Please no, Mr. Darcy

2 08 2013

Mr. Darcy: May I have the next dance, Miss Elizabeth?
Elizabeth Bennet: [taken aback] You may.

This is the kind of radical writing that has caused such a fuss is it? Well no, not quite.
The constant obsession of the female characters in her novels to find a man to marry them may have been a reflection of the times in which she was living but it hardly picks her out as a radical, feminist icon for the 21st Century. Putting Jane Austen on bank notes may annoy me since there are many more deserving women but she is a safe choice and not one “to frighten the horses.” But it would seem that the fact of her being a woman at all has been enough in and of itself to alarm certain sections of the community.

My first point is this. If we had more women in senior positions in the Bank of England then it would have been unthinkable that Elizabeth Fry would have been replaced by Winston Churchill on the £5 note in the first place. There would have been someone injecting a bit of common sense and stopping the bank making such a glaring mistake. That the men at the top thought it would be OK because the Queen is on all the notes and she is a woman is outrageous. Then again, they can prove me wrong by having all of the men on the notes replaced by women as soon as Charles or William or George takes the throne and their place on the currency.

Secondly, the campaign to have a woman on the banknotes could not have been more reasoned or reasonable. Led by Caroline Criado-Perez it simply pointed out that there had been only one woman on the notes in circulation and that soon there would be none and that this didn’t seem fair when 50% of users of currency were women.

But anytime a woman puts her head above the parapet, for whatever reason, it’s time to unleash the trolls.

The most common defence I’ve seen is freedom of speech. This only serves to show that the trolls, perhaps not surprisingly, don’t really understand what freedom of speech is and why threats and insults are not it. Freedom of speech is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas. In practice, the right to freedom of speech is not absolute and is commonly subject to limitations; for example libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, ethnic hatred, copyright violation and revelation of information that is classified. I’m sure Edward Snowden would like to claim that he was only exersizing his freedom of speech when disclosing secret documents. His defence is a morally sound one but it is not freedom of speech.

The right to freedom of expression is slightly different and is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds”. However Article 19 also goes on to say that the exercise of these rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “be subject to certain restrictions” for example “respect of the rights or reputation of others.”

So, I would hope that it would be clear to anyone that freedom of speech or it’s close cousin freedom of expression doesn’t allow for the kind of vitriolic abuse that a number of women have been subjected to this week.

The problem is two-fold. The abuse and the technology used to deliver the abuse.

The internet was given to everyone by Tim Berners-Lee. We need to keep it that way. But every community has guidelines which all agree to follow. There are pages and pages of terms and conditions which we all sign, every day, when accessing technologies: from installing an app. to downloading an ebook, from joining a dating site to opening an email account. True enough, we never read them, goodness knows what permissions I have given to Apple over the years. If company representatives turned up tomorrow and said that I had signed over my house in the small print on the latest iTunes upgrade I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Anyway, the thing is that Twitter isn’t the internet is just one, albeit very large, community. Twitter can police their system as firmly or as lightly as they want to. It’s their system, their rules. I really can’t see why they are dragging their heels about buttons to report abuse or to introduce systems to detect those opening multiple accounts, a regular habit of trolls to multiply their trolling capacity.

This isn’t the complete answer as the technology and the trolls will continue to dance a lobster quadrille as they each try to best the other. But it would show us non-trolls that Twitter is taking this at least a little bit seriously. And actually, Twitter is a business. If they don’t do something, or at least give the impression that the are doing something, then as soon as someone offers a similar platform that cuts out the abuse all of us non-trolls will take our 140 characters elsewhere and Twitter will go the way of Bebo or MySpace.

And it isn’t just Twitter. I saw this tongue in cheek post in the comments section of the BBC football website following an article about Rangers FC. “Perhaps somebody from the BBC would like to come on here and confirm that it was always their intention that the Comments functionality of their website should be used as a high-profile platform for bigots and religious zealots to express their views.” In fairness to the BBC the abusive comments had been removed but I include the example here just to show that any site open to comment is open to abuse.

And one arrest so far? This leads to the more fundamental point is the abuse itself. What makes some men think it is OK to threaten women, physically, verbally or remotely and why it isn’t taken more seriously in our society. The collection of accounts in Everyday Sexism is appalling. Only today Yale University has downgraded what we would all call rape to something they call “non-consensual sex. Of the six students found guilty of this new offence in the past six months not one of them has been expelled. Four were given written reprimands, one received probation and another was suspended for two semesters but will be free to return next year to graduate. As a society we are simply not taking offences of violence against women, physical or verbal, seriously enough.

And there is a freedom of expression case to consider. I’m pretty high-profile. I’m very well-known, particularly in Scotland, both in business and community initiatives. I speak regularly and often controversially to anyone who will listen. Yet I no longer put myself forward for Question Time, or Woman’s Hour or any other high-profile media event. Why not? Partly because I don’t think the adversarial style of debate is helpful but partly because I don’t relish a high-profile in the lands were trolls abide. And I’m not the only one. In days gone by you could appear in the press or on TV and if there was controversy it was gone quickly. The 15 minutes of fame. But now controversy is shaped and followed and fixed forever on the internet. Things may eventually blow over, as they did in the past, but they take much, much longer and the nature of the attacks can be more vehement as abusers hide between multiple, anonymised profiles.

This is the real freedom that we need to protect. The right of women, and men, to be able to express an opinion with out the fear of trolls.




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