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2020 marks two anniversaries. The first is the 40th anniversary of the murder of ex-Beatle John Lennon (1940 – 1980) by the social misfit, Mark David Chapman (1955 – ). The second is the 70th anniversary of the release of Sunset Boulevard. Although they are separated by some thirty years, each event acts as a reminder of what can happen when the desire for fame gets out of hand.
At 10.50pm on December 8th, 1980, Chapman watched as Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono (1933 – ) made their way through the entrance of the Dakota building, dropped into a combat stance, and fired five shots from his Charter Arms .38 Special revolver. Four bullets struck Lennon in the back and shoulder. The fifth missed and shattered a window.
Lennon was rushed to the Roosevelt Hospital where three doctors, two to three medical attendants, and nurse spent ten to twenty minutes trying to revive him. The doctors even tried opening his chest to perform a manual heart massage, but the damage to the vessels around his heart were too great. John Lennon was announced dead on arrival at 11.15pm.
Lennon had been shot at close range by four hollow-point bullets. Two had passed through his body, one had lodged itself in his upper left-arm, and a fourth had lodged itself in his aorta. The autopsy concluded that Lennon died of “hypovolemic shock, caused by the loss of more than eighty-percent of blood volume due to multiple through-and-through gunshot wounds to the left shoulder and left chest resulting in damage to the left lung, the left subclavian artery, and both the aorta and aortic arch.”
John Lennon’s murder and the plot of Sunset Boulevard mirror one another in many ways. Lennon was murdered by a deranged lunatic who believed he could achieve notoriety for himself by murdering a popstar. Similarly, Sunset Boulevard tells the story of a long forgotten, and equally demented, film star who achieves a return to fame by murdering her gigolo.
Sunset Boulevard was the product of a collaboration between Billy Wilder (1906 – 2002), Charles Brackett (1892 – 1969), and Donald McGill Marshman, Jr. (1922 – 2015). The story was based, in part, on the Evelyn Waugh (1903 – 1966) novel, The Loved Ones which recounted the author’s experiences in Hollywood and the funeral business. Wilder, who had become fascinated by American culture whilst living in Berlin, dreamt up a story about a long forgotten silent film star who resides in one of Sunset Boulevard’s grand houses. Brackett suggested making the story about the star’s comeback, whilst Marshman, Jr. suggested using it to explore the relationship between the forgotten film star and a young man.
Sunset Boulevard’s success was aided by three factors: the writing of Wilder, Brackett, and Marshman, Jr., the direction of Wilder, and the cinematography of John Francis Seitz (1892 – 1979). Seitz gave Sunset Boulevard a dreamlike quality in which fantasy and reality blend together almost seamlessly. The fantasy world Norma Desmond inhabits is shot in deep focus and made to look dark and ominous. By contrast, the real world that Joe Gillis inhabits is depicted as well-lit and filmed in a documentary-style fashion.
Numerous actors were considered to play Joe Gillis, including Fred MacMurray (1908 – 1991) and Montgomery Clift (1920 – 1966). Clift was originally signed to play the part, but withdrew from the project at the last minute. The role eventually went to William Holden (1918 – 1981).
Joe Gillis is a down and outer. Prior to meeting Norma Desmond, Gillis’ situation is so dire that he actually considers returning to his newspaper job in Dayton, Ohio. He is hounded by debt collectors, forced to use the telephone at Schwab’s drugstore because he cannot afford one of his own, and is even fired by his own manager. Gillis believes that he can live the life of an expensive playboy by reading Desmond’s script and entertaining her deluded fantasies. The problem is that he has to make a Faustian pact in order to do so.
The reason Gillis finds Desmond’s offer so tempting is that he has become jaded about the Hollywood system. He represents the writer as just a mere cog in the movie-making machine. He notes the general lack of recognition for the writer and his craft, the writer’s uncertain prospects, the likelihood of executive meddling, and the ever-present risk of plagiarism. He complains that Hollywood will reject your script if it is too original or if it is not original enough.
Norma Desmond, Sunset Boulevard’s antagonist, was based on a myriad of silent film actresses. The name is believed to be derived from the silent film star, Mabel Normand (1892 – 1930) and the film director, William Desmond Taylor (1872 – 1922), who’s sensational 1922 murder has never been solved. Suggested models for Desmond include Norma Talmadge (1894 – 1957), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979), Pola Negri (1897 – 1987), Mae Murray (1885 – 1965), Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), and Valeska Surratt (1882 – 1962).
