The King of Free Speech

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 1:29 pm, 7 September 2013]

[Edit May 2016: I’m much less impressed with Caroline Criado-Perez now I know she’s in with the TERFs and SWERFs. In fact even when I wrote this I wasn’t as impressed with her as I might have appeared. I was really taking issue with some sneering comments she made about ‘liberals’ and I wanted to set things straight without looking like a mansplaining sealion. Jennie Rigg said she approved of this post, so I think I succeeded.]

I’ve been thinking about writing something on liberalism, but I was going to wait until Andrew Hickey had finished his series on it. Now I’ve read Caroline Criado-Perez’s speech, and I know I’d deserve to be cursed if I came not to help the feminists against the mighty. I’m very suspicious of sentimentality (which I might explain in a future post if I have time), so I’m trying very hard not to be angry or heartbroken about what so many men have done to Caroline and other women. Instead, I’ll rigorously apply logical principles to prove why what these men have done is immoral and illiberal (and why these two words mean pretty much the same thing to me).

Liberalism begins with two questions:

  1. Do you want to be free?
  2. Do you want to harm other people?

If you answer Yes to 2, you’re probably a psychopath. Whether you end up in Broadmoor or 10 Downing Street, don’t expect me to come and visit you.

If you answer No to 1, you might still find that liberalism is the only way to get the freedom to be unfree in the way that suits you. If you want to submit to your god, you need freedom of religion so that you don’t have to submit to someone else’s. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that people who are openly into BDSM seem more likely to be in the Lib Dems than any other party.

If you answer Yes to 1 and No to 2, don’t get complacent. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’ is only a truism because it’s true.

Each of these two questions is actually reciprocal, and could be asked either or both ways. If you take away someone else’s freedom, why shouldn’t someone take away yours? If you harm someone else, why shouldn’t someone harm you? It turns out that if you want freedom for yourself, you have to allow the same freedom to everyone else. This leads to the most basic principle of liberalism:

Everyone should be free to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t harm others.

This principle is known for short as the harm principle. It can easily be applied to lots of things to see who is right. Threatening violence against women obviously breaks the principle and is NOT liberal or moral. Nobody can ever claim freedom of speech as a justification for harming people or threatening harm. Anyone who thinks they can is either a woolly thinker who hasn’t realised the contradiction in their own views, or a psychopath who really does want to hurt people.

That bit was nice and simple, but I can already imagine the whataboutists lining up. ‘Does the harm principle justify telling racist or sexist jokes that don’t threaten a specific individual with harm?’ No it doesn’t. ‘But isn’t it illiberal to take away a comedian’s freedom of speech? Aren’t liberals being woolly-minded and hypocritical when they complain about right-wing jokes?’ Again, no.

I insist that any apparent contradictions or failures of liberal principles are really caused by illiberal social structures that are not as natural or inevitable as they might seem. Racial and gender inequality are not natural. They are arbitrary social structures that privilege some people over others. Women and racial minorities are denied opportunities and access to resources, threatened with violence, and actually subjected to violence. People are really harmed by inequality. This is not liberal, and it has to stop before we can call Britain a liberal country. Racist and sexist language feeds into existing inequality, making it seem normal or inconsequential to privileged people, and threatening disadvantaged people with further harm. It’s really the inequality that is already built into society that makes racist and sexist words harmful, not the words themselves or the intentions or emotions of the people using them. If you want the freedom to tell racist or sexist jokes, you must realise that it’s racial and gender inequality that are taking away your freedom of speech, not liberals or feminists. Anyone who wants complete freedom of speech must first work to get rid of all inequality.

‘But if we do that, won’t you still be saying that we can’t say this or that in case it offends someone?’ No I won’t. Now that I’ve qualified it carefully by showing how speech can, and often does, break the harm principle, I can say something that is often misapplied to justify harmful speech: no-one can have the right to not be offended. Simply feeling offended by something that someone has said or done cannot logically count as harm. If it could, no-one would ever have any freedom because someone else could always say ‘please stop’. Allie Brosh has a real example of this: her school’s anti-harassment policy failed because it was founded on a contradiction, not on coherent principles (trying to solve problems by compromise is actually just as futile, but that’s for another time). Right-wingers appear to feel offended by immigration, same-sex marriage, and feminism. Clearly their dislike of something is not a good reason to stop other people from doing it, and this principle must be consistently applied to everyone or it’s no principle at all.

