Many people will have been caught up in news about the England riots this week, including discussions about social media and the internet. We’ve seen the negative side of social media, with riots apparently being organised through different social networking sites, and we’ve seen the positive side of social media, with thousand upon thousands of messages of support for the police, sympathy for those injured or the families of those killed in the riots. We’ve seen blog after blog filled with reasons for the riots from all sides and from all perspectives. Now let’s look at a more dangerous and sinister side of media, and what can happen when people, some of them even professional journalists, have free reign to publish whatever biased opinion they care to.
The name Sean Boscott may be familiar to you. If not, let me fill you in. Sean Boscott is a young man from Brighton. On Monday, at the height of the London riots, he set up a Facebook page called “Supporting the Met Police against the London rioters”. The group was started at the right time, and with the right title. People joined in their droves. I was one of them, and the group grew and grew. An immediate refresh of the page would show another 30-40 members having joined. People were discussing events, coming together to condemn the rioters and looters, sharing information about where trouble was happening. There were a few posts thanking the group for information that had saved people from what would have been inevitable confrontations with looters and rioters. There were thousands of people moving from the Facebook page to Sean Boscott’s twitter page, where he’d set up a ‘name & shame’ hashtag so that pictures of looters and rioters, thieves and violent assaulters, arsonists and murderers released by the Metropolitan Police could be identified. And, notably, there was almost unanimous well-wishing from Sean Boscott and members of the group he had set up to the Malaysian student whose jaw was broken during the unrest, to the families of the three Asian men that were sadly killed in a hit & run in Birmingham, and to the countless others who had been negatively affected by the rioting.
So popular and helpful was this group, that it was mentioned by David Cameron in his speech on Wednesday, August 10th, when he praised “the million people on Facebook who’ve signed up to support the police”.
It is important to note here that Cameron praised the almost 1 million people that had joined up to support the police, and didn’t mention Sean Boscott once. As you can probably guess though, others did. In an attempt to mar Cameron’s name (not something I am in essence entirely opposed to), bloggers, with an unfortunately oft-precedented disregard for the individual and the truth and the sanctity of free speech, set about ‘digging up the dirt’ on Boscott. And there was dirt to be had.
Unsurprisingly, on Sean Boscott’s twitter page, @SeanBoscott, the tagline of which was “I tweet bad taste/offensive jokes from various sources too [sic] the masses!.Adult Humour not 4 wimps;”, they found bad taste and offensive jokes.
Now, in the name of full transparency, had the blogs said “The guy tweeted some offensive jokes and might not be the best person for Cameron to praise the Facebook page of”, or similar, I would have absolutely no issue with it. The problem is that instead of being transparent and honest in their reportage, they have been selective in their publication of Sean Boscott’s jokes and using the propaganda machine to its full, terrible potential, branded the man as a ‘racist’. We have seen only too well, recently, the abject immorality that can exist in the media and the imbalanced views that can be portrayed to the public as ‘truth’ in the name of furthering an agenda, and it should not be presumed that self-published blogs are any less capable of the same evils.
I will provide links to the offending blogs and publications at the bottom of this post, but I would like you, if you would, to read a more reasoned account of what happened and what Sean Boscott ‘did’, first.
At this point I will point out that I do not know Sean Boscott, that I am entirely unaffiliated with him, that I found some of his jokes equally as disgusting as others did, and that rather than vindicating Sean Boscott, my purpose in writing this blog post is to point out and hopefully go some way toward combatting 1: perpetuating the desire of some to make every issue about ‘race’, purely to get a ‘story’, and 2: the desire of some to abolish any offensive rhetoric, and thereby cease our ability to engage with and educate those that harbour prejudiced views.
So on to the jokes. Having been demonised, harangued , harassed and called all manner of names (racist and bigot are the ‘tamer’ ones) by those who have read these trash blogs and taken them at face-value, Sean Boscott’s twitter feed and Facebook pages and groups have now been taken down, so unfortunately I can’t give you the entirety of the feed in question. Upon reading the blogs though, you will see that they have branded him ‘racist’ and included only jokes about race that they found on Sean Boscott’s twitter feed. There were jokes on the feed (tasteless and offensive ones – let’s not forget that the tagline specifically said that this was the purpose of the feed prior to Sean Boscott using it to help with the identification of rioters) about race, sexist jokes about women, sick jokes about paedophilia and the death of Baby P. The kind of material you would expect to find on sites like ‘sickipedia’, made purely for ‘sick’ jokes to be posted.
