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My Opinion

On Freedom and Speech

Three events spurred on the final publication of this post, which has lived as various drafts on my blog for the better part of two years: This week, Sarah Palin accused American politicians of wearing (…) political correctness kind of like a suicide vest,” a group including Facebook launched theOnline Civil Courage Initiative, aimed at curbing online hate speech, and a proposal for a Code of Conduct for the PHP community was withdrawn after a flood of online rage.

I am not going to discuss Palin, Facebook, or the PHP community. Instead I’ll share some of my thoughts on Freedom of Speech, Hate Speech, and the idea of speech as an act. It should be pointed out that I come at this from the perspective of a philosopher, not a constitutional scholar or one of international law.

I invite you to take part in this conversation. Keep it civil and on topic.

The Right to Speak

At an event late last year, I took part in a lively discussion among friends about Codes of Conduct and how to enforce them. One of the participants brought up a common argument: “I will always defend your right to offend me.” This is a variant of the standard argument against any type of moderation, control, or censorship of speech, and it stems from a fundamental belief that Freedom of Speech is an absolute freedom:

Freedom of Speech means you can say whatever you want without fear of repercussions.

This belief stems from the core idea that every person has the right to hold their own beliefs and express those beliefs. Thus follows the conclusion that any attempt at moderating, controlling, or censoring speech is in fact an attempt at moderating, controlling, or censoring opinion.

We find clear-text versions of these ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 1.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 18.
Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Article 19.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Various countries also have their own, more specific, versions of these rights that grant further rights and freedoms.

Reading these definitions, in particular Article 19, it is easy to think that we do have the right to say whatever we want. And we do. However, that right neither trumps nor infringes upon other rights in the declaration. This, I think, is where the confusion arises and much of the current debate is stuck.

The Right to Safety

Articles 3,  5, 12, and 29(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are of import here:

Article 3.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Article 5.
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Article 12.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

Article 29. 
(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

What these rights lay out is a framework under which all humans are granted equal rights to protection; from challenges to their security; from mistreatment; from interference; and under which each human is responsible for protecting and upholding the rights of others.

There is an apparent juxtaposition here, between the rights to believe and say whatever you want, and the rights of the audience to be protected from acts that interfere with their security, which may result in mistreatment, etc.

I say “apparent,” because there is no conflict here. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a singular declaration, not a combination of individual articles. The right to expression is there as long as that expression does not interfere with any of the other rights granted the audience. Freedom of Speech is not the primary right; it is part of a larger whole that in totality provides us all with freedom.

Political Correctness

This is where critics moor their concerns over the “Tyranny of Political Correctness”. An example of this argument would be something like “I’m not able to say what I think because you use your claim of being oppressed by my speech as a tool to silence my valid opinions.”

In my view, this is a severe and deliberate misinterpretation of the idea of rights and protections. It malforms a specific set of rules set out to protect humans from direct infringements on their rights to safety and protection, and portrays it as an arbitrary tool used to infringe on the freedoms of expression of others.

When we talk about harmful speech, we are not typically referring to general expressions of opinion. Harmful speech is highly contextual, and occurs when a speech act is directed towards the recipient and the recipient’s status is changed because their rights are infringed upon.

Take the following situation:

During the recording of a reality TV show, a host, reveling in the excellence of a dance performance by an amateur, exclaims: “Shut up! I’ll stab you in the eye!”

In the context of the conversation, there is no perceived threat, and although the statement is somewhat odd, it is not an infringement on the rights of the recipient to life, liberty, and the security of person. In fact, in the context this statement can be interpreted as a strong and sincere compliment.

Now change the situation:

An unknown person sends a message to a person over social media stating “Shut up! I’ll stab you in the eye!”

In this context, the recipient has no way of knowing whether this is a random statement, a poor attempt at a joke, or a genuine threat of violence. In this case, one could argue that the recipient’s rights to life, liberty, and the security of person have been infringed upon because their status has changed. In the conversation, they are no longer a participant, but a possible target of future violence.

Free speech supporters will immediately stop here and say “The recipient can’t assume they are under threat here. Words are just words.” I disagree.

If a call is made to a public building with a statement suggesting a bomb or other violent attack, that statement will be taken at face value and precautions will be put in place. Whether or not the statement reflects a genuine intent to commit a violent act is irrelevant. The status of the people in the building in question has changed from people going about their business to possible targets of future violence. And the person calling in the statement will be under scrutiny and quite possibly prosecuted and convicted of uttering a threat.

In this circumstance, words are not just words. They are actions. And there is no substantive difference between this threat and one against a single person, issued over social media.

