Barricading the bully pulpit

Nov 20, 2021 by

by Sebastian Milbank, The Critic:

The Online Harms Bill promises safety for children but protects the very elites who corrupt and harm the young.

When we talk about “British values” or sometimes in wilder flight of intellectual fancy, “Western values”, we’re generally directed to such fine notions as democracy, liberty, toleration and the rule of law. But when it comes to the primary purpose of the modern state, and when any kind of challenge or crisis looms, Hobbes rears his head and the great god “safety” removes liberty from her throne. Whilst security from attack or natural disaster has always been a primary purpose for any sort of political community, the ideal of “safety” goes well beyond the traditional understandings of what temporal authorities might be responsible for.

Nation states are increasingly technocratic bureaucracies rather than systems for communal self-organisation, and the expectation of what they might keep us safe from now extends not only to crime, disease, poverty and terrorism, but also now encompasses protecting us from the consequences of our own actions in relation to issues like drug addiction, mental health, unhealthy lifestyles, racial prejudice, and bullying and harassment online. This last is the subject of legislation shortly coming before parliament, known as the Online Safety Bill,

This legislation is the latest example of “safetyism” in action, offering the comforting illusion that imposing new legal duties on big tech to combat alleged “harassment” and empowering the police to devote yet further powers to investigate speech online will somehow change the toxic and radicalising nature of online discourse, and keep children safe from harm. The old canard of “liberty versus security” misses the point; what’s at work here is the bleeding away of authority from civil society, communities and families as we look to the central state to enforce our shrinking collection of social and moral norms.

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