When I first heard about the controversy over Bahar Mustafa making some jokes on the internet, I dismissed it as being pretty much a big fuss over nothing: some students with nothing better to do getting all worked up over some student activist making some ill-considered daft jokes. I would still feel that way, if it weren’t for the fact that, earlier this week, the story took a much more serious turn, with the news that the Crown Prosecution Service intend to press charges against her, seemingly for using the hashtag “#killallwhitemen”.
I don’t think that hashtag is a particularly good joke, or of much political use that I can see, but that doesn’t alter the fundamental political principle at play here: no-one should have to face serious criminal charges for making a joke, even if that joke’s not very funny. If that poor, much-abused concept “free speech” means anything at all, surely it means this.
If the story of the CPS deciding to charge someone for apparently using a daft hashtag is bizarre in itself, things become positively farcical when we consider the likely complainant, a nasty little piece of work called Andy Keene.
Keene’s twitter header consists of the following image:
Now, obviously, this is a joke. A crap, stupid, ill-considered joke, to be sure, but it’s hard to imagine even the most lily-livered communist looking at it and feeling genuinely threatened. I think it’s important that people should be able to make jokes, even crap, stupid ones, without having to worry about the state prosecuting them, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to grass him up to the cops for using the internet to make a threatening or grossly offensive communication, funny as it would be, because he should have the right to make that shit joke without being prosecuted. But you would think that someone with that kind of sense of humour would be a bit more appreciative of the freedom to make ill-considered, violent jokes.
Even more confusingly, he apparently considers himself a libertarian:
And claims he would “die for free speech”:
If someone had a certain sense of humour, someone might be tempted to make a joke about “well, why don’t you fucking hurry up and do it then?” But I wouldn’t, because, as this case shows, making provocative jokes on the internet can be a very dangerous business.
What’s more fascinating here is the claim to be a libertarian. I don’t have space here for a full history of the term, but in short, libertarianism is an idea that arose out of the workers’ movement: as against the authoritarian socialists who saw social freedoms as less important than economic equality, the libertarian socialists saw freedom and socialism as inseparable, or, to put it another way, thought that equal access to material resources had to be accompanied by equal access to decision-making power.
This great ideal, that was developed in publications like Joseph Dejacque’s Le Libertaire, and inspired movements like the Iberian Federation of Libertarian Youth, was eventually hijacked by people using the same term to refer to a completely different set of ideas derived from conservative philosophy. This impostor libertarianism saw freedom as being solely about freedom from the state, so conditions that amount to slavery are fine as long as they’re imposed by a private concentration of wealth and power. While these two libertarianisms are extremely different, one of the few points they have in common is a concern for individual freedom from state oppression, so it’s a mystery to me how anyone could reconcile even the most twisted, bastardised libertarianism with the attitude that it’s fine to grass people up to the cops for saying stuff you don’t like.
To their credit, the right-libertarian contrarians at Spiked have managed to be a bit more consistent, and let their long-held commitment to their understanding of free speech win out over their almost equally strong commitment to being wrong about everything:
This quote, while being relatively laudable in terms of getting the basic issue right, also shows exactly how confused the right-libertarian understanding of “free speech” is. Yes, for what it’s worth, I support free speech for Dapper Laughs, in that I don’t think he should face prosecution for his shit jokes either, but seeing as, to the best of my knowledge, no-one’s suggested it, it seems like a bit of a non-issue. Unless their understanding of free speech means that they think Dapper Laughs and Bahar Mustafa should both be given their own ITV show, which would be an interesting position, it’s pretty obvious that they’re comparing apples and oranges here.
I’ll even do a bit of the legwork for them: if they really wanted to defend freedom for misogynists, a much better example would be Julien Blanc, the arsehole who Theresa May denied a visa last year. As it happens, I agree that he should have been let in, and then been ferociously challenged everywhere he (and his supporters) went; done well enough, this would acheived the goal of denying him a platform to spread his misogyny, while also not setting any precedents that could then be used against anyone else the tories don’t like, such as Tyler the Creator.
So, I think people who support free speech should stand with Bahar Mustafa. Anyone who said #jesuischarlie, and meant it with any form of sincerity, should also be declaring #jesuisbahar, and, given how much of a fuss some people were making earlier this year about the freedom to offend, perhaps also coming up with other new hashtags – #killeveryonewhoclaimstobealibertarianbutthengrassespeopleuptothecopsformakingjokestheydislike, perhaps?
But this isn’t the whole story. The charges against Bahar are far from being the only attack on freedom of speech happening at the moment. Just as important, and far more under-reported, has been the ongoing prosecution of Tony Cox, who was arrested at a Scottish jobcentre at the start of this year for accompanying a claimant to their interview. If you care about freedom of speech, or the freedom to organise collectively, there’s something very concrete you can do to help: if you live near enough to turn up for his next court date at Forfar Sheriff’s Court on the 13th, that’d be great, but if not, you can still help answer the UK-wide call for people to turn up to jobcentres on the 12th or 13th and talk to claimants about the right to be accompanied. Confirmed local events include Glasgow, Liverpool, Nottingham, Doncaster, but the organisers also thank “Cymru Wales IWW, Cardiff Anarchist Network, folk in Doncaster, Liverpool IWW, Bristol AF, Norwich Sol Fed, Manchester IWW, Teeside Solidarity Movement, Aberdeen IWW, Inverness AF, Leeds IWW, Brighton Sol Fed, Edinburgh Sol Fed, Edinburgh AF, Clydeside IWW, Sheffield IWW, London Wobblies, Haringey Solidarity Group, Dorset IWW, Nottingham IWW, Stirling Anarchists” for their help, so if you live in an area where one of those groups are active you can contact them for more info, or if not, it’d only take a very minimal amount of organisation to print a few leaflets off, get two or three friends together, and pay a trip to a jobcentre near you (and let the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network know you’re doing it – there’s not so much point showing solidarity with Tony Cox if he doesn’t get to hear about it).
Finally, anyone really concerned about free speech might also want to support the campaign to delist the PKK – not because the PKK are a perfect organisation, or even one that I support, but because it should be possible to discuss whether they’re worth supporting or not, and the role they’re playing in the fight against ISIS, without worrying that anyone will end up facing serious criminal charges as a result of having that discussion.