Speech Acts

To me, this all boils down to speech acts and their consequences. When we say or write words, we are not merely stringing syllables or letters together to form coherent meaningful sentences. We are enacting change on the world. When Romeo professes his love for Juliet, his words are not merely sounds, they are a tool used to project his feelings onto Juliet with the intent of changing her status from conversational partner or friend to romantic partner, and this can only happen if his words actively change the way she sees herself. This is an act in every sense of the word, as much as a promise, a commitment, a judgement, a command, is an act.

When we talk about speech and oppression, it is easy to fall into the “words are just words” trap because on the face of it, words seem harmless and can always be excused. In the end, only the speaker knows the true intent of their words, and any interpretation can be called a misinterpretation. This is a problem, but it is not an unsolvable one.

Where Is The Line?

When we look at situations in which a person claims words have infringed on their rights, we should start by looking at the speech act and its consequences. One way to do this is to ask questions:

  1. What was said?
  2. What was heard?
  3. What was the reaction of the recipient?
  4. What is the relationship between the speaker and the recipient?
  5. What was the context in which the utterance occurred?
  6. Can we objectively conclude that the recipient would be able to understand the intent of the speaker?
  7. Was the status of the recipient changed in a negative or significant way due to the utterance?

The purpose of these questions is to unpack the situation and investigate both what happened  (the saying / writing of the words), and what the consequences were (how did this change the status, or perceived status, of the recipient). A major part of this process is the acceptance of the recipient’s reaction and immediate response to ensure the person feels heard and respected, regardless of the eventual outcome. Likewise, the process must treat the speaker fairly and leave room for the reality that many conflicts are caused by misunderstandings or misinterpretations. It is important to defuse and de-escalate the situation to ensure any harm done is limited to the interaction in question and does not have secondary effects.

In the process of evaluating the situation, impartiality and objectivity are paramount qualities: Is the status change of the recipient objectively recognized, meaning if someone else in the same context and with the same relationship to the speaker was subjected to the same utterance, would their status change in the same way?

This last part is the most complex component, because it appears to be a challenge of empathy while in reality being a challenge of acceptance: When judging the consequences of a speech act, we cannot simply “put ourselves in the recipient’s shoes” because every person is unique, and we know little about their previous experiences and cannot see the world from their point of view. Instead we have to accept their disclosure as genuine, investigate what led to this reaction, and effort to generalize these prior experiences enough that we can make an impartial objective judgement.

For this to work, cool heads and a focus on de-escalation are paramount. As empathic creatures, we are programmed to react immediately and strongly to these types of situations, and we tend to make snap judgements based on our own personal experiences. To judge a situation objectively, we have to step outside ourselves and look at the situation from the outside, consulting with others in similar situations, and making every effort to map out how the group the recipient belongs to would react given a similar set of circumstances.

This in turn is a process with serious flaws. Objectors will argue that groups with specific agendas can hijack such processes to impose unjustifiable limitations on other groups. While this is true, it is also hard to pull off without everyone around seeing what is going on.

Take the example of harassment of women online through social media: An objective study of statements directed toward women online, which include threats of violence, sexual harassment, the publishing of personal information online, ongoing harassment of individuals, their friends, and their families, etc, will conclude these are direct violations of these women’s rights, including their rights to life, liberty, and the security of person. In spite of arguments from the speakers that it is their right to Freedom of Speech that is being infringed upon and that so-called “Social Justice Warriors” are conspiring against them, there is no question that the acts listed above are beyond the protections of “freedom of opinion”. These statements are not “just words”, they are deliberate acts with a deliberate desired consequence in mind: To change the status of the recipient from that of conversational partner to that of person in fear of their life and safety.

Freedom of Civilized Speech

Let me return to the statement from my friend:

“I will always defend your right to offend me.”

At this point I hope I’ve been able to explain why this statement is neither a challenge to the adoption of Codes of Conduct nor a necessary protection of Freedom of Speech. When we talk about moderating speech or eliminating hate speech online, we are not creating a proverbial “slippery slope” that will lead to outright censorship. We are codifying a framework under which a civil discourse can take place without participants having to fear attacks from others. I would argue Codes of Conduct are introduced to push us back up the slippery slope that brought us to a point where personal insults and threats of violence are considered an acceptable part of public discourse.

Most arguments against Codes of Conduct fly under the umbrella of protection of freedom of speech, but are in reality arguments stating that verbal attacks on discussion partners are not just expected, but required for a discourse to take place. Any attempt at keeping the conversation civil is thus branded as oppression and censorship in the name of “Political Correctness.” This is patently false. You do have the right to your own opinions, and you do have the right to voice those opinions in any way you want. You do not have the right to use attacks on other people or groups as a tool to silence them or put their opinions in a bad light. You do not have the right to infringe on other people’s right to partake in the discussion on an equal footing. You have a responsibility to ensure your speech does not turn into acts that change the status of your conversational partners, especially if that status change results in a removal of their rights.

