When I talk about how completely appalling the United Kingdom's approach to even mildly upsetting speech has become, I am aware of the mote in my own eye. The United States has all sorts of speech problems too, many of them related to a broken legal system that favors cash over justice, and a populace with an increasing appetite to go as full-on censorious as the UK.
But the UK's just so openly and obviously awful about speech.
Case in point: Bahar Mustafa, a "welfare and diversity officer" for a student union at University of London, is being charged with a crime for mean tweeting.
Mustafa rose to attention when she suggested that men and white people shouldn't come to a protest event. This, combined with her use of the ironic hashtag #killallwhitemen on her personal Twitter account, made her a target of right-wing pearl-clutching and hand-wringing. But she didn't engage in that fatuity in America, where she might have just been the talking point of the week. She foolishly did it in England, where trespass unto feels, particularly online, subjects you to actual criminal charges. As a result, she's been charged with two crimes: "sending a threatening letter or communication or sending by public communication network an offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing message."
The hashtag "#killallwhitemen" is an in-joke, an example of somewhat belabored signalling and irony with a dash of trolling. It's meant in part to ridicule overblown rhetoric directed at people like Mustafa. It's not a true threat (no men are specified, no time or place is specified, no means are specified, and it's obviously not meant to be taken literally) nor a genuine exhortation to violence (ditto). In a sensible legal system it shouldn't generate anything more than an eye-roll. But in a feels-based legal system, it's actionable.
And it teaches a few lessons.
First, you censorious Guardians of Feels on the Left: if you thought that the norms you created wouldn't be used against your "own side," you're fools. It is apparently your theory that the law is sexist, racist, and every other -ist, driven by privilege and wealth, and that free speech norms serve to protect rich white guys — yet somehow exceptions to free speech norm will be imposed in an egalitarian, progressive way. That is almost indescribably moronic. Go sit in the corner and think about what you have done.
Second, purveyors of speech-scandals of every sort: you think it can't happen to you? Mustafa complained:
She also accused the media of embarking on a 'witch hunt and shameful character assassination'.
Gosh, really? You mean a joking, satirical, off-the-cuff in-joke can be twisted into a media shitstorm? Do tell. You mean that people will pretend not to understand humor or irony in order to whip up outrage about a reference or in-joke? Imagine. So — will you participate in the next orgy of outrage against someone you don't like?
She said: "There have been charges laid against me that I am racist and sexist towards white men.
"I, an ethnic minority woman, cannot be racist or sexist towards white men, because racism and sexism describe structures of privilege based on race and gender.
"Therefore, women of colour and minority genders cannot be racist or sexist, since we do not stand to benefit from such a system.”
Cool story bro. But nobody outside of academia is obligated to pretend to take it seriously. If you become indignant when someone calls you a racist or sexist because dogma says you can't be, you are (1) not a serious person and (2) playing into the hands of your most bad-faith critics and (3) missing the point, which is that accusations of racism and sexism untethered from reality can be pointed at anyone.
Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Updated to add: A few people have asked whether Mustafa may actually be facing charges over these tweet suggesting that violence against Tories at rallies is justifiable:
For those of you who can't see the image, those tweets show Mustafa telling a Guardian columnist that "any violence that happens to tories at an anti #tori #demo ain't violence. Its self defence."
I won't speculate on how U.K. law would treat that. It's somewhat closer to the line of either incitement or threat under American law, but not a whole lot closer. It suggests a somewhat more specific context for violence — anti-Tory rallies — but still isn't "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action" under the Brandenburg test. It's much closer to arguing the moral or theoretical justification of violence (albeit badly), which is protected speech. Nor is it a true threat, because objectively it cannot be taken as a serious expression of intent to do harm.
Of course, it's utterly contemptible. Would Mustafa support the statement if we turned it around to say "any violence that happens to foreigners at a UKIP rally is self-defence?" I doubt it. But then Mustafa is not a personally, intellectually, or morally serious or decent person. She's a wad of cretinous, self-serious juvenile dogma.
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