Long before I was invited to evaluate people by who they were sexually attracted to, I came across Offa’s Dyke. It’s a wonderful set off earthworks that runs the whole length of Wales, marking the boundary between Wales and England. It stretches up to ten feet high and sixty foot wide in places. It’s very impressive.
I was a bit surprised when I moved to Brighton in the 90’s to come across Devil’s Dyke. It wasn’t really a dyke, (since it didn’t have a ditch one side of a raised hill) and I wondered who would have ever have wanted to attribute it to the devil anyway? But someone did, starting a legend that he had got involved in messing the hill around a long time ago, and the name stuck.
So far so good. The moment of real excitement came when a Facebook user decided to take a picture of a Brighton bus which carried as its destination in its front window the words ‘Devil’s Dyke”, and posted it as his check-in picture.
Almost immediately he was sent a warning from Facebook that his account had been suspended for posting hate speech.
He wrote back and wondered how the bus, or the destination the bus was going to, could possibly constitute ‘hate-speech.’
To begin with he got nowhere. Facebook refused to reply and the matter was closed. His account was suspended, his appeal rejected, that was that.
Enough laughter, mockery, outrage and publicity finally came to ears of Facebook, and it changed its mind. No doubt it was a good thing it changed its mind and restored the non-hateful account, but its explanation of what had happened left a chill behind.
It turns out that the first line of censorship Facebook uses is another computer. This computer is directed by certain algorithms, and works automatically. So there is no point in appealing to it, because it has been pre-decided by some not very well educated people, that there is only one meaning of the word dyke, and it is only used by hateful people. There is so much wrong with that that it’t not even worth beginning to unravel it but that’s not really the point.
In vain did the person who posted the bus picture explain that ‘Devil’s Dyke’ was a real place in Brighton, and that buses really had their destination there, and that no one thought anything of it except that it was a nice place to walk.
It turns out the it’s not just people who live in Brighton and Hove who are trying to get Facebook to make its algorithms a little more culturally sensitive. The residents of Plymouth are getting taken down if they ever refer to Plymouth Hoe.
My own immersion into American inner city culturally exotic patois has been a slow one. I don’t remember when I learnt that dyke could both refer to Offa’s great monument to resisting the ingenuity of Welsh sheep raiders, as well as ladies who liked each other; but I do know that it was only a few years ago that I discovered that American ‘people of colour’ called women they insufficiently respected ‘whores’, shortened with inelegance to ‘Ho”.
I personally don’t want to control how other people speak, or care much -f they engage in hate-speech, love-speech or neutral-speech. But I think I do mind that an American computer has been programmed to excommunicate me from social media if I take pictures of a Brighton bus or celebrate naval history.
The algorithms that threaten our public and social relationships, and the computers which ruthless reject our appeals and our pleas to allow our own culture to be recognised, threaten us with the mad. But there is a growing shrinking of the public space that seems to me also to be bad.
Biden replacing Trump was always going to involve a moment of reckoning as the progressive left took revenge on the resistant right. There seems to be no recognition that acts of revenge by the the left might be as morally suspect as supposed hate speech by the right. But for those who didn’t want the Twitter algorithms censoring and canceling them, Parler had offered a safe space to explore a diversity of opinions. Within minutes of Biden’s inauguration big tec made its move. Suddenly (to people as ignorant as I was) it turned out that Amazon owned most of the cloud space used by servers and so they closed Parler down literally overnight. Telegram was another platform not policed by the Left, and having cancelled Parler they went after it to do the same.
At Yale, petitions spring up overnight demanding the university withdraw degrees from any alumni who had worked with Trump. A campaign was started to threaten any business that offered employment to anyone who had worked for the Trump administration.
The last time cancelling of this sort happened on such a scale it took place in Soviet Russia in the decades after the Revolution. It started with job loss, social excommunication and cancel culture; moved on to ‘re-education’ and unconscious bias training, and ended up with Gulags, – labour and death camps, forty million people and more, liquidated by the State for wrong-think and hate crimes.
It was the same progressive movement of the Left, determined to build the same utopia of equality as today. Rather to our surprise we know it has started with (Devil’s) Dykes and (Plymouth) Ho’s, we just don’t know what or who has the power to slow or stop it.