HTLGI2012: on the edge

June 5, 2012

The phrase I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it, attributed to Voltaire, has entered the lexicon of liberal thinking.  Of course very few countries have ever sustained such as position, legislation or social pressure acts as a constraint.   Its a phrase I have always found ambitious.  Back in the 70s I and others marched on the streets of inner city areas in an attempt to stop the fascist and racist from having the right to speak words of great offence to marginalised communities.  In British law we now (and I think rightly) restrict freedom of speech in respect of racism.  That said I was also part of the protest, as a schoolboy, against the trial of Oz for obscenity.  OK I never liked Rupert Bear anyway but this was the modern day instantiation of the Lady Chatterly trial and it had to be fought.  So while I was opposed to the archaic offence of a conspiracy to corrupt public morals I then and now think it is right for the law to restrict offensive comments in respect of race.

This question was central to the first debate of the day with the appropriate title The Limits of Freedom.   My notes are below and I don't think any speaker took an absolutist position.  All accepted that some restriction is needed and that restriction has to be contextual.   I think by the way that context is most important argument against a Bill or Rights in the UK.  Roman Law has a tendency to institutionalise the judgement of a specific context (Think of the right to bear arms in the US if you want an example), while the evolutionary approach of the British Government always lags a generation or two (just look at the average judge) it can adapt and change, and that time lag is probably useful.   The heavy debate on the day was the right to restrict religious offence with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (who is to my mind one of the most intelligent columnists writing in the UK today) arguing that we have to take some restriction here.  I think the other speakers failed to engage with her argument here, jumping on a liberal bandwagon which gained the sympathy of the audience.

I asked about the switch reported in Searhlight last year from racism to culturalism in the UK, and if this required us to take a different approach.   I also asked (referencing catholic dogma) if a sin of omission in respect of abuse (failing to do something) was equally as bad as a sin of commission, namely the abuse itself.   I got the first of two complements then.  Yasmin said it was the most interesting question and that she would need to think and write about it.  The other was a steward who grabbed me on the way out and said I just wanted to thank you, you are a perennial souce of good questions.  To my mind the role of Philosophy is to frame questions, more than to provide answers so I was flattered by that.  Actually the most fun I have having here is that I am not on the platform, but I can listen and question anonymously from the audience.

The second session of the day too the theme of Dark Satanic Mills but really didn't address that.  We moved to the literati rather than the chattering classes of the press.  I was there because Mark Haddon of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nig fame was of the speakers.   The real subject was the idea of peril and its role in writing.  All of the others engage with nature, and in varying degrees see a sense of danger as enabling or stimulating their writing.  Mark talked about the magical places that you see from trains as you enter or leave a city on a train.  The margins or edge lands which belong no where.  I thought this was a wonderful image and reminded me of many such a trip where you really want the train to stop so that you explore, but these places are not safe, they are messy, partially inhabited, lost of “civilisation”.  

The common theme between both sessions was this idea of edges.  Where do we draw boundaries?  How do we manage the people who inhabit those edges?  How do we protect them from abuse or from abusing?  Meaning as Juarrero says exists in the gaps between things.  Insight also comes from the margins, from the discomfort that contextual thinking provides in marked contrast to the simplifications of the absolute.


Dark Satanic Mill

Jim Crace, Mark Haddon, Michael Symmons Roberts, Ted Hodgkinson<

Chairman is telling people what to say and trying to show off his knowledge of their works

Michael says that when working on poems walking net his house in the peak district is key, rhythm of the poem comes from the rhythm of the walk. 

Mark wants a different word like terrain which invokes land you get involv in.  Walking is like walking through the picture and separates you, but he runs thinking of nothing until he gets to the top of the wood, then he feels the numinous, wants to start a society for the appreciate of bad weather.  Also wild swimming or as people used to call it swimming

Jim walks but does not see as partof writing.  Safety wants peril  so has tended to site his novels outside of the UK as the English landscape does not have peril.  Talks about Watford gap with train, canal, and road.  Underneath is a roman road and a cattle track, there was peril so changing mind.  We ws looking for a field with ridge and furrow Pre enclosure.   Two footpaths to get there. Through wont wheat with to clear paths like a hot cross bun.  It had narrative and history, rather than being a dramatic landscape.


Mark talks about magical places that you see from train windows between city and country old tyres scrap metal etc.  powerful as children spent time escaping into them, hidden gardens.   Michael talks about book called edgelands which he is working on.  Namelessness of these places was a huge source of excitement.  Edgelands is full of places like that, sensitive barometers of economic change. 

Mark is reading biography of Sutcliffe and all of his places are edgelands both external

Michael saying that walking around the edgelands he found many stories like the red dye in a former Christ package, a calendar in the old foremans office and a note with a reminder of someone's party.  They are extraordinary places. 

Mark, landscape is created by human interaction with wilderness.   you we able to buy ice from walden pond in the uk many years.  Being in a landscape is about seeing a thing, it's not out ideas.   In The Gun the wear three things, one was a balcony, the other an image of kids with a pram taking a body of a deer across the ring road.   If you get the right images, someone else can do eve ideas later.

