scientology…
01:19 a ‘cult’. Or the cafe owner arrested for
01:24 displaying passages from the Bible on a TV screen.
01:28 When I heard of some of these more ludicrous offences and
01:32 charges I remember that I had been here before in a
01:36 fictional context. I once did a show called, ‘Not the Nine O’clock
01:40 News’ some years ago, and we did a sketch where Griff Rhys Jones
01:44 played Constable Savage. A manifestly
01:48 racist police officer to whom as I as his station…
01:52 commander is giving a dressing down for arresting a black man on a
01:57 whole string of ridiculous, trumped up and ludicrous charges.
02:01 The charges for which Constable Savage arrested Mr. Winston Kodogo
02:05 of 55 Mercer Rd. were these: Walking on the
02:09 cracks in the pavement. Walking
02:13 in a loud shirt in a built up area during the hours of darkness.
02:17 And one of my favourites, walking around all…
02:21 over the place. He was also arrested for
02:26 urinating in a public convenience, and looking
02:30 at me in a funny way. Who would have thought
02:34 that we would end up with a law that would allow life to imitate art
02:38 so exactly? I read somewhere a defender of
02:42 the status quo claiming that the fact that the gay horse case was dropped,
02:46 after the arrested man refused to pay the fine
02:50 and that the Scientology case was also dropped at some point during the
02:54 court process was proof that the law was working well.
02:58 Ignoring the fact that the only reason these cases were dropped was
03:03 because of the publicity that they had attracted. The police…
03:07 sensed that ridicule was just around the corner, and withdrew
03:11 their action. But what about the thousands of other cases
03:15 that did not enjoy the oxygen of publicity?
03:19 That weren’t quite ludicrous enough to attract media
03:23 attention? Even for those actions that were withdrawn, people were
03:27 arrested, questioned, taken to court, and then released.
03:31 That isn’t the law working properly. That is censoriousness
03:35 of the most intimidating kind, guaranteed to have
03:39 as Lord Dear says, the “chilling effect on free expression and free…
03:43 protest”. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights
03:48 summarized, as you may know, this whole issue very well by saying…
03:52 “while arresting a protester for using threatening or abusive…
03:56 speech may, depending on the circumstances, be a proportionate…
04:00 response, we do not think that language or behaviour that is merely…
04:04 insulting should ever be criminalized in this way.”
04:08 The clear problem with the outlawing of insult
04:12 is that too many things can be interpreted as such
04:16 Criticism is easily construed as insult by certain parties.
04:20 ridicule easily construed as insult. Sarcasm, unfavourable…
04:25 comparison, merely stating an alternative point of view
04:29 to the orthodoxy can be interpreted as insult
04:33 and because so many things can be interpreted as insult it is hardly surprising
04:37 that so many things have been, as the examples I talked about earlier..
04:41 show. Although the law under discussion has been on the statute…
04:45 book for over 25 years, it is indicative of a culture…
04:49 that has taken hold of the programmes of successive governments…
04:54 that with a reasonable and well intentioned ambition
04:58 to contain obnoxious elements in society has created
05:02 a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling
05:06 nature. It is what you might call, ‘the new intolerance’
05:10 a new but intense desire to gag …
05:14 uncomfortable voices of dissent. “I am not intolerant”…
05:18 say many people. Say many softly spoken highly educated
05:22 liberal minded people. “I am only intolerant of intolerance.”
05:26 ..and people tend to nod sagely and say “oh yes wise words”
05:30 and yet if you think about this inarguable statement
05:34 for longer than 5 seconds you realize that all it is advocating is a replacement
05:38 of 1 kind of intolerance with another. Which to me doesn’t
05:43 represent any kind of progress at all. Underlying…
05:47 prejudices injustices or resentments are not addressed…
05:51 by arresting people. They are addressed by the issues being aired,
05:55 argued and dealt with preferably outside the legal
05:59 process. For me, the best way to increase …
06:03 society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech,
