Tweeting against freedom
22 Jan 2010

hari kunzruThe social media campaign against Rod Liddle, rumoured to be made editor of the Independent, is not just illiberal, argues Hari Kunzru, it is dangerous, censorious, and inexcusable. The centre-left has damaged the culture of free speech in Britain

Over the last few weeks, the rumour that Alexander Lebedev has invited Rod Liddle to become editor of the Independent has caused dismay amongst users of social media. I’ve never met Liddle, but have found much to dislike in his boorish public image and crass opinion-pieces. Like many people, I question his suitability to be the editor of one of the major organs of the British centre-left, because he seems to share so little of its culture.

I participated in the initial build-up of chattering-class disgruntlement, retweeting messages and joining a Facebook group protesting the proposed appointment. Resentment against Liddle was obviously widespread, and the outpouring of disgust in the twittersphere was a legitimate (and impeccably democratic) means of protest. However, when it was reported that Diane Abbot and Paul Flynn were proposing an anti-Liddle EDM in parliament, I decided the whole business had now definitively jumped the shark.

It’s ironic that the group pushing hardest against Liddle is Liberal Conspiracy, now apparently “Britain’s most popular left-of-centre politics blog”. Liberalism, in its classical form, proposes individual freedom as the highest political value, yet the anti-Liddle protests now seem to have transformed into an ugly kind of group-think, aimed not merely at stopping a right-wing landgrab at a major UK paper, but in censoring Liddle’s right to express his opinions in public.

Twitter is a powerful tool. Recently, as a result of widespread retweeting, the columnist Jan Moir was forced to repudiate homophobic insinuations regarding the death of Stephen Gately. However for every well targeted protest there’s an unsubstantiated rumour. Lindsay Lohan is reported dead almost weekly. The (satirical) internet meme “Glenn Beck raped and killed a young girl in 1990” is still in circulation, and I seem to be getting daily invitations to join a group protesting some non-existent plan to charge for Facebook. Twitter, with its 140 character utterances, does not lend itself to nuance, and one thing that’s sacrificed to immediacy is a sense of balance, to say nothing of fact-checking.

Many on the left have unhappy memories of the period of the so-called “culture wars” that overtook American (and to a lesser extent British) academia. The laudable wish to protect minorities from atttack led to a widespread movement to police offensive speech. In the feverish climate of the time, a frank hysteria about linguistic usage, drily satirised as “political correctness” was taken to absurd lengths. The culture wars were evidence of a profoundly authoritarian tendency within the centre-left, as people who claimed to be working for freedom sought to impose a homogeneity on public expression that reminded some of the excesses of Stalinism. This same authoritarianism is still very much part of British centre-left politics: the wish to impose curbs on individual freedoms in the name of the good of the group is behind such things as New Labour’s cavalier disregard for civil liberties.

Maybe the trouble with liberalism, at least as embodied by Liddle’s chief rhetorical opponents, is precisely this strain of disguised authoritarianism. It’s the bastard child of the twentieth-century modernist wish to impose a rational order on society, a trivial and rather prudish creed, which, seeing little chance of ordering the vast chaos of social and economic life, busies itself with policing the boundaries of civility. Silencing Rod Liddle (or at least relegating him to making “daring” laddish banter with the other denizens of a Millwall FC chatroom) will not solve any problem of importance. Indeed it is likely to do much more harm than good, both to the the political cause the anti-Liddlites claim to serve, and more importantly to the culture of free speech in Britain. The “chilling effect” of internet campaigns against proponents of unpopular views has the potential to damage our public life. Liberal conspirators should beware — censorship is not just a tactic of the political right, and just because you feel you’re doing it “for the right reasons”, doesn’t make it any more excusable.

11 responses to “Tweeting against freedom”

  1. No Freedom says:

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. I am permanently disabled in a wheelchair with a broken spine and head injury due to violence and assault. I have been fisted. I have been anally raped over and over and over again. They also fucked me with a razorblade and left major internal organ damage and removal.

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. and have no freedom everday from mental and emotional grief and distress by hearing and reading how these are the views of men who would wish to write for and edit a central politics newspaper.

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. But sit here and scream and weep inside knowing that this is the freedom that you will fight and defend rather than my need to have freedom from it.

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. As does my friend who as an ederly Jewish holocaust victim had his home burnt down with him in it by racist.

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. As does my other friend who also has a severe head injury as he wss with a brick as he was black.

    I HAVE NO FREEDOM. As does my other friend who was raped as a child by her father at a very young age. Got put into care. Eas distressed so she was put into secure care for children where she had internale examinations my male support workers and when she fought put into solitary confinement for 6 weeksat age 6. To the point she started hearign voices and halucinating.





  2. Jez says:

    Isn’t saying you cannot campaign or criticise anyone because it takes away their freedom of speech ‘political correctness gone mad’?

  3. Alex Higgins says:

    “…whatever political views he might hold…

    Or she!

  4. Benjamin says:

    If it’s Liddle’s right to write in publications and the Millwall fan site (as it is), surely its other people’s right to point out the error of Liddle’s ways, as they see it, and suggest he’s not desirable as editor of the Independent. Nobody is closing down free speech; both sides are using it, via the tools available. If someone felt so moved, they could tweet about how wonderful Liddle is, or start a Facebook page in support of him. Then, you make up your mind on based on the arguments made, the evidence presented. Kunzru also makes some very tenuous arguments too: vaguely linking to US culture wars and other general waffle, of little relevance.

  5. Alex Higgins says:

    “Maybe the trouble with liberalism, at least as embodied by Liddle’s chief rhetorical opponents, is precisely this strain of disguised authoritarianism. It’s the bastard child of the twentieth-century modernist wish to impose a rational order on society, a trivial and rather prudish creed, which, seeing little chance of ordering the vast chaos of social and economic life, busies itself with policing the boundaries of civility.”