So then I guess the question we all ask ourselves when we see people telling or laughing at ‘sick jokes’ is whether those jokes are indicative of an underlying prejudice. Is telling or laughing at a racist joke an inherently racist act? Is telling or laughing at a sexist joke an inherently sexist act? And if so, is it fair to brand Sean Boscott a racist, or is it only fair to go further and suggest that he is a racist, sexist man with proclivities toward child abuse and sexual abuse? Quite the leap of logic there, isn’t it? A lot harder to rationalise, and in my opinion the precise reason why these blogs have favoured such skewed reporting.
Emeritus Professor of Social and Political Science Christie Davies studied humour, and specifically ethnic humour, for most of his career. His major work on ethnic humour (Ethnic Humor Around the World: A Comparative Analysis [Paperback]), classifies ethnic jokes according to the stereotypes they express. He analyses jokes that depict groups as stupid, dirty, mean, canny, cowardly or militaristic and he argues that there is no link between prejudice and the enjoyment of such jokes. He says that “The general theme of these jokes is the pinning of some undesirable quality on a particular ethnic group in a comic way or to a ludicrous extent.” In a prior paper, Stupidity and Rationality: jokes from the iron cage (published in C. Powell and G.E.C. Paton, Humor in Society) he says that those who tell ethnic jokes do not necessarily believe that ethnic group members really possess the stereotypes depicted in the jokes. Davies suggests that Jewish jokes, for example, using stereotypes about money, are not necessarily anti-Semitic, for anti-Semites use devices other than humour to express their animosity. And he says “let us not also forget that jokes are first and foremost jokes”
This is just one social scientist, and there are many more with the same view. There are of course others with the opposing view that ethnic and racist jokes are indicative of racial prejudice, but since every paper or book I could find from this perspective started with the unsupported assumption that all racist jokes are indicative of an underlying, fundamentally racist mindset, and went on only to point out ways in which particular jokes could be considered racist, I consider them to be too methodologically flawed to use.
Conclude from that what you will. From my research on this issue and from personal experience, I conclude that jokes of any kind are not necessarily indicative of and underlying prejudice or ideology. I further conclude that when taken in context with an array of ‘sick jokes’ about all manner of subjects, one particular issue, such as race, or sexism, or child abuse, cannot and should not be depicted as the ideological make-up of the person telling them, unless we go as far as to condemn the person for ALL types of jokes told, and state that they ALL point to an underlying prejudice or sickness. But this is not what these blogs are doing. So what are they doing, and why?
What they are doing is quite simple, really. They are taking jokes from Sean Boscott’s twitter feed and posting them in blog posts which brand him a racist, refusing to acknowledge any other jokes about any other issues, and gleefully throwing out Sean Boscott insults and branding any opposing commenters on their blogs as “Sean Boscott apologists” or, worse “racist apologists”. I’m sure I can handle being called an apologist though, dear reader. Fear not. Additionally, they are creating a link between David Cameron and Sean Boscott’s jokes, or “racist views” as they are attempting to propagandise them, where none exists. One of them even openly admits in the comments of his own blog post that he originally used only the subset of jokes which are relevant if one’s goal is to paint Sean Boscott’s support for the Met Police as being indicative of a desire to see ethnic rioters brutalised.
Why? Well, let’s see. Given that many of the blogs are by left-leaning authors, and particularly given that one of them chose to title his post “David Cameron’s new best friend” it’s pretty evident. They seek to link David Cameron’s name to Sean Boscott’s jokes – jokes that would, if posted by any politician, spell instant political death. But Sean Boscott is not a politician, and in my opinion he has the right to publish as many sick jokes as he wants to. When he later goes on to do some good, by creating a Facebook that was evidently appreciated by almost a million, and by creating an avenue for criminals to be named and shamed on his twitter feed, if people feel the need to ‘dig’ at his past for whatever reason, he has the right to an absolute minimum of balanced and honest reporting that gives the full picture of the jokes he was tweeting, rather than agenda-driven drivel that paints him as a racist simply as a means toward striking at one';s political foes.