06:07 is to allow a lot more of it.
06:12 As with childhood diseases you can better resist those germs to which you have been
06:16 exposed. We need to build our immunity to
06:20 taking offence, so that we can deal with the issues that perfectly…
06:24 justified criticism can raise. Our priorities should be
06:28 to be to deal with the message, not the messenger. As President Obama
06:32 said, in an address to the UN only a month or so ago…
06:36 “Laudable efforts to restrict speech can become…
06:40 a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities.”
06:44 The strongest weapon against hateful speech, is not
06:48 repression, it is more speech.
06:52 And that’s the essence of my thesis, more speech.
06:57 If we want a robust society we need more robust dialogue
07:01 and that must include the right to insult or to offend.
07:05 And as, even if, as Lord Dear says,
07:09 “you know the freedom to be inoffensive is no freedom at all”
07:13 The repeal of this word in this clause will be only
07:17 a small step but it will, I hope, be a critical one in what should be a longer term
07:21 project to pause and slowly rewind
07:25 the creeping culture of censoriousness.
07:29 It is a small skirmish in the battle, in my opinion, to deal
07:33 with what Sir Salman Rushdie refers to as, ‘The outrage industry’.
07:38 Self-appointed arbiters of the public good…
07:42 encouraging media stoked outrage to which the police feel under terrible
07:46 pressure to react. A newspaper rings up Scotland Yard:
07:50 someone has said something slightly insulting on Twitter
07:54 about someone who we think, a national treasure.
07:58 What are you going to do about it? The police panic and
08:02 and they scramble around and then grasp the most inappropriate lifeline of all…
08:07 Section 5 of the Public Order Act, that thing were you can arrest anybody…
08:11 for saying anything that might be construed by anyone else as insulting.
08:15 You know they don’t seem to need a real victim; they need only to make the judgment that somebody could have…
08:19 been offended if they had heard or read what has been said, the most
08:23 ludicrous degree of latitude. The
08:27 storms that surround Twitter and Facebook comments have raised some fascinating
08:31 issues about free speech which we haven’t really yet come to terms with:
08:35 firstly, that we all have to take responsibility
08:40 for what we say. Which is quite a good message to learn,
08:44 but secondly we have learned how appallingly prickly
08:48 and intolerant society has become over even the mildest
08:52 adverse comment. The law should not be aiding
08:56 and abetting this new intolerance. Free speech
09:00 can only suffer if the law prevents us from dealing with its consequences
09:04 I offer my whole-hearted support to the “Reform
09:08 Section 5 Campaign”.


Tuan Jim said...

I prefer Blackadder myself, and the tone and presentation is also similar to some of his excellent stand-up routines.

That said, I'm very happy to see that he's still remained so consistent on this issue over the years.

Nilk said...

Here is the sketch that Rowan Atkinson talks about.

Anonymous said...

"As President Obama said, in an address to the UN only a month or so ago…“Laudable efforts to restrict speech can become…a tool to silence critics or oppress minorities.”"

The problem with quoting Obama is that he also said, "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam."

Sharia Law for thee, but not for me.


Anonymous said...

An ambigious and (ultra)liberal support for free speech.

Note Constable Savage, as the manifestly racist (white) police officer that wrongfully arrested (black) Mr. Winston Kodogo.

The tale of the sketch is clear that Constable Savage has no comprehension of the law (a stupid white man) and is apprehending the wrong target when he should be arresting the intended target - the white and manifestly racist Mr Winston Smith.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights
03:48 summarized, as you may know, this whole issue very well by saying…
03:52 “while arresting a protester for using threatening or abusive…
03:56 speech may, depending on the circumstances, be a proportionate…

Hypocrisy to argue for the arrest of protesters for using threatening or abusive speech while protesting for a Mr Bean license of free speech - is this man a comedian?

Jolie Rouge