Wednesday, 20 September 2017

"Free Speech is a right wing idea" is one of the most stupid things I've ever heard

If you're a fashionable leftie trying to stick it to The Man, in today's mad world the chances are that you're against free speech. The way they tell it, Nazis, racists, homophobes and sundry hateful conservatives use "free speech" as a fig leaf to protect their hate speech. In a crowded field, this is one of the stupidest political arguments you'll ever hear.

Is it OK to hate stupid ideas?

Once you get past a chanting mob in the street and try to turn "free speech but not hate speech" into a real, live policy you run into two problems:

- Mission Creep
- Who gets to decide?

Mission Creep means you start by shutting down actual racists and Nazis, but once caught up in the mob you soon find yourself on the slippery slope towards "people who say things I don't like are basically Nazis".

If free speech means anything, it means the freedom to say what somebody doesn't want to hear - the freedom to criticise the powerful, to point out their follies, and make them uncomfortable. That means powerful people in government, but it also means people with loud voices who want to be heard - that's you, Mr Protester. You want the power to silence the people who disagree with you; I want the power to disagree and if that makes you uncomfortable then that's good.

I think this one's ironic. Isn't it?

But where the censorship mob's brains fall out of their ears is the second point - who gets to decide? In countries with heavy censorship, it's the people in charge who get to decide what you're allowed to say. The people who control the police and the army. The people who make the laws and operate the prisons. And what they tend to decide is "You're not allowed to criticise us".

So in Britain, it would be the Conservative government that decides what you can say, while in the USA it would be President Trump. In former times, it's been such world leaders as Stalin and Hitler who've taken a keen interest in what people are allowed to say and who they may criticise. Criticising the actual Nazis in the Third Reich was not for the faint-hearted.

How is it that the people most enthusiastic about criticising Trump, Conservative governments and Nazis don't spot this flaw in their plan? If the leaders with the power to implement speech censorship actually listen to them, if they bring in the censorious society these protesters say they want, then by their own logic that would usher in exactly the totalitarian, Nazi society they are against.

If you build the machinery of censorship, you might not be the one who controls it: you might find yourself on the receiving end.

Morons at large.

The people who most need free speech, the people who should cherish it as the most fundamental right of all, are the powerless, the oppressed, the underdog, and all those who would champion their cause. That the left has turned against free speech, that they see it as a tool of oppression or an excuse for offending people, is one of the most stupid political ideas you'll ever see.

Free speech - a licence to make people uncomfortable or offended.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

On EU nationals, the government should be the bigger man

Yesterday, the House of Lords defied the Government on European Union nationals living in the UK. The Government is seeing this as a defeat, but it should take this opportunity to be the bigger man.

The Government is paying a political price to keep an option which it is never going to use - we are not going to see mass deportation of EU nationals who came to Britain to exercise their treaty rights to work here. But by seeming to keep the option open, the government is damaging its position and Britain's standing in the world. It is incurring political damage to hold onto this option which is of no value. I think there is a better way.

The Government wants to let EU citizens remain in the UK, and for the EU give British people living elsewhere in Europe the same right. It aims to thrash this out during the negotiations, but the negotiations have already begun, and the stand-off over this issue matches the tense, often bad-natured mood developing between Britain and the EU. This isn't in anyone's interests  - our long term aim must be to remain friendly, cooperative neighbours. But in the emotional fall-out of the referendum, all sides risk getting bogged down in a petty, tit-for-tat mindset.

Today is the perfect opportunity to break out. The Government should announce unilaterally that all those EU citizens already living here will be granted the right to remain on the same terms they currently enjoy, and then call upon the EU to match the offer. This would be a big, positive gesture of good will, reassure millions people living in Britain who are genuinely worried about their future, and encourage the EU to reciprocate. All this would cost nothing, because what it is giving up is of no value. No one wants mass deportations, and they are not going to happen, so let's be the first to take that off the table.

This isn't a big change of position for the government, but it would be a big change of tone. Its attempt to frame the debate as "We would love to do this, but the EU won't reciprocate," is trying to put the ball in the EU's court. But it isn't working, and it's making Britain look small. By taking the first step, at a stroke the UK would show willing, reassure the 3 million Europeans working here, make it difficult for the EU not to reciprocate, and most importantly would be demonstrating the positive, open attitude to the world we will need as we embark on our new place in the world outside the EU.

