The philosopher Kathleen Stock has produced a corker of a first column for UnHerd about the Online Safety Bill. As she points out in the opening paragraph, she’s one of the people whom the Bill will supposedly protect, but she thinks any attempt by the state to protect people from psychological distress is completely misguided and will inevitably have a chilling effect on free speech.
In virtue of my heretically archaic views about biology and the importance of women’s rights, I’m the target of quite a lot of rude online behaviour. The other day, for instance, I learnt I was lucky I hadn’t been hanged yet. So you might expect me to be emphatically in favour of attempts to remove what the Online Safety Bill calls “harmful communications” from the internet.
This isn’t the case. In fact, I think the Bill’s proposals on this kind of internet content are a dog’s dinner. If implemented, they will undoubtedly suppress desirable levels of freedom of expression on the internet, and cause more problems than they resolve.
Following scrutiny from the Joint Committee, the Bill — which received its second reading in the Commons yesterday — takes recent Law Commission proposals to introduce a “harm-based” communications offence, and places a duty of care on internet providers and websites to restrict content which meets the definition of this proposed offence, give or take a few tweaks. Specifically, they will be required to restrict any content where there’s a “real and substantial risk that it would cause harm to a likely audience”, the sender “intended to cause harm to a likely audience”, and the sender has “no reasonable excuse for sending the message”. Harm is defined as “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress”. What counts as a “likely audience” comprises whichever individual is reasonably foreseen as encountering that content.
The flaws here were also present within the Law Commission proposals that inspired the Bill. Take the criterion of “psychological harm amounting to at least serious distress”. As many have noted — though apparently not in Westminster — concepts such as “psychological harm” and “distress” are moving targets, semantically speaking, in the sense that the sort of thing they refer to changes over time. For instance, in a society whose primary concern is with the alleviation of negative experience, concepts associated with negative experiences tend to expand their semantic range and become increasingly diluted. So for instance, over time, the category of “abuse” has moved beyond physical events to include emotional ones as well; and the category of “trauma” has extended from atypically catastrophic life events to relatively common happenings like childbirth and bereavement.
At first glance, “experts discover new form of trauma!” looks reassuringly scientific, a bit like “experts discover new kind of dinosaur!”. But whereas the existence of a dinosaur is completely independent of the activities of the experts who discover it, this is not the case with trauma. The more generous experts are willing to be in their definitions, the more people will then count as traumatised; the more people who count as traumatised, the more people will define themselves in terms of membership of that group, and so become more able to exert political pressure on others — including upon the experts themselves, of course — to recognise the precise nuances of their suffering.
This is one of what philosopher Ian Hacking has called the “feedback loops” within psychological classification. Of course, this trajectory towards dilution is not inevitable, and partly depends on wider political sensibilities within a given society. In a culture which prioritises personal resilience towards negative experiences rather than their automatic accommodation, the sphere of traumatic events might ultimately contract rather than expand. But we don’t live in this kind of a place.
As with trauma, so with psychological distress. Things that were felt as minor ripples centuries ago, if at all — misgendering, for instance, or cultural appropriation, or the mere mention of a slur in quotation marks, or even just free speech arguments themselves — are now crushing blows for many. This isn’t to deny that strongly unpleasant feelings are generated, even as the category of distressing events and experiences expands. Feelings have a habit of rushing in to fill whatever gap has been culturally opened for them.
Worth reading in full.
Stop Press: Read the Free Speech Union’s press release setting out its concerns with the Bill and how it thinks it could be improved.
Stop Press 2: Read Daily Sceptic contributor Dr Frederick Attenborough’s paper for the Free Speech Union about the Online Safety Bill here.