Here are a few examples of the titles and taglines of blog posts written about this:
“Supporting the Met police against the London rioters” group founder appears to have very questionable views on race. – This in the New Statesman, by a journalist (Tom Calvocoressi), no less. So much for balanced reporting.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for them to brought to people’s attention and they can make their own judgment.” said NorthBriton45, in the comments section of his own blog post on the matter. Quite right. But NorthBriton45 also says “It is true I only picked the racist jokes as it made the point succinctly.” and follows this up with “People can laugh at whatever they want. It does not mean I can’t mock knuckle-headed racists.” Again, and unsurprisingly, from a professional journalist. In the interest of full disclosure, NorthBriton45 has since edited the blog post to be more reflective of the truth. Unfortunately, given the nature of blogs and that ‘edited’ pages don’t trigger RSS feeds or email subscribers, it may be too little, too late. An empty gesture, rather than an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.
Even the Guardian, generally a well-regarded source of information, has picked up on Calvocoressi’s unfounded, unbalanced painting of Boscott as racist and linked it in their commentary on the riots. Shame on them.
Is it just me, or is this looking more and more like a case of a man – whose only crime was tweeting some tasteless and offensive jokes about all manner of subjects – now being defamed and harassed by professional journalists – far more aware of propaganda technique than the layman? It is certainly anything but unprecedented.
Here is one gem from Calvocoressi: “By all means get behind the police but reject the racist sentiments of people like this — who seem to be exploiting a volatile situation to divide British society at precisely the time when we should be doing anything but.”
Read it again.
Now, Sean Boscott’s Facebook page has since been taken down, as has his twitter page and just about any other page he had on the internet. Imagining the harassment he was probably receiving while these ‘journalists’ give not a second thought to the impact of their blog posts on his life, it is little wonder. All that remains is the skewed and heavily biased ‘clippings’ of content by Calvocoressi, NorthBriton45, and their ilk.
I was in that Facebook group. I refreshed often, I sat and watched the news at the same time, and I saw what was going on in there. Sean Boscott himself (not to mention many, many users) expressed deep concern for those injured in the riots. He expressed deep sympathy for the families of the Asian men mindlessly killed in Birmingham. And he mentioned particularly the Malaysian student who had his jaw broken when he was mugged and robbed by a (white) rioter. And all of this before any ‘digging’ into his past was done, and before anything about his past jokes was blogged. Here is Boscott speaking in a later interview about the latter incident:
“That video alone made me feel sick, and I… honestly… that could have come from any country but ours. That does not represent the UK. It made me feel sick to the core and again with my followers, we tried to track down information on that person and we found out which hospital they’re in and how they’re doing. There have been talks about setting up various sites to raise some sort of money or being able to say, you know, we’re not all like that. This is not our country. I believe the chap is a Malaysian student and suffered a broken jaw. There are so many people in this country that were appalled by that. And that really isn’t the UK. That’s not Britain today, it really isn’t.”
Now, you tell me what is more representative of a person’s mindset – an array of deliberately offensive and bad-taste jokes which the person in question acknowledges as such, or a seemingly colour-blind concern for people affected by real-life events? Are these the actions of a man who “seems to be exploiting a volatile situation to divide British society”? Perhaps Calvocoressi can reconcile the above statement of British unity and disgust for the actions of a white rioter towards an Asian bystander, with his accusation that Boscott was “exploiting a volatile situation in order to divide British society”, because I sure as hell can’t.
Maybe Calvocoressi should examine his own role in imposing or exaggerating the racial dimension to the riots and “exploiting a volatile situation in order to divide British society” by considering the impact, given what I have presented here, of selectively quoting Boscott’s tweets to suggest that David Cameron and the million people who expressed their support for the Met Police via the Facebook page were the unwitting dupes of a near-EDL troglodyte.