In a truly liberal society, which is only hypothetical because such a thing has never existed, it would be true that ‘words will never hurt me’. I believe we can achieve this if we all try hard enough. People who use ‘freedom of speech’ to justify harming others are not trying at all. Acting as if we already live in a liberal society when we don’t is actually very illiberal. Freedom has to be for everyone or no-one.

(And I really mean everyone, even though I’ve simplified this argument to the extent that it arbitrarily excludes bi, trans and disabled people, and probably lots of other people I haven’t even thought of. But the great thing about principles is that you can apply them to anything as long as you think carefully enough.)

Winter in Windsor part 4: Hot and Cold

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 12:44 pm, 1 July 2013]

I thought I’d finished this series (part 1, part 2, part 3), but there’s one more thing to say that I’m now not saving for anything else. It all started on 5 December 1642 with radical MP Henry Marten complaining about the Earl of Essex keeping his army in winter quarters at Windsor when parliamentary forces in Devon and Yorkshire were being defeated. The diary of Sir Simonds D’Ewes (British Library, Harleian MS 164, f. 243) reported Marten saying ‘that all these miseries proceeded from his slownes, that wee saw it was summer in Devonshire, summer in yorkeshire & onlie winter at Windsor; & therefore desired that wee might speedelie send to the Lord General to move forward’. The main point of this was to blame Essex for things that weren’t directly his fault, but there was also a gendered subtext that may have made the criticism more powerful. (more…)

Early Modern Documents: Credit and Coverture

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:28 am, 23 April 2013]

Previous posts in this series have covered sequestration (Parliament confiscating the estates of its enemies during the civil wars) and compounding (getting sequestered estates back by paying a fine). Sequestration led to lots of court cases, because although it was authorized by ordinances of Parliament, it was still technically illegal according to the Common Law. Parliament suppressed the law courts during the First Civil War, but they began to sit again when the war was over, creating opportunities to contest property rights, allegiance, and the legitimacy of the Long Parliament’s governing without the King. Many soldiers and officials were prosecuted for things they had done with the authority of Parliament. This led to the Indemnity Ordinance, which was implemented by the Indemnity Committee (I’ve written a brief guide to the committee and its records, now held by the UK National Archives). Ordinary civilians could also benefit from this if they were prosecuted for obeying Parliament. The majority of the petitions received by the committee were from tenants and debtors of sequestered delinquents who had paid the money they owed to the state and were sued for it by the original owner. This month’s document is one of these petitions. It adds an extra twist because it also involves the law of coverture. This denied married women the right to own property: with a few exceptions, any property a woman brought into a marriage was owned and controlled by her husband for the duration of the marriage. Mary Robinson from last month’s post owned an estate in her own right because she was a widow.


Early Modern Documents: Mary Robinson, delinquent

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:33 am, 20 March 2013]

Last month’s post was about sequestration (Parliament confiscating the estates of its enemies). Later in the First Civil War, Parliament developed a new system called compounding, which allowed sequestered delinquents to get their estates back if they paid a fine and swore an oath that they wouldn’t help the King. This process was managed by the Committee for Compounding. I’ve written a brief guide to the committee and its records which is available under CC-BY just like the other content on this blog.

This month’s documents are from the compounding case of Mary Robinson, a widow from Branston in Lincolnshire (no relation as far as I know – my Robinson ancestors were coal miners in Yorkshire, and didn’t move to Lincolnshire until the early 20th century). As usual, the quoted text is all in Crown Copyright and released under Open Government Licence.


Wharton Letters: 30 August 1642

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:00 am, 30 August 2012]

This post is part of a series of letters from parliamentary soldier Nehemiah Wharton during the English Civil War, which will be posted on the anniversary of the day they were written. For more information see the introduction. To find the rest of the series, use the “wharton letters” tag. The original of this letter is held by the UK National Archives, reference SP 16/491/138, ff. 345-6. The text of the letter is out of copyright. Images are available for non-commercial use only at Flickr (click on folio numbers for individual page images).

This time, more pillaging and deer poaching, now with added misogyny. Wharton also meets a former servant of the Willingham family.