If you have an argument you want to put forward, it has to be on topic, not an attack on another person or group of people. Discussions of matters of importance should be conducted in a civilized way that ensures every view is heard and the conversation is focussed on substance, not the subjects taking part.

Codes of Conduct are in place to protect everyone’s rights: They ensure a space in which a civil discourse can take place without anyone resorting to personal attacks and creating an environment that becomes inaccessible or actively hostile to participants or groups. Codes of Conduct ensure open spaces for freedom of expression.

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Lynda.com

Foundations of UX: Logic and Content – new lynda.com course

Foundations of UX: Logic and Content - new lynda.com course with Morten Rand-Hendriksen

How can we communicate clearly through design and development? That is the question I attempt to answer in my latest release from lynda.com titled Foundations of UX: Logic and Content. The course looks at communication, web design, and User Experience through the prism of philosophy to find out how we communicate and also how we can use logic and common sense to create meaningful user experiences and ensure that the message we try to communicate is received as intended.

More than just an introduction to logic and how humans and computers use it to understand the world this course outlines the foundational mindset I myself use whenever I approach a project, whether it be in design, development, or even project management or music. In preparing for the course I took a step outside myself so to speak to identify where and how my background in philosophy impacts the way I do things. The result is a course quite unlike anything I’ve ever done before that draws equally from philosophy and design and development practices to present a different way of thinking about what we create and how we create it. 

I would like you to watch this course more as a conversation than a list of techniques handed from me to you. The examples and ideas in the course are meant to spark (even in some cases provoke) further discussion both in your own mind and also with your colleagues, friends, and family, and help you rediscover communication in its purest form. And once you’re done watching, I’d love to take part in that conversation and take it further. So watch the course and leave your thoughts and ideas in the comments below and let’s explore logic, content, and communication together!

From the course description:

Foundations of UX: Logic and Content looks at how designers, developers, and content creators can use the ancient art of logic and reasoning to improve user experiences and facilitate communication. Morten Rand-Hendriksen looks at the principles of logic, how computer logic and human logic differ, and how these differences can be used to improve communication.

The core idea of logic is to create a system in which communication is clear, precise, and unambiguous, which is (or at least should be) the goal of any website or other communication.

Topics include:

  • How humans communicate
  • Comparing human and computer communication
  • Speaking logically
  • Using logical arguments
  • Understanding the limits of computer logic
  • Formatting information for humans
  • Communicating with logic
Categories
lynda.com blog posts

Why WordPress? New post on the lynda.com blog

As I slowly ease myself into my new role as a staff author at lynda.com I’ll be blogging regularly on the lynda.com blog. To keep you in the loop I’ll post excerpts of those articles here on Design is Philosophy with links to the full articles.

What makes WordPress a good solution? Why is it so popular? Regardless of the question, the answer is the same, and it can be boiled down to three simple words:

Because WordPress works.

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. Let me put it into context from the perspective of the three main users of WordPress: the end user, the site owner, and the designer/developer.

Read the full article at the lynda.com blog.

Categories
WordPress

Term Confusion: WordPress vs. WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com

Have you ever said or heard someone say “WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com”? If so, we need to talk.

What is the difference between WordPress, WordPress.org, and WordPress.com? Many things, but most importantly that these three terms refer to three entirely different entities. Let me explain.

Though I now work as a web designer, developer, and educator, my formal education is in philosophy with a speciality in philosophy of science and philosophy of language. One of the main focuses of philosophy in general is to find a way for people to communicate without confusion, ambiguity or misunderstanding.

What I’m seeing around me is a confusion and often misuse of the three terms “WordPress”, “WordPress.org” and “WordPress.com” that keeps being perpetuated and causes more confusion. So allow me to clarify the terms and hopefully put an end to this mess:

Here are the three terms, what they refer, and how they should be used correctly:

WordPress

Reference: A PHP based Open Source application used to publish websites and blogs on the web. WordPress powers millions of sites world wide.
Suggested use: “My website runs WordPress.

WordPress.org

Reference: The official website from which you can download WordPress and find themes, plugins, support forums and other information.
Suggested use: “If you want to download WordPress, go to WordPress.org.

WordPress.com

Reference: An online service running WordPress that offers free and paid solutions for building your own website or blog in a network.
Suggested use: “I used to have a WordPress.com site, but I’ve migrated to a self-hosted WordPress site for more control.

So what’s the big issue you ask?

Why am I bringing this up? Simple answer: I keep seeing people make the following comparison: “WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com”. What they mean is “WordPress as a self-hosted solution vs. WordPress.com”. Instead they say “The website where you can find information about and download WordPress vs. WordPress.com”. This is incorrect and confusing. Don’t believe me? Just go to the WordPress forums and search for “WordPress.org”. What you’ll find is a wild mix of people (incorrectly) referring to self-hosted WordPress sites and people (correctly) referring to features on WordPress.org itself.

