Surveillance and censorship were much on the agenda at The Old Doom Bar this week. This was partly inspired by the presence of a London-based Barrister in our midst. As with so many of his trade he was a fund of anecdote. Much of it either reassuring to those seeking to avoid justice or depressing to those who sought it. It is the same with medicine. Both sorts of practitioners of these professions, once drink has been taken, are apt to cast off their normal considered demeanour and treat their audience to the comic version of their work.
The week has been full of discussion about Edward Snowden (a BBC scoop interview), much airing of the ‘safe space’ issue (BBC again on different occasions), a piece on Roger Scruton’s latest book – Fools, Frauds and Firebrands (an update of his Thinkers of the New Left) discussed in the Observer [4th October] – and not irrelevant to the ‘safe spaces’ discourse and a revisit to the BBFC ban on British produced porn featuring, among other things, female ejaculation. The ban was covered in general by ER’s own Nichi Hodgson, Woman’s HourR4 [28th September] and by Miranda Sawyer – whose radio review more specifically referenced female ejaculation – also in the Observer [4th October].
All these subjects had been more than competently dealt with on other occasions and in numbers of journals. Nonetheless their appearance together gave good grounds for discussion, albeit with a certain reserve about the details of the sexual activities prohibited. This is probably because the ODB was not considered a safe enough space for anyone to protest that female ejaculation, face-sitting and water sports were innocent good fun for all, whether protagonists or viewers.
Such activities might have been at the back of people’s minds as we considered the scope of surveillance from our authorities with regard to our Internet activities. Hitherto, our relaxed acceptance of monitoring capability has been allied to nationally shared concerns about terrorism, criminality and ‘kiddie porn’. We all had a laugh, though, about the still-permitted but restricted portrayals of bondage and spanking. This must say something about our sex lives or wish-lists and national sense of humour. It also says much about the degree to which we value privacy about the deeper elements of our sexual selves.
So far as our personal internet security was concerned, other than avoiding the use of words like ‘bomb’ in our e-mails or posting insulting tweets of a sectarian nature we were pretty relaxed about our electronic conduct and its audit trail. The ODB (or our corner of it) is, of course, a safe place in which to discuss badgers – but not the Internet. We did feel that this could be risky under certain circumstances.
The safe space idea seems to have come from some arena of 1980s feminism. In origin it was an understandable effort to create environments in which groups of females (and later the whole LGBT community) who felt vulnerable in male company might find supportive discourse. Latterly it has been transmuted if not bastardised by well-meaning universities and less well-meaning student bodies and other social authorities (including the LGBT movement itself) into a general means of stifling debate and denying platforms to diverse or opposing views on a range of topics which essentially require an unchallenged orthodoxy with a (most usually) left of centre perspective. Scruton has been there. His professorial university career was ruined by academic and commentariat-led hostility to his first book.
Ideologues and do-gooders of all stripes by habit seek to stifle dissent from their orthodoxy. In to-day’s world of academic intellectual ferment that is about as diverse as a Kraft cheese slice ‘psychological comfort’ has become the sole goal of our university managers. We are stuck in a resort hotel elevator with the mood music of consensual correctness playing in our ears. Though the violence is not far away if we attempt dissent and the thought police will be called. The difference between then and now is possibly that then, it was about slogging out the differences – now it’s about maintaining conformity.
As our Barrister observed, Snowden may arguably have gone too far in his data disclosure but he did us all a favour through his reminder that there were no safe spaces anywhere in the electronic universe. Nor did we need suppose a perversion of the technology of surveillance by some dystopian future State. Our present democracies and their agents – notably the police, prompted by social and moral panic and the blandishments of vocal pressure groups are quite capable of instantly widening the remit of their hunt for sin. It’s a trawl. You may not end up fried but you could easily end up with serious reputational injuries. State-administered morality is as subtle as a tabloid newspaper.
As he left us he said ‘the great danger of capturing the centre in any system is that you have to give more to the extremes to hold it – and that gives them more power’
We silently tried to digest this message. It was beyond the normal ODB pay-grade. ‘Well’ said one of our number, ‘so long as we stick to The Falmouth Packet on-line and avoid derogatory tweets about the Village Baking Circle we’ll be fine’.
Roger Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. Bloomsbury.