    As the creator of the Facebook group in question, I’d like to make the argument that I do not recongise myself, Sunny Hundal, Will Straw or anyone else who has been working with me in this description.

    If I were to use the argument advanced in your article, Hari, I would suggest that you are aiming to stifle and silence us, and were displaying disguised authoritarianism.

    But I think that would be silly. And it is equally weak when directed against us and the Indy readers who have chosen to join this protest.

    The aim of the campaign is precisely to make the case that Rod Liddle should not be the editor of a paper we read, mostly like and want to see continue as one of the very few major liberal outlets in Britain that takes science seriously and does not attack ethnic minorities and women.

    I believe in freedom of speech and I would defend Liddle if he were being prosecuted for his disgusting opinions, as I’d defend Mark Steyn or David Irving.

    But upholding freedom of speech in no way entitles anyone to managerial positions of power – in the press or any other profression. I find this confusion quite baffling and in some cases, a worrying and grossly illiberal belief that columnists have special speech privileges which the public are not entitled to.

    The story behind the EDM which you are missing is that many MPs were actually reluctant to make a statement about a potential newspaper editor for no other reason than fear that Liddle would use the paper to go after them later. Or that Diane Abbott was not allowed to use the language on the EDM she proposed. (There is a possible freedom of speech issue…)

    As with other commenters, you are also underestimating the degree of opposition to the Liddle appointment amongst the staff of the Indy itself – who do not want him as their boss for precisely the reasons we have outlined but fear for their jobs if they speak on the record. (A real freedom of speech issue.)

    You write here that the campaign aims at a homogeneity of public opinion. In reality, we are doing the exact opposite – trying hard to defend some plurality in the British media. Or are you seriously claiming that racial sensitivity, pro-immigration narratives, the promotion of women’s rights and serious reporting on global warming is over-represented in our national press?

    “You’ve already won the point about Liddle’s unsuitability to edit the Indie – this is very much in the public domain. What’s the end/purpose of your campaign now?”

    I’m glad you concede our case here, but as yet we have not won this point with the paper’s likely future owners and so are continuing to press on. We hope the next editor of the Independent – whatever political views he might hold – will have respect for ethnic minorities, for women, for science and the readership.

    Beyond that, the campaign has no further aims and will come to an end either way with the next appointment. Though in other capacities as individuals we will certainly reserve the right to exercise our freedom of speech to respond to Rod Liddle’s witless and nasty attacks on black people, Muslims and women.

  6. […] to Rod Liddle’s defence by Sunny on 22nd January, 2010 at 7:45 PM     I fear that Hari Kunzru is making the exact same mistake as Catherine Bennett (though his point is made much better) that we’re going after Rod […]

  7. Sunny H says:

    Sorry Hari, I’m not buying that one little bit. My response here:

    And please see the two comments underneath that too.

  8. Hari Kunzru says:

    @ Sunny – I don’t think you’re answering my point at all. I’m not saying the same thing as Catherine Bennett. I’m asking you to think about the limits of campaigning. When does legitimate campaigning become something else? I’m not saying you’re the Chinese government. It’s a silly comparison. I also don’t buy the RaR analogy. Rod Liddle is an individual, not an ideology (afaik). You’ve already won the point about Liddle’s unsuitability to edit the Indie – this is very much in the public domain. What’s the end/purpose of your campaign now? How ‘non grata’ do you want his persona? I’m not saying you can’t campaign or criticise. I’m saying that beyond a certain point, mass campaigns have a chilling effect on free speech. Is this the case with Liddle? Possibly not – as you say he’s robust, and has plenty of media outlets and allies. But it’s something that needs to be thought about if you care about freedom. Would you be more circumspect if he was weaker or less well-known? You’re in the trenches right now (judging by an fb post you made today) and I wonder if your exhiliration at breaking the Millwall stuff is overtaking a sense of proportion. How do you respond, for example, to my charge that this is potentially damaging to your own politics – beyond a certain point isn’t this trivial? Doesn’t it risk delegitimising the more important stuff you campaign about?

  9. Alex says:

    Freedom of speech does not allow you to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. That is Liddle’s style.

    As for Labour, they attack civil liberties because they want to stay in power and “appear tough”. They are too spineless to speak out against a Rod Liddle because they would rather pander to his views in the hope of getting votes. Many of the people he abuses, recent immigrants for example, do not get a vote so Labour aren’t bothered about them. And maybe the Indy readers who do not want Liddle (they could usefully get rid of Alton too in my view) are considered too few by Labour.

    Those on the “left-ish” who have some principles should be encouraged. If the Indy is edited by Liddle they will have no nxpaper to buy for a start.

  10. Sunny H says:

    Hi Hari,

    Catherine Bennett made the same accusations, and I replied to her here:

    Being liberal doesn’t mean you can’t campaign against or for anything. No one is taking Rod Liddle’s free speech away – he still blogs away at Spectator and writes for the Sunday Times.

    If they want to legitimise and help such an obnoxious misogynist and racist – that’s their problem: I don’t buy them.

    But to say that liberals (I’m a left liberal, the name of the site is meant to be ironic) cannot campaign or criticise anyone because it somehow takes away their freedom of speech isn’t an argument. I’m not like the Chinese authorities. I’m not calling for him to be imprisoned.

    This is like saying Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League marches shouldn’t have happened because they restricted the right of the BNP and National Front to say what they want.

  11. Kate says:

    I think it is a testament to poverty of idealism and lack of confidence in it. If you cannot win an argument then you can become offended instead, be shrill and incoherent with anger. Rod Liddle, whatever his views, has more maturity and wits than that and it allows him to be invited to edit a newspaper.