Norma Desmond was played by former silent film star, Gloria Swanson (1899 – 1983). Like Desmond, Swanson had been a major silent film star and was known for her beauty, talent, and extravagant lifestyle. And like Desmond, her film career faded with the coming of sound. Unlike Desmond, however, Swanson was able to accept the end of her film career, moved to New York in the early-thirties, and pursued a successful career in theatre, radio, and television.
Norma Desmond has come to symbolise an entire generation of silent film stars whose were thrust aside by the advent of sound. When her star fell, Desmond retreated into her gothic mansion and built up a fantasy world where she was still a big star. At one stage she tells Gillis that she had the floor of her ballroom tiled at the behest of Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926), as though Valentino was still a big star. She speaks in melodramatic tones, acts like an infatuated schoolgirl in Gillis’ company, and engages in acts of emotional blackmail through mock suicide attempts.
Desmond refuses to admit that the “parade has long since passed her by.” Incapable of functioning in the real world, she has constructed a fantasy life for herself. Any attempt to bring her out of her stupor is met with either denial or indignation. Towards the end of the movie, Gillis informs her: “Norma, you’re a woman of fifty, now grow up. There’s nothing tragic about being fifty, not unless you try to be twenty-five.” And just like John the Baptist in Salome (the 1891 Oscar Wilde tragedy Desmond has chosen to adapt), Gillis pays for the faux pas with his life.
When Sunset Boulevard premiered, Louis B. Mayer (1884 – 1957) reportedly shouted at Billy Wilder: “You bastard! You have disgraced the industry that made you and fed you. You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood.” Mayer had reason to be angry, too. Sunset Boulevard is perhaps one of the most scathing criticisms of Hollywood ever made. The film indicted Hollywood for its treatment of the writer, its obsession with youth, its toxic star system, and cult of celebrity worship.
In a world of social media and reality television, the murder of John Lennon and the story of Sunset Boulevard is more potent today than ever before. Thanks to reality TV and social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, it is far too easy for mentally unstable people to achieve easy fame. How long will it be before society produces another Mark David Chapman or Norma Desmond?
Not even Cassandra, cursed to prophesise but never be believed, could have predicted the tumultuous change that occurred in 2016. In June, just over half of the British public (51.89%) voted to leave the European Union. Then, in November, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton to become the President of the United States.
And not only did Trump defeat Clinton, winning thirty of America’s fifty states (though Clinton did win the popular vote), the Republican Party utterly decimated the Democrats. Trump won thirty of America’s fifty states (Clinton, admittedly, did win the popular vote). The Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, have a majority in the Senate, hold thirty-three state governorships, and control thirty-two state legislatures.
Brexit’s victory and Trump’s triumph comes off the back of a deeper cultural movement. It is a movement that rejects the doctrines of political correctness, identity politics, diversity, and equality in favour of greater intellectual rigour and personal freedom. Trump’s gift to this movement has been to expand the Overton Window. As an indirect consequence of his uncouthness, the boundaries of public discourse have been expanded exponentially.
Throughout his campaign, the media treated Trump as a joke. He hasn’t got a hope in Hades, they claimed. In the end, however, they were proven wrong. Trump won through a mixture of hard-line policies on immigration and a rejection of political correctness and far-left politics. And he won through his astounding ability to market himself to the American people.
The first thing to note is that Trump thrives on scandal. Much of this ability emanates from his already tarnished reputation as a rude, uncouth, bully and womaniser. Trump has never denied these facets of his personality (in some cases he has even emphasised them). What this means is that those who voted for Trump did so despite the significant faults in his character. Consequentially, accusations involving sex or money (the two things people truly care about) has little effect on him.
Then there is his skill as an emotional manipulator. Trump appeals directly to the emotional sensibilities of the people by using fear-mongering rhetoric to circumvent the mind’s critical faculties. Rather than emphasising the importance of maintaining the integrity of immigration law, Trump chooses to emphasise the crimes – rapes, murders, drug offences – committed by some illegal immigrants. After this, Trump promotes anger by setting up an out-group as the enemy. As a result, Trump implies not only that he is the best man to solve these issues, but that anyone who opposes him is somehow anti-American.
