Published in Issue 79 of The Leither, my article about Internet petitions
The UK government’s latest ‘Big Society’ initiative is inviting the web community to create online petitions. In an age where you’re empowered to create pop stars via your phone you can take direct political action via your keyboard. The most popular cause is restoring capital punishment. Once this petition reaches 100,000 signatures, MPs will be obliged to debate the issue. Critics are calling the scheme a PR exercise. Labour have said it could attract ‘crazy ideas’ (like the 70,000 who signed one of their e-petitions to sack Gordon Brown, or the millions who protested against Tony Blair’s destruction of Iraq for not possessing weapons of mass destruction).
One problem with online petitions is their online-ness. The internet is labyrinthine, impossible to regulate. A level playing field with no boundaries, it gives equal weight to everyone, from rational posters to the Cyberbullies who, according to recent research in America, plague 43% of teenagers. Online petitions tap into this uncharted wilderness beyond Firewalls, where people skulk behind nom-de-plumes.
The death penalty petition specifically targets the murderers of kids or police officers. Predictably enough, the Rupert Murdoch-owned The Sun trumpeted: ‘We’ll force MP vote on noose’. But bringing back the State’s right to kill criminals has been a political football for decades. More like a leaky tear gas canister. It is that very controversy that requires measured debate, not knee-jerk reactions. Unless you’re party to the same hotline with God shared by Blair and George Bush, it’s healthy to have an open, questioning mind.
There is a theorem that suggests an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite number of typewriters would eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. They’d also create every form of poisonous literature imaginable, from DIY instructions for roadside bombs to Mein Kampf.
That society would be better off without sociopaths is an emotive argument. But there are two sides to every coin. Since DNA evidence has become available in US trials, 15 death row inmates have been completely exonerated. If cop killers should hang, what about cops who kill? How about the death penalty for terrorists? Afghan insurgents are certainly terrorists to the widows of soldiers incinerated by homemade mines. To many locals they’re the same freedom fighters who were armed to the teeth by the West in the 80s. What about whoever programs the drone missiles that repeatedly vaporise whole swathes of civilian communities when they target insurgent/terrorist cells? The Belsen guards lynched by the liberating troops received little sympathy. They were war criminals. The Allied flyers who razed German cities in 1945 including countless nurseries, schools and hospitals received medals. There are just so many grey areas.
Parliamentary democracy is better than the alternatives (North Korea, Syria, Burma, Israel, Iran and on and on). But free speech also clogs the web with bigots and put Nick Griffin on Question Time. (And while we’re on the subject of fascist politicians with dodgy sidesheds, Adolf Hitler was voted into power).
Recently, Blair Scott, Communications Director for American Atheists, appeared on Rupert Murdoch’s US Fox station. His Inbox was bombarded with hate mail. Fox readers also festooned the Fox News Facebook page with posts. Here’s one sample: ‘I say kill them all and let them see for themselves that there is a God’. Other posters advocated the only fitting execution for non-Christians was nailing them to crosses. (Surely their gaffer would see this as tasteless in the extreme, not to mention a violation of his commandments – especially ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’?)
The Internet gives the oxygen of publicity to any idea. For every crass, misspelt statement scoffed at by readers with any degree of intelligence, some numbskull will agree with it, then hit the Facebook ‘share’ icon. Life and death is too complex for yes or no.
Irvine Welsh paraphrased that Alien tagline: ‘In Muirhouse, no one can hear you scream. Well, we can. We just dinnae gie a fuck’. The net allows anyone who doesn’t give a fuck to have their racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynistic or just plain spiteful messages instantly transmitted to any browser on the planet. There is a theorem that suggests if an infinite number of monkeys were given an infinite number of typewriters, they’d eventually produce the entire works of Shakespeare. They’d also create every form of poisonous literature imaginable, from DIY instructions for roadside bombs to Mein Kampf.