The negotiations between the EU and Britain desperately need a bold gesture of good will. This is it, and UK should seize the opportunity.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

An update on the Hackbridge road scheme, February 2017

Hey, do you remember Hackbridge?

The town?

The mad plan to remove all the pedestrian crossings.

Oh yes, the Glorious Land of the Courtesy Crossing! Take out all the proper crossings, and somehow the ceaseless traffic on the London Road will magically part like the Red Sea. People got really angry about it and demanded they reinstate the crossings. Apparently, the main road to London…

…London Road?

…that’s the one. It turns out, if you remove all the crossings on London Road, people don’t feel safe crossing. Especially blind people, old people, young people, anyone who’s a bit frail, and basically anyone who values their own life.

Who could have seen that coming?

Literally everyone. They did a consultation and a series of public events, every time they asked, people would say “How are we meant to cross the road without crossings?”

Good question. So they had a rethink?

No, they built it anyway.

What? Why?

They said the people were wrong. They said we should listen to the experts, because they had research.

Did they?

Yes. Both Transport for London and the Department for Transport commissioned detailed research on shared spaces and courtesy crossings.

What did the research say?

It said it wouldn’t work.

Artist's impression. Note that London Road is almost devoid of cars, while people cross
the road quite casually. File under "things that never happened"

What! So why did they built the damned thing?

Good question. Both studies found that shared space is fine when traffic speeds are low, where there isn’t much traffic, or where there are loads of pedestrians so cars are forced to yield. But on busy roads the traffic just keeps flowing so people stand about like puddings, trying to cross.

That’s exactly what happened in Hackbridge!

Yep. Just as the research predicted, and just as everyone with common sense predicted.

So once it was built and they saw the crossings didn’t work, is that when they put the old crossings back?

No. They insisted that it was fine.

But it doesn’t work!

They say it does. Even now, 3 years on, they still say it worked, and that there was nothing wrong with it.

What! How?
Because Sutton Lib Dems never admit a mistake. It's the main reason most of the problems never get sorted out.
Hang on, if there was nothing wrong with it, why did they put the crossings back in?

At first, they didn’t. They did replace the Roundel with a proper mini-roundabout…

…the Roundel! Wow, I’d forgotten that.

How could you forget a giant pink nipple in the middle of the road? Anyway, they took that out, but insisted that the courtesy crossings were fine. They concluded that the problem must be with the people - they were doing it wrong. So they decided to hand out leaflets explaining to people how to cross the road.

Get out of here! They didn’t do that!

They did. They paid council staff to hand out leaflets explaining to grown adults how to cross the road, and they even got the Police to help them. I hope you got one, cos your Council Tax paid for all this.

Christ on a bike.

Not in Hackbridge He ain’t – Hackbridge Sustainable Suburb’s innovative new road layout has literally no space for cycling.

Touché. So how come they eventually put crossings back in? Did they accept that a leaflet wasn’t enough?

No, they declared the leaflet a success and refused to accept there was a problem. However, the external safety auditor condemned the crossings in March 2015 and told them to remove one particularly dangerous crossing, the one by the tile shop, because pedestrians and oncoming traffic couldn’t see each other. The auditor also told them to put at least 2 proper crossings back in. So they didn’t have much choice.

Praise the Lord for auditors, I always say.

You never say that.

True. Hang on, isn’t the dangerous crossing outside the tile shop still there?

Well spotted. Two years ago they said they’d remove it, but they never did.

How come?

It turns out that if you do everything badly the first time, and then have to redo it properly, it’s expensive…the project ran out of money.

So they’re just going to leave that dangerous crossing there?

Apparently. Although they say it isn’t dangerous, of course.

Of course! Wouldn’t it have saved a lot of money and looked better in the end if they’d listened to people at the beginning? Or maybe used some common sense?

Yes, but that would be totally against everything they stand for. And besides, they had A Vision and A Theory, and everybody bought into it.

Good grief, it was doomed.


Are they planning to inflict this Vision and Theory anywhere else in the borough?

Funnily enough, despite relentlessly declaring the Heart of Hackbridge courtesy crossings a roaring success to anyone who will listen, they say they have no plans to rip out any other crossings and turn our main roads into “shared space” for toddlers and HGVs to frolic happily together.

Hallelujah! Almost as if they secretly admit it was a bloody stupid idea all along.

You might very well think that. Still, they are planning to totally redesign the Sutton one way system and turn it into a Parisian boulevard, so we can look forward to that.

