Battling the Twitterphobic backlash…
Given the recent success of Twitter and Facebook in mobilising those outraged by the distasteful comments of Jan Moir, it was probably inevitable that other mainstream columnists would start to get worried. Until recently, newspaper pundits have been free to air their opinions more or less unchallenged, loudly, regularly, and with scant regard for accuracy – beyond the requirement never to say anything bad about a (living) rich person or an advertiser.
Now that the internet has made it slightly easier for the public to answer back, many columnists seem jittery. The last few days have seen a flurry of news articles likening Twitter users to a ‘mob’, equating the loud criticism of Jan Moir with ‘censorship’, and warning us that online activism threatens freedom of speech.
Writing in today’s Observer, Nick Cohen announces that “the same people who want freedom of speech for Parliament want to silence Jan Moir” (apparently he did a worldwide survey of every single person involved in the Trafigura protest, and that’s what they all said) and that “when Twitter heaved with protests against Jan Moir, apparent liberals matched conservatives and forgot every liberal principle they knew”.
The irony is that websites like Twitter are actually giving a public voice to thousands of people who never had much of a say before, thereby greatly increasing the value of freedom of speech in this country (since when does sending an angry letter make you a member of a ‘mob’?). The double-irony is that Nick Cohen, in denouncing Twitterers for the way that they have used this new-found public voice, seems to be acting in the same way as those who condemned Jan Moir for the way she aired hers. If he is right (which I don’t think he is) that the strong criticism of Jan Moir’s comments was an attempt at ‘censorship’, then it’s difficult to see how his strong criticism of the Twittersphere wouldn’t fall into the same category.
One liberal principle that Cohen himself appears to have forgotten is the value of condemning bigotry, whatever its source:
opinion ought, in every instance, to determine its verdict by the circumstances of the individual case; condemning every one, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves
To condemn a bigoted opinion, is not, in and of itself, to demand that the bigot be silenced or censored – we can merely be registering our disapproval of one particular view, and for many who complained about Jan Moir’s comments, this seems to have been the main point. In the words of Ian Hopkinson earlier today: “I resent the implication I want to shut #janmoir up – I just wanted to shout at her a bit”.