Grief tourism and freedom of speech

In today’s Liverpool Echo, we are told that some local schoolkids were “caught leaving obscene messages about Madeleine McCann on a social networking site” which have “led to one pupil … being investigated by horrified staff.”

They have been branded as “sick,” and other members of the group in question – Lets Not Give Up On Madeleine McCann – have “made calls for the boys to be banned” from it. The headteacher of Calderstones, Brian Davies, went further by saying he was “appalled” and demanding “to have a full apology put on to the page from the boy concerned.”

The Liverpool Echo refused to print even a hint of the message content today, so those who have not seen them for themselves cannot judge whether or not they are “sick” and “obscene.” However, regardless of this, I would still suggest that nobody is banned from anywhere, that no punishment is sought, and that any apology be entirely voluntary.

One thing we do know from the Echo is that the boy put this at the end of his message;

I actually do think she is alive, but i just wanna see how much hate mail I can get.

I don’t think that Madeleine is still alive, personally, but that is besides the point. The note on hate mail suggests that this boy is, in fact, much smarter than most people who join such groups.

The range of groups is extensive, and includes everything from seemingly innocent support groups for victims of attrocities, through vicious calls for some or other offender to receive execution or rot in hell, to utterly insane “Get … off Facebook” groups, demanding that some or other criminal who in fact isn’t on Facebook be removed from the site. The usual members of such groups fall into two categories, which do overlap; grief tourists and armchair vigilantes.

Grief tourists are people who will venture on the internet to leave overly personal and familiar messages of support or condolence for people that they have never met and had absolutely no connection with whatsoever. Armchair vigilantes are those who will go onto Facebook, turn on CAPS LOCK, and spew out an angry tirade of abuse and wanton incitement to violence against someone that – more often than not – they know nothing about the guilt or innocence of. Their messages often struggle to approach the level of semi-literate.

The Liverpool Echo tells us that Facebook doesn’t allow users to post conent that is “hateful, threatening, pornographic, or that contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence,” clearly referencing the offending schoolboys. The definition in such a case is questionable. Yet there is never so much as the blink of an eye over the content posted by the other side, which certainly is “hateful, threatening,” and contains “graphic or gratuitous violence.”

There are two reasons that such populist kow-towing to greif tourism needs to be stopped. One is that such an obvious double-standard demeans us as a society. You can judge the character of a civilisation by how it treats its worst and its lowest, and ne such a ours that allows incitement and violent fantasism as long as it is directed at “evil” people rather than “innocents” is clearly worth nothing morally.

The second is the basic principle of Freedom of Speech, as summed up by Charles Bradlaugh:

Without free speech no search for truth is possible… no discovery of truth is useful… Better a thousandfold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day, but the denial slays the life of the people, and entombs the hope of the race.

So, yes. Maybe making jokes about Madeleine McCann is “sick” or “obscene,” not the most mature of things to do. However, neither is using Facebook to live out demented fantasies of extreme violence or to mourn somebody whom you had no connection to in any way shape or form and would not have known existed without tabloids hungry for a “scoop.” But it should not be banned or censored.

The only thing that censorship suggests, rightly or wrongly, is that the opposing point of view has no weight behind it. If you cannot counter a point of view or an attitude you do not like without recourse to suppression, then it is very likely that your point of view bears no merit.

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