Thursday, December 01, 2011

Jeremy Clarkson, technology and freedom

First they came for the apologists for terrorism. I did not speak up because I was not an apologist for terrorism. Then they came for disagreeable cretins with an internet connection - and I did not speak up because while I have an internet connection, I flattered myself that I did not belong in that category. But now they're coming for people who make shit jokes in poor taste, I have to confess I'm feeling distinctly edgy...

As Padraig Reidy says, this is just Clarkson being Clarkson - his point being, would anyone have even cared in a pre-Twitter, pre-YouTube age? His is an interesting take which asks whether democratic access to the means of communication might have inadvertently shrunk our liberty by creating instant publicity for outrageous behaviour that would have in a time of slower and more primitive communication be confined to a smaller audience?

There is something in this. There's two effects of technology that are bound to make anyone of a liberal disposition uneasy. One is that by removing the boundaries of bad behaviour, it also removes the more limited context in which such behaviour might have been more appropriately dealt with. For instance, the racist tram woman would and should have been barred from using the service on which she has demonstrated she is unable to behave.

Beyond this, perhaps a minor punishment for being drunk and disorderly or for breech of the peace. But the extensive publicity has created a climate in which this kind of limited action might be deemed insufficient, which brings me to this: extensive publicity for misdemeanors makes it increasingly likely that individual cases are more often to be treated as examples. "This is exactly the sort of thing we've been talking about and we must send a message here." Beware those who think the function of the law is to send messages. You'll be uncomfortable with this if you're uneasy as I am about the symbolic nature of punishment that is intrinsic to utilitarian theories of criminal justice.

But all of the above lends too much weight to the role of technology here. We have to make a clear division between detection and punishment and insist that what makes many of us really uncomfortable is the frankly draconian sentences being dished out for simply being a loud-mouthed fuckwit these days. Imagine a world where absolutely everyone who parked in the chevrons outside a primary school got a ticket. Police state? Only people like Jeremy Clarkson would argue this. The rest of us, I imagine, would think, "You don't want a forty quid fine? Well don't park there then!" Ok, I should speak for myself... But arrest and possible jail-time every time someone says something stupid and offensive? Maybe this should be a liberal rule of thumb: imagine a situation where there's a hundred per cent detection for a given crime. If the force of the law that is meted out in this thought experiment looks too draconian, then the law as it stands probably is.

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