Most readers (I guess) will know Old Holborn, one of the mainstays of the blogging and tweeting world, and many will be aware that his blog and twitter feed have disappeared, at least for the present, amidst a fog of threats and denunciations. According to reports, he has been interviewed by the police following a series of tweets concerning the Hillsborough disaster and the murder of Jamie Bulger, with the fall-out leading to a number of other twitter accounts disappearing, most notably the great Obo the Clown.
There really is little to debate here. The police investigation is an insult to freedom. The offensiveness of the tweets is immaterial. Indeed the phrasing of the police statement is indicative of how arbitrary our laws have become. The tweets were “inappropriate and offensive” we are told.
The first term is especially worrying. Whether something – anything – is appropriate is almost wholly conditional on the situation, and given that we are talking about one or more tweets, none of which can be described as threatening in the criminal sense, then the police have no legitimate function in investigating them. As to whether they were offensive – a dangerously elastic term – I shall concede that many people would be offended by the tweets, but, and here’s the big question, so what?
Taking offence cannot be equated to being criminally victimised. This is at least tacitly accepted by everyone, and there is no real attempt to apply legal sanctions across the board. Rather, certain types of offence-giving are singled out in a haphazard manner, and certain groups of offendees are given privileged status. The recent death of Maggie Thatcher has provided ample examples of acts and comments which, without stretching any definition, could be construed as offensive by many people, such as dancing in the streets in celebration of an old woman’s passing. Others would counter-claim that the tax-payer outlay for the funeral was offensive to them. Again, the apposite retort to issues of offensiveness, insofar as the law is concerned, is a big “so what?” Adults are supposed to be able to deal with such minor matters without resort to violence, whether of a direct kind or that which is inherent to police action.
It is worth remembering a point made by John Stuart Mill with regard to free speech; that it is the freedom to listen and make up one’s own mind, as much as the freedom to express one’s own opinions which must be defended.
Hubert Selby Jr’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” was subject to a famous obscenity trial in the 1960s, in which Professor George Catlin remarked: “I cannot imagine anything being obscene if this book isn’t.” Having read it in part, I have to agree. By my judgement, there is not a shred of artistic merit to be found within its covers, and our culture would not have lost a farthing had it been burnt by the hangman and consigned to ashes. However, another book of similar vintage, William S. Burroughs’ “The Naked Lunch”, could also be accused of obscenity. Here I would certainly argue that the work has artistic merit, so in order to save “The Naked Lunch” from the flames, I would be forced to protect “Last Exit” as well, having little confidence in the authorities to judge such things as I would, even accepting the legitimacy of judging at all.
In any case, much as I would counsel you all, dear readers, to find something else, something better, to read than “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, I cannot truly claim my exposure to it did me any harm, nor corrupted me in any discernible way, nor that my distaste for the work should rob you of the opportunity to make up your own mind. The resolution is simple: if the book offends, put it down and read no more. Likewise, if a twitter account offends, cease to follow that account. If more action than this is demanded by your conscience, by all means denounce the offender publicly, or take whatever other measures permissible within civil society to get your point across, but to run to the police and seek the use of the implicit violence of the state is quite another matter.