Monday, November 18, 2013

The business of free speech

Rape apologists do nothing to inform and educate the public so I applaud the stand made by many to get those mouths metaphorically taped. Besides, they’ve all had their damaging turns for far too long. And we need to do more taping of mouths.

(Marama Davidson)

For a start, Voltaire never actually said ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.’ It was an English writer at the beginning of the last century, presuming to capture the thought of that 150 years-dead philosopher. What’s also lost to the people who abuse the phrase, is that it’s supposed to have referred – had he actually said it, that is – to an act of violent censorship, namely the state-ordered burning of a treatise on natural science by one of Voltaire’s contemporaries.

The Voltaire non-quote has been thrown at me quite a bit this past week, by people who seem about as unlikely to self-immolate as he was. And the notion of free speech, in its liberal, post-Enlightenment understanding, has been brought up by a number of commentators to lament the fate suffered by Willie Jackson and John Tamihere following their disgraceful treatment of a young female guest who dared to challenge the conduct of rapists. Bryce Edwards gave these great prominence on his Friday round-up of the ‘30 things to read for the week’, possibly feeling that it wasn’t up to him – a mere political scientist – to critique the claims of the likes of Chris Trotter, Mark Blackham and Karl du Fresne concerning what freedom of speech actually means.

And so it’s up to me – an English graduate – to state the bloody obvious.

Freedom of speech isn’t freedom from the consequences of speech. Freedom of speech is not a protection against people telling you that your views are hateful. Freedom of speech doesn’t oblige other people or organizations to support you in your privileged position as a broadcaster, or journalist, or blogger. Freedom of speech isn’t a guarantee of permanent employment when the thing you are selling is your opinion (well put, Keith), nor does freedom of speech compel the public to buy said opinion from you.

Freedom of speech is the right not to be persecuted for your beliefs: not to suffer state harassment or censorship, or be fired from a position with which your beliefs do not interfere.

Oh, and another thing, Karl du Fresne: mobs actually lynch people. They don’t force them to take an early Christmas break on full pay.

Karl du Fresne thinks that rape culture is due to our society being ‘drenched with sex’, because in spite of being – if I had to guess from his writings – roughly one thousand years old, he appears convinced that rape didn’t happen, or happened less, in the old days.

Trotter’s first argument, in an astonishing (for him) foray into cultural relativism, features the deeply offensive suggestion that Jackson and Tamihere are culturally predisposed to hold retrograde views concerning sex and consent. Then, challenged by Martyn Bradbury (the debates between these two always have a curious Escherian quality, whereby each is somehow wronger than the other), he launches into a turgid 1,000-worder, a veritable tower of bullshit mobilising the Cathars, Arnald-Amalric, the fire-bombing of Dresden and Stalin’s purges to prove that we were too darn mean to his radio host friends.

The more prosaic truth is that sponsor boycotts, far from leading directly to gulags and the mass murder of heretics, are a very limited tool that is available to us in the circumstances – likely to be most rare – when events call for it, and most specifically when the issue that is being campaigned around relates to the consumption of hate speech. One of the key aspects that made the Amy interview stand out to the extent that it did is that it was packaged as a podcast, so that the people who didn’t listen to the show would be able to access it, and was even included that evening in promos for the show scheduled for the next day (on this point, and the blame that pertains to RadioLive, see Matt McCarten’s column). So, far from being something that just happened in the natural course of strong opinions being voiced, and that the station regretted, the segment immediately became a product for sale. It is only at that point that it made sense to attempt to disrupt the commercial side of the arrangement, even if it meant enlisting the help of a bunch of PR departments.

There is a broader issue, here, which also happens to be the flip-side of the freedom of speech argument: namely, that the chain of events that led to the Willie & JT show coming off the air highlighted the mechanisms whereby such shows – and the dispiritingly narrow range of views that they promote – get on the air in the first place. Our information industry is shaped by New Right ideas that are anathema to public service broadcasting. Everyone but Maori Television and Radio New Zealand exists to make a profit, and even the kinds of shows that public funding body NZ On Air was set up to help create often cannot be shown simply because commercial broadcasters – both state and private – refuse to screen them, on the grounds that they are not profitable enough.

This is the waste land that neoliberalism built. And it’s in this waste land that free-speech enthusiasts like Karl du Fresne fulminate every other day against left-wing bias on RNZ. Not content with having destroyed the very possibility of critical perspectives in the vast majority of our media, the free market’s little helpers go after the very few spaces that maintain a (very limited) degree of independence from its imperatives.

Chris Trotter, for his part, is worried about the precedent. What if the Right is going to use these methods against progressive left-wing commentators? Except Danyl is right: there are none of those. Instead, ‘we're doomed to be hectored and talked down to by droves of reactionary bewildered old men’. This is what strict competition in the marketplace of ideas has got us. And this is the state of mainstream free speech in New Zealand: under the near-total control of private corporate interest. But if just once you dare interfere with this mechanism for the delivery of conservative opinion, expect a backlash in the name of liberty and the souls of those slain Cathar children.

