Saturday 1 October 2016

O'Doherty: You can't legislate for online manners

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Revenge on the trolls: Senator Lorraine Higgins
Revenge on the trolls: Senator Lorraine Higgins
Wind of change: Brighton Beach could become smoke-free

Jew. Fag. Fat. Greasy. Bigot. Racist. Homophobe. Misogynist. Creep. Better off dead.

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That's a selection of some of the choicer comments lobbed in my general direction in the last week or so. And this has been a fairly quiet week.

What I didn't receive in the last seven days was a fervent hope that one day me and my 'Jew bitch wife' would one day be marched into the ovens. Nor was there an online poll about which disease I should die from (that was from last year - bowel disease was the winner, by the way. Which was nice.)

Did they cause me 'alarm and/or distress'?

No. Did they piss me off? Well, some did and some didn't. The more furious ones were, to be honest, almost grimly amusing. After all, what rational person sits down at their keyboard and bothers telling someone they never met and don't know just how much they hate them?

The answer, of course, is that no rational person would ever dream of doing such a thing - but social media isn't confined to rational people. In fact, we seem to be on a hyper-accelerated race to madness as keyboard kommandos seek to outdo each other with the luridly imaginative insults and slurs they can level against someone.

So, as someone well used to being on the receiving end of the ire of the socially inadequate, and as someone who has experience of being stuck in the tedious and time consuming exercise of having to deal with the gardaí about online threats (not my idea, by the way, the Indo decided that one guy was simply becoming too enthusiastic in his homicidal fantasies), I'm delighted to see Senator Lorraine Higgins finally call for tougher measures against online abuse, right? Wrong.

There are plenty of reasons for this, from civil liberties, freedom of expression and the simply unworkable nature of trying to control what people say about others.

But even more than that, we should all share an instinctive revulsion whenever a politician, even a lowly Senator like Higgins, whose career achievements seem to revolve around losing elections (four so far), wants to legislate personal behaviour.

Higgins has been vocal - oh Lord, how vocal she has been - about her ordeal at the hands of online nutters and some of the abuse she has received has been undeniably unpleasant - but then, most abuse is unpleasant, otherwise it wouldn't be very effective, would it?

So, poor Lorraine is distressed and she has joined forces with Mammy-in-Chief Frances Fitzgerald to come up with the Online Malicious Communications Bill which would make everyone lovely and pleasant to each other, because anything they posted which was considered to cause 'alarm or distress' would see their collars felt by the cops.

For starters, you can't make laws around such subjective emotions, nor should you. Also, there are already laws on the books, the Non-Fatal Offences Against The Person 1997, which cover genuine threats.

But even the concept of what is 'threatening' is so vague and misunderstood that it's both impossible and immoral to try to police it.

For example, you have the right to tell someone you wish they were dead. You don't have the right to say that you're going to kill them.

That's a fairly simple distinction which should be obvious to anyone with a functioning brain, or even a Senator. But when Nanny wraps her fingers around someone else's vocal chords and squeezes, we all lose our voice.

Like anyone else who has ever been on the receiving end of trollish tantrums, my reaction depends on my mood - sometimes I'll laugh it off. Sometimes I'll go completely mental and want to find the person and hurt them - badly. But that's the price we pay for living in a free society and it's a cheap price when compared to the idea of government regulating what we say.

We already have laws on the books and we don't need any more of them.

Then again we don't need Senators either.

BTW...

We know that the eternal-life fantasists of the anti-smoking lobby are prepared to do or say anything in their ­increasingly demented efforts to make everybody else think and behave like they do.

Of course, when you believe in the greater good, then anything is permissible. But while we're well used to anti-smoking scare stories, the local council in Brighton have actually managed to make a startling scientific discovery.

The council wants to ban smoking on their beaches, because that's what busy bodies do. But while defending this latest assault on individual liberty, one of the councillors appeared on Sky News from Brighton promenade to defend the ban.

It was right and proper, he said: "Because smoke lingers in the air."

On a beach? Is Brighton the only beach on the entire planet that exists in a state of complete atmospheric calm, with no wind?

The fact that he was making his points as fume spewing vans and lorries drove past made it even better - as did the sight of a light breeze tousling his hair as he spoke...

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