Finally, there is Trump’s use of simplicity and repetition as persuasive tools. Nuanced and boring statements can be taken out of context. By contrast, simple and heavily repetitive statements are harder to take out of context. But, more importantly, such statements are also more likely to be believed.
Much of Trump’s use of simplicity has its basis in his relationship with language. Trump speaks at a fourth-grade level and averages one syllable per word. While it would be easy to dismiss this as unsophisticated or low brow, it is important to remember that small words have a stronger and more immediate emotional impact, are more accessible to a wider audience, and are considered more believable. Cognitive fluency bias means that that the easier it is to understand something, the more likely it is to be believed. As a consequence, Trump’s use of small, simple words means he is more likely to be understood and, therefore, is more likely to be believed.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Trump’s magnetism is his ability to bypass the traditional mediums of communication and appeal directly to the American people. Unlike Hillary Clinton, who relied upon celebrity support and the mainstream media, Trump and his supporters used social media to appeal directly to voters. The lesson is clear: voters like for politicians to speak to them as equals, not preach to them from on high.
Society has a problem with politically-motivated violence. At a protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, a man with Nazi sympathies drove his car into a crowd of protestors, killing one and injuring many others.
Likewise, the so-called anti-fascists, Antifa (they are, of course, nothing of the sort) has resorted to using violent and intimidatory tactics at numerous protests and rallies.
Needless to say, such occurrences raise serious questions about the consequences of political polarisation and the lack of community sentiment and incivility that it brings.
One of the features of the 2010s has been the increase in political polarisation. As people become more willing to identify themselves by their political ideology, the tendency to view one’s political opponents as extremists have, likewise, increased. Consequentially, it has become easier and easier for people to demonise others because they don’t hold the same political views that they do.
Such polarisation, of course, has been fuelled by a biased and segregated news media system. The online video and podcast revolution, combined with a mainstream media that heavily slants towards the left, has meant that people are often only exposed to those views that match their own. As such, the right has been manipulated into believing that all on the left are social justice warriors, protestors, and radical feminists, whilst those on the left have been manipulated into seeing all on the right as Nazis, race baiters, white supremacists, and alt-righters.
To a large degree, political polarisation has come as a consequence of the loss of a sense of community. People no longer associate with their neighbours, and, as a result, they have come to see each other as potential enemies rather than potential friends. And, under such conditions, it becomes very easy to see another person as evil when their political views do not compliment your own.
The loss of community has occurred for three major reasons. First, the advent of social media, online shopping, video subscription services, and smartphones has meant that people are no longer required to venture out into society and interact with others. It is no longer necessary for a consumer to interact with shop staff, for instance, because they can shop in the solitude of their own living room. Modern technology, for all its benefits, has provided us with a faux sense of sociability. A kind of sociability that allows us to communicate with others but does not require genuine human interaction.
Second, past-times that were once considered neutral have been co-opted to spread politically-charged messages. People can no longer go to a football game, watch a movie, or listen to music without having political ideology preached to them. As a consequence, society lacks the entities that once allowed people to bond with one another despite differences in their political beliefs.
Third, engagement with the community has declined. People are no longer engaged with the community in the same way that their grandparents were. In the past, social clubs, community groups, sports clubs, and religious institutions provided a space where people of diverse beliefs, values, and opinions could come together. As a consequence, such entities promoted a degree of social unity and social cohesion. Today, however, people are becoming more and more willing to self-segregate. They isolate themselves, choosing only to socialise with friends and family.
What all this has amounted to is a loss of civility. It is very easy to justify all manner of bad behaviour when one sees their opponent as a threat to their very existence. Our modern society shuns manners and dismisses common courtesy and is surprised to find self-centredness and vulgarity in its wake.
It is a great pity that the Latin language is now considered dead. Through its death, we have lost many of the Latin words, expressions, and maxims that provided us with great wisdom and poetry. Among these is the phrase, “Panem et circenses”, or, in English, “bread and circuses.”
Panem et circenses refers to a society that uses food and mindless entertainment to keep control of its people. Such a culture does not encourage deep thought, nor does it encourage any search for meaningful or consequential in life.
What an excellent way to describe modern society and the culture that it has produced. No longer does our culture celebrate those with intelligence, moral piety, or depth of character. Instead, society has chosen to celebrate exhibitionism and licentiousness as the height of moral fortitude.
