Sean Quinn

About Sean Quinn

Sean is interested in solutions to political and social conflicts, and will complete a PhD at Wollongong in early 2017. He's no spring chicken and came to academic studies quite late, but was born in Northern Ireland in 1970, so he came to understand political conflicts quite early.

While moments of social change won through social media might seem worthwhile, what it enables is something else entirely.



Social Media, in the form of Facebook and Twitter, have been in the headlines this week (again). Firstly Facebook: The UK’s Court of Appeal hearing had found that procedures surrounding the gaoling of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as Tommy Robinson) was unsound. The finding of lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, hinged on Part 48 of 1981’s Contempt Rules, which demand that instances of contempt in “speech, writing, programme included in a cable programme service or other communication in whatever form, which is addressed to the public at large or any section of the public” are properly set out for defendants to respond to.

On a superficial look, Yaxley-Lennon’s hour-plus Facebook Live broadcast in which he made it clear that he was trying to confront those “he presented as defendants in an ongoing child sexual abuse case, made it clear it was his aim to identify them…listed the purported charges against them, and…encouraged the ‘mainstream media’ to harass a man he had earlier shown on camera” flagrantly ran afoul of the Leeds Court’s broadcasting ban. Yaxley-Lennon “has form” with contempt charges, his three-month suspended sentence was invoked, his previous assault and mortgage-fraud charges demonstrate a cavalier attitude to the rule of law, and the Leeds Judge’s additional ten-month sentence was warranted. Burnett and two other Appeal Court Judges disagreed.

Whatever one thinks of Yaxley-Lennon’s criminal convictions (past or present) and/or his supporters and the anti-Islam/anti-immigration cause he has chosen to become an activist over, there’s a fairly sound “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” argument that Yaxley-Lennon’s actions amount to the sort of political speech Britons across the political spectrum have accepted as “conventional” and “normal” (or at least socially normative), if only to allow the cleansing light of sound counterargument to fall upon something putrefying in obscurity’s darkness.

When technological or social innovation create new social norms, the catalyst for change and the change itself are typically viewed as disruptors or disruptive, even when the effects are later regarded as beneficial or “progress”.

To abuse Dickens: Leeds Court made “an ass” of itself and “the law” through authoritarian assumptions made about what is “social” and what is “media” on social media, and what is “broadcasting” when self-described “citizen journalists” like Yaxley-Lennon use social media platforms in disruptive ways under the banner of social activism and social responsibility, which Yaxley-Lennon as “Tommy Robinson” claims to do. Yaxley-Lennon is now free and “Tommy Robinson’s” supporters have jubilantly taken to the streets celebrating his and their victory over a censorious system.

Scorecard: Social Media = 1; intelligent, scholarly, experienced, and “appointed on merit” jurists = 0.

Secondly Twitter: Ms Angela Williamson has filed a complaint with Fair Work Australia (FWA) for unfair dismissal from a “Hobart-based government relations role” at Cricket Australia (CA) for her Tweets about the disappearance of surgical abortion services. Williamson claims “a senior member of the State Government disclosed the fact she had a pregnancy terminated”, a detail revealed in Williamson’s submission to the Tasmanian Government, and CA has revealed that Cricket Tasmania’s boss telephoned the Tasmanian Health Minister to apologise for Williamson’s “tweets that were critical of the State Government’s abortion stance”.

If the FWA, which the union movement considers unfairly stacked with anti-worker corporate board types, pays attention to Burnett’s recent exposition on “procedural fairness” it appears much may yet be revealed about Williamson’s interactions with CA and TasGov, including that a since-dismissed Liberal staff member appears to have used a “fake social media account to have Williamson reprimanded”. However this may put FWA Commissioners in invidious positions if it appears too close to corporations and government in the wake of the AFP’s referral of a staffer in Employment Minister Cash’s office to the DPP over their similarly tactical use of confidential information. At this point, CA is protesting that “it does not oppose free speech”. But it has fallen back on the dubious and childish corporate tactic employed by every overreaching authoritarian who has been challenged on the facts of their own behaviour: insisting that “the language used must be respectful”. (I’ll leave further commentary on CA’s tactic to the world’s most-loved “Irish Mother”, where it belongs!)

This analysis is not about the actions or beliefs of Yaxley-Lennon or Williamson. The controversial nature of their views is important because it’s context, as “political speech” puts it into a special category that liberal-democracies, through social convention, ancient legal rights and countless corporate codes tend not to approve authoritarian encroachments into. The issue is that the innovation of social media platforms has done what technological and economic innovations have always done:

  1. transformed understandings, social relations and, in so doing, challenged established social and institutional hierarchies;
  2. the social or institutional hierarchy has ignored history’s lessons to respond hastily, proscriptively and/or punitively;
  3. hierarchical authoritarianism has spectacularly backfired to erode the social standing and authority the hierarchy sought to conserve because some cobbled-together amendment or addition to existing “media policies” (or understanding of the new technology’s or behavioural mode’s impact) visibly conflicts with established codes of conduct, established legal precedent and/or binding socio-legal conventions;
  4. the public at large are left wondering whether the “strange blindness” caused by “minds…frozen in their ancestor’s point of view” that Alexis de Tocqueville reckoned caused the old French aristocracy to assist in their revolutionary overthrow might be all too present in today’s institutions.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no cyberutopian. Social media platforms have been socially transformative. They’ve transformed both simple and socially complex issues, made us rethink how we approach schoolyard and workplace bullying, transformed how politicians and public authorities communicate, and the way we elect them. The “constitutional” prudence I’m advocating would suggest that social and technological innovation and transformation are problematic, and that the possibilities for good or ill are almost always roughly equal. However it would also recognise that innovations and changes will always have to be adapted to because ignoring and attempting to suppress them leads to social tensions and pressures that can lead to unmanaged and revolutionary transformations that are typically much worse than some temporary egg on institutional faces.

There are few genuine revolutionaries. Society-wide change disrupts the settled patterns that inform individual behaviours and shape the ways that we interact with one another. Humans fundamentally are “creatures of habit”. Customs and social norms influence our action and behavioural patterns affect the ways that our brains process information and, consequently, the ways we learn physical and social skills to a degree that we’ve only recently come to appreciate. The wholesale disruptions of norms and customs can have major political consequences. Those who remember what happened after Hurricane Katrina shouldn’t have trouble imagining what can occur.

When societal changes broadly dislocate social norms, what is stripped out are the behavioural conventions and idiosyncratic rules we rely upon to produce socially harmonious interactions. When technological or social innovation create new social norms, the catalyst for change and the change itself are typically viewed as disruptors or disruptive, even when the effects of change and innovation are later regarded as beneficial or “progress”. Indeed as the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has demonstrated, our psychological responses to disruption and change are the most important predictors, informers and shapers of our basic moral and political dispositions. “Conservatives” by nature are intensely aware of how behavioural conventions and social norms promote social cohesion. They see social complexity; they reason that that complexity is often beyond the capacity of socio-political theorists to explain or replicate, and fear much cohesion and harmony would be lost if it had to be rationally re-articulated. “Progressives” seek social change. But often they, like conservatives, do not understand how limited the change they are seeking actually is. Progressives don’t really want revolutionary change because that would dislocate the social context against which the change they seek is measured. Or, to put it another way, neither conservatives nor progressives appreciate the conservatism of progressive politics and (typically) both are “strangely blind” to it.

Accepting that social and physical environments have much effect on psychosocial development as well as providing the context for it, is nothing new. Criminologists have used “nature vs nurture” questions to link data and theory for centuries. Some well, some ridiculously biased. Recently though research correlating of personality traits and political dispositions by Jonathan Haidt’s colleagues has attracted much attention, for obvious reasons. It won’t surprise many to learn that “social conservatives see more value in loyalty, authority and sanctity than do other groups” or that the “trait Openness is strongly positively associated with liberal attitudes and corresponding voting patterns”, or to see “Openness is the personality trait that matter most and that modest changes in this regionally-clustered trait could have swung the vote at the regional level” confirmed empirically. But Garretsen et. al.’s related finding, that “the relevance of psychological Openness solves the puzzle that UK districts predominantly voted for Leave” might surprise – what they found was that it was possible to show that the Leave vote concentrated in the English regions where trade “integration or globalisation” has had the most social impact.

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These are the British equivalents of the US’s “rust belt states”. The ones Trump won and, assuming working-class voters would remain Democrats, Clinton didn’t campaign in. The paradox here is, EU regional and economic policy was a significant factor in the limited industrial renewal these areas underwent after Thatcherite economic policy transformed Britain’s industrial towns and cities into “wasteland”. Yet researchers describe the Leave vote as a geographical “backlash” against the social disruptions these policies, especially the EU’s migrant worker policies, have caused, or are supposed to have caused.

Since the Brexit and Trump votes, it’s become normal to see “racism” and “populism” proffered in explanation. Both were undoubtedly factors but they too are responses of a sort to “social change”. And we learn much about both, and much more about the socioeconomic and demographic changes that have occurred in the communities to de-stigmatise the expression of anti-cosmopolitan preferences that would inevitably be so heard and criticised as racist and populist. Indeed the reluctance of liberals and social-democrats to think of Brexit and Trump (and maybe racism and populism) as socially over-determined outcomes and expressions of a multitude of causes, and engage with the society-wide and/or regionally-specific explanations offered by their advocates, is itself paradoxical given that liberal and social-democratic dispositions are much influenced by their adherents’ prioritisation of “fairness” and “openness” over “loyalty, authority and sanctity”, and that both dispositions tend to consider individual attitudes products of social arrangements, and changed attitudes the product of social change.