All the pictures are from Wellington pavements the day after Saturday's march against rape culture.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A surge in the tide

I hope you’ll allow me not to change the subject quite yet, if only because it would be a little ungracious of me, as if I were the kind of person who is able to take sudden public attention in his stride. What follows, however, are some fairly disorganised observations. My more serious attempt to think the issues through is the one I wrote for Overland. The general background of the events is well covered by The New Zealand Herald here and here. And I feel very well represented by the interview I did on Friday with oh my dear God is that Mary Wilson I’m talking to?

So, then.

If you have the good fortune to become associated with a successful campaign, you don’t argue – you thank people. I have received a number of incredibly generous messages of support over the last few days, and I appreciate all of them. The ones written by survivors meant even more, and moved me profoundly. On Friday night we came home from the opening of Justine’s exhibition to a gift of beer and wine, and a donation in my name to Wellington Rape Crisis. This wasn’t my typical week.

The media attention is a privilege, too, and when they call you, you don’t quibble – you do the interviews. Try to muster something useful to say. See if you can help keep the issues in the news a little longer, and explain why it matters.

That said, I think it’s important to counter the impression – helped along by the bias of the media, both mainstream and social – that the RadioLive sponsor boycott had very much to do with the actions of an individual, much less a bloke (as if we had forgotten how much easier it is for a man to speak out against rape, and just why that is). All I did was write a bunch of emails. They weren’t persuasive emails, as I’m generally of the cynical view that you cannot persuade businesses to do anything other than act in their own best interest. They weren’t even the product of a savvy social activist’s reading of the prevailing mood. Truth be told, I thought nothing would come of them, other than my collecting a series of fudging statements about why the advertisers would continue to support the Willie and JT show, which might constitute an interesting document, and nothing more.

Unsurprisingly, it was the professional PR people, rather than the blogger, who read the prevailing mood correctly. They operated in a tight feedback loop. First, Freeview got in touch to say that they didn’t sponsor the show as such, but rather placed orders with the station which then chose in which slot to schedule the ads. Would you seek to discriminate in the future and avoid the slot?, I asked them. They said they would get back to me. Then AA Insurance said they would pull the ads from the show. Then Yellow announced they were going to withdraw advertising from the station altogether. I had to read the email twice to make sure I got it right. After that, the bar was set. Freeview wrote back to say they would pull the ads after all. Countdown’s initial polite ‘no thanks’ was turned around in a matter of hours after targeted pressure on social media, especially by the Misogyny Busters group. Everyone else who got in touch (including The Finance Marshall, who rather endearingly asked ‘not be mentioned in blogs’. Hi guys.) did it to say that they would abandon the show or Radio Live. Of the ones that didn’t respond, some I assume contacted the station directly, since the Willie and JT slot will be commercial-free until the end of the week.

I can only conclude that all of these businesses fell into line under so little pressure because they could read the signs. This had nothing to do with the emails and the tweets, and everything to do with the public outrage over the serial rapes committed and bragged about by a group of young men, the inaction and the lies of the police, and the nauseating behaviour of selected members of the media. From a concrete, political viewpoint, that measurable outrage – and not the boycott that resulted from it – is the only thing that has any value to us. Because really, who cares that some advertising budgets got shuffled around? And whilst Radio New Zealand didn’t exactly misquote me last Friday when it claimed I wanted to see Jackson and Tamihere sacked (I said something to the effect that I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t please me), I didn’t actually care very much whether or not it would end up happening, except insofar as it would be a measure of just how strong the tide against rape culture in New Zealand actually is. You could place a mark next to it on the sea-wall. ‘The day when Willie and JT got canned’.

That sentiment, in turn, didn’t come to us fully formed by virtue of some natural human inclination toward social progress, but derives from a very precise set of ideas about gender, sex and consent that have been campaigned upon by feminists for decades. We may just have reached a turning point in which enough people have been persuaded for the entire societal compass to be abruptly reoriented. The vile questioning of Amy, in this respect, was as much a part of the story as the crimes that are, finally, being investigated. It was the thing that also had to be rejected, against which we also needed to say: ‘enough is enough’.

A corollary of the above, is that we shouldn’t over-emphasise the degree in which the advertiser boycott was the result of a social media campaign. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be tremendously useful tools to agitate and to amplify political and social messages. But it was a television journalist who brought the story to light, and rape prevention and counselling organizations and feminist writers who gave it a strong framing after the report aired on TV3, insisting that the police version be questioned, first, and calling out the rape apologists, second. Social media is useful only if it can draw upon the patient and inevitably much slower work carried out by strong militant organizations and committed activists in the background. That’s what makes the outrage coherent, hence possible to mobilise.

A picture from the Misogyny Busters Facebook page, supplied by Gina Giordani – whom I also thank very much for her counsel this week

Whatever the successes of the last few days in pressuring the police and the media as institutions, any triumphalism would be misplaced. Michele A’Court put it best of all, for mine, in her piece in the Sunday papers: ‘It was a tough week to be a woman, or someone who loves them.’ But, she concluded, ‘I'd like to think we can start making the next weeks tougher for people who hate women.’

Let’s do just that, Michele.

