Is there really a mass outcry across Britain about Beyoncé’s divine and gyrating bum at this week’s Grammy Awards? As far as I can tell, it is, once again, an attempt to manufacture an outcry by a couple of media outlets and busybodies.
Latter-day Mary Whitehouses, Pippa Smith of SaferMedia, and Vivienne Pattison of Mediawatch-UK, were also quoted with tedious “won’t someone think of the children” moans.
Beyoncé dancing with her husband in a “really skimpy outfit” means boys could have trouble relating to women as anything other than sexual beings, according to Pattison. And, weirdly, Smith is complaining about “a husband and wife … behav[ing] in such an obscenely sexual manner.” Imagine that, boys and girls. A couple who have conceived a child together are sexual beings. Well, I never…
Metro, meanwhile, shared a few snippets of social media reaction and didn’t bother to run the story on their clickbait Facebook page, and the Guardian (despite leading the charge on assorted Lose the Lads’ Mags and No More Page 3 campaigns) and the Telegraph both seem to be refreshingly nonplussed about it all. The Daily Mail article only attracted 172 comments. By Daily Mail standards, that is a mere drop in the ocean of bile, a disappointing response to something which fits their confused agenda of creating outrage while still running plenty of sexy pictures just so you know exactly what you’re meant to be outraged about.
I don’t buy that there is an outrage in Britain about Beyoncé’s bum. Hell, there isn’t even a storm on Mumsnet. People may be raging about Beyoncé in the US but it’s just not happening here. This is a good thing. This gives me some hope that we’re not descending into a nation of sex-scared prudes who seek to hide all flesh from public view for the good of the children.
It’s great we’re being so chilled out about Beyoncé’s bum – but it means we are sleepwalking through the government’s plans to censor the internet, with very few voices in Parliament speaking out about the absurdity of this. We are also sleepwalking through telecommunications companies already doing the censorship for the government. Companies such as O2 are blocking websites – including my blog – and then making adult consumers jump through stupid hoops to access perfectly legal content. This is despite O2 offering parental control filters so kids can’t access adult content.
I’ve lived in a country with absurdly filtered internet. It doesn’t just mean that adult websites are banned. It means that websites which might cause political dissent are banned too. As long as we merrily let any government do the same thing in Britain, we will be faced with a situation far more damaging than Beyoncé twerking for her own husband.
Defending the right of people to publish and watch porn is an uphill battle. Nice, “liberal” people aren’t always as liberal as they think, and many think sexual imagery is a Bad Thing, and shouldn’t fall under the umbrella of free expression. So there was a strong boost for the anti-censorship movement in December when the UK “porn filters” were rolled out, and it turned out that they weren’t really much to do with porn at all.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a genuine free speech lobby in this country (it was the discovery of this fact that led me to set up the Sex & Censorship campaign). However, the filters blocked such broad areas of content that far more vocal groups have been spurred into opposition, and have strengthened the anti-censorship movement. The revelation that a number of gay sites had been blocked, apparently in error, led to outrage from the LGBT community and its supporters. And the inclusion of Sex Education as a category that parents could prevent their teens from accessing caused outrage among many commentators.
The animal protection organisation World Wildlife Fund adopted the panda as its symbol, rather than some endangered species of lizard or beetle, because pandas look cuddly. Saving ugly creatures isn’t a cause that many people will donate to. In the world of anti-censorship campaigning, LGBT and sex education causes are the panda; and yet, many of the “uglier” blocked categories should be just as much a cause for concern as the “pretty” ones. But if people accept that some expression can be censored, then free speech is lost.
Many of the blocked categories have been ignored because they don’t upset any large lobby group, but they should be cause for concern. I have seen no defence, for example for “sites that give information on illegal drugs”. Yet such sites save lives, and fill a role that, in a more sane world, would be carried out by government. The site pillreports.com, for example, is a database of ecstasy tablets on the market. As the site says: ‘Pills sold as “Ecstasy” often include other, potentially more dangerous, substances such as methamphetamine, ketamine and PMA.’ Filtering of drug information doesn’t protect anyone, but simply enforces an anti-drug morality. If allowed to continue, this filtering will doubtless cost teenage lives.
