I was shortlisted for The Columnist writing competition

ghosting

Back in September I was extremely chuffed to be shortlisted for The Columnist, a competition that used to be run by the much-missed arts charity IdeasTap but has now migrated to Hiive (a great network for creative professionals). I made the last ten, and seen as there were 490 entrants I was smiling for ages. This was my entry:

 

“Saturday.”

This is the last message I sent to my best friend before she turned into a ghost. She didn’t die, but our friendship did and now I wish I’d said something more meaningful.

Ghosting is when someone cuts you off dead – the ultimate silent treatment. Your calls are ignored, your texts left unread and, if you’re as unbearable as me, you might even find yourself full-on digitally blocked (even Linked in – I’m not going to late-night stalk your endorsements). Like the dad who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, my friend went full Houdini on me – poof, and she was gone.

There are times when disappearing into the ether is the only way to deal with a ghoul, I get that. Who could blame Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for pulling an Irish goodbye on Humbert Humbert? It doesn’t get much more creepy than a 36-year old man who obsesses over a 12-year old girl, even before he starts bribing her for sexual favours.

Lolita escapes Humbert’s ever tightening-grip by doing a jib from a hospital and it worked, for a couple of years at least. Today, she’d probably instead have to delete her Snapchat and get damn busy with her location settings, but still, this is an extreme case. Most of us – and thankfully, I include myself in this – are not paedophile sex pests.

Bff or worst-date-ever, most people deserve a bit of explanation. Yet 11% of Americans admitted to ghosting someone they were dating in a YouGov survey last year. There is a sense that, through an illusion of exclusivity, ghosting is not just about ducking out quietly, but in fact a kind of self-elevation.

In Ali Smith’s book There But For The, reluctant dinner party guest Miles Garth slopes off upstairs between the main course and dessert. He locks himself in a spare room and refuses to come out. Ever. In doing so he becomes not just a source of desperate intrigue to the remaining guests, who gather around the door trying to find out what they can about Miles, but to the whole country. He becomes a minor celebrity, not just conspicuous in his absence, but tantalising in his mystery.

In short, unless someone poses you a serious threat, ghosting is all a bit look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me juvenile. How far can people-erasing go anyway? You can’t delete people from the real world or your brain. We’ve seen it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in Black Mirror, even Red Dwarf, and it never ends well.

I was a good friend (honest) – the sort that always remembered to hold the tomato in sandwiches and to put wine in the fridge. Yet now I’m left picking over every word, every time I mentioned a day of the week, and wondering how it could’ve been taken the wrong way. Besides, there are few greater pleasures in life than calling an arsehole an arsehole. If we ghost everyone who pisses us off, what joy will be left?

I wrote about no platforming in UK universities (and why it sucks) for the Huffington Post

No platforming, Huffington Post

I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about no platforming in UK universities because in real life, students, you can’t just unfriend people who annoy you. It’s an update of an old blog post that you can read here, or the published version here

I started university when I was 24, almost 25. Having left school at 15 with no qualifications, I knew nothing about education and wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I had expected to be challenged. Not just academically, but politically. I had this notion – fuelled, no doubt, by various on-screen depictions of the political fervour of uni campuses of yore – that university was this feisty environment populated by politically passionate folk in whacky clothes, where radical debate and experimentation were high on the agenda.

What it turned out to be, however, was a place of wet sensitivity where girls – and boys – in Ugg(ly) boots experimented with baking. To put it frankly, after years of pining for higher-education my fellow students were boring and the only controversial debate that took place was about which canteen to buy lunch from.

It didn’t surprise me then, to see my university, Bath Spa, in the red-zone in Spiked magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR). Spiked examined the policies and actions of British universities and students’ unions, ranking them on their commitment to free speech using a traffic-light system: red for universities or unions that have banned and actively censored ideas on campus, amber for “chilled free speech through intervention”, and green for institutes that have a hands-off approach.

 Just to preempt any snarky comments about ‘rubbishy’ universities, let me point out that Oxford was red too, and Cambridge amber. In fact, only one in five universities were ranked as green, meaning that they embrace an open approach to free speech, whereas more than double that figure were ranked as red. In red universities, the idea of “safe space” is deemed more important than freedom of speech.

Germaine Greer has found herself falling short of safe space policy, again, as a recent petition called for her to be banned from a women’s rights lecture at Cardiff University because of her views on transgender women. It’s the latest in a string of incidents banning outspoken people with controversial views from events. In February, comedian Kate Smurthwaite also ran into trouble at Goldsmiths University when her show, Lefty Cockwomble – which, ironically, was about free speech – was cancelled. Why? Because Smurthwaite believes in the Nordic model of legislation on sex work, which criminalises buying rather than selling sex. Goldsmiths’ feminist society is, however, “‘for’ [the full legalisation of] sex working”. Her show had nothing to do with prostitution.

The theory of safe space is that people of all identities and backgrounds have the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is tolerant – great. However, the current, rigorous enforcement of the concept is beginning to sound a lot like censorship. A set of ‘if you haven’t got anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ rules, it’s as though the Facebook generation can’t handle the analogue world unless it meets their community standards.

I don’t agree with Greer’s view that trans women are “not women”, and I don’t think that all opinions deserve a platform. I do believe, however, that in real life, you can’t just block people you don’t get on with. There is no ‘hide this content’ button. There is no network of sky-geeks, ready to remove material that violates life’s code of conduct. Learning to communicate with people who hold different views from your own is one of life’s biggest lessons and one that university plays a vital role in. It is there, after all, to prepare you for the world, not shield you from it.

It’s good to see students, who are increasingly known for their apathy, show some guts in their refusal to have their views challenged, at least. Is shying away from real debate the new radical though, or is it just a symptom of a world that seeks to shut down opinions that differ from mainstream, community approved thought?

It seems to me that building a community of like-minded people might give students the freedom of tolerance, but it doesn’t necessarily teach them to tolerate. Little value is placed, for instance, in the views of students that don’t match the ideal – what about their safe space? Just like Facebook, increasingly at universities you are only really expected to ‘like’, agree, or shut up. No wonder my peers preferred baking.