And no other family has demonstrated this fact more than the Kardashian-Jenner family. And modern culture has seen fit to reward them handsomely for it! In 2016, Forbes Magazine listed the Kardashian-Jenner family as the highest earning reality TV Stars. As of 2017, Kendall Jenner had a net worth of approximately US$18 million, Kourtney Kardashian had an approximate net worth of US$35 million, Khloe Kardashian had a net worth of US$40 million, Kylie Jenner, only twenty-years-old, had a net worth of US$50 million, Kris Kenner had a net worth of US$60 million, and Kim Kardashian had a net worth of US$175 million (she made $45.5 million in 2016/2017 alone).
But it’s hardly fair to criticise them. They have merely capitalised on the desire many people have to live a life of glamour and luxury. The Kardashians have been able to make tens-of-millions-of-dollars through their various reality TV shows, various business ventures, modelling, product endorsements, clothing lines, and more.
Of course, all this is not to say that the Kardashian-Jenner family is blameless. Years ago, a family as egotistical, petty, and immoral (what is Kim Kardashian, after all, other than a glorified porn star?) as the Kardashian family would have been treated with absolute disdain.
Not today, though. Today, the Kardashians have been able to build their empire, and it is an empire, upon shameless exploitation, self-aggrandisement, and self-promotion. They are able to reach nearly a billion people through social media and have been frequent guests on television talk shows.
What the Kardashian-Jenner phenomenon reveals is just how shallow our society has become. People have come to treat supermodels, reality TV stars, and sport’s stars as though they are royalty. The problem with this is that it encourages people to do whatever they like for a little bit of attention.
What all this boils down to is a loss of virtue. We have replaced the old heroes, the ones who encouraged courage and chivalry, with new Gods that encourage self-centredness and licentiousness. Self-expression is no longer to be expressed through the sweat of one’s brow, the depth of his character, or the faculties of his reason. Instead, it can be gained, quite easily, by posting a selfie on Instagram or Facebook.
St. Augustine defined virtue as ‘ordo amoris’ (yet another beautiful Latin maxim), or ‘order of love.’ It was his belief that every object and entity was accorded the level of love and affection that was appropriate for it to receive.
What we have today is a society that has gotten that order wrong. When people no longer honour Kings, they worship movie stars, musicians, models, reality TV stars, prostitutes, scoundrels, and gangsters instead. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
There has been an alarming trend in modern culture: numerous political and social activist groups have been attempting to use the pernicious and false doctrines of political correctness, tolerance, and diversity to silence those they disagree with. Many of these groups have sought the passage of so-called “hate speech” laws designed to silence voices of dissent.
At public colleges and universities, places where free speech and open debate should be actively encouraged, measures – including protests, disruption, and, in some cases, outright violence – taken to suppress voices of dissent has become tantamount to Government censorship. This censorship prevents students from inviting the speakers they wish to hear and debate speech they disagree with. Eva Fourakis, the editor-in-chief of The Williams Record (the student newspaper of Williams College) wrote an editorial, later recanted, commenting that “some speech is too harmful to invite to campus.” The editorial went on to say: “students should not face restrictions in terms of the speakers they bring to campus, provided of course that these speakers do not participate in legally recognised forms of hate speech.”
The University of California, Berkeley, is famous for sparking the free speech movement of the 1960s. Today, however, it has become a haven for radical, anti-free speech Neo-Marxists and social justice warriors. Not only have many Republican students had their personal property destroyed, but numerous conservative speakers have had their talks disturbed, and, in some cases, halted altogether. In February, Antifa – so-called anti-fascists – set fires and vandalised building during a speech by the controversial journalist, Milo Yiannopoulos (1984 – ). In April, threats of violence aimed at members of the Young Americas Foundation forced political commentator, Ann Coulter (1961 – ), to cancel her speech. A speech by David Horowitz (1939 – ), founder and president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, was cancelled after organisers discovered that the event would take place during normal class times (for safety, or so they claimed). Finally, the conservative journalist, Ben Shapiro (1984 – ), was forced to spend US$600,000 on security for his speech at UC Berkeley. These events show that those who wish to use disruption, vilification, threats, and outright violence to silence others can be, and often are, successful in doing so.