Out Now: Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:10 am, 1 August 2012]

[Edit May 2016: My opinion of my book has changed several times. When I first started on the proposal I thought ‘this is the best thing ever’ but by the time I submitted the whole thing it was more like ‘at least I wrote the correct number of words by the deadline’. As this post suggests, I was quite pleased with it when it came out, although I secretly regretted giving the publisher carte blanche with the cover design. The one in my head is much better but I didn’t want to spend any of my own time or money on it. Before long I went through a phase of thinking the book was terrible and not wanting anyone to read it, but now I’ve come back to being reasonably satisfied with it. It could have been better but it could have been worse. Reviews from people who know that they’re talking about have mostly been favourable. There are enough different things in the book that generous reviewers can easily concentrate on the bits they like and politely ignore the rest. I agree with Stephen Roberts that there isn’t enough about horses in it, and with Peter Gaunt that I tried to do too much and should really have split it into two books, although we don’t quite agree on what those books should have been, and I’ve changed my mind about it myself. My work has now been cited in the Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution which I suppose makes it a small part of the canon and makes me definitely a ‘proper historian’.]

My first (and possibly last) peer-reviewed academic monograph, Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War: Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance, has now been published by Ashgate. More details of what it’s about below the cut, and there’s also an interesting response at Mercurius Politicus. You can find it at these places, and probably others:

[Edited 5/8/12: previews of the Kindle edition are now available at Amazon in the UK and US and are slightly longer than the PDF preview at Ashgate; also Erik Lund pointed out that the hardback is cheaper in Canada]

I understand that at those prices many people won’t be able to afford it, but if you’re a lecturer, please consider recommending it to your library and using it in your teaching. It has lots of cool ideas and useful facts that would fit into a wide variety of courses:


Below is a more detailed summary of what it’s all about:


A mystery solved

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:53 am, 7 June 2012]

[Edit May 2016: And that was that. Not really very exciting at all. As I said in the 2008 post, this leads back to the question of how the Romans decided the grammatical gender of inanimate objects, but as I said in my new note at the top of that post, it’s impossible to answer. Still, there’s no harm in being aware of gender issues.]

Back in 2006, not long after I started this blog, I quoted a passage from Robert Ward’s 1639 drill book, Anima’dversions of warre (p. 290):

Moreover if your horse by wresty, so as he cannot be put forwards; then let one take a Cat tyed by the tayle to a long pole, and when he goes backewards thrust the Cat towards his stones, where she may claw him, and forget not to threaten your horse with a terrible Noyse: or otherwise take a Hedgehog and tye him streight by one of his feete to the inside of the horses tayle, so that he may squeake and pricke him.

At the time, I couldn’t work out why the horse and the hedgehog are male but the cat is female. Then in 2008 I came up with a possible solution: the gender of the pronouns could be derived from the grammatical gender of the Latin nouns for those animals. Now I think I’ve got the answer: Ward copied the passage from Frederico Grisone, who originally wrote in Italian, which of course is closely related to Latin. I first noticed the similarity in an essay by Pia Cuneo, although her translation of the passage is modernized and loses the gendering of the pronouns (Cuneo, ‘Bit of Control‘, 152). This is from Thomas Blundeville’s English translation published in 1561:

Let a footma[n] stand behind you with a shrewed catte teyed at the one ende of a long pole with her belye upwarde, so as shee maye have her mouth & clawes at liberty. And when your horse doth stay or go backward, let him thrust the Catte betwixt his thyes so as she may scratche and bite him, somtime by the thighes, sometime by the rompe, and often times by the stones. But let the footman and al the standers by threaten the horse with a terrible noyse, and you shall see it will make him to goe as you woulde have him. And in so doing be ready to make much of him. Also the shirle crye of a hedgehog beinge strayt teyed by the foot under the Horses tayle, is a remedye of like force…

I don’t have access to the original Italian text, but it looks like Blundeville probably translated the pronouns a bit too literally. This translation would probably have been available to Ward, although he may have gone back to the original as the title page claims that Anima’dversions includes ‘Sundry Collections taken out of the most approved Authors, ancient and modern, either in Greeke. Latine. Italian. French. Spanish. Dutch, or English’. Blundeville didn’t give a gender for the hedgehog, so I’m not sure if Ward got that straight from Grisone or made it up himself.

