Thursday, 17 January 2013

Gang warfare

More and more people seem to think that freedom of expression means not the freedom to put your opinion and have it heard but the freedom to gang up against anyone who offends you. That's not my idea of what it means.

Nowadays the media is full of angry hordes declaring that they've been insulted and belittled by some columnist or other and laying into the unfortunate person with unbridled viciousness as if they have no right to express their opinion at all.

The attacks go way beyond simple hostility to include demands for sackings and resignations, death threats and venomous personal smears.

The columnist Julie Burchill has been the focus of a sustained campaign of hatred after her article last weekend which dropped a number of unkind and unsympathetic remarks about transsexuals.

A tidal wave of offended readers complained loudly about the article, calling her bigoted and transphobic, threatening her with all sorts of dire fates, and even calling for the article to be deleted and the paper's editor to be sacked (and yes, believe it or not, the article WAS deleted).

Whatever you think of Julie Burchill and her constant aim to be as controversial as possible, it seems to me that the reaction to this article is way over the top and completely inexplicable.

Surely she's entitled to express her opinion, even if it offends people; she's entitled to dislike transsexuals and insult them, however idiotic her prejudices; and she's entitled to a fair hearing without attempts to shut her up and censor her writing.

I find the concerted bullying and intimidation from her critics far more disturbing than the original article, which was just a typical example of loud-mouthed, potshotting journalism, not to be taken too seriously.

What worries me is that this sort of vitriolic mass vendetta is no longer isolated but is becoming routine. And freedom of expression is being abused in a most sinister way.

PS: An excellent article on freedom of expression by Suzanne Moore (who has also been attacked for saying that women aspire to be like Brazilian transsexuals)

PPS: The Press Complaints Commission is to launch an inquiry into Julie Burchill's article, after receiving 800 complaints.

Pic: Lea T, the Brazilian transsexual model


  1. The entire world is becoming more vitriolic...In the age of the Internet, anyone, anywhere can be instantly savaged. When one is a member of a minority group and thus routinely subjected to crap, the response you speak of becomes almost inevitable.

    I happen to be rather old school with regard to journalists. They should be held to a higher standard of professional behavior precisely because of the nature of their jobs and if Burchill desires controversy, she has gotten it and should not complain.

  2. e: Oh I doubt if Julie Burchill is complaining, she's probably overjoyed that she's the centre of attention yet again.

    I think what she wrote was a fairly minor form of crap. Unfortunately it's the really serious crap, the physical attacks on transsexuals, the work discrimination, the ostracism from family and friends etc that needs to be dealt with.

  3. I honestly wonder if columnists like her really believe what they write, or are they doing it to sell papers or get their name out there? But I agree with you that many times, the counter attacks are worse, and usually becoming threatening fairly quickly.

  4. Bijoux: A mixture of the two, I imagine. There's certainly a strong element of whipping up controversy for the sake of it.

    Th counter attacks are often worse because there's no control over them. At least a journalist can be reined in by the editor if necessary.

  5. Censorship gnaws at our heels again. If such diatribes were ignored they would surely dop into the slush a little more quickly?

  6. I read this, I read the articles you linked, I read the commentary on those articles and I'm still not entirely following the issue. Probably because I don't much care. What I do care about is that the attacks, the counter-attacks, and the rebuttals to the counter-attacks all strike me as mean-spirited. Sounds like a whole lot of somebodies need naps.

  7. www: Indeed, if Julie Burchill's article had been widely ignored, her dumb comments would have been forgotten in a few days and had no effect on anyone.

    Agent: The issue has been spun out of all recognition, but I think the basic complaint is that Julie Burchill insulted and belittled transsexuals, for which she should apologise and the article itself should be spiked. But yes, you're right, all sides have been disgracefully mean and nasty and lacking any sort of sensitivity.

  8. Well. I got very bored with her article very quickly and didn't finish it, but really, I am sick to death of political correctness. And that's what this is.

    Freedom of speech has now been eroded to the point where one is not allowed to make anything approaching criticism about a number of chosen 'protected' issues.

    Yes, she probably crossed the line and should apologise. But what's really happened here is that one of the 'protected' groups (transexuals) has used their protected status to be vindictive, and vindictiveness is never right, whoever is responsible.

    What troubles me most is the double standard. The protected, the superstars, elite groups like politicians, all get leniency. You or I get the full weight of the law.

  9. Jay: I know, her whipped-up emotion gets a bit tedious, doesn't it?

    I'm very wary of that term "political correctness" but yes, that's what's going on here. If she doesn't have exactly the right "positive" viewpoint, she's in for a kicking. Vindictive is exactly the word.

    I don't think politicians are treated leniently though, they often get ticked off for saying the wrong thing. Like the government minister who called police officers "plebs".

  10. Interesting that Julie Burchill hasn't said a word since the furore started. Either she's gone into hiding or the paper's editor has told her to keep quiet and not stir up any more spleen.

  11. It was an interesting furore. I thought the Suzanne Moore article was interesting and the reaction unwarranted.

    JB was different. She steamed in looking to deliver a good kicking and got one back - though I'd say she came out on top in the end. She reminds me of that classic character in a western barfight, who while drawing back his arm so as to punch a deserving nose, accidentally elbows a hitherto uninvolved spectator in the face, thus sparking general mayhem.

    I was surprised the article was pulled though. Odd.

  12. Paul: Hard to say who came out on top. It looks as though Julie B has been sacked from the Observer, but on the other hand the transgender lobby looks hysterical and censorious.