A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech

Safe spaces need not be antagonistic to free speech – indeed, they can be a catalyst for full freedom of expression

On 23rd March I was delighted to take part in a debate at Goldsmiths College, hosted by the Goldsmiths Student PEN society, on the subject of ‘safe spaces’. It was an opportunity for me to iterate an argument I have been putting forward for a while: that perhaps ‘safe spaces’ are not the anti-intellectual, anti-free speech innovations that many free speech advocates take them to be.

You can listen to a recording of my speech on the player below, or on SoundCloud. The Goldsmiths PEN Facebook group carries photos of the event and full audio.

I will append the text of what I said to this post when I get a chance. I also plan to write a short summary of the debate and where I think it takes us. Despite my arguing, on this occasion, for the principle of safe spaces, I think the other speakers’ critiques of the particular wording of the Goldsmiths SU Safe Space policy was very persuasive. Continue reading “A Room of One’s Own? Safe spaces as an enabler of free speech”

Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon

How web developers choose to solve difficult technical problems has huge implications for free speech and democracy

There’s a new social nework on the block: Mastodon.

Or rather, it’s a social media technology. When we funnel all our conversations through the servers of a big company like Facebook or Twitter, we grant them enormous power. They control the extent of our privacy and of our free speech, and that power can be abused in ways that are both legal and not. The companies can sell our data to third parties (a process made much easier by the US Congress last week); they can reveal our data to the security agencies of nefarious regimes; and they can throttle or shut down our free speech if they so desire, without going via a court.

Decentralising the way in which we converse online means we can reclaim some of that power. A few years ago I posted a link to a blog post on Dave Winter’s Scripting News which sets out the practical and political importance of this idea: by spreading out, we’re harder to stop.

Mastodon is an open source project, so anyone can install it on a server and run a Mastodon ‘instance’. The software uses a principle called ‘federation’ to allow users to see messages posted on other instances of the software. So people who signed up on (say) mastodon.social can view and respond to messages posted to octagon.social (which is the version I signed up to with the username @robertsharp).

Problem solved, then? Not really. Continue reading “Free Speech, Identity and Mastodon”

I Supported These Two Publishers On Kickstarter And You Should Too

We all spend a lot of time moaning about the inequalities of ‘mainstream’ culture. Often, it is the small independents who counter this trend.

I’ve just made small donations to Kickstarter projects run by two UK-based, independent international publishers.

First: Make Influx Press Bigger and Better.

Influx are responsible for the sui generis creative non-fiction book Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson, a sweeping take on how architecture affects our minds and how our minds affect architecture. The book is great and (with hindsight) it would have made money for whoever published it. But that was by no means apparrent before publication and it was the Influx team who took the risk. I’m supporting their funding drive so that they can put more literature like that into the world… and of course to get one of their forthcoming publications as a ‘reward’ for my support. Continue reading “I Supported These Two Publishers On Kickstarter And You Should Too”

Statistician Solves Famous Mathematical Conjecture and Nobody Notices

The discovery was like a religious epiphany and a reward in itself

Via Wired, a delightful news story from Quanta Magazine about a retired statistician who solved a famous mathematical conjecture.

Thomas Royen, of Schwalbach am Taunus in Germany, solved the Gaussian Correlation Inequality conjecture (GCI), a problem that had eluded mathematicians since the 1950s. Royen’s breakthrough came by applying statistical methods and functions to a problem that others had been trying to solve using geometry. This has wonderful anecodtal value when we think about problem solving in general: someone with a different point of view was able to crack a conundrum that had eluded the most eminent of tenured mathematicians for two generations. Continue reading “Statistician Solves Famous Mathematical Conjecture and Nobody Notices”

Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?

Censorship of the painting would set a dangerous precedent that would disproportionately affect black artists

A controversy has erupted around the Whitney Biennial in New York. Protestors have demanded that a Dana Schutz painting of murder victim Emmett Till be removed from the exhibition with the further recommendation that it be “destroyed and not entered into and any museum or market”. This is a clear call for censorship.

Emmett Till was an 14 year old African-American, murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman. His killers were acquitted of the crime by an all-white jury.

Till’s mother Mamie famously requested an open casket, so the terrible disfigurement of her son could be witnessed by everyone. This decision exposed to the world the brutality of lynchings and lack of civil rights for black people. Continue reading “Open Casket: Cultural Appropriation or Secular Blasphemy?”

