Enemies of Voltaire

I’m not a big fan of football – the game also known as soccer. Maybe if I were, I would have heard about the case of Fabrice Muamba, the 23 year old Bolton Wanderer player who had a heart attack during a match on March 17th. He was immediately taken into care and, even though his heart stopped for approximately 78 minutes, he’s made a miraculous recovery and is now doing a lot better.

But this article is not about sports; it’s about politics. More specifically, the politics concerning a recent court decision regarding the case of Liam Stacey, a 21 year old student at Swansea University who has been sentenced to jail time for TUI: Tweeting Under the Influence.

You see, when Muamba went down, Stacey tweeted: “LOL. F*** Muamba he’s dead !!! #Haha“. And no, he did not censor the “F word” with asterisks, but this wasn’t the main issue. Since Muamba is from Africa, this comment can be considered, by some, as racist. Even though Stacey only had 523 followers, word got out fast about his tweet, probably due to users frantically searching for more information about the cardiac arrest incident. This ultimately led to a series of public message exchanges between Stacey and various Twitter users, mostly containing cuss words and a variety of provoked insults, which blew the fateful tweet out of proportion.

If you had managed to take a look at Stacey’s Twitter account before it was closed, you would have seen that he had a habit of being foulmouthed in general, probably without even being intoxicated. If you add his alcohol claims to this, combined with a tense 1-1 tie score and the instant messaging nature of Twitter, you have the ideal conditions for a PR disaster.

LiamStacey9Many users felt the need to report Stacey’s behaviour, in order to show their disapproval to his comments, either by flagging his tweet as spam or by actually reporting him to the police. Apparently, even Stan Collymore, a former striker of England’s national football team and a recent victim of online bullying, did whatever he could in order to bring Stacey to justice for being racist. And it worked.

Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days of imprisonment on the charge of “inciting racial hatred”. In addition to this, Swansea University suspended him, pending the conclusion of their disciplinary proceedings, and the Treorchy Rugby Club de-registered him as a player of their team. They all wanted to distance themselves from Stacey – as if they suddenly found out he was a leper, all because of his inconsiderate and rude public display of carelessness about the well-being of another person. But was all this really necessary?

On one side you have a young man who shared his thoughts with his online followers and is now finding his life is falling apart because some considered his comments to be extremely offensive. On the other side you have an angry mob of people aiming to punish those who mock others and do not share their own definition of sentimentality as part of the human condition. They want him to either be “perfect” like themselves, or to jail he must go. Right about here I feel the need of quoting: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Do not get me wrong; Stacey is not a person I would befriend or follow. I may choose to take the time to read (or skim) through the thoughts of certain people, even if I do not necessarily share their opinions, but only when I find something worthwhile in them. As far as I’m concerned, the drunken ravings of a 21 year old boy fall into the same category as a marketing press release: utter crap which is not worth spending my valuable time on.

Yet, some people decided to make it their life goal to punish Stacey for his thoughts. Not just by un-following him or flagging his tweets as a violation of Twitter’s Terms of Service, but by actually having him arrested and ultimately jailed, thus treating him with the same disregard for his well-being that he showed for Muamba’s. The judge who tried the case was openly affected by the footballer’s tragedy and the public outrage that tweet caused, even though the tweet itself did not affect Muamba’s health in any way. And although the swift court sentence was applauded by many, it also came as a surprise to those who manage to think even a little outside of the box.

If you can stop yourself, just for a minute, from feeling enraged and appalled by Stacey’s actions, you may be able to see that what he did, you have probably done too. It is generally called “thinking out loud” but, over here, in the land of the Web and instant messengers, we call it “trolling“. Crying “wolf” (or “racist” in this case) every time you hear something you consider offensive, is not helping the more serious cases of racism out there and, believe me, there are many. Plus, throwing a “troll” in jail for 2 months, depriving him of his university degree and eventually alienating him from his friends, will not make him a better person with respect for others, but a troll with a grudge.