OK. Give me a solution I can work with then.

The solution is simple: When referring to WordPress (the application), say “WordPress”. When referring to a self-hosted site running WordPress, say “WordPress self-hosted” or “self-hosted WordPress” or some variant. When referring to WordPress.com, say “WordPress.com”.

The biggest culprits here are authors, educators, and conference speakers, and I must admit when I started out I used to make the same mistake. So if we all just step up and start using the correct references, this whole mess will be sorted out in no time at all.

That is all.

Categories
Design is Philosophy

On the understanding of the word “blog”

According to Dictionary.com, the word “blog” is defined as

“an online diary; a personal chronological log of thoughts published on a Web page;”

This is but one of several definitions but they all contain the same basic elements; words like “personal”, “chronological”, “thoughts” and “diary”. But if you look around the web today or look at the blogs you normally follow, whether they be programming blogs like this one, gossip blogs, tech blogs or political blogs, I am sure you will agree that this classic definition doesn’t fit the bill. To take it to the extreme: How is The Huffington Post – widely lauded as being the best political blog for years running – a “personal chronological log of thoughts” or an “online diary”? Even sites with a strong personal element like Vancouver’s own Miss604 are hard to place under this description. In fact most well read “blogs” are more akin to online magazines than the definition they take their name from.

And that, my friends, strikes at the very heart of today’s question: Does the classic definition of the word “blog” actually fit the understanding of the word any more? Or has the blog evolved into something all together different that no longer fits within its definition? And more importantly, has a divide opened in the use and understanding of the word “blog” in which the internet literati on the one hand and the “commoner” on the other are in fact talking about or envisioning two entirely different things when they use it?

It is my contention that the term “blog” has in fact become a divided one whose meaning and subjective understanding differs so widely depending on the user and interpreter that communication between people placed on opposite sides of the divide for all intents and purposes is meaningless.

This all ties in to how we as humans interpret and understand words. If I say a word like “cat” or “coffee” to another person I am not merely referring to a physical representation of that animal or object, and neither is the understanding of the word by the listener a manifestation of the same. When a word is uttered, written or otherwise communicated, it is laden with understanding based on past history. For example, when I say the word “cat” without referring to a specific one, an image of a poofy orange and yellow cat with thick warm fur fills my mind. But to you it may be a skinny and ugly gray cat with sharp claws that smells. And based on these preconceptions our thoughts and understandings of the word can be widely different. Which is why we react differently to the same situation – we relate the current situation or communication to past events stored in our minds and make snap judgements based on them.

As is the case with the word “blog”. When I say “blog” a myriad of thoughts come to mind, mostly relating to social networking, information sharing, new media, news and current information. But that is because I can be counted in the loose group often referred to as the “internet literati” and because I work with blogs for a living. For the uninnitiated, the commoners, the ones outside of the blogosphere, the word “blog” more often than not has some very different connotations. In fact, to many a blog is little more than a virtual soap box for a vocal majority to share their rants and raves about things that to the common man or woman on the street seem irrelevant and uninteresting.

And that’s a serious problem: Whereas the uninnitiated loose definition of a blog does in fact fit the “classic” definition cited above, when we, the innitiated, and media in general refer to “blogs” and “the blogosphere” we are in fact talking about something else.

What they are referring to is a segmet of blogs that actually provide quality content on a constant basis – web sites that provide a platform for social, political and technological discussion, learning and advancement. Because although it is true that on the whole the majority of blogs out there today fit firmly in the category of “rants and raves about the morbidly irrelevant” there are sites dumped into this category that are relevant, important and informational.

The problem is that because these sites are all thrown together in one big group and there is no real demarkation between the classically defined blogs and those that provide relevant information, linguistically or otherwise, the uninnitiated are likely to write all blogs, regardless of actual value, off as irrelevant. And by doing so they are shutting out a massive and growing source of important information.

As a result, depending on the classification of the person you are talking to, telling them that you are a blogger or asking them to visit your blog can have very different results: While a member of the internet literati will understand that you probably have something of value on offer, an uninnitiated person will likely equate your statement to a confession that you are putting your diary, random photos or links to videos of people doing stupid things online. And they will judge you based on this first impression. Which is relevant because the majority of these “uninnitiated” are the people currently in power, whether it be your employer, your client or your local, municipal, provincial or federal elected representative.

What is needed is a clear demarkation between the classic blog and the one that goes beyond simply providing spurious content to provide actual valued material. In other words we need a new word.

I am curious to know what people in general think of when they hear or use the word “blog”. What is your understanding of that word and what kind of web site do you think of when you use it? Please post your thoughts in the comments below; I am very interested in hearing what you have to say.