Jim talks about a London story To Light a Fire  where it is essential to light a fire.  If he kills the loved dog then he can use the intestines to warm his hands up.  One way he justiifies the killing is that dogs have no sense of before and after, but it is an essential aspect of human kind.

Mark: Readers have to be tempted into landscapes, the ecological argument is not worth having until people's connect.

Michael says that Manchester looks better in the rain.

Chair has to be told to open to audience, continued self indulgence


Do we as a so key overvalue rural over city landscape?   Michael says no, there is plenty of urban writing, if as an ideal then yes there is a romanticised vision of natural landscapes.  Edgelands seeks to correct that.

Jim says we have been destroying the natural thing, the street, that is the best thing about the city. You have a sense of she you are,  too many of the same shops no distinctions.

Mark says there is a moral issue and we should stand up for the green.  At the non green end we have the financial centres there you have no idea of location or belonging.  Feels rightful hostility towards that.

Asks about the title of the session.   Jim says he was talking about personal security.  References park in Texas with bears, rattlesnakes, poison ivy and mountain lions.  Landscape full of dangers not the case on the UK.  Mark says that he nearly killed himself by a run near Gospel pass and it snowed so the uk can be dangerous.  

Even his best friends would not accuse him of having an imagination.   Exporters are not the best poets.  Mark referencing Finnez.   Jim says that war poets with the odd exception we not good soldiers.

Jim talks about the shore school of writing, a subset of British melacolia that arises from the landscape



The Limits of Freedom

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown,  Dennis Marks,  Padraig Reid.  Henrietta Moore in the chair

Dennis starts taking the position that freedom of speech and freedom of communication are the same thing except were criminal law involved and wen then we should be circumspect.  Raises issue of incitement to religious and racial excitement as problematic.  Defending right for people to be offend and seek redress means you may offend others.   Uses example of a Sikh protest against a play which resulted in a request for a plY to be withdrawn.   Jewel of Median, novel of bride of he prophet suppressed due to threat of violence. In those cases freedom of expression must take
precedent.  The right not to be offended is very dubious.  Crucial is the context in which this happens, must not be proscriptive.  These things are culturally specific not universal.  In the uk criticism of religion is not criticism of the individual.  This is not the. Ask in India and Indonesia where the two are conflated. Burning the satanic verses is the same as hitler burning books of the Jews.

Yasmin quotes Rushdie before satanic verses said that art is always contextual.  She wants freedom to criticise Queen without heads getting chopped off – very new post Uganda.  But we are living in an unequal society.  References lack of Defense of livingstone saying that rich Jews would not vote for him, no one defended it.  References a book which is history of blasphemy which means that something's cannot be said and that includes how you talk about jews given the history.  She is worried about artist who uses pictures of her naked children.  Picture of naked queen with fucking bitch written over it (reference to south Africa) would we have tolerated it?   Reference to Tory  Councillor  tweeting would someone stone her to death.  The freedom of that Tory Councillor was not a priority.   She would never defend political censorship, but beyond that you cannot deliberately provoke when there are consequences (my words in summary here)

Padraig reminds us that it is only six years since YouTube, this moves arguments about censorship of major figures to envy day life.  Paul Chambers case, trainee accountant arranged to me et girl friend in Belfast and he tweeted that he would blow the airport sky high as it was closed and he couldn't get there.  Protocol determined it was passed up despite the fact that everyone realised its a joke.   He has now lost his job twice and is now branded as a terrorist.   The mechanism of censorship is bureaucracy.   Also we are getting mob censorship,  guy in Swansea lean stacy drunk tweeter a bad joke, it was retweeted and the south wales police.  He was sentenced to eight weeks in jail for going against the green.  People using the freedom of the Internet are willing to shut down that freedoms for others.


Dennis points out that law is created judges not roman law so no definitions of what abuse of free speech is.  Yasmin says that the west lie when they say they will defend free speech, she doesn't see much drama about labelling people as terrorists when they just look at things on the net.   Ultimately it's a question of power who controls the arts world?  Issue for Yasmin is where the lines are drawn.

Chair sakes about when we can legitimately provoke.  Padraig raises the fact that we have to allow patterns to emerge for control of Trolls etc.  references brimstone and treacle (potter play) censorship by the BBC.  Things have to evolve. 

Royal family exempt from freedom of information act.   Padraig says there is a small distinction to be made between secrecy and censorship.

I asked about culturalism and sins of omission, are your responsible for consequences.   Yasmin agrees on the first and wants to think about the second as its interesting.  Chair asks Dennis if an artist has responsibility for the consequences of what they say.  He says that we should legislate less. Yasmin raises lyrics about violence to women in rap music.  Dennis responds that its being around for some time, but Yasmin's says it is worse.  How do we culturally deal with this?  Padraig says we have to argue back and that space hs to be created in society.  Dennis says at we not getting access to the internal debate within Islam, this needs more coverage.


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