So it doesn’t look like anyone consciously intended the cat to be female, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Lera Boroditsky has found that grammatical gender can influence people’s perceptions of real things (see summary at Babel’s Dawn). This effect could be even bigger when the gender of a noun is imported into a language like English that doesn’t normally have grammatical gender. And the maleness of the horse can’t be explained away at all because it’s explicitly described as having testicles. Blundeville refers to the horse as ‘he’ throughout his translation, but this isn’t just inheriting grammatical gender from Italian. Early in the book, Grisone discusses the best shapes and colours for dressage horses. In Blundeville’s translation, the description of the horse’s body includes ‘His stones & yard would be smal’, so this must be a stallion. There’s no discussion of why stallions are best for the manege or why mares or geldings apparently aren’t. It’s also interesting that although it has to be a stallion, it’s better if his testicles and penis are small.

That’s about all for my horses, war and gender project as it’s too hard and there are other things I want to do, but maybe I’ll revive it one day.

She-Ra: Sparkly Princess of Girliness

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:54 am, 19 November 2011]

[Edit May 2016: This is all fairly obvious stuff but I think it’s still worth saying. It’s not very different from what Anita Sarkeesian did with Feminist Frequency, but somehow I haven’t had any death threats. Is it cos I is a man?]

I promised more posts, but I didn’t promise that they’d be about history or that they’d be any good. As well as writing a book I’ve been watching some rubbish 80s TV. You can see some complete episodes of He-Man and She-Ra on YouTube. On one level this is harmless fun that you don’t have to think about, but there are also plenty of Fedex arrows that can be spotted without having to try too hard. Obviously with something called He-Man there are going to be gender issues, and there are going to be even more gender issues when they make what is basically (and almost certainly intended to be) ‘He-Man for girls’. The very existence of She-Ra signifies that He-Man itself wasn’t for girls and they weren’t supposed to be interested in it. That’s already a big ideological assumption, because why shouldn’t girls be interested in violent hypermasculine men, and conversely, why should boys be interested in that? There’s a whole other post that could be written on how the writers mistreated Teela, but for now let’s take it for granted that this is all ‘just how it was’ in the early 80s. Taking He-Man as a starting point, what does the realization of a ‘He-Man for girls’ tell us about how gender ideology was (or wasn’t) contested in that period?

The first thing to note is that the creators were really trying to avoid some of the more obvious stereotypes. He-Man was a very stereotypically muscular hypermasculine man, like a cross between Conan and Superman. A similarly hyperfeminine mirror image would be something like Barbie, but She-Ra is usually as strong, active and violent as He-Man (when I say violent I should point out that being 80s cartoon series aimed at fairly young children, the violence is quite gentle, but they’re still a whole lot more violent than My Little Pony or the Care Bears). The devil is in the detail. If we carefully compare the standard opening sequences of an episode of He-Man and an episode of She-Ra, we can see the subtle semiotics of gender differences at work.

First of all, the music is noticeably different. He-Man has a stirring orchestral theme but She-Ra gets some cheesy synth-pop that could have been produced by Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

Almost immediately we can see that She-Ra most definitely isn’t equal to He-Man:

I am Adam, prince of Eternia…

Adam/He-Man is an important person in his own right.

I am Adora, He-Man’s twin sister…

Adora/She-Ra is defined in relation to a man.

Fabulous secret powers were revealed to me…

Adam/He-Man has powers, which is not altogether surprising considering that he’s a superhero. Presumably his sister has the same powers too.

Fabulous secrets were revealed to me…

Oh no, she only has secrets. Despite the full title of the series being She-Ra: Princess of Power, the writers go out of their way to avoid Adora/She-Ra using the word ‘power’ during the opening sequence. The emphasis on secrets also connects with the stereotype that women are mysterious and impossible for men to understand.

the day I held aloft my magic sword and said: BY THE POWER OF GRAYSKULL!

He-Man has power and Castle Grayskull serves him.

the day I held aloft my sword and said: FOR THE HONOR OF GRAYSKULL!

She-Ra doesn’t have power, and she serves Castle Grayskull.

When Adam turns into He-Man he gets struck by lightning and looks active and confident.

