Thursday, April 4, 2019

There's no reason why free speech can't be civil

(First published in the Manawatu Standard, the Nelson Mail and on, April 3.)

Some good has come out of the awful events in Christchurch on March 15.

Ordinary New Zealanders came together in an overwhelming display of support for the victims and their families – confirming that, contrary to inflammatory statements by a couple of Green Party politicians, ours is fundamentally a decent society. That was a big plus.

In the wake of the shootings there was also a general recognition that ethnic minorities are an integral part of the New Zealand community; that they have a right to be here and to follow their chosen faiths without hindrance, even when some aspects of those faiths may be at odds with the views of the liberal, secular mainstream. Another plus.

A further consequence of the Christchurch shootings was that many of us became more conscious of the ways in which we unthinkingly perpetuate racial stereotypes – for example, by making jokes about the supposed characteristics of ethnic minorities. Even when no malice is intended, jokes about race can have the effect of magnifying potentially negative perceptions of “otherness”.

These are all changes for the better, but March 15 brought about another significant outcome that can only be positive. 

As New Zealand recoiled in shock and anguish at the violent deaths of 50 innocent people, attention focused on the role of so-called social media in promoting hatred and division.

Not for the first time, Facebook – the platform used by the Christchurch shooter to live-stream his monstrous act – was squarely in the frame. But whereas Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet behemoth has sometimes given the impression of being largely indifferent to the harm it causes, and so powerful as to be virtually untouchable, this time it was shamed into taking at least token action.

Whether Facebook’s newly announced ban on content promoting “white nationalism and separatism” will be effectively enforced remains to be seen. Many commentators are sceptical – understandably so, given Facebook’s record.

But in the meantime, there have been important changes much closer to home. New Zealand’s biggest digital news platform, Stuff, and the long-established Kiwiblog have both announced long-overdue changes to their comments policies. It’s no coincidence that this happened so soon after the Christchurch atrocities, which can at least partly be blamed on the proliferation of hateful online rhetoric.

Comment sections, for those unfamiliar with them, are spaces where readers can express their own thoughts on whatever has been posted online.

In theory, comments are moderated – that is to say, someone is supposed to check them to ensure they’re not defamatory or offensive. But even on a mainstream site like Stuff, which says it rejects roughly one-third of the comments submitted, the comments section is too often a toxic cesspit.

Kiwiblog, the website of conservative political pundit David Farrar, is even worse. The primary content, most of it written by Farrar himself, is usually reasoned and restrained, as you’d expect of someone who is naturally personable and polite. The Kiwiblog comments section, however, can be a fetid swamp.

I must declare an interest here, because I’ve been the target of savage attacks on both Stuff and Kiwiblog – as I am on other anti-social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, where I’ve been abused using language so inventive that it almost commands my admiration.

Someone on Reddit recently called me a “motherf**king odious s**tgibbon”, which even I have to admit has a certain vigorous ring to it. 

The common denominator here is anonymity. As long as people are allowed to hide behind pseudonyms, as the most rancid commenters do, then they feel emboldened to say whatever they like.

Sociologists call it disinhibition – a lack of restraint and a disregard for social convention. It happens because these commenters feel safe behind their online identities with their idiotic cryptic names.

Who knows what these fearless keyboard warriors would be like if they had to identify themselves? It wouldn’t surprise me if they were as meek as lambs.

Newspapers learned decades ago that the quality and tone of letters to the editor improved overnight once writers were required to provide a name and address. It’s a great shame Stuff didn’t adopt a similar policy online, but I guess it reasoned that people would be less likely to post comments if they had to name themselves.

Now the site has made changes aimed at cutting out “comment pollution” and Kiwiblog has done much the same. Farrar has written an admirable exposition of what’s acceptable, what’s not, and why. 

Eyebrows will be raised at Stuff's decision to place certain hot-button issues - such as 1080, immigration and fluoride - off-limits to commenters altogether, but otherwise both sites' moves should be welcomed. After all, there's no reason why free speech shouldn't be exercised in a civil and respectful way.


Brendan McNeill said...

Thanks Karl

Civil is good. Censorship not so much. Stuff in particular is very close to becoming an ideological ghetto where only approved opinions may be expressed. Good luck with that strategy.

In the rush to protect the innocent following the terrible events in Christchurch, I’m concerned that we are about to re-introduce religious blasphemy laws under the guise of hate speech legislation. No religion or ideology should be above critique, criticism or even ridicule. We have a long tradition in the west of robust engagement on these matters, and we are better off because of it.

I’m pleased to see your support for the Free Speech Coalition, whose existence simply reflects how far we have moved as a culture from our foundations. Who would have believed only a few short years ago that our liberties would be so threatened as to require their services.

Tinman said...

Karl, I am all for free speech and for that reason I must disagree with some of your comments. In particular the suggestion that the open way Kiwiblog operated excluded the chance to discuss things in a civil and respectful way.

Free speech means just that and Kiwiblog (I am an ex-commenter of that blog) allowed for robust conversation with minimal control.

Every commenter on the blog knew, and understood, that there would be comments they did not like and they were free to read or ignore those.

Commenters soon came to know who they wanted to read and who they could scroll past.

It worked - surprisingly.

Now it doesn't!

Karl, I am also a regular reader of your your blog, appreciate it and respect the difference.

I hope once the hysteria over the mad Ocker dies down a new blog similar to the old Kiwiblog surfaces enabling once more open, honest and politically incorrect discourse.

In the mean time one must simply silently suffer being part of the land of the wrong white crowd.

Phil Blackwell, aka MT_Tinman

khrust said...

Civility in both spoken and written word is a given – best achieved if there has been no alcohol consumed. Agree that Facebook, Twitter, Kiwiblog and sometimes Stuff’s comments section can become wastelands of ad-hominem attacks - devoid of human respect or logical discourse. However, even before the recent changes to policy, the Stuff comments section seemed to be censored to keep certain political views dumbed down. That process is complete now.
I also agree there is a link between commentators’ anonymity and disinhibition. However, it is absolutism to say that using pseudonyms leads directly to bad online behaviour. Remaining anonymous and indulging in vitriolic abuse are two separate and distinct choices a commentator makes. There is only a partial correlation between them. Commentators use pseudonyms for a variety of reasons. Some have nefarious intent while others just don’t want to run the risk of receiving unsolicited abuse outside of the forums they post on.