Like most the principles of classical liberalism, free speech developed through centuries of political, legal, and philosophical progress. And like many Western ideas, its development can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks. During his trial in Athens in 399BC, Socrates (470BC – 399BC) expressed the belief that the ability to speak was man’s most divine gift. “If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind”, Socrates stated, “I should say to you, ‘Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you.”
Sixteen hundred years later, in 1215, the Magna Carta became the founding document of English liberty. In 1516, Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) wrote in the Education of a Christian Prince that “in a free state, tongues too should be free.” In 1633, the astronomist Galileo Galilei was put on trial by the Catholic Church for refusing to retract his claim of a heliocentric solar system. In 1644, the poet, John Milton (1608 – 1674), author of Paradise Lost, warned in Areopagictica that “he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” Following the usurpation of King James II (1633 – 1701) by William III (1650 – 1702) and Mary II (1662 – 1694) in 1688, the English Parliament passed the English Bill of Rights which guaranteed free elections, regular parliaments, and freedom of speech in Parliament.
In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an important document of the French revolution, provided for freedom of speech (needless to say, Robespierre and company were not very good at actually promoting this ideal). That same year, the philosopher Voltaire (1694 – 1778) famously wrote: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” Over in the United States, in 1791, the first amendment of the US Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble:
ARTICLE [I] (AMENDMENT 1 – FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND RELIGION)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
During the 19th century, the British philosopher, John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) argued for toleration and individuality in his 1859 essay, On Liberty. “If any opinion is compelled to silence”, Mill warned, “that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to presume our own infallibility.” Mill believed that all doctrines, no matter how immoral or offensive, ought to be given public exposure. He stated in On Liberty:
“If the argument of the present chapter are of any validity, there ought to exist the fullest liberty of professing and discussing, as a matter of ethical conviction, any doctrine, however immoral it may be considered.”
Elsewhere in On Liberty, Mill warned that the suppression of one voice was as immoral as the suppression of all voices:
“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.”
Centuries later, in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, accepted unilaterally by the United Nations, urged member states to promote civil, human, economic, social, and political rights – including freedom of expression and religion.
Within the American Justice System, numerous Supreme Court cases have created judicial protections for freedom of speech. In the case of the Nationalist Socialist Party of America v. Village of Stoke (1977), the Supreme Court upheld the right of neo-Nazis to march through a village with a large Jewish population and wear Nazi insignia. The Justices found that the promotion of religious hatred was not a sufficient reason to restrict free speech.
In the city of St. Paul during the early 1990s, a white teenager was arrested under the “Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance” after he burnt a cross made of a broken chair (cross-burning is commonly used by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate African Americans) in the front yard of an African American family. The Court ruled that the city’s Ordinance was unconstitutional. Justice Antonin Scalia (1936 – 2016), noted that the purpose of restricting fighting words was to prevent civil unrest, not to ban the content or message of the speaker’s words. Scalia wrote in the case of R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992):
“The ordinance applies only to ‘fighting words’ that insult, or provoke violence, ‘on the basis of race, colour, creed, religion or gender.’ Displays containing abusive invective, no matter how vicious or severe, are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. Those who wish to use ‘fighting words’ in connection with other ideas—to express hostility, for example, on the basis of political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality—are not covered. The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.”
In the Matal v. Tam case (2017), the Supreme Court found that a provision within the Lanham Act prohibiting the registration of trademarks that disparaged persons, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols violated the First Amendment. Justice Samuel Alito (1950 – ) opined:
“[The idea that the government may restrict] speech expressing ideas that offend … strikes at the heart of the First Amendment. Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate’.”
Justice Anthony Kennedy (1936 – ) opined:
“A law found to discriminate based on viewpoint is an “egregious form of content discrimination,” which is “presumptively unconstitutional.” … A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.”
In recent years, numerous calls to ban speech have been justified on the basis that it is “hateful.” Much of this has come from the political left who (in what one may cynically regard as having more to do with silencing voices of dissent than with protecting vulnerable groups) argue that restrictions on hate speech must occur if minorities are to be given equal status with everyone else.