On another note, I am in no way an apologist for racist attitudes or behaviours, but if we seek to silence all rhetoric that could be considered racist, if we attempt to make thought and speech a crime, how are we to engage with and educate those that hold racist or prejudiced beliefs? If we push disgruntled mumblings about ethnic minorities (or relative majorities) and immigrants underground, how can we ever hope for an open and honest discourse that can combat ill-conceived ideas of inequality?
Of course, now Sean Boscott has been branded not only ‘racist’, but a ‘liar’ as well. In this interview he gave when contacted by Sun news, and on a Twitter/Facebook message, he stated that the ‘sick jokes’ were not his doing, that his twitter account had been hacked, and that the jokes were posted by his partner. Now, this may or may not be true. To appease those calling for Sean Boscott to be fired from his job and arrested, let’s presume that he lied. Let’s presume that these jokes were posted by him. It makes perfect sense to me that he would lie. He is being contacted by journalists who wish to interview him about allegations that he is racist. Let’s not beat about the bush here – this is life-wrecking stuff. So maybe he did lie. If he did, I would consider it to be silly, but certainly not the evil act it’s being portrayed as.
Let’s look at just some of the allegations levied against Boscott by just one poster on the New Statesman blog.
“1. These jokes are sick, racism, rape, having a go at disabled, jewish, you name it, it’s there on his twitter feed (and it’s still there, he has just protected his tweets). He says he’s been hacked but these offensive jokes go back months whilst at the same time, he has been talking to his mates, arranging his social life etc on the twitter feed. If his account has been hacked then its been hacked for a very long time with the person concerned pretending to look like Sean and steal Sean’s social life!”
The jokes are sick. I don’t think anyone would contest that. Thankfully this poster has included the array of subjects that the jokes touched on rather than being as biased and agenda-driven as the blog’s author evidently was. His ire then, seems to be levied at the fact that Sean Boscott ‘lied’ about having been hacked. As already mentioned, if this IS the case, it was silly, but understandable.
“2. What has wound up a lot of people is that Sean has started to use his million likes as some sort of mandate to talk to the press, pretending to represent a million people.”
Let’s be clear here. Sean didn’t use his million likes as a mandate to talk to the press. How absurd. He was, no doubt, contacted by the press and asked to give an interview. Which he did. And in which he noted how sickened he had been by the video played on the news and elsewhere of the Malaysian student Mohammad Asyraf Haziq being mugged and robbed by rioters.
“3. Sean has also used his Facebook page to promote racism – any questions about his tweets are immediately deleted and those posing the questions are banned. Yet there have been lots of threads on that page that are racist or are even supporting the EDL or BNP. Whilst some of these had been deleted, many racist comments have been left up for all to see.”
So in a group of ONE MILLION users, this guy blames Sean Boscott for racist remarks left by other Facebook users. Hopefully, pointing out the abject ignorance of this accusation is unnecessary. Just in case it’s not – and given the number of people who have blindly and willingly jumped on the “Sean Boscott is a racist” bandwagon, that may well be the case – anyone who has ever created a popular blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, MySpace page, forum, etc. will tell you how impossible it is to moderate something with even a couple of thousand users, let alone a million.
It is unfortunate that people do not stand back and attempt to objectively rationalise the information with which they are presented. More so that journalists and bloggers do not consider the effect of their actions on the lives of those they victimise in the name of one-upping a political foe.
I simply cannot overstate the danger of this kind of one-sided reporting. For the good of all of us, it must be stopped. We must refuse to believe propaganda, we must refuse to accept what we read without investigation, and we must call to account those who believe that refusing to provide good, objective, well-investigated reportage in pursuit of a personal agenda is acceptable. We must allow our view of prejudice and inequality to be dictated by fact and by our every-day encounters. We must tackle it where we can, and we must abjectly refuse to perpetuate it by seeing it where it does not exist. Only by tackling prejudice where it exists rather than creating it for our own ends can we combat it.
It is easy to see what has happened here, and I can only hope that this blog post might go some way to stopping it happening again, or at the very least bringing the immoral and biased, agenda-driven reporting of incidents like this one to the attention of readers. When Sean Boscott told the interviewer at Sun News “I don’t want to obviously put myself or my family in harm’s way”, he was probably talking about rioters and looters. It is likely that he never thought for one second that those putting him and his family in harm’s way would be bloggers and journalists.