When footballer Stan Collymore read some comments expressing concerns that this decision violates freedom of speech, he tweeted: “It starts with a word,it ends in a stabbing somewhere. That’s why it’s illegal. Soppy liberal tree huggers.Dont have a clue.” (he deleted this tweet the next day, perhaps to avoid showing intolerance to liberal tree huggers). There is a difference, though, between sharing your opinion, whatever that may be, and actually grabbing a weapon to kill someone you do not like. People who are simpleminded enough to fall for everything someone tells them, without using critical thinking or doing any research first, are doomed to be constantly led into bad decisions made for them by others, and paying the price.

StanCollymoreAfter the trial, Jim Brisbane, the chief crown prosecutor for CPS Cymru/Wales, stated: “Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media. We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law“. Gee whiz Batman, all the hate criminals in the world are running in fear now because you made an example out of a drunken 21 year old boy who was tweeting rubbish using his full name, thinking that only his friends were watching. There is a clear need for a reality check here.

It’s obvious that the justice system either has no idea what goes on online, or just doesn’t want to know until it comes knocking on their front door. Entire websites and forums are dedicated to trolling, while some make money out of ruining the lives of random persons by publicly humiliating them. Twitter is full of people who are hardcore racists and consider it funny to joke about ethnic identities. There are also many Facebook pages dedicated to demeaning specific individuals or even entire nations. And you know what… all these libels did not just appear by themselves. Real people living among us created them and, also, real people like you and me follow them and offer them endless unique visits (and high ad revenues).

Because racism or, to be more general, any type of discrimination, is a discrete characteristic of a dysfunctional, yet human, behaviour. Sometimes it can be really obvious, like fashion designer John Galliano ranting about Hebrews at a French café, ultimately costing him a £5,000 fine with no jail time. Other times it can be more covert, hidden behind fake smiles of famous actors in a £5 million ad campaign aiming to promote domestic tourism. But, of course, the worst cases are those which happen unconsciously, like when a company owner dismisses the CV of a Muslim or when someone changes sidewalks because they noticed a non-white person walking behind them.

With the above in mind, I believe verbal or text “offenders”, like Stacey, should be educated on appreciation and tolerance, instead of just being swept under the rug (=imprisoned). Additionally, a global interconnected society, as the Social Web is trying to become, can directly express its dismay to the perpetrators and seclude these users from their activities until they understand that, if they want to participate in the commons, they first need to learn to respect and “play nice” with others.

There will, of course, always be those who may seem unable to accept anything different than what they already believe in, which is mainly attributed to their present or past environment. The “adapt or die” principle still applies to them though, showing that they have surrounded themselves with the factors which are “feeding” their current state of mind. Tracing these factors back to their source and altering them can massively change the opinions that are considered as problematic by a specific, organised, society. But, bear in mind that, this can be used both in positive and negative ways. Just because many people are against someone’s opinion does not necessarily mean that opinion is globally invalid and that person should be sentenced, for example, to death… It possibly just means he expressed it to the wrong (intolerant) crowd.

In 1906, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, using the pseudonym “S.G. Tallentyre”, wrote a biography of Voltaire entitled “Friends of Voltaire”. This book contains the famous quote which, according to her, sums up Voltaire’s attitude: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it“. It is my opinion that only through openness and with the free exchange of information and thoughts, can we truly successfully understand and appreciate each other, our world, or even ourselves. Suppressing the human right to freedom of opinion only creates frustrated subgroups of people who feel wronged by a system that only listens to what it wants to hear.

At the end of it all, the aforementioned “witch hunt” achieved its goal and now the mob is pleased; but did the mob win? Only until someone finds the right chance and starts crying “witch” again, because, next time, they may be pointing at you.

Konstantinos Gkoutzis

Konstantinos Gkoutzis was born and raised in Athens, Greece. He is currently living in England, writing up his PhD.

Update (30/03/2012):

The legal team representing Liam Stacey appealed the sentencing decision but their appeal was dismissed.