That certain types of speech can be offensive, and that some of that speech may be aimed at certain groups of people, is undeniable. Hate speech has even been criticised for undermining democracy! In an article, Alexander Tsesis, Professor of Law at Loyola University, wrote: “hate speech is a threatening form of communication that is contrary to democratic principles.” Some have even argued that hate speech violates the fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees equal protection under the law:
Article XIV (AMENDMENT 14 – RIGHTS GUARANTEED: PRIVILEGES AND IMMUNITIES OF CITIZENSHIP, DUE PROCESS, AND EQUAL PROTECTION)
1: All persons born or naturalised in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
That there is a historical basis for restricting hate speech is undeniable. Slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust, among other atrocities, were all proceeded by violent and hateful rhetoric. (Indeed, incitement to genocide is considered a serious war crime and a serious crime against humanity under international law.) Genocide is almost always preceded by hate speech. However, what proponents of hate speech laws fail to realise is that the countries that perpetrated these atrocities did not extend the freedom to speak to the groups that they were targeting. Joseph Goebbels (1897 – 1945), the Nazi minister for public enlightenment and propaganda, for example, had such an iron grip on Germany’s media that any voice contradicting the Nazi’s anti-Semitic propaganda had no opportunity to be heard.
But who, exactly, supports hate speech laws? Analysis of survey data taken from Pew Research Center and YouGov reveals that it is primarily non-white, millennial democrats. In terms of age, the Pew Research Centre found that forty-percent of millennials supported Government censorship of hate speech, compared to twenty-seven percent of gen x-ers, twenty-four percent of baby-boomers, and only twelve percent of the silent generation.
In terms of race, research by YouGov reveals that sixty-two percent of African Americans support Government censorship of hate speech, followed by fifty percent of Hispanics, and thirty-six percent of White Americans.
In terms of political affiliation, research from YouGov taken in 2015 found that fifty-one percent of Democrats supported restrictions on hate speech, compared to thirty-seven percent of Republicans, and only thirty-five percent of independents.
The primary issue with hate speech is that determining what it does and does not constitute is very difficult. (The cynic may argue, fairly, that hate speech begins when the speaker expresses a view or states a fact or expresses an opinion that another person does not want others to hear.) As Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) pointed out, the central problem with hate speech is that someone has to decide what it does and does not constitute.
The second issue with hate speech laws is that they can easily be used by one group to silence another. Often this kind of censorship is aimed at particular groups of individuals purely for ideological and/or political purposes, often with the justification that such actions increase the freedom and equality of the people the advocates claim to represent.
In Canada, Bill C-16 has sought to outlaw “hate propaganda” aimed at members of the community distinguishable by their gender identity or expression. The Bill originated with a policy paper by the Ontario Human Rights Commission which sought to determine what constituted discrimination against gender identity and expression. This included “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun.” Supporters of Bill C-16 see it as an important step towards the creation of legal protections for historically marginalised groups. Detractors, however, have expressed concern that the Bill creates a precedence for Government mandated speech.
The Canadian clinical psychologist and cultural critic, Professor Jordan Peterson (1962 – ), first came to public attention when he posted a series of YouTube videos warning of the dangers of political correctness and criticising Bill C-16. In his videos, Professor Peterson warned that the law could be used to police speech and compel individuals to use ‘transgender pronouns’ (these are terms like ‘ze’ and ‘zer’, among others). For his trouble, Peterson has been accused of violence by a fellow panellist on the Agenda with Steve Palkin, received two warning letters from the University of Toronto in 2016, and was denied a social research grant from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Europe has been experiencing similar attempts to silence speech. A law passed in the Bundestag this year will force social media companies operating in Germany to delete racist or slanderous comments and posts within twenty-four hours or face a fine of up to €50 million if they fail to do so. Additionally, numerous public figures have found themselves charged with hate speech crimes for merely pointing out the relationship between the large influx of non-European migrants and high crime rates, particularly in terms of rape and terrorism. One politician in Sweden was prosecuted for daring to post immigrant crime statistics on Facebook.
In Great Britain, British Freedom of Information documents reveal that around twenty-thousand adults and two-thousand children had been investigated by the police for comments that made online. In politics, British MP, Paul Weston (1965 – ), found himself arrested after he quoted a passage on Islam written by Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965). In Scotland, a man was charged under the 2003 Communication’s Act with the improper use of electronic communications after he filmed his dog making a Hitler salute.
