A Legally Harmful Belief

When we fixate on the concept of ‘bad’ ideas and simple disagreement causing actual harm, we simply empower those who want to control our every thought.

Have you ever been harmed by something you’ve seen? I mean, really harmed in a definite, specific way? I suspect not, despite the current rush to protect us against ever more nebulous harms that can rarely be nailed down but which are – we are assured – absolutely out there.

In Britain, the Online Harms Bill continues on its slow but seemingly unstoppable march into legislation, with any watering down of its more dubious aspects – namely the outlawing of ‘legal but harmful’ content online, the details of which remain vague and open to interpretation but which come with the threat of serious legal action for those websites that fail to act to prevent them – thrown out of the window after a rebellion by Tory MPs and demands from Labour, both groups joining forces to ensure that as much material as possible is legislated, controlled and outlawed despite the crashing lack of evidence that allowing people to see and hear ideas that are not even illegal will somehow lead to them being irreparably damaged in some ill-defined way.

In Louisiana, age verification rules for porn sites have been introduced to prevent minors (and, in truth, as many adults as possible) from accessing porn sites. Again, the claim is ‘harm’ and the legislation – currently being copied by other morally uptight states like Arkansas – allows the state to sue for damages for any harm that viewing porn will cause to minors (or, again, anyone else). Just what this ‘harm’ is, of course, remains unexplained – well, we must assume that anyone watching such material will be inherently corrupted I suppose, and if they are a teenager, all the more so. After all, without the availability of porn online, no one would even think about sex – it has to be caused by these sites thrusting themselves uninvited into the search engines of curious teens who then simply can’t help themselves. Take it away and they will be safe from harm, the claim goes. Well, they might still be killed in a school shooting or by any other gun nut who has laughably easy access to deadly weapons in these states but never mind that – it’s the porn that is dangerous. That such places refuse to impose even the mildest levels of gun control shows just how much they actually care about the safety of minors – they are simply using the bogeyman of exposure to unsuitable material by teenagers to clamp down on what adults can see.

This fixation with the idea of actual, physical or mental harm coming from ‘bad’ – or even conflicting – ideas is rampant these days, and not just with right-wing moralisers looking to crush the sex industry or control free speech. We’re continually told that someone criticising your cultural identity or subjecting you to tasteless jokes or offensive comments is not just upsetting but actually harmful – no different from being physically attacked or mentally damaged. Surely there is a line between being upset, offended and annoyed and being ‘harmed’, you might think? Apparently not. In fact, physical violence often seems to be seen as less of a problem than simply using an unpleasant word or a refusal to acknowledge and ‘respect’ someone else’s beliefs. Should we be surprised when the extremists pick up on this and start using the idea of harm caused by ideas and discussion to crush free expression and sexual liberty? After all, everyone can all claim that if their beliefs are challenged then they are being harmed – even if those ideas are hate-driven and bigoted, and we’re seeing this now across the culture wars, both sides claiming psychic damage from the comments of the other. Perhaps we need to step back and understand that being upset is not the same as being harmed, not remotely – and encouraging people to believe otherwise is to doom them to a life of misery, forever feeling savagely wounded by the merest slight or sharpest critique. I understand how much it hurts to have your core identity and belief system rubbished and I get how it can feel wounding – but if we actually claim to have been harmed by such criticism and mockery, all we are doing is giving power to those who want to hurt us. Don’t feed the trolls.

I’m not suggesting that words can’t have consequences. You can incite hatred and that hatred might lead to actual violence against others, and of course we should be looking to prevent that. I’m even in favour of better laws to prevent libel – God knows, in a world where lives are wrecked through scurrilous rumours and casual accusations online, we need that. But again – we’re talking about legal speech that is nevertheless being controlled by the very people who we should trust the least to be deciding what is or isn’t acceptable. After all, the politicians who impose these laws on the rest of us tend to make sure that such rules don’t apply to them – they’ll be able to make as many harmful comments as they like under parliamentary privilege.

What’s more, banning social media discussion of very real and seriously harmful issues feels like a distraction from the real causes of such acts. I get that distraught parents will desperately want to blame someone or something for their children taking their own lives because if you can convince yourself that it never would’ve happened if the child had not been able to access self-harm sites, they never would’ve done what they did (never mind those awkward questions about why they were looking at those sites to begin with) it somehow makes it easier and helps alleviate any nagging feeling of personal guilt at not spotting the signs earlier. Look, I’m not at all upset about the prospect of pro-anorexia or suicide encouragement pages vanishing – but caught up in this blitz will be any pages discussing such issues, including peer-to-peer support groups where people can talk about their issues with strangers and not worry about being judged, or where people can turn for non-hysterical advice. ISPs and social media sites won’t be making those fine judgement calls – they’ll just block it all to be on the safe side, just as they have done with sex education and gay information sites when attempting to block ‘porn’. We’ll be throwing the baby out with the bathwater and worse still, we will not be making a single bit of difference to the issues at hand. Teenagers will still kill themselves when we take down all these web pages – and then who do we blame? Well, don’t worry – the press and the politicians will think of someone


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  1. This Bill is terrible legislation. Where to start, where to stop. I will spare anyone reading this the terdium of having to hack through acres of prose relating the desperation, aimlessness, futility and ineffectuality of the glorious great and good of these lands, or of the obvious strangeness of our existences, individually and collectively. I simply say ‘legal but harmful’ is a nightmare coinage, beyond Orwell or Kafka’s worst imaginings. Surely this vague excretion will be flung back at Tory or Labour figures in a future epsiode of Question Time – ‘you’re the one who’s harmful, etc.’. I also wonder where this leaves the singing duo Suicide, and what will be the process if I was to post one of their songs to Facebook, perhaps illustrated by their bloody first LP cover. Likewise, I always considered the song ‘Kill Yourself’ by the Lewd one of the weaker US punk singles, but if I should so happen to feel in the mood to listen and offer other to share in the opportunity to do so, will I wind up in the jug? The century is definitely shaping up in such a way that it can be summarised by another simple phrase, stamped in gold foil: ‘Yet More Bullshit’.