When Adora turns into She-Ra she’s surrounded by swirls of sparkly glitter and looks more passive and slightly bemused.

Then they shout:


He-Man’s still got the power.


She-Ra still doesn’t got the power.

Then each one points hir sword at hir pet to transform it into a war mount.

He-Man points the tip of the sword at Cringer, and the magical beam shoots out of the tip. How much more phallic can you get? (Quite a bit more in Thundercats actually, where the Sword of Omens grows in size as Lion-O shouts ‘Thunder… thunder… thunder… thundercats HOOOOOOO!)

She-Ra holds her sword upright with the tip out of the top of the shot. The magical beam comes from an oval stone set into the hilt, which kind of resembles a vagina. (But then so does the Eye of Thundera, so I’m not sure what to make of that.)

He-Man rides an armoured tiger, which he describes as ‘the mighty Battlecat’. He then says ‘and I became He-Man, the most powerful man in the universe’ and punches the camera (just like Jack Regan in the titles of the fourth series of The Sweeney) before telling us who else shares his secret and who his enemies are.

She-Ra rides a winged unicorn with pink trappings. She doesn’t say or do anything between the pet transformation and telling us who shares her secret and who her enemies are.

So before the story even starts we’re primed to see She-Ra as more feminine and less powerful. In fact the stories make it fairly clear that She-Ra is just as physically strong as He-Man. And she gets some extra powers too. But wait, these extra powers are healing and empathy, which are stereotypically feminine and would probably be seen as emasculating if He-Man had them. The paradox is that having more powers effectively makes She-Ra appear inferior. (We can also infer that she has the supernatural power to stop anyone from ever seeing up her absurdly tiny and strangely physics-defying skirt, but that’s probably not ‘canon’.)

It could be worse (just google for the feminist reaction to the horrendous misogyny in the recent DC comics reboot) but it could be better. Looking at the relatively recent past should remind us that gender and patriarchy aren’t fixed or natural, but that we’re not making inevitable progress against them either.

Baywatch will continue

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:36 am, 16 October 2010]

[Edit May 2016: In the summer of 2010 I got really obsessed with Baywatch for no apparent reason. This post hints at some really bad decisions which, combined with bad luck, led to my book being less good than it could have been. I really should already have been writing it when I posted this. Bench Grass is still one of my favourite history blogs. Although it sometimes tends towards wildly eclectic speculation, and Erik doesn’t have the time or money to research all of his ideas thoroughly enough, it’s both more rigorous and more imaginative than my early blog posts that tended towards wildly eclectic speculation. Airminded was there before IaoD and is still there afterwards, and just as good as ever. I don’t think very much came of ReScript unless it was rebranded as something else. I’d forgotten that it existed. Pink Parts comic continued on and off for several years and is now officially on hiatus. I’m increasingly ambivalent about it because it honestly, accurately and uncritically represents everything about strippers, including their whorephobia. I now think my first PEP! article was rubbish but the second one still stands up quite well. It shows that people trained in the humanities can write competently about science and offer criticism that scientists might not think of. I’ve since started liking The Beatles. Andrew’s book was a great help when I decided to give them a fair hearing.]

It’s now four years since I started blogging. Last year I said I might stop today, but I’m not going to now. I need a blog to promote my forthcoming book, I’m not ready to do anything completely different yet, and blogging is still a useful way of trying out new ideas and keeping in touch with people. I’ve somehow gone for nearly three months without posting anything because I’ve been so busy. Before I can even start writing the book I have to work on a chapter for an edited collection and also finish building a roof. And there’s an article which is probably going to get revise and resubmit soon. Posts should get more regular from now on, but in the meantime, here are some links and news:

Whatever happened to Brilliana Harley?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 3:30 pm, 8 February 2010]

Someone just found this blog by Googling for “What happened to Lady Brilliana Harley in the English Civil War”. Well, Lady Brilliana Harley is famous for taking charge of the defence of her home when it was besieged by the king’s soldiers. This was something she did. She wasn’t a passive object that things just happened to. This is only one example, but I suspect that it’s not unusual to ask what happened to a woman during a war and to ask what a man did during a war. Actually both women and men do things and and have things done to them in war and peace. This is basic empirical fact. But language and culture bias us to think of men as active and women as passive.