by Christina Neuwirth Free speech is not a finite resource. ”But attention is,” says my friend Graham over a plate of fried breakfast at the City Cafe. We’ve been talking about safe spaces. Padraig Reidy’s piece brings up the commodification of free speech and free speech used as a weapon – and I do agree, free speech should […]February 27, 2015
by Christina Neuwirth
Free speech is not a finite resource. ”But attention is,” says my friend Graham over a plate of fried breakfast at the City Cafe. We’ve been talking about safe spaces. Padraig Reidy’s piece brings up the commodification of free speech and free speech used as a weapon – and I do agree, free speech should be infinite. But: Platforms are not infinite. There are five seats to be filled at a panel, not an infinite set of seats. I can’t follow everybody on Twitter because I won’t be able to keep up; I curate my timeline, we choose people to speak at panels. There is a discrepancy between how much free speech we can put out into the ether, and how much free speech people can consume.
Do I think a student should be able to
petition against a pick-up artist speaking at their University? Yes. Do I think pick-up artists like Dapper Laughs are dicks and perpetuate a culture of objectification that is demeaning and dehumanising and encouraging violence? Yes. But shouting €˜Shut up’ doesn’t make them go away. So I think that, while taking their platform is the first step, there needs to be a discussion to follow that up. A debate. As a follow-up step, we need to say, look, enough people were clearly outraged about this, but banning him from speaking is not enough. Let’s go further, and talk about why objectifying 50% of the human population is a bad thing. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with teaching people to “pick up girls”.
There are a lot of discussions I don’t want to have. I don’t want to read a forum run by people who think that “the gays” on “the internet” are corrupting their children. It makes me angry but leaves me powerless, hopeless, and feeling glib about the future of humanity, and I’d rather spend my free time watching the Bake-Off.
There are discussions I want to partake in, and it is my right to curate them. At our event last Friday, we spoke about respecting other people’s opinions, and Alan Bissett said, “But what if their opinions are horseshit?” In that same vein, for the sake of my own sanity I’d rather not spend time reading an online echo chamber of people whose opinions are so fundamentally opposed to what I believe in. But I will spend a lot of time on blogs that, for example, pick apart problems with male entitlement, and then I’ll spend even more time talking to my friends about what I read on those blogs. I can choose what discussions I think are worthwhile, and what discussions I don’t want to have. There is a finite amount of attention to be spent, and I can actively decide what to focus that attention on.
The problem arises when other people choose these things for us, and, more specifically, when simple economics choose these things. Yes, everyone has free speech, and we can all say what we think, but newspapers are not thick volumes full of everyone’s opinions. Newspapers don’t show the wide spectrum of everyone’s nuanced points of view. Newspapers have to sell copies. And sales are driven by polarisation and by hyperbole. They amplify voices that sell papers, and they shape opinions based on those voices. That’s not the readers making decisions. That’s when one person’s loud voice, their free speech, takes away someone else’s voice. Especially if that someone else is coming from a disadvantaged position anyway; when that someone else’s voice of disagreement is not heard.
Issues surrounding freedom of expression and safe spaces in the University environment aren’t going away, and I think we need to continue talking about it. Universities are supposed to be a place where you can make up your mind and find out what you think about things, and discussions about issues of freedom of expression are a vital part of that.
I’d like to credit my friend Graham Robertson, science-fiction and games writer, for bringing a lot of these points of view to my attention. Follow him at
Christina Neuwirth moved to Edinburgh from Austria in 2013 to study Creative Writing at the University of Edinburgh and is now working as the Project Officer at Scottish PEN. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on Twitter at @gwynn255.