In Australia, Herald Sun columnist, Andrew Bolt (1959 – ), was found to have contravened section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act after he published articles accusing fair-skinned Aborigines of using their racial status for personal advantages. The law firm, Holding Redlich, speaking for a group of Aboriginal persons, demanded that the Herald Sun retract two Andrew Bolt articles, written in April and August of 2009, and restrain Bolt from writing similar articles in the future. Joel Zyngier, who acted for the group pro-bono, told Melbourne’s The Age:
“We see it as clarifying the issue of identity—who gets to say who is and who is not Aboriginal. Essentially, the articles by Bolt have challenged people’s identity. He’s basically arguing that the people he identified are white people pretending they’re black so they can access public benefits.”
Judge Morcedai Bromberg (1959 – ) found that the people targeted by Bolt’s articles were reasonably likely to have been “offended, insulted, humiliated, or intimidated.”
We need speech to be as free as possible because it is that which allows us to exchange and critique information. It through free speech that we are able to keep our politicians and public officials in check, that we are able to critique public policy, and that we are able to disseminate information. As the Canadian cognitive psychologist, Stephen Pinker (1954 – ), observed: “free speech is the only way to acquire knowledge about the world.” Measures taken to restrict free speech, whether it be the criminalization of hate speech or any other, is a complete contradiction of the principles that free Western democracies are founded upon.
In an interview with the Radio Times, British actor Simon Pegg bemused on what he considered the infantilism of western culture. “Before Star Wars, the films that were box office hits were the Godfather, Taxi Driver, Bonnie and Clyde and the French Connection – gritty, amoral art movies”, Pegg commented, “then suddenly the onus switched over to spectacle and everything changed.”
Pegg continued, “now, I don’t know if that is a good thing. Obviously, I’m very much a self-confessed fan of science fiction and genre cinema. But part of me looks at society as it is now and just thinks we’ve been infantilised by our own taste. Now we’re essentially all consuming childish things – comic books, superheroes… Adults are watching this stuff, and taking it seriously!”
Perhaps this cultural shift is a sign of a greater decline into mass infantilism. The idea isn’t as ridiculous as one may think. The philosopher and cultural theorist, Jean Baudrillard, noted that the dominant forces in society often infantilize people to keep them pliable. And there is certainly a part of our personalities that longs for the innocence of childhood. As Stephen Fry commented in an interview with Dave Rubin:
“Nobody wants to believe that life is complicated, this is the problem. I suppose you might call it ‘the infantilism’ of our culture. There is deep infantilism in the culture and that extends in terms of the way they (people) think. They can’t bear complexity. The idea that things aren’t easy to understand, that there’s an um but there’s an ah, you have to think, there are gradations. No one wants that. They want to be told or they want to be able to decide and say ‘this is good, this is bad, I’m saying so. Anything that in any way conflicts with that is not to be born’.”
Today, the highest plateau of popular culture is ‘teen culture’. Hence our culture has become infused with completely vacuous entities: the Kardashians, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber. Many adults are fans of child and adolescent fiction writers: J.K Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and the like. In her book, the Death of the Grown-Up: How America’s Arrested Development is Bringing Down Western Civilization, author Diana West commented: “these days, of course, father and son dress more or less alike, from message-emblazoned T-shirts to chunky athletic shoes, both equally at ease in the baggy rumple of eternal summer camp. In the mature male, these trappings of adolescence have become more than a matter of comfort or style; they reveal a state of mind a reflection of a personality that hasn’t fully developed, and does want to – or worse, doesn’t know how.”
More alarming, however, is the inherent infantilism evident in youth politics. Like insolent children, these youths throw temper tantrums anytime anyone dares to question their precious, and false, worldview. Ultimately, when these progressive young people back a cause it is to attain ‘street cred.’ They become social media crusaders. But those among their ranks willing to take up arms and lay down their lives for their cause is vanishingly small. These pathetic little snowflakes feel traumatised whenever someone has the tenacity to disagree with them (of course, they have no problem with intimidating those who disagree with them).
And colleges and universities encourage this kind of behaviour! The official guidelines at Oberlin College in Ohio suggest that lectures avoid using ‘triggering’ materials. University safe spaces give special, snowflake students the option of hiding from dissent. Similarly, many young people complain of ‘microaggressions’: small words and actions that are considered harmful despite their lack of malicious content. But in most cases, these measures are forms of oppression disguised as benevolence. They are a means of silencing voices of dissent.
