24 Feb 2021
By Joe Smith
Presented by Scottish PEN, this event asked – ‘How offensive can poetry be?’ This question arose from a discussion regarding the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) programmes written to police the internet and remove ‘offensive’ language, words that may cause offence. Ruth Aylett, who has considerable knowledge of computing, suggested that AI was misnamed and should be called Automatic Decision Making or alternatively ‘stupid decisions made by stupid machines.’
This issue was deemed to be of significance to writers for a number of inter-related reasons. Writers can find themselves censored, connected online with people they don’t want to be connected to, their work spread to places they don’t want their work to go, and sometimes, as Leela Soma has found, they can even find their work blocked.
David Manderson opened the session by asking, ‘should poetry be offensive? Should it be inoffensive? Should poetry be anodyne?’ Writers were invited to submit work along these lines, and five authors read their work in this session.
Dave kicked off the historical section with writing that may not have escaped the algorithmic censor, or could potentially have been adversely affected by the surveillance programmes designed to police social media. This segment focused in the satirical writings of Dean Swift, politician and churchman who wrote A Modest Proposal, published in 1729. His pamphlet all too brazenly suggests that the problems of overpopulation and rising levels of indigence, can be solved through a nationally adopted policy of the poor selling their male babies (priced 8 shillings) after a year of fattening, for consumption at the dinner tables of the country’s ‘better off’. The political poem represents a quiet but forceful anger (a common theme across today’s event) that would, in all probability, have fallen foul of the electronic thought police and its digital incapability of reading satire.
Next up was Dr Mario Relich who talked about Daniel Defoe in the context of perceived ‘hate speech’. On a superficial level his political pamphlet, the Dissenters, could be read as ‘hate speech’, but is, upon closer examination in the context within which it was written, much more satirical. Machinic surveillance algorithms, it is argued, could never be programmed to read such complexity, subtlety and contextuality.
This was followed by Ruth Aylett, who begins by reminding us that in the previous section we heard about a political offence, pointing out however, that the political can often be personal. Women, she says are often the subject of offence, as social rules are strongly enforced upon them. Online, one single ‘swear’ word, can render your entire piece ‘offensive’. She reads her poem, an imagining of what would happen if Rosa Luxemburg met Marilyn Monroe and at the end asks, was the single (f) word more offensive than what happened to the women? The wonderful poetry read here will feature in the forthcoming collection called Pretty in Pink.
Leading Scottish poet Harry Josephine Giles (Josie), reads two poems, one short and one long, both about free speech. The City of Speech, is followed by The Reasonable People – a very powerful, epic poem, which is observationally acerbic and full of quiet anger. This one was new to me, but indications from the audience comments was that hearing Josie reading it aloud, made it all the more emotive. You can read this fabulous poem here.
Leela Soma discussed the work of the 81 year old poet Varavara Rao, an Indian Marxist who has been imprisoned no fewer than 25 times in the last 40 years, and was only yesterday released from prison on bail due to declining health. Leela read his poem When the moonlight moves into the dark. She followed this with an example of her own work, in the wonderful poem called Chintz.
This was a deeply thought-provoking event, which showcased poetry that addressed, in different ways, the dangers of language being taken out of context. It certainly raised serious questions about the potential impact of the dangers of ‘machinic surveillance’ designed to police the internet, and purge social media of words that have the potential to cause offence or be seen as forms of ‘hate crime’.
Following on from the previous nights’ discussion on dystopian literature, one wonders if anything at all ‘good’ can come from censorship by algorithmic machines.
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