Free Speech and Fiction

Article for the Independent 18/05/2016

I recently found myself at the centre of a faintly sinister controversy at Bristol University.

In March, I posted a short story on my blog called ‘Nights at the Disco’, a first-person narrative that follows Charlie, a grotesquely caricatured student who abuses drugs and rapes women to satisfy himself. Risqué though it was, I didn’t expect there to be much reaction to it at all because I didn’t – and still don’t – think it’s very good. It’s a first draft. And my blog normally receives about nine views a post, five of which are my mum.

After publication, though, a fellow student reported the story to the university, who told me to remove it for fear of bringing them into “disrepute.” The ins and outs of the subsequent drama have been well-reported but, here, I want to focus on the most pernicious aspect of the whole episode.

The woman who reported the story was concerned it wasn’t clear whether it was fact or fiction, so I happily added a trigger warning. But she then demanded I “explain and justify” writing it from a male perspective. Several comments from her sympathisers also made their opinion clear: they thought I shouldn’t have written a story about rape at all. Why? Because I’m a man.

The suggestion here is that, as women and feminists – a tag I identify with – they had ‘ownership’ over the issue of rape. They didn’t think a man should be commenting on ‘their’ territory because I haven’t been subject to the sexism they have.

This is what’s called ‘the competition of grievances’ – “I’m more scarred than you, so you, therefore, have no investment and you cannot speak.”

This is an exceptionally dangerous attitude to have because it immediately limits the extent to which an issue can be debated. The moment you say someone other than yourself cannot talk about problems that affect you is the moment you limit the discussion of that problem. More than that, it makes the debate about the people rather than the issue.

This is what happens when people say they are ‘speaking as a…’, which is a statement used to show they have ownership over an issue and, thereby, silence others. My whistleblowers were essentially saying: “Speaking as women, we know more about rape than you do, so you can’t write this story.” For whatever other reasons they put forward, at the heart of why the story was reported was that they did not trust a man to have written it. It’s ‘their’ issue, not mine.

So, at this point, it would be tempting to give a list of reasons as to why I’m qualified to discuss the issues the story touches on. But I’m not going to do that. And I’m not going to write any more about what I intended. It would only continue to shift the debate onto the person rather than the problem – and I want to have a conversation about rape culture and mental health, not about who is oppressed enough to discuss them.

Outside genuine hate speech and trauma sufferers, we must always prefer being offended to censorship. If you try to protect people with censorship, you’ll eventually find it being used against you. If you try to stop others discussing issues you think only you are qualified to discuss, you limit yourself. It divides people, it severs intellectual understanding, and it destroys compassion – something which is vital to overcoming phenomena like rape culture.

I appreciate marginalised groups dislike the way in which privileged voices are heard more easily, but trying to solve this by silencing privilege is like trying to defend democracy with totalitarianism: counter-intuitive, self-destructive, and wrong.

White male writers must have the freedom to write about anything in the same way a writer of any identity should. To say they shouldn’t is to attack the person, not the problem. You may not like it, but allowing everyone their input regardless of who they are or, indeed, what they say, is more important than you might think. And actually, it’s an act of self-respect: by doing so, you prove you are as entitled to your opinion as anyone else is to theirs.

The modern trend is to kill free speech in the name of protecting minority voices. This is an absolute tragedy. We need to realise just how important free speech is: it is the keystone of democracy, and democracy is the keystone of ensuring we all get heard. Never compromise it under any circumstances, ever, because if you do, then you compromise yourself.

You will be offended, and you will occasionally be ashamed of your fellow humans. But, my goodness, it’s a price worth paying.


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