Tumblring over Freedom of Expression

What does ‘freedom of expression’ mean? Does it mean you can say what you like, whenever you like, wherever you like, to whomever you like? No, it clearly doesn’t. We have to respect rights of our audience as an equal individual, and to respect their background and their feelings. That much is obvious, and that is why we have laws against, for example, racism, intolerance and incitement to hatred.

While freedom of expression doesn’t mean, to borrow a phrase, all of those things all of the time, it does mean some of those things some of the time. It means that, in a designated and delineated space, and with the proper caveats, it is okay to say things that some people may find offensive. We do it all the time. In the public arena, offensive material may be couched as humour, people may say offensive things within the remit of a debate, and intolerance may be permissible within the confines of religious practice.

In other words, there are ‘safe places’ and ‘safe times’ to say offensive things or perform offensive act, as they are recognised as legitimate within that context and a part of the experience. A benign example might be smoking. It is illegal to smoke in public indoors spaces in many countries, especially where people are working, and to do so in such a context would cause offence. However, it is okay for an actor to smoke on stage as part of play when the plot demands it.

Another example might be that of a comedian repeating a clearly racist joke as part of an ironic statement on societal norms. (It’s harder to convince me of that one, but several comedians have made millions treading that fine line.) Or a priest might profess that homosexuality is sinful as part of a sermon, a notion that would be labelled as intolerant if it came from the mouth of a politician.

One interesting area of ‘offence’ that has strayed into very muddy waters recently is that of the human body, particularly when naked, and whether or not images of it are offensive. And the example that stands out for me in that arena is that of Tumblr.


That it was possible to post pretty much anything was Tumblr’s strength, as it meant that the only limit was your imagination, the imagination of other users, and our ability to see how things could fit together.


I first became consciously aware of Tumblr when David Bowie, that great pioneer of personal freedom of expression, sadly passed away. Like all Bowie obsessives, I pored over every detail of every article about him, as a consequence of which I was led to the Tumblr The Villa of Ormen, the title of which refers to a lyric in Blackstar, the first single from his final album.

When I came across this blog, I was not only intrigued by the posts, which seemed to spring from a similar well to some of Bowie’s works, but I was immediately struck by the possibilities of a tumblr blog. The site seemed to have a free wheeling, anything goes vibe that, in the particular corner occupied by The Villa of Ormen and its ilk, showed me a new way of thinking, of connecting ideas and, importantly, of expressing them.

That it was possible to post pretty much anything was Tumblr’s strength, as it meant that the only limit was your imagination, the imagination of other users, and our ability to see how things could fit together.

More importantly, it was a space where, among a large group of primarily female users, I witnessed the human body, in its naked or semi clothed, being given a new perspective. Not one that was obsessed with physical sex, or even straight forward erotica, but where the human form, in all its glory, was allowed to be a metaphor for all forms of human expression and thought. A mirror, no less, for the human condition.

I fed off of this freedom and I grew as an individual and as an artist. More than that, it showed me a new way into my upcoming novel, Escape, and how to write the female co-lead. It even gave me direct ideas for the dream sequences in the novel, using images I found on countless blogs as ciphers to merge the past and the present in the mind of the male lead (here, here and here). In short, it was nothing short of an inspiration that continues even now.

So now I am more than a little disappointed to find that, owing to Tumblr having passed into the hands of Verizon as part of the death rattle of Yahoo!, all ‘pornography’ (defined as covering any depiction of “real-life human genitals”, or “female-presenting nipples”) will banned by December 17. To be able to meet that deadline The Guardian reports that an algorithm has been used to catch all forms of offensive material relating to the unclothed human form.

Of course, they mean to remove images and videos of sex, but it’s notoriously hard to write an algorithm that captures meaning and intention, as well as skin tone, and so, like Facebook before them, Tumblr has fallen foul of the limitations of automation. The consequence is that images such as, The Guardian reports, an oil painting of Christ wearing a loincloth, a still of ballet dancers and a drawing of Wonder Woman, have been caught in the net and are flagged for removal.

The sadness about this is that, as always, corporate groupthink has shown itself to be blinkered, limited, conservative and untrusting of humanity. The result is that the last sizeable bastion of freedom of expression on the internet, where bodily and sexual expression, shorn of pornographic connotations, could sit next to gothic imagery and the preoccupations of the mind, is suffering an agonising death of a thousand cuts.

Yes, Tumblr was imperfect, yes, there was too much actual porn and, yes, the hate speech is inexcusable, but does everything always have to be killed before we understand that special things are special only if we let them be? Freedom of expression keeps being threatened with curtailment because it can result in nasty things being heard or experienced, but ending freedom of expression to save our blushes risks something far worse – that we can no longer express ourselves at all, and we become nothing but automatons, fit only for algorithms.


Escape, the debut thriller, is out now.

No Way Home and Dear Lucifer and Other Stories are also out now.
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13/10/2019