“Sites that promote self-harm” may make for good Daily Mail headlines, but people in distress most need a community of people who understand them. Isolating troubled young people from each other can only be a recipe for disaster. “Sites that describe guns” are also on the list, and illustrate the constant confusion between expression and the physical world. America’s gun lobbyists try to claim that “guns don’t kill people”; this is patent nonsense. Guns do kill people: but there’s no evidence that pictures or descriptions of guns do, and in fact guns are shown daily on TV, often in glamorised ways, without any evidence that this leads to real-world violence.
The option to block social networking sites is perhaps one of the most sinister of all. Depriving children of social contact may be classified as emotional abuse, and yet, because of the endless panic over “online grooming”, many parents may exercise this option. The best way to open a child to the possibility of grooming is to keep them ignorant of the real world. The filters will harm children.
The “file sharing” category is not there to protect children at all, but to protect media corporations from having their content pirated, and probably the result of some clever lobbying activity. Piracy is the problem of the media and entertainment industry, and is a poor excuse for censorship.
The catch-all category of “tasteless and obscene” is another one that preserves conservative ideas of morality, rather than attempt to protect children. Among other things, it includes the ludicrous concept of “how to commit murder”; one would think any teenager conversant with basic physics, chemistry or biology would be able to work that out. Presumably the banning of science classes in school must follow. This category also includes “bathroom humour”, though one must suspect that children can work out fart jokes by themselves, without help from the Internet.
The list goes on and on. In every case, it seems that blocking content can do more damage to child development than the content itself. The category that most divides people is that of hate speech: “sites that encourage the oppression of people or groups based on their race, religion, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or nationality”. The idea that racism, homophobia and other prejudices can be dealt with by censorship has been fashionable for a few decades, and is attractive to people who dislike prejudice. And yet it is a false promise. Censorship of words that might offend minorities has never solved any underlying problem. Discourse is the solution to bigotry, and this must include angry, “offensive” discourse, however unpleasant it is. Politically correct cures for prejudice do not work; indeed, they leave problems to fester and get worse.
This isn’t to say that prejudice should be left alone: education, discussion, debate, argument and, most of all, leadership are essential. We have a government that wants to protect us from “hate speech” on the one hand, while hinting on the other that immigrants are a threat to our society. Hate can be spread without using hate speech.
And those who think that censorship introduced for “good” reasons will not then be abused are naive in the extreme. The core problem with censorship is that it will always be abused by those with power. Once it is accepted that hateful speech can be suppressed, then the definition of hateful speech will grow inexorably until it is unrecognisable.
Voltaire said: “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. Those who are tempted to draw acceptable lines for Internet filtering are missing the point. In a free society, there can be no acceptable lines.
Based upon the opt-in, opt-out filtering of Internet sites, it appears that the government and Internet Service Providers have a certain image in mind, when it comes to the kind of person they want you to be. Freedom of information allows us to develop in our own, self-selected ways. So, when that information is restricted, one must assume that there is a desire to prevent you from developing in those directions. So, let’s look at some of the blocked categories in the Internet filtering in Britain, and see what kind of people we shouldn’t be.
At the baseline filtering level, of course, all pornography is going to be filtered. Because, this is about sex, right? So, of course they want to limit access to sexual material. They have to, it’s the foundation of this whole panic. There are interesting antiquated ideas built in here though, that you can’t be trusted to choose your own sexual stimulation privately, and out of society’s watchful monitoring. Perhaps they think that too much masturbation is bad for you. Wears you down, reduces your productivity, and makes you weaker on the football field, or at the business table. Should be an interesting experiment, at a large scale. Does interfering with masturbation and private sexual stimulation have larger social effects? Apparently, we shall now see. (Though, the research has been done already – greater porn access decreases sexual crimes like rape and sexual abuse. Increased controls on accessing porn correlates with increases in the rates of sexual crime.) I’m sad to say that the people of the United Kingdom may need to get out your rape whistles, and attend personal defense classes.