On Killfies and Campaign Photos

What photo will the media use in the event of your untimely death?

Via @Documentally’s excellent weekly newsletter, here’s a short Observer article by Eva Wiseman on the phenomenon of ‘killfies’. This is where a person’s attempt to take a selfie of themselves gets them killed.

Which led me to think, maybe we’ve been getting our fears wrong all along? What if the way technology destroys humanity is not with an uprising of robots, of toasters turning against their masters, of self-driving cars choosing a road trip less travelled, but with something as simple as a reflection? There is something so unashamedly ancient in these deaths that it almost seems gauche to point it out. The sirens singing on the rock, beckoning sailors towards their comprehensive display of filters. The boys drowning in their own image. The recording of a risk, the risk itself. …

And once you’ve learned about killfies, it’s very hard to unsee them. Every Instagram post suddenly reads a little like a suicide note.

Or, as a candidate for ‘the photo of you the media will use when they report on your untimely death’, the darker side to selfies that I wrote about a few years ago. In bygone eras, these images were usually school photos or wedding day pictures. Now they tend to be self-portaits. Continue reading “On Killfies and Campaign Photos”

Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please

Let’s lob literary ordinance into Iran

In a report about Ayatollah Khameni’s regressive and anti-Semitic views on feminism, this nugget:

Earlier this month, Khamenei issued a speech warning that “cultural attacks by the enemy are more dangerous than military attacks”, hitting out at human rights groups and think tanks.

The speech itself concerns the Iran-Iraq war. Khameni believes that intensive discussion and celebration of the ‘Sacred Defence Era’ will culturally fortify Iranians against the pernicious influence of Iran’s enemies. His definition of ‘culture’ is of course extremely narrow. But there is nevertheless something refreshing about the idea that cultural influence is more important and effective than military force! Continue reading “Fighting the Fundamentalists: More Books Please”

Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown

When institutions abuse the trust placed in them, they become brittle and expose themselves to conspiracy theorists and demagogues

One thing I like to do on this blog is note the small and less spectacular effects of human rights violations on our democracy.

Too often, when we discuss government wrong-doing, or some power-grabbing piece of legislation, we speak in grand terms about how it could lead to the breakdown of democracy and the onset of totalitarianism. We always talk about the end state—Nineteen Eighty-Four, usually—which conveys the implicit message that the way-points in that journey are not terrible in-and-of themselves. Continue reading “Whitehouse wiretap smear: GCHQ has reaped what it has sown”

Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction

In 1929, Ronald Knox, a clergyman and literary critic, set out a list of rules for detective fiction.

Watson: Sherlock, could it be…

Sherlock: It’s never twins.

I wrote a very short piece for Multiple Matters, the official magazine of TAMBA.


Twins are a irresistible plot device, particularly for science fiction and fantasy writers who can have their characters appear to be omnipresent, to teleport, or even return to life. The ploy works for the same reason that random people obsess over the multiples they meet at school or in a buggy at the shopping centre: twins are are part of our natural world, but they are also somehow magical. Continue reading “Multiple Matters: Twins in Fiction”

How Do We Make Diversity Scale?

How does the great work done by indies to platform more diverse voices scale to the larger publishing and production companies?

It is the Oscar’s this weekend and La La Land is favoured to win Best Picture.

In this op-ed piece for the Independent, Amrou Al-Kadhi laments the way Arab characters exist on the periphery of most Western cinema.

Stories onscreen have the rare ability to arouse empathy for diverse characters in audiences across the world, so leaving out Arab and Muslim voices in such a context of global Islamophobia is particularly damaging. With masterful directors, sublime works like Moonlight happen; now the story of gay black masculinity in the Miami ghetto has become that much more relatable and mainstream. It is my genuine belief that if the TV and film industry had been more diligent in representing Arab characters – with all our humane, complex, intersectional three-dimensionality – xenophobia would not be as pandemic as it is today.

Reading this challenge to the film industry, I naturally began to think of how the literary community measures up on the same issue. Although I don’t exactly work in the publishing industry, English PEN works closely with publishers and writers, and the debate over who gets published and what gets published is always close and loud. Continue reading “How Do We Make Diversity Scale?”