Jail for poor taste, and May and ‘autism’

The lobby of a building with a tiled floor with puddles of water on it, with a tiled wall at the back with a cream, light orange and light blue pattern. A stairway with a red guard rail rises on the right.Somebody has already been imprisoned for offences relating to the Grenfell Tower fire in west London, and it’s not someone who signed off on the dodgy cladding; no, it’s a local who had been helping fire-fighters and who then saw a dead body on the ground, likely someone who had jumped out of the burning building, and posted pictures of it on Facebook, asking if anyone knew who the body was which had been lying outside his flat for two hours. He was jailed for three months on Friday for two offences under the Communications Act, “sending by a public communications network an offending, indecent or obscene matter”. The prosecutor said the offences were of ‘high culpability’ because the family of the deceased had yet to be told of their relative’s death:

“What you have done by uploading those photos shows absolutely no respect to this poor victim. To show his face as he lies there is beyond words. That view is shared in the horror and disgust that is shown by those people that have uploaded messages on your profile. It is an aggravating feature that when people said to you ‘This is really sick, just call the police’ and ‘call the cops rather than post photos’, you didn’t. You didn’t remove the photos. These offences are so serious that a community order or financial penalty would not mark the seriousness of the offence.”

This case strikes me as typical of cases where somebody has been imprisoned for posting material on Facebook that offended other people, and its ‘illegality’ is determined by people’s reactions on Twitter or Facebook rather than any principle of law that might have existed beforehand. On one occasion, a man was imprisoned for taunting Manchester United supporters about the 1958 Munich plane crash, an event which would have taken place before some of today’s grandparents were born; on another, a woman was jailed for a tweet celebrating a British soldier’s death, and the ‘outrage’ it generated was used as evidence against her despite it being seen by only a few hundred people. It’s a principle of the law that ignorance of the law is no defence, but nobody can be expected to know a law that can be made up after the fact on a subjective basis. It’s also unjust that editors are not held to account for material published on paper in poor taste or which stirs up hatred, but a single tweet which just annoys people can land someone in jail.

Of course, there are laws prohibiting things like concealing a body and preventing them being buried. If there are other laws against interfering with a dead body, those laws should have been invoked here; perhaps they should be introduced if they do not already exist. However, to show someone’s face is not generally thought indecent — consider that the face of Che Guevara was shown to the world after he was killed. The bodies of the leaders of the Tamil Tigers, killed after capture by Sri Lankan government forces, were also broadcast on TV (as I recall, images were broadcast on British TV as well, so as to make a case against the Sri Lankan government). Either showing a dead body on a mass communication medium should be illegal, or not; it should not be legal for a broadcaster but illegal for anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account who might post on the spur of the moment and does not have a lawyer in house to consult.

Also in the last couple of days, people have been suggesting that Theresa May’s refusal to face the community in North Kensington reflects a lack of empathy typical of people with autistic spectrum disorders; Julian Assange and the Times columnist India Knight have been among those suggesting this. I have a simpler explanation: she’s just not someone who shows emotion readily (nobody would think that unusual of a man), and perhaps she knows very well that this area is politically hostile to her and that many locals would not be afraid to show it. Fingers were being pointed at the cladding, and the fact that it was applied for aesthetic reasons related to it being visible from two conservation areas (nowadays inhabited mostly by the wealthy) very quickly after the fire, as was the fact of Kensington and Chelsea borough council being permanently Tory, and this is a Labour-voting ward with a substantial minority-ethnic and Muslim population who saw her as the enemy; her staff would have seen this as a risk to her safety.

It’s not true, in any case, that lack of empathy, in the sense of not caring, is a symptom of autism. People empathise most readily with those they identify with; a grammar-school Tory from a provincial town would not really see the inner-city poor as “their people”. Certain pop psychologists like to talk of “faulty empathy circuits” in autistic people (and criminals), but people’s empathy circuits often function perfectly well when dealing with ‘their’ people and fail when confronted with those they deem threatening or inferior, hence the white southern Americans for whom lynching of their Black neighbours was entertainment. Empathy may be instinctive to some degree, but usually it is not a hard-wired neurological fact of life; it is something that one can choose to develop, or not.

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