New phase of the campaign: to get the boycotters to give money to Rape Prevention Education. Telecom has pledged $10,000. Let's get the others on board - updated spreadsheet here.

The petition to put pressure on John Key at is up to nearly 75,000 signatures. The more, the better.

The wonderful (and Tiso-employing) literary journal Overland is having a Subscriberthon, which is due to end tomorrow. With prizes and everything. (Prizes other than the ones that can only be enjoyed in Australia will be shipped to New Zealand.)

The new issues of the 4th Floor Journal is out and look! Our resident poet!

My partner, Justine Fletcher, has an exhibition on at the National Academy of Fine Arts until November 26. It’s an installation connected to this photograph of the inaugural Council of Women (1896), and - quite by coincidence - half of what she makes will go to Wellington Rape Crisis.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The map vs. the territory

The location of the Sistine Chapel, next to Saint Peter's
Revelations that the NSA spied on the conclave that elected Pope Francis. According to the report by weekly magazine Panorama, the information collected was categorised under four general topics: ‘Leadership intentions’, ‘Threats to financial system’, ‘Foreign policy objectives’, ‘Human rights’. All of them are intriguing. What’s even more intriguing, is that the spies of the great power would want to go there, inside that building, where 109 old men from what was once a great power deliberated on who should lead them for the next few months or years.

Back when it was a great power, the Church used to have its own network of spies. In 1593, they renditioned Giordano Bruno to Rome, where he was to stand trial for believing that the universe worked in a certain way. When he refused to say different, they burned him alive, after clamping his tongue to make sure that he couldn’t address the crowd.

Campo de' Fiori, Rome
For a time, Giordano Bruno had enjoyed the protection of the English court. He also lived in France, Switzerland. Germany. There was no other continent for him to be back then. The world was smaller. So he moved to Venice, in the hope that he would be safe there. He wasn’t.

Moscow's Domodovo Airport
Edward Snowden’s world is larger, but it’s also more densely patrolled. When they thought he had boarded a plane headed for Bolivia, they forced the plane to land. They denied him use of the sky. Except he wasn’t even on the plane. Snowden is a heretic, as is Julian Assange. Intelligence gathering is the expression of the modern will to knowledge and information. The closest thing we have to a secular religion.

If the National Security Agency really intended to spy on the conclave – and there is some doubt that they actually did, as we have but a single report to go by – then it would be an expression not just of extreme paranoia, but also of that will to knowledge; a desire to listen in to every conversation, even the ones involving archaic organisations and conducted in low-tech fashion according to pre-Information Age protocols. If we could get into that room, without being cardinals or relying on gossip, then there would truly be no place barred to us. That’s reason enough.


Much is constantly written about those mapping tools that have successfully embedded themselves into everyday life, more so now that we have smart phones and touch screens. Most of us are familiar with Google Earth, yet for me personally the smoothness of its operation is still a source of amazement. How you can zoom in onto the map or the aerial picture until it becomes blurred and grainy, only for the image to switch to the first-person, immersive Street View. From then on the operation becomes slow and clumsy, but bloody hell. It seems forever since we could do this, yet it is one of those innovations that changes the way you understand the world around you.

As a couple of comedians have remarked: what do we do, when we first come across one of these tools? We ‘visit’ our house. Then our childhood neighbourhoods. But there is no gag here: it is the perfectly normal, reasonable, human thing to do. To view the places you know best from a new vantage point. To model, manipulate and remake that intimate geography.

I go on these tours often, armed with sentimentalism and the migrant experience. I do it also to reassure myself that I still know my way around. Or to check if any of the images have been updated. Early on, with Google Earth, entire chunks of Lombardy, especially down towards Mum’s old village, were blanketed with fog. Gradually they were replaced with pictures taken on clear days, leading to a neat patchworks of large rectangles, some 30 kilometres or more across, a clear one sitting next to another of uniform milky white. Or there would be a tract of countryside in summer next to one still stuck in autumn or winter. (This still happens.) Then sometimes you would zoom in and at the next level of detail, the image would be clear, as if you’d broken through clouds.

These days, it’s always sunny on Google Earth.

Checking if the images have been updated during the initial roll-out served another purpose: to see if a familiar place was now shown at a higher resolution. The other world got gradually clearer.


Yesterday I tried Bing’s 3D Maps for the first time. Bing’s world is still very patchy, with large areas at a low resolution, and a very limited availability of the Street View feature (which Microsoft has dubbed ‘Streetside’. Bless them.) But the maps aren’t altogether inferior to Google Earth’s. The 3D view is in fact remarkably good. It hit me, again, that feeling of seeing for the first time the places with which I’m most intimately, almost pre-consciously familiar. There’s the house in which I was born.

There’s my old school.

They appear to me, in perfect relief, almost hyperreal. If I rotate an image, this will modify the perspective and return a different image taken at a different time of the day, or the year.

Clearly, this goes well beyond functional representation. It’s that will to total knowledge, again. The desire to be everywhere at once, as is the internet, which is fundamentally a will to control. Yet I spend hours looking at the images, feeling that a different place and time are within my grasp. Nothing is more vivid than these electronic ghosts.