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Posted by on Feb 27, 2013 in Culture, In the news, Law, Politics | 10 comments

Birgitta Jónsdóttir on censorship proposals in Iceland

I missed this piece in The Guardian a week or two back by Iceland’s Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a poet and politician (good for her!) who is opposed to current internet censorship proposals and assures her readers that they will not be enacted.

Since I know next to nothing about the political balance in Iceland, I can’t comment on whether her confidence is justified. It is, however, heartening to read some lucidly expressed resistance to what appears a highly illiberal agenda being pursued in Iceland, with little in the way of empirical support for it (in the sense that there is any close nexus demonstrated between the apparently victimless crimes being created upstream and any downstream harmful acts). Jónsdóttir also shows a good understanding of the problem of scope creep once we start introducing new laws to restrict freedom of speech and expression. This was, of course, one of the greatest concerns about recent proposals for internet censorship in Australia.

Presumably we just how to wait to see how this unfolds. Iceland has already introduced a number of illiberal initiatives, raising questions about the popular perception that highly secular countries are likely to be highly liberal about such things as sex work and free expression. While I still see a long-term trend for secularism to segue into liberalism, it is very easy for the gap that was once filled by religion to be filled by other kinds of illiberal ideology that may have some of the same puritanical concerns.

  • Ken Phelps

    “…the popular perception that highly secular countries are likely to be highly liberal…”

    I can’t imagine how anyone could have arrived at that particular conclusion in the last 50 years. It has been my perception that secular countries are generally associated with the political left and trend – perhaps after a “useful idiots” phase – toward the distinctly illiberal.

  • Not following you… please define how you’re using ‘illiberal.’

  • Ken Phelps

    Illiberal as in the story above. Perhaps “selective liberalism” would be a better expression.

  • Ken Phelps

    Sorry, meant to nest my reply, which is out of sequence above. While I have a moment, the attempts of pro-choice students to block anti-choice lectures on campus would be an example. As would recent feminist vandalism of posters advertizing events with which they disagreed. Both cases of liberal ideals carried to an extreme which is no longer liberal.

  • RussellBlackford

    Oh, okay. I thought you were referring to such things as Germany’s Holocaust denial laws (which restrict freedom of speech) and its fairly draconian restrictions on IVF (which restrict reproductive freedom).

    It’s true that people who are motivated by ideological commitments or moral righteousness can act in the ways you describe, attempting to silence others with whom they strongly disagree and whom they find morally abhorrent. Ideologues and moralists are often not strong on the freedom of speech of their opponents. But this doesn’t just happen in highly secular countries (the reception of Peter Singer in Germany would be a good example in such a country, though). And what I was interested in in this post was restrictions on individual liberty imposed by legislation.

    Come to think of it, though, this could be a topic in itself. Have the various secular countries gone backwards in the last 50 years in the amount of individual freedom allowed by their laws? I doubt it very much, having lived through those 50 years in one of the more secular countries (Australia), but I was ready to agree with you to the extent that I think the experience is at least a mixed one.

  • Vic

    Selective liberalism, selective equality, selective freedom… there seems to be a trend with good ideas and ideals and what people make of them.

  • Vic

    Interestingly it’s not the judicial limitations in Western countries, but rather the “soft” norms of societal behaviour (which for those who are affected can be just as rigid as concrete) which seem to be responsible for “selective liberalism”.

    Instead of black police vans and government agents acting to limit freedom, which would be the usual suspects for those who live in fear of “pinko zionist communist traitors” it’s rather a case of what is considered “bad taste” or just “socially acceptable” without being punishable by law. The so-called PC fascism, which, it can’t be denied, does influence the feedback loop between mass media, popular opinion, social upbringing and government stances in the West.

    However, the examples listed are (still) rather minor in my opinion.

    An anti-feminist campaign in a Western country might not attract much applause, however it is still more free in its expression than e.g. a anti-islam event would be in… uh, take your pick: Malaysia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan etc. or a anti-putin protest in Russia or a anti-chairman protest in China where one can expect a government agency to take action. It’s a bit more than getting posters vandalized by angry college girls.

    So, channelling Winston Churchill, I’d say western countries are the most illiberal countries except for all other countries.

    There’s of course room for improvement. But any change, for better or worse, takes long time. Political evolution is a process of generations just like socio-biological evolution which drives humanity as a whole.

  • Opera Arches

    The Great Theatre of Ruin

  • Dave Kendall

    I can only really comment on the UK, but I do think that it has gone backwards when it comes to individual freedom. Maybe not compared with 50 years ago, but things have definitely changed for the worse in the last decade.

    In the past it was illegal to produce and distribute certain kinds of pornography, but Britain’s recent law against “extreme porn” is unusual in that it criminalises merely possessing “extreme” images. While it was meant to fight against genuinely brutal and abusive pornography, and was hailed by many people as a progressive measure to protect women and children, a lot of the prosecutions have been for possessing home made images featuring consenting adults. To me it seems ridiculous that it’s potentially a serious offence to possess a photo of sexual acts that were legal to perform. The prosecution of Simon Walsh for possessing images of fisting became well known because he fought the charges, but it’s not a unique case:

    I put a lot of that down to illiberal feminist organisations becoming much more influential. For example, in Britain there was always a fringe of feminists who picketed or vandalised strip clubs and sex shops, but only in the last few years have they successfully lobbied for changes to legislation, and convinced local government to have many of those establishments closed down. This has caused real harm to the many people who’ve lost their jobs, while the feminist claims regarding those business causing rape and violence are not supported by evidence.

    Another example is the feminist campaigning that lead to many European countries cracking down on prostitution. Sweden, Norway and Iceland criminalised buying sex, and it’s looking like France, the UK and Ireland will either follow suit, or criminalise both sides of the transaction. This is something that few people would have predicted back in the 1990s. In fact, in the UK there was a lot of discussion about decriminalising prostitution back then. But back then the anti-sex industry feminist groups like the European Women’s Lobby weren’t anywhere near as large and powerful.

    Moving away from pornography and the sex industry, I also see an increase in free speech stifling cases like the Twitter joke trial:

    That joke was prosecuted under the 2003 Communications Act, while “extreme porn” was criminalised in 2008. This is recent legislation brought in despite Britain becoming a more secular country.

    What I find interesting is that it used to be moralising religious organisations (the likes of Mary Whitehouse and the NVALA) pushing for that kind of thing in the UK. Those groups seem to have faded away, and today most of the calls for censorship and criminalisation seem to come from secular groups (humanists, trade unions and charities like Amnesty International, as well as feminists). The main difference is that the equally puritanical secular campaigners have been a lot more successful. If anything, I find that mainstream Christianity today tends to be a bit more liberal and tolerant of individual choice than the secular left.

  • RussellBlackford

    Dave, you might also be interested to comment on the post after this, where we get into more general issues about threats to liberalism.