Note: This article has been updated since publication in May’s Village magazine.
The Irish courts recently awarded €75,000 damages for a defamatory comment published on Facebook. Digital Rights Ireland described this judgment as a “wake-up call for a lot of people” that the law of the land also applies online. When did we reach this tipping point? When did some people start to feel entitled to casually publish defamatory smears that have no basis in reality?
I strongly support freedom of expression about ideas, including the right to blaspheme and robustly to criticise and ridicule harmful ideas. I also support reasonable limits to freedom of expression in order to protect people as opposed to ideas, including laws against defamation and incitement to violence and to other crimes.
From an ethical perspective, I encourage civil discourse over online rage and hate. We live in a topsy turvy ethical world where people casually spread ridiculous personal smears, including that LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell is homophobic, feminist Germaine Greer is misogynistic, comedian Ricky Gervais is transphobic, and Richard Dawkins is whatever defamatory smear emerges from the roll of your dice.
Gerry Adams was unjustly labelled a racist because of a tweet that he wrote about a movie. While I and others have strongly criticised Gerry Adams for his involvement with the IRA, we should not allow this to justify unrelated personal smears about him. We should defend the rights of those with whom we disagree as well as those with whom we agree.
I have been called racist for saying that two thirds of Catholics live in the global south, fascist for opposing thugs assaulting people on the streets of Dublin, and the political silencing word of ‘Islamophobic’ for saying that anti-Muslim bigotry is bad and criticism of Islam is good.
Atheist Ireland has been targeted with disgusting smears that cross lines even by today’s online standards, which have finally caused us to realise that some people online simply cannot be reasoned with.
These smears are not only unjust to the people being smeared, and subject to the laws of defamation, but they also dilute the power of important words, and leave us with no useful words to describe actual incidents of hatred and bigotry against vulnerable people. They are the modern warning of the boy who called wolf.
They often depend on using words in an ideological way, in order to try to force people to accept their biased assumptions before even starting the discussion. At a recent Rationalist International Conference in Tallinn, Estonia, sexual rights activist and philosopher Tommi Paalanen of Finland argued that we should define words in ways that are coherent, universal and inclusive, with clear and justified boundaries, and free from ideological assumptions that tilt the discussion.
For example, ‘conversion therapy’ for gay people is not therapy and does not convert. ‘Safe spaces’ assume other spaces are not safe. ‘Cultural appropriation’ as an idea leads to ethnic purity not free cultural exchange. Calling ‘micro-aggressions’ a violent act diminishes the concept of violence. Saying that ‘you cannot question our experiences’ or you must ‘check your privilege’ serve to silence discussion.
The worst smears typically come from people on the authoritarian left of the political spectrum. They know how everybody else should think and behave, and it is not enough to agree with most of what they say. Any disagreement justifies personal abuse and defamation.
If you are only 99% along their ideological pathway, they will dial the personal abuse up to eleven about the 1% on which you might differ. They also do not understand satire, and will typically respond to this statement by arguing about the one-percent figure, you fuckhead.
There are at least four ways that these smears can spread.
The first way is where an individual, like American shock-blogger PZ Myers, spends years spreading hatred of people. For example, when Richard Dawkins wrote in his memoir that he was sexually abused as a child with little long-term effects, Myers outrageously wrote that Dawkins “seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Thankfully Myers’ blog network imploded last year when some of its bloggers finally turned on each other, like a mix between ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘the Little Shop of Horrors’.
A second way is when unco-ordinated Internet mobs unjustly attack an individual, like British scientist Tim Hunt, and the defamation spreads spontaneously online, and then into mainstream media. This is an extension of the idea that it takes religion to cause good people to do bad things.
Hunt gave an impromptu short speech at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, in which he said that scientists should work in gender-segregated labs, because the trouble with “girls” is that they cause men to fall in love with them and cry.
He was publicly smeared as a misogynist and had to resign from his position as an honorary professor with the University College London’s Faculty of Life Sciences, and from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee.
These smears were spread online mostly by decent people who believed the original story, and who believed that they were doing good by exposing somebody who they believed was bad, or at least who had engaged in bad behaviour. The mainstream media, who should have had more responsible editorial checks and balances, spread the smears uncritically.
But the people spreading the smears were mistaken. Painstaking research by English author and politician, Louise Mensch, later revealed that Hunt, and other audience members, were smiling; that Hunt ended his toast with congratulations to women in science, and a wish that nothing would hold them back; that Hunt was mocking himself, using an ironic tone to do so; and that he had sat down to laughter and applause.
A third way is in university campuses, where students unions or college authorities ‘de-platform’ or ‘disinvite’ people from speaking engagements. The supposed reason is to prevent these people from spreading beliefs that the censors believe to be harmful, but the effect is to prevent students from hearing opinions that they are entitled to hear. Also, ‘disinviting’ someone after inviting them is not merely withdrawing an invite, but breaking an agreement and showing yourself untrustworthy.
Universities should be prepared to host events at which speakers cause offence to people who do not share their beliefs, as long as such events do not break the laws of the land or incite violence or crime. This is important because universities are not the same as private bodies with their own political agendas. Universities are public bodies that should foster freedom of expression, and encourage critical thinking and intellectual growth among students and staff.
A fourth example happened after a recent demonstration in Dublin against the founding of Pegida, a group that supports stronger immigration policies in order to prevent the spread of Islamism in Europe, and that attracts some people who are also bigoted against Muslims and who engage in criminal violence. While immigration and religion are matters for legitimate disagreement, we should all condemn this anti-Muslim bigotry and violence. Crimes that are motivated by prejudice are unjust not only to the victim, but also to other members of the same identity group.
However, a group of thugs used the anti-Pegida protest as an excuse to chase and assault people on the streets of Dublin. They described themselves as “200 militants divided up throughout the northside of the city made up of AFA, Irish republicans from many groups, anarchists, socialists and a significant number of football casuals from the four main Dublin clubs”.
For the uninitiated, ‘AFA’ stands for ‘Anti-Fascist Action’, which is contradicted by their enthusiasm for fascistic street violence and intimidation. ‘Football casuals’ are better known as football hooligans, a group more used to beating people up for fun than engaging in nuanced political or ethical analysis. And some people then had the nerve to accuse others of supporting fascism, for opposing this violent criminal thuggery.
Atheist Ireland promotes atheism, reason, and ethical secularism. We have held an international conference on empowering women through secularism. We have raised human rights abuses of minorities at Government, European Union, OSCE and UN levels. We have a joint campaign with the Evangelical Alliance of Ireland and the Ahmaddiya Muslims on secular education.
We oppose discrimination and abuse based on religion or race or ethnic background, including anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant bigotry, and Islamist abuses of human rights of Muslims and others. We oppose fascism including fascistic street violence, whether it comes from the minority of violent people who attend the anti-immigration events of Pegida throughout Europe, or the minority of violent people who attended the recent pro-immigration event in Dublin.
And yet Atheist Ireland has been the subject of ridiculous smears spanning the range that I have described above.
Most atheists are aware of how religion can corrupt our natural morality, by replacing our natural evolutionary attributes of empathy, compassion, co-operation, reciprocity, fairness and justice with unilateral commands built on faith and dogma.
But the authoritarian left and the authoritarian right can also rely on faith and dogma. Anything from communism to the unregulated free market, along with social injustice smearing, can be built on faith, which is believing things disproportionately to the evidence, and dogma, which is believing things unquestioningly.
We need to challenge the harm caused by this authoritarian thinking and these smears, as strongly as we challenge the harm caused by other injustices.