The Chilling Effect

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Generally speaking, people don’t much like to be unexpectedly contacted by the police. Officers of the law are not inclined to pop around, uninvited, for a cup of tea or just to see how you are. A knock on the door from PC Plod will usually mean that either something bad has happened to a loved one or neighbour, or that you are suspected to committing a crime, and neither of these eventualities is something that is eagerly anticipated.

Now, it seems, we can add a third possibility to the reasons why you might find yourself having an unwelcome visit from the police. It would seem that our police force – which, I might remind you, we are constantly told is overstretched, underfunded and understaffed – will get in touch with you if you have said, or perhaps even liked, something online that others object to. We’re not talking about violent threats, criminal abuse or other forms of illegal hate speech. The comments we are discussing here are not illegal – in fact, the police may well tell you that upfront. But because someone, somewhere has decided that they are upset by something you have posted, and has complained to the police about it, the local force in question feels obliged to pay a visit or make a phone call to inform you that you have said something unseemly and that someone else hasn’t much cared for it. The unseemly comment almost certainly isn’t against the law, it might be what a lot of other people are thinking and it might well even be objectively true, but the mere fact that someone has made a complaint will be enough for it to be recorded as a ‘hate incident’. Not a crime, and not something that you can be arrested, charged or officially cautioned for – but the police will nevertheless ‘helpfully’ inform you of the complaint (but not, of course, who made it) and perhaps will advise you that you possibly need to rethink your opinions, if you don’t want things to go further. Which sounds a bit like a caution, really, because a lot of people in those situations will be a bit shaken by the experience, and certainly feel very cautious about ever expressing a public opinion again. This is the chilling effect.

We know that this is happening, because twice in the last week or so, a couple of people have talked about it publicly. They could be the only ones, or there could be a lot more who have been intimidated into silence and not poking the bear. We just don’t know.

74-year-old Feminist blogger Margaret Nelson received an early morning phone call from the Suffolk police informing her that her blog has been upsetting people. Apparently, the officer who called admitted that the offending comments were neither illegal or untrue, but nevertheless felt the need to ‘discuss’ them with Nelson. Responding to her posting about this on Twitter, the force said “we had a number of people contact us… about the comments made online. A follow-up call was made for no other reason than to raise awareness of the complaints.”

Which is interesting, because you have to wonder if they take this action over all complaints about non-criminal actions that have upset someone. If someone were to complain about a person’s upsetting haircut, would the law swing into action to ring the hair monster in the early hours to discuss it with them, or to ‘raise awareness’? I would hope not. So we have to assume that these particular complaints were considered more valid than others, even if no law had actually been broken. We have to assume that the police had some sympathy with the complainant, and believed that their hurt feelings were more valid than, say, the feelings of a pensioner who is woken up by the police telling her to watch her mouth.

There’s more. Harry Miller, a 53-year-old man from Lincoln, was contacted by Humberside police after he made, by their estimation, some thirty potentially offensive tweets. Bear that ‘potential’ bit in mind, because we’ll come back to that. The Community Cohesion Officer told Miller that a limerick he had simply retweeted was particularly unsavoury, and that while no crime had been committed, the tweet would be recorded as a ‘hate incident’. According to Miller – and the Humberside police have not denied this – he was told that “we need to check your thinking.” The officer in question told the Telegraph that “I warned him that if it escalates we will have to take further action.”

We know about these cases because both people took to social media to highlight what happened. There have been others – last year, Graham Linehan, the man behind Father Ted and something of an annoying Twitter blowhard, was warned by the police after a spat with an opponent. Again, no laws were broken, but the police felt the need to intervene regardless. It’s not hard to imagine that this could be the tip of the iceberg.

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There’s a connecting theme with these cases. Nelson is what is sometimes called a TERF – that’s Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist, a woman who believes that trans women are not real women and that the move towards allowing self-identification – that is, allowing someone with a male body to declare themselves to be a woman without any surgical or hormonal treatment, and so potentially access female-only spaces – is both dangerous and offensive. Nelson’s blog posts were on this subject. The limerick Miller posted was one that mockingly dismissed the idea that trans women are real women. And Linehan’s row was with a trans activist.

This could be coincidence, or it could be because the war between trans activists and the RadFem movement is particularly vicious right now, taking centre stage in the culture wars. But this isn’t about any one group. The trans lobby has certainly been very good at setting the agenda and marginalising opposition, but it’s far from being the only group to do so, and at a different time, it could be members of any other collective who consider themselves hard done by. The fact is that the redefinition of criticism into hate speech is a powerful new way of silencing dissent that many groups are using, and police forces and the government are eagerly buying into it.

The problem is, that when you go beyond the criminal, things become, by definition, a matter of personal interpretation, and the more sensitive or perhaps those who have an activist mindset will be more inclined to be upset than most. They’ll also be far more likely to complain, and so we get a rather skewed picture of a situation.

If you think that this doesn’t matter because you have no sympathy for TERFs or gammons or gobshitey comedy writers, you’re being naive – it’s them today, but it could easily be you tomorrow. As definitions of ‘hate’ continue to expand – some forces already investigate misogynistic ‘incidents’ where no crime has taken place, and there is talk of expanding the definition of hate crime to also include misandry (the hatred of men) and extend protected status to subcultures like goths – so it becomes ever easier to claim that you are a victim, even if comments have not been aimed directly at you, and enables people to shut down any critical di scussion of an issue – there can only be one correct point of view, and anyone who transgresses against that will be given a quick shot across the bows. When you open that door, lots of people will come charging through, and as the RadFems have found, today’s victim-status group can quickly become tomorrow’s victimisers in a world where intersectionality dictates who gets the medals in the oppression Olympics. RadFems are already claiming that the word TERF is ‘hate speech’, while other groups will be doubtless also keen to declare hurt feelings in the hope that the police will put the frighteners on anyone who disagrees with them.

When the police contact people to tell them that their opinions are unacceptable, even though the law allows us to have those opinions, this is nothing less than intimidation. Warning people that their entirely legal point of view is something that they need to reconsider or else face some unspecified ‘further action’ is barely different from posting threats of violence or death on someone’s social media page – it’s a way to shut people up and silence anyone who does not follow the current orthodoxy. The police should be solving actual crimes. It is not their place to tell us how we are supposed to think.

DAVID FLINT

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