Uh oh, will that have courtesy crossings?

We don't know yet. But I guarantee that whatever happens, they’ll declare it a complete and total success with no problems whatsoever.


The tragedy of one-dimensional thinking

Snowflake! Racist! Fascist! Cry-bully! Punch a fascist! Our political culture is hardening people into teams, while what passes for debate mainly involves hurling insults at the other side. Moderate, thoughtful people who can bridge the divide are disappearing just as they're needed most. Where have they gone? And how do we get them back?

It's not just that people lean towards one political side over another, that's not new. The change I see is that joining a team increasingly means total submission to its world view - people embrace an absurd kind of cabinet collective responsibility for literally millions of people who're notionally on their side. Admitting the other side might have a point is an act of treachery; daring to query your own side now makes you the enemy. This is the way of social media, where messages contain more tribal psychology than political discussion.

If you try to hold your ground in the middle, you may find yourself friendless and taking abuse from both sides. This is how the moderates, the bridge-builders, the peacemakers we need to return civility are driven out of the picture. It happens because the team players are trapped in a one-dimensional view of politics. Let me illustrate.

I mean, I know he's a moderate, but he is actually reading over the other guy's shoulder.
A range of views, from strongly against -5, through "meh" 0, to strongly for 5.

Pick any political hot topic. Let's say that views range from 5 (strongly in favour) to -5 (strongly against) with 0 in the middle. People lean one way or the other, but most are towards the middle. So the middle, holding a superiority of both numbers and common sense, should dominate the debate, right? Wrong.

The extremists, Flag Man and Placard Boy in red, are in a minority but they dominate because they're fired up to put in the hours to get their message out. Worse, TV and radio programmes endlessly invite them in because they're guaranteed to shout at each other. Apparently this makes good telly. Plus, having two opposing extremists allows the media to say it's balanced.

But it gets worse, because when most of what you hear is the noise from the extremists, they will polarise the whole debate and drive everyone out of the middle. Here's why. Although in reality people hold a range of views on the topic, it only looks like this if you can step back from the debate and get some perspective.  So I can see that, and you can see that. For the people trapped in the argument, they are stuck in the 1-dimensional world represented by the black line.

This is how the same debate looks to Flag Man:

If you are Flag Man standing at one extreme of the debate, everyone appears to be in a single group, united against you, siding with Placard Boy. He can't really distinguish between Mr Shrug who largely agrees with him but quibbles on some details, at -2, and Newspaper Reader who tends to disagree but will concede a few points, at 2. Trapped in his one-dimensional view, Flag Man at -5 sees all the blue moderates not as a range but as a group. And they seem to be in the same group as Placard Boy. Meanwhile, Placard Boy has an equal and opposite view.

So between them, Flag Man and Placard Boy will berate, insult, cajole and harass everyone in the middle until they either join a team or walk away. At least by joining a team, you halve the level of abuse. Worse, people on the extremes have an endless supply of simple, plausible arguments - they are in favour of all the good things, and against all the bad things. They can shout their simple message over and over, put it on T-shirts, mugs, memes, you name it. By contrast, showing that not all the good ideas are on one side, that things are a bit more complicated than that, is both more intellectually challenging and less appealing to your audience. The fact that it happens to be true, unfortunately, doesn't make it more persuasive.

By this process, the reasonable people in the middle are being driven away, especially on social media but increasingly in real life, too, and the population is sorting itself into two angry, deeply tribal, opposing teams.

So that's where so many moderates have gone - they've found themselves drawn into picking a team, perhaps against their better judgement, or else they've become fed up of all the idiots on both extremes raining abuse on them, and gone off to do something else. They find it easier not to say anything. And who can blame them? Unfortunately, we really need those people to stand up against the tribalists.

So this is the call to arms for everyone who finds themselves thinking "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that". Don't allow the time-rich anger-hamsters to silence you. Accept that their angry tribalism is caused by their one-dimensional thinking, wear their insults as a badge of honour, and get out there knowing that despite their media omni-presence, we out-number them. Things usually are a bit more complicated than that, and a healthy society needs people to debate civilly. Once people start dehumanising those who disagree then justifying violence, you know we're a long way down the wrong road.

Ghandi was respected for his dignified resolve to stand his ground, stay true to himself and not be bullied into either extreme. As role models go, you could do a lot worse.