At a more interesting level to me, is the material that is not sexual in nature, which is automatically blocked at all levels of filtering. It reads like a Rorschach test of the British government’s anxieties about its people. We can interpret these elements, as projecting what kind of people you are supposed to be, according to your government, and the results frankly, are a bit disturbing.
Dating sites are automatically blocked at even the lowest levels of filtering. So, Match.com, Okcupid, etc., are all now off-limits. Why is this? Dating sites reflect a modern way to meet people, to find people who share your own values and interests, and to overcome the physical divides built into a world with billions of people. In historical times, we knew perhaps 500 people, our local village. And, for intimate partners, we chose from that small group, limited to what was available, and not based upon many of our personal desires or needs – you married somebody who was available, you learned to simply accept what you could have, and give up on what you might want. Dating sites are one way in which technology has allowed us to overcome those natural barriers, and to find people who share our interests and desires, even the most private ones we wouldn’t necessarily be willing to voice in person in our small village. Conservative voices and technophobes often argue against dating sites. According to these arguments, Internet dating is unhealthy in some way, encouraging hookups and casual sex; it is somehow “less,” because it is modern and not restricted to the old ways of doing things. But, one in three marriages starts these days, through dating sites. And one in ten people are using dating sites on a regular basis. Young people, those who aren’t heterosexual, and the technically proficient (read, people who use computers all day) all use dating sites more than other populations. With limited access to dating sites, it appears that more Brits will have to either accept loneliness, or return to the days of dating only those who are immediately available. Put on the shelf those personal desires for finding someone who shares your interests, and take what you can get, seems to be the message.
The other automatically blocked category of sites that is strangely revealing of the State’s anxiety and desires, is the filtering of information related to suicide and self-harm. Of course, many sites intended to educate and prevent suicide will likely be automatically overblocked. But, at a deeper level, the British state is saying something here – thinking about suicide or self-harm is unhealthy, sick, and disturbed. They appear to be working under the premise that if they can restrict your access to information about suicide or self-harm, they can reduce the chances that you’ll do it or even think about it. But, suicide and thoughts of self-destruction existed long, long before the Internet. Loneliness and social isolation are some of the main predictors of suicidal thoughts, and exposing people to information about suicide actually decreases their chances of doing it. One of the most effective interventions for suicide is to help people understand that they are not alone in those thoughts, and that many people, millions each year, also struggle with thoughts of ending it all. Thinking of suicide is normal, when people feel cut off and alone, sad, and hopeless. But now, with such information blocked automatically, it appears that many people in the UK, who struggle with such thoughts, may have to struggle alone. To paraphrase the old prison warden in Cool Hand Luke, “that is the way they want it.”
The British government seems to want you to struggle alone. Is this a reflection of the old ways of doing things? Suffer in silence, with a stiff upper lip? From the outside looking in, I will make a humble observation: I believe that the British state wants its citizens to live the way they did, before the Internet. The current restrictions suggest that they believe that such ways of life were better, more ethical and safer than modern ways.
By blocking access to sex, dating, and information about suicide, the British people are doomed to greater loneliness. The great change that the Internet has wrought is that it allows people to connect in new ways, from around the world, crossing barriers. The disabled, the far from home, the chronically busy, the shy and those who fear that their desires are unique and shameful, are just some of the people who use the Internet to feel connected with others. Before the Internet was widely accessible, these people struggled through life, alone, isolated and hopeless. The Internet gave many of us hope, and let us feel that we were not alone. Apparently, that’s a dangerous thing, according to the modern British state.