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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