Sunday, July 06, 2014

Censorship by the mob

The relatively small amount of explicit state censorship today shouldn’t be taken as a sign that we live in a more free society, but rather speaks to something quite terrifying - that the state doesn’t really need to enact laws that police our words at a time when there are so many mobs willing to do that dirty work on its behalf.

In Australia over the past week, there have been two striking examples of outsourced censoriousness, which reveal how this new phenomenon works and how damaging it can be.

In the first case, a Georgian opera singer, Tamar Iveri, was hounded out of Opera Australia (OA) after it was revealed she once made homophobic comments on her Facebook page. Ms Iveri had been due to perform in OA’s production of Otello, which opens in Sydney next month. But then someone exposed that, a year ago, she had said on FB that she was glad Georgian protesters had spat on Gay Pride marchers in Tbilisi, and had asked the Georgian president not to let into Georgia what she called the ‘West’s faecal masses’ - that is, homosexuals. Oz’s left-leaners, small-L liberals and artsworld inhabitants decided that such a person was not fit to perform in Australia, and so they used their considerable influence - their newspaper columns, their social-networking pages, the financial leverage of their patronage of the arts, which they made clear could be withdrawn - to put pressure on OA to drop Ms Iveri. They won. Ms Iveri was cast out, dumped by OA on the basis that her views were ‘unconscionable’. And thus was Australian opera made morally pure once more.

In the second act of outsourced censorship, the annual Sydney-based Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) dropped from its programme one Uthman Badar, a member of the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, after the title of his talk, ‘Honour killings are morally justified’, caused outrage. Mr Badar says he wasn’t actually intending to justify honour killings, only to explain why some people in some societies believe they are justified. But it was too late: he, too, had been cast out, thrown off a public platform not by the state’s heavies but rather under pressure from a fuming Twittermob. Mr Badar’s views were intolerable in the eyes of this informal network of policers of speech, who used anger, pressure and thousands upon thousands of irate tweets - the modern incarnation of the rotten tomato - to have him expelled from a conference line-up.

In both cases, individuals were hurled off public platforms not by state censors, but as a result of self-censorship brought about by offended mobs. Both OA’s craven dismissal of an opera singer whose only crime was failing to possess the same moral views as most of the Australian artsworld, and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas’ expulsion of a speaker whose idea was just too dangerous, were shameful episodes of self-gagging, of institutions kicking out individuals in response to the censorious clamour of small but noisy groups who found those individuals repulsive. Who needs the state to blacklist morally suspect artists when now the mob is willing to do it? Who needs the state to say which political ideas can be expressed at public conferences, and which most definitely cannot, when there exists an informal Inquisition who will make such decisions on the state’s behalf? There’s no need for laws decreeing what it is morally right to think and politically acceptable to say when ban-happy vigilantes are willing to enforce informally such strictures, through demanding, and very often winning, the censoring of those they judge to be beyond the Pale.

Of course, a lynch mob never thinks of itself as a lynch mob; it always convinces itself that it is simply a dispenser of right and proper moral justice. So the largely left-leaning arts types who successfully had Ms Iveri shamed out of Australia would balk if you compared them with, say, the McCarthyites of 1950s America. And yet what they are doing - expelling from Australian public life an artist who possesses what they decree to be unacceptable moral views - is indistinguishable from the McCarthyites’ insistence that creatives of too hard a left-wing persuasion should have been blacklisted from Hollywood. In both instances, artists are judged, not on the basis of their talents, but on the basis of their moral worldview; and in both instances, artists are censoriously blacklisted for failing to be morally and politically correct.

Likewise, if you were to compare the mishmash of right-leaning anti-Islamists and left-wing concerned feminists who successfully agitated for the no-platforming of Mr Badar to the mobs in Britain who in the late 1980s screamed for Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses to be banned, they’d probably be outraged. But the similarities are striking. In both instances, small, informal gangs gathered to demand the removal from public view of something they considered to be deeply offensive and harmful: today’s Aussie mob wants an Islamist speaker dumped from a public platform, yesteryear’s Muslim mobs wanted a book dumped from bookshops and libraries. Both of these agitated crowds believed they had the right to shut up a speaker/writer whose words they believed to be socially harmful. Or is it only the religious and the uneducated who can be a mob? If well-educated writers and inhabitants of Twitter holler for the removal of something that makes them nauseous, are they just ‘expressing themselves’ rather than being mob-like? I’m sorry, but an educated lynch mob is still a lynch mob.



Anonymous said...

Freedom is fast disappearing in Political correctness.
How did homosexual perverse behavior become so loved by the progressives ?

Anonymous said...

Perversion is beloved by the left, because anything that destroys cultural norms allows them an opening to remake things in their own twisted image.

Anonymous said...

How about the freedom of homosexuals to be "perverse" (= what doesn't suit you).

Anonymous said...

Interesting piece and well written... but, let's say that instead of an outcry to sack/cancel the 'mob' had simply decided not to support the events financially by not attending or had picketed the events causing crowds to stay away. Would that have been a better outcome - seeing Opera Australia lose buckets of money?

Anonymous said...

6:05 PM - YES. And cut all public funding at the same time.