  2. While you’ve done a good job of highlighting the major problems of this kind of legislation (mainly over filtering) I would and even acknowledge the problem with suicide and other content online I would counter a point of have you really been harmed by something online. If your talking words directed from people in a hateful and/or bullying way then that can have serious results of trauma. You only have to read the one shot comic by the late batman actor Kevin conroy called (I think) finding my batman where he talks about the homophobic abuse he suffered finding acting work till batman the animated series or the first blue power rangers david yost who due to the abuse he suffered on set resulted in him ending up in pray the gay away. Obviously that was in real life before social media but now it can happen with social media because of the obvious problem of the people using it which is why we have hate speech law’s. So while I disagree with the legislation I don’t want to believe nothing online can harm people emotionally, and to demand it doesn’t is telling people not to feel there feeling’s.

    Also on the topic of media corrupting people. Newer studies have shown (citing liana k on youtube) media does not change your existing beliefs or make you violent or sexist, but on the flip side what media can do is reinforce your preexisting beliefs and what does influence you are your friends and other people you communicate with, which interestingly puts social media in a weird bind as it’s media but the kind you communicate with which does create big questions about the online presence of Andrew tate.

    1. That’s true – but I’m not so much talking about relentless, targeted bullying, which of course we know can drive people to suicide or severely damaged them, as I am people claiming that a single critical comment that is not even directly targeted at them causes ‘harm’. The former is something that needs tackling; the latter is a part of life that we have to deal with unless we want to live in a world where only certain opinions are allowed, with the people who get to decide what those opinions are being the loudest voices in the room at any one time.If anything, that just makes genuinely harmful commentary harder to focus on as it becomes buried in the mass of people equating being offended with being harmed.

      1. been reading your comment’s over to form a response, so first we agree about targeted bullying and even that we can’t really outlaw it (which is why the whole bill fall’s flat) but keeping the whole topic fixed on phycological harm you said “We’re continually told that someone criticising your cultural identity or subjecting you to tasteless jokes or offensive comments is not just upsetting but actually harmful” while also talking about comment’s not being directed at people, let’s take that for a moment and let’s role play that someone make’s a really racist or homophobic joke in a group and he knows there’s a person close by who’s non-white or gay and that person becomes upset even though the joke wasn’t directed to them specifically, the joke would still cause pain and make them worry about real violence next now he knows this is the joke teller’s attitude. i would point out that if the response to the distress is “it was just a joke” my thought would be “we know it was a joke the problem is the joke wasn’t funny” think of the flashback scene from Philadelphia where tom hank’s character was thinking of coming out only to hear his colleges make a homophobic joke.

        another topic is very much about trans people which is very much about identity, i don’t want to say trans debate because 1 that’s like debating if trans people exist and why the hell would anyone want to go into a debate arguing if there a real person or not and 2 i have know right to debate something i can’t experience on a personal level, but every non trans person on gbnews and talktv seem to think they can and usually some vile comment’s to the point of making being trans into a joke which given your talking about there identity that they can’t change dehumanising. on top of that apparently when claiming trans women aren’t women it’s ok to invoke hitler


        this kind of language to me seems like something that can very much lead to phycological harm even though it’s not directed at a specific person.

        while it’s easy to say that people are over sensitive and i’m sure there are people just performing online i’m not in the habit of telling people not to feel there feeling’s as suppressing that is never good. also i would later learn that actually there is no such thing as over sensitive as different people have different boundaries and people’s boundaries should not be thing’s you chose to push, me being autistic can’t handle loud noise.

    2. As for cultural reinforcement – yes, echo chambers are a big problem because they not only ensure that you only hear one side of an argument but also makes it easier to demonise and dehumanise those on the other side of that argument – which then makes it easier to do awful real-life things to those people. I can’t for the life of me see how we can legislate against people only listening to people who they already agree with though.

      1. as for this comment i was thinking more about the constant argument about how media effect’s us and while we can agree the video nasty era was based on paranoia and as will any moral panic about film’s, porn, comic’s or tv it is interesting to learn how while these thing’s won’t influence how you see the world or how you behave the new studies would suggest these do reinforce your existing belief’s and behaviour which mean’s while a person won’t be changed by benny hill a person who already has the attitude of benny hill on screen would think that’s acceptable.

  3. as for the online safety bill itself. while this maybe wishful thinking on my part i am beginning to think even though it will pass, i’m getting less convinced it will be implemented, simply because there whole thing is getting beyond ridicules to the point of just not workable, and while i don’t know much about tech i know there are a lot of tech law’s not enacted because of being to complicated and the uk government has a long history of not following through with anything complicated.

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