Don’t allow yourself to be seduced by this cult of infantilising escapism. Instead of watching Transformers try watching Schindler’s List, instead of reading Twilight try reading Macbeth or Hamlet, and rather than hiding behind your safe-spaces, trigger warnings, and micro-aggressions try listening to what the other person has to say. Who knows? Maybe you might learn something.
President Trump has been heavily criticised for appearing to defend the alt-right in the wake of the devastating Charlottesville car attack in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
Throughout the conference, Trump appeared agitated and defensive. When asked why it had taken him so long to condemn the Unite the Right protesters, Trump answered:
“I didn’t wait long. I wanted to make sure, unlike most politicians, that what I said was correct. Not make a quick statement. The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement was correct a fine statement, but you don’t make statements that direct unless you know the facts. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don’t know the facts. It’s a very, very important process to me. And it’s a very important statement. So I don’t want to go quickly and make a statement for the sake of making a political statement. I want to know the facts. If you go back to my original statement … I brought it.”
Trump went on to defend his statement on Saturday, saying:
“Excuse me, excuse me, take it nice and easy. Here’s the thing. When I make a statement, I like to be correct. I want the facts. This event just happened. In fact, a lot of the event didn’t even happen yet as we were speaking. This event just happened. Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So I don’t want to rush into a statement. So making the statement when I made it was excellent. In fact, the young woman who I hear was a fantastic young woman, and it was on NBC, her mother wrote me and said though I guess Twitter, social media, the nicest things. And I very much appreciated that. I hear she was a fine, really actually an incredible young woman. But her mother on Twitter thanked me for what I said. And honestly, if the press were not fake, and it was honest, the press would have said what I said was very nice. But unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.”
Then Trump switched his focus to attacking the “alt-left”:
I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned very different groups. But not all those people were”I’ve condemned neo-Nazis. I’ve condemned very different groups. But not all those people were neo-Nazis, believe me, not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch. Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. And you take a look at some of the groups and you see, and you’d know it if you were honest reporters which in many cases you’re not, but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week, and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You really do have to ask yourself where does it stop. But they were there to protest, excuse me, take a look at the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.”
Republican Senator for Florida, Marco Rubio defended President Trump’s statement on twitter:
“Mr. President, you can’t allow #WhiteSupremacists to share only part of blame. This is simple: we must condemn and marginalize white supremacist groups, not encourage and embolden them.”
However, the reaction from both Republicans and Democrats has been overwhelmingly negative. Democrat Congresswoman from New York, Kathleen Rice, tweeted: “President Trump is a racist. Period. He’s gone out of his way to make that clear, so let’s not tip-toe around it. He’s a racist.” Similarly, Democrat Senator from Hawaii, Brian Schaltz tweeted: “As a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my president.” Meanwhile, former House Majority Leader and Republican Congressman from Virginia, Eric Cantor criticised Trump for equating the counter-protesters with the alt-right.
Trump’s plight certainly hasn’t been helped by the support he has been receiving from white supremacists. Richard Spencer told the Washington Examiner that he was grateful to Trump for “defending the truth.” Likewise, Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, tweeted:
“Thank you President Trump, for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about #Charlottesville and condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.”
There can be little doubt that President Trump deserves wide-spread criticism for his refusal to directly name and shame neo-nazis, white supremacists, and the alt-right for their role in the events in Charlottesville on Saturday. He rightly deserves criticism for refusing to condemn the alt-right during his Presidential campaign.
And the people who should be criticising him should be the American people, not the hypocritical mainstream media and political left who only seem to find their moral indignation when evil can be attributed to the right.
This, after all, is the same media that overhypes every threat of right wing violence and turns every crime committed by a right winger into a condemnation of all conservatives, but conveniently turns a blind eye to the violence committed by antifa in Seattle, Sacramento, and Berkeley. The same media that has presented right wing violence as a bigger threat to people’s safety than Islamic terrorism, which has routinely downplayed its threat, and vilified anyone who wishes to talk about the issue as being an “Islamaphobe.”
Then there’s the left wing media’s remarkable lack of criticism towards Barack Obama. They did not condemn Obama’s speech in Dallas, Texas, where he blamed the murder of five police officers on the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery, and claimed the police were unfairly and systematically targeting African Americans.
Does President Trump deserve criticism for his refusal to name and shame those responsible for the violence on Saturday? Undoubtedly yes. But the mainstream media and political left have no moral authority to do so.