Saturday, 26 November 2011

Freedom of speech 2.0

Yesterday, a fellow library campaigner directed me to this blog post by Roger Pearse criticising the Suffolk public library service. The main thrust of his argument has some validity: if his story is accurate, then the library in question needs to modernise and make efficiency changes. There are many libraries that need to make changes: I do not campaign for libraries because I believe they are all perfect; I campaign for libraries because I believe that good libraries have superlative value and that even bad libraries have potential. There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether bad libraries are caused by library managers, overhead council intervention, or simple budgetary concerns. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Pearse’s valid concerns about his public library service were drowned out by the following statement and his subsequent response when challenged about it:

And so it went on.  Item after item of inefficiency, maladministration, neglect or wrong-headedness.  In real terms, there was nobody in charge.  Doubtless there is some woman somewhere who receives a salary to run the organisation.  (You can tell that it is a woman in charge because the conversion of Ipswich library into a playgroup is something that only a woman would do). 

This throw-away comment is not the core of Mr. Pearse’s argument but it is offensively sexist and exclusionary (as are similar comments about children’s groups in libraries). It’s a statement that, since he made it freely and of his own accord, he should either defend or retract. 

You can always just pepper-spray people with whom you don't agree.
Freedom of speech is a tricky concept. It’s essential to a functioning democracy and very important for equality of all people. Everyone has the absolute right to express what they believe: Mr. Pearse has the right to make negative comments about women and the corollary of this is that people who disagree with him have the right to challenge him. 

Or rather, should have the right to challenge him. After several people commented on his blog about his sexist statement, these comments were deleted and labelled as “abusive”. Which accords with my own opinion that the only limitation to freedom of expression is the Harm Principle: the only circumstances in which it is permissible to censor or otherwise prevent someone expressing him/herself is if their expression causes or will cause harm to another person. The classic example is someone shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. Where I disagree with Mr. Pearse – and where the Harm Principle falls down – is in defining the vague concept of ‘harm’. What exactly is harm? Can it be quantified? Can there be any objective measure of harm?

Mr. Pearse has since written another post about his experience of “political thuggery” and his conception of free speech. He’s included several comments – including my own – as evidence of trolling. I seem to be included in the category of commenters “pretend[ing] to be polite.” I’m also accused of ad hominem attack (which is a false accusation since I’m attacking a point (a non-substantive point admittedly) that he made in the piece rather than Mr. Pearse himself). He characterises the level of debate as “deliberate violence, intended to give pain…” Ian Clark (unable to respond directly to Mr. Pearse for fears of deletion) has responded here and I encourage you to read it particularly the last paragraph.

Now maybe I have a laissez-faire ‘sticks-and-stones’ attitude but apart from direct threats or intimidation, I would not consider any other kind of speech as causing harm under the Harm Principle. I have been blogging on this site which is open to comments for several years and have received numerous comments disagreeing with me. I have never deleted any of them. This is not a diary: it's a blog and as such it operates under a different paradigm of communication. Under a definition of ‘trolling’ as irrational attacks against a person or argument on the Web, I wouldn’t define any of the comments on my blog as trolling. Some of these comments have hurt my feelings, some have made me feel bad, and, most importantly, some have made me rethink my position. There’s a comment on this post about a symbol of philosophical logic that calls me a moron. That comment made me angry enough to do some research and discover that, annoying though it may be, the commenter is right and I was wrong. When I check my blog’s statistics, I’m frequently annoyed that this post denying human-induced climate change gets consistently high traffic: I now fully retract that post but I will not delete it however wrong it is. It's true that I have censored some blog posts in the past but only at the request of an external party (this censorship and secretive attitude towards information is part of the reason why I no longer work for the external party). 

Required by law to be included in any writing about Web discussions.
Ultimately my attitude to freedom of speech derives from the fact that I don’t believe I have the right to delete something that someone spent precious time writing down. I don’t believe anyone has that right (unless as mentioned it harms others which I don’t believe the comments on Mr. Pearse’s sexism do). John Stuart Mill expressed it wonderfully in a passage from On Liberty that I return to time and time again:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Roger Pearse is free to make whatever statements he wants. In exchange for that freedom, I think he should allow other people the same right.


Silversprite said...

The cartoon hits the nail on the head perfectly.

This is a situation (repeated regularly) where a lot of library advocates are online-battling one person who has mental health issues.

The chances of him changing his mind are zero. The chances of having an open and balanced discussion aren't much better, as he will delete comments he doesn't agree with, put up false ones that support his case, and won't comment on other people's blogs.

Not sure if it's a great use of anyones time.

Simon Barron said...

You're absolutely right, John. It's just frustrating (then again so is banging one's head against a wall). If I wasn't so stubborn, I would have let it go.

As for better uses of my time, I still need to write my submission to the DCMS inquiry as should everyone else.

africker said...

Just reviewed the various posts.

The chap takes time out from deleting peoples posts to further state that

"Our local collections are heavily weighted towards fiction. But this is OK, since it does encourage housewives etc to read, and that in turn means that they expect their children to learn to read."

Also a load of stuff aboout when "we" ran India and so on.

You would almost thinking he was trolling for more stuff to delete.