So can we “openly” and “fairly” consider Yaxley-Lennon’s and Williamson’s social media activism, and think of that as a starting point to more considered engagements with their arguments about the changes in the socio-legal, customary and behavioural environments that elicited their activism? Or at least a more considered approach than Leeds Crown Court and CA? They will both likely have to be reconsidered at retrials and hearings. More broadly, answers will very much depend on how individuals feel about causes, and whether sections of society take Coles’ recent policy reversals as indicative of broad corporate sensitivities that can be replicated with regard to social media’s here-to-stay social transformations. For me, childhood experiences in Northern Ireland probably have fed into the “constitutional prudence” pervasive in the Australia I grew up in. In other words, I’ve seen what half-arsed revolutionaries and their opponents’ reflexive responses can do. I’m bound by experience to extend what can be thought about and what may have to be politically supported into areas most find uncomfortable, and Yaxley-Lennon makes me uncomfortable. I’m fairly familiar with the “Luton Irish” community that he partly hails from, familiar with migration and migrants and with the casual and overt discriminations they face. I’ve got three daughters between 16 and 20; it’s a bundle that says: measured change beats fits and starts every time.

If customs and behavioural norms play significant roles in personality formation, the ability to acquire skills and process information (and we can, as Garretsen et. al. and Trump explainers have, infer regional political dispositions and a growing “cultural angst” from voting data), then it follows that innovation and social change have changed what is thought of as socially acceptable behaviour (the use of social media has normalised the broadcasting and/or narrowcasting of socio-political opinion and activism like few previous innovations) and the set of socially acceptable political dispositions (like Brexit, Trump or anger at TasGov’s indifference to women seeking to surgically terminate a pregnancy) has widened, demanded recognition and acted to have change politically and legally recognised.

Can we “openly” and “fairly” consider Yaxley-Lennon’s and Williamson’s social media activism? They will both likely have to be at retrials and hearings.

Sometimes, from historical standpoints, seemingly small technological innovations or economic developments (and, conversely, institutional attempts to conserve a particular normative or behavioural hierarchy through policy) are seen as catalysts for social transformations later described as “reformative” or “progress”. Those that witnessed Gorbachev’s institution of perestroika “reforms” witnessed such a cascade. Most likely view the USSR’s transformation as “progress”, while remembering it was a little frightening to watch for a few years. Few Westerners probably appreciate how frightening it must have been inside the behavioural cascade and the collapse of established modes of living, or the reasons why the histories written there subsequently tend not to view things entirely positively. Yet as creatures of habit, we can understand that it must have been an anxious time. Sometimes attempting to conserve or promote behavioural norms and conventions via policy backfires. The USA’s 1920-1933 experiments with alcohol prohibition are likely the best known but few probably know that a similar prohibitionist tendency in Gorbachev is remembered as a significant policy backfire in the USSR’s shambolic fall, or the counter-productivity of similar policies closer to home.

Spectacular backfires can be written-off as the work of ham-fisted moralisers, but their fears can be separated from their solipsistic policies. Societies have been designing systems to arrest and manage the impact of technological innovation and behavioural change for most of our history. That’s what “the government”, “the law” and “the market” are: institutional systems that slow down the pace of social change; designed to conserve the social values and behavioural conventions that legislators thought were “essential to” or “constitutive parts of” harmonious socio-political interactions while managing the sort of technological, psychosocial, socioeconomic and demographic dynamism that people acting, interacting, innovating, cooperating and exchanging ideas (as they are apt to do in societies) make inevitable.

However, the point is made distinct by its opposite: unmanaged, rapid and/or broad social re-orderings and reorientations strip out many of the conventions, customs and social cues that tell us which individual and institutional behaviours promote individual interests and social harmony and which don’t or mightn’t. Hence customs and behavioural norms help to inform and shape choice and behaviour in ways that stabilise the sort of socio-legal order that, in turn, secures individual choices in ways that make them socially and morally meaningful.

They achieve this without the need for the purposes of that order, hierarchy or convention to be fully explained. Sometimes, through experience or research, individuals come to understandings about how institutional and social hierarchies positively or negatively affect society. Sometimes these then concede that norms and conventions are worth conserving because they inform us about the “how to” questions that arise in the navigation of everyday relationships that simply exist; the “reasons for” their existence are so contingent, however, that they’re simply ineffable, or so obscure that most people have little need or desire to understand them more thoroughly as they go about their daily business in the ways they’re accustomed to.

This creates a number of socio-political paradoxes and perversities, as those in power have demonstrated lately, wherein institutions that many Australian conservatives would likely consider “progressive” or in thrall to “progressive politics” (to some degree) have behaved in ways that it is clearly possible to argue were ham-fisted attempts to conserve the authority of a “progressive” or “worthy” social hierarchy or convention. These attempts themselves have backfired spectacularly, and the spectacle has eroded or displaced the authority and normativity of the convention or hierarchy that the institutional response was supposed to conserve.

Yaxley-Lennon’s followers are emboldened. Williamson will have undoubtedly have a stock of new followers and supporters. Authorities are going to have to learn to carefully pick their battles with social media users and activists lest it becomes customary to treat their opinions disdainfully.


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