Archive for February, 2014

Fuck freedom, give me security

A wise man once said:

“They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

Oh, sorry, got a typo there. A *white man once said.

The above quotation is attributed to Benjamin Franklin, a rich white dude and one of the Founding Fathers. Apparently, according to wikipedia, he was “the first American”, which is pretty impressive. His famous quotation on Liberty and Security is often repeated, usually as “he who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither” or some close variant, in debates on freedom of speech, censorship, government surveillance etc. And I have a problem with it.

Laurie Penny – a writer who I admire hugely – recently wrote an article entitled “Online bullying isn’t freedom of speech“. The article is brilliant, obviously, describing the ubiquitous nature of the online harassment of high-profile women and how this harassment silences female voices. Ironically, when this fact is pointed out – that this oppression is trampling on the freedom of speech of women on the internet – those calling for the harassment to end are inevitably accused of attempting to stifle the freedom of speech of the harassers. So it has always been.

I don’t get it.

What is this “freedom of speech” that we, as a culture, seem to have this raging principle-boner for? It sure as fuck isn’t the freedom to say whatever you want. No, we’re not free to make threats, we’re not free to print untrue or damaging information about other people, we’re often not free to preach our religious beliefs. And yet I never heard the free-speechers clamouring for Abu Qatada’s release. Weird.

I’d say that most people support those particular restrictions on speech. Even Americans, whose entire society is built around freedom-as-an-ideal, don’t allow their rich to be slandered or their religious to be offended. Free speech is, at best, fairly free speech, and I personally am not even very attached to that.

The problem with freedom is that it allows those with more power – physically or socially – to override the freedoms of those with less. In any free interaction, none are guaranteed any freedom at all. In a best case scenario, each may choose to act conscientiously, allowing the freedom of the other; in a worst case scenario each may choose to act in a way that diminishes the freedom of the other. In an interaction regulated by social norms and the threat of state violence (law), each can be confident that their major freedoms will be preserved. In an ideal interaction, only those actions that would directly diminish the freedom of another would be regulated. The maximisation of freedoms after the guarantee of security, as opposed to the misguided notion that freedom is an end in and of itself.

It is easy to see that freedom and security will be prioritised differently by different sections of society. Those with power will never have cause for concerns of security, and thus will not prioritise security highly. They will interpret their privilege as freedom. Where they encounter resistance to their perceived freedom – when they’re criticised for harassment, for example – freedom will naturally become what they prioritise most highly.

Conversely, those without power – those whose freedoms are consistently diminished by others – will prioritise security. People who only want to be heard, such as the women in Laurie’s article, do not require the freedom abused by those who act to silence them. They need a guarantee that their basic freedoms will be protected.

It was all well and good for Benjamin Franklin to expound upon the virtues of Liberty over Safety, but it’s important to remember that he was a person whose safety was never particularly at risk. When he wrote those words, and throughout much of his life, Franklin himself was a slave-owner. Anti-abolitionists argued that they had a “right” to own slaves – that abolitionists were attempting to take away their freedom.

Fuck that. Fuck your freedom. I want safety, for myself and for those I love, and I’m willing to fight for it. Franklin would later become a strong proponent of abolition, which is better than nothing I suppose, and I live in hope that one day we’ll come to our senses too.

I guess what I’m trying to say – without wanting to put too fine a point on it – is that freedom is slavery.



The Russia problem

What kind of backward-ass place would have laws prohibiting the “promotion of homosexuality”? What kind of bigoted society would allow that? (Aside from Britain ten years ago, I mean)

Well, America.

Ok, not ALL of America. Just Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah (yup, all of those states have “no promo homo” laws that are functionally identical to Russia’s). Section 28 in the UK was before my time, but still far too recent for us to be climbing onto our little high-horses. Especially when less than three weeks ago a political figure in the UK made headlines for claiming that God was flooding the UK because of David Cameron’s (comparatively) tolerant attitude towards homosexuality.

The Winter Olympics is finally upon us, and the world’s gaze is fixed on Sochi, Russia. Things in Russia appear to have gone down the tubes pretty quickly over the past couple of years, for LGBT people in particular. Political campaigns like All Out have done an excellent job of raising awareness, and recently the Channel 4 documentary Hunted has received a huge amount of attention for its terrifying depiction of life for LGBT Russians. Local organisations like Bristol Pride and international businesses like Google have added their voices to an increasingly strong chorus, and I personally am thankful for every one. It says beautiful things about our society that people care this deeply about LGBT rights (or, at the very least, it shows that we’re making progress).

I don’t want to discourage anyone from condemning Putin’s homophobia and anti-gay attitudes in Russia. I hope we can add a little nuance to the debate without doing so.

There is some important context that has been left largely unaddressed – America really wants to discredit Russia. You may have seen comments underneath articles about Russia claiming that it is “US propaganda”, which is problematic because it implies that the accusations of Russian homophobia are either inaccurate (which they’re not) or unimportant. I don’t have the best understanding the situation, so the following is based on a bit of research I did specifically for this blog post (DO YOU FEEL SPECIAL).

Apparently it’s complicated. Like, way more complicated than I can properly explain. But (and I’m aware that I’m completely butchering this explanation – politics/history buffs may wish to look away now) the claim is that Russia has links with countries like Syria, Iran, and China that complicate America’s plans for world domination or whatever. I don’t fucking know. And don’t ask me how anti-Russian propaganda will help America, because it’s always seemed to me that governments pretty much do whatever they want regardless of the popular opinion of their citizens. But I digress. My point is that there are other factors. Feel free to clarify them for me in the comments.

There’s also the substantial issue of homophobia everywhere else in the fucking world. I’m not saying that people in bigoted houses shouldn’t be accusing others of homophobia, because that’s not true. Bigotry can and should be challenged by anybody. I would just like it if we could use this movement that’s arisen in response to the situation in Russia to make things better everywhere.

Generally, I’ve been very impressed by the world’s response. Channel 4 produced this amazing advert, which I think is pretty perfect, and the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion produced another, which would be funnier it wasn’t using gay sex as a punchline, but hey-ho.



It makes sense, in a way, that people would want to mock Russia and Putin. Stephen Colbert, who I’m assured is a very funny man, seems to find the situation hilarious. Journalists in Sochi have been using the hashtag #SochiProblems to draw attention to the various shortcomings in their accommodations. But as amusing as missing doorknobs and too-many-lightbulbs are, hardly a mention has been made of the living conditions of the actual residents of the city itself. And after the Olympic spotlight has been turned off, it’s likely that things are going to get worse for the residents of Sochi – the gay and straight alike. This is a problem because shitty times beget shitty attitudes – history has shown us that when times get harder, bigotry flourishes. Not so funny now, huh?

So laugh if you want. Cry if you need to. Boycott and campaign and I’ll be standing right beside you. But don’t be deluded into believing that an anti-Russian attitude absolves you of the need to challenge homophobia at home.