"Laughing at the disabled"

Update: I’ve written a post on the latest development in this affair, the suspension of Hookham and MacLennan for six months without pay, which I think is a completely over the top reaction, and says something very dodgy about QUT. I still hold to my original criticism of the two academics, but the chilling effect of this over-reaction on freedom of speech is deeply worrying.

The latest entry in the culture wars comes from QUT academics John Hookham and Gary Maclennan, who wrote an op/ed in The Australian yesterday, which in true Donnelly-esque style, was recycled in the same rag as news.

A PhD student’s TV comedy about disabled people has sparked outrage from senior academics and prompted an investigation. Michael Noonan’s thesis, “Laughing at the disabled: Creating comedy that confronts, offends and entertains”, has been attacked for its reality TV-style depiction of two intellectually disabled men interviewing locals in a country pub.

Gary MacLennan and John Hookham, of Queensland University of Technology’s film and television school, believe that work such as Mr Noonan’s is being validated under the rubric of postmodernist or poststructuralist thought, where “you abandon any idea of individual worth”.

“For us, this is symptomatic of a wider intellectual and moral problem,” Dr MacLennan said.

I want to make two points about this. One about the ethical questions raised by the op/ed itself, and the second about the politics of laughter and disability.

The first is one that Mel Gregg has noted.

Wow. If you wanted to take an opportunity to collapse every workplace grievance you felt in one very public statement, this feature in The Australian’s Higher Education lift-out today would seem to be a pin-up example.

She rightly questions the ethics of taking bitches about how a particular faculty is run and dressing them up as intellectual interventions. I’m not sure that it’s as rare as one might think though – there’s often personal animosity and workplace grouches behind academic arguments. But what’s stunning here, I’d have thought, in an op/ed ostensibly about ethics and truth is two things.

What are the ethics of senior academics taking to a national newspaper to attack a Doctoral candidate? That seems to me an outrageous abuse. The writers would have much more power to be heard than the PhD student, and seem cavalier about damaging his career and reputation in pursuit of their own agenda. No doubt a lot of their gripe is with his supervisors, but he’s a much weaker target.

The second is that they’ve got strange company in their rant about TEH EVILS OF POST-STRUCTURALISM. Like a previous academic op/edder, Merv Bendle, they’re making an argument which is designed to pull at all the strings of the educational traditionalists and canonical culture warriors without disclosing their own actual position – anyone who’s had anything to do with Brisbane political and cultural scenes knows that MacLennan is an unreconstructed Marxist. But I guess saying so wouldn’t sit so easily with the agenda they’re writing themselves into.

To turn to the question of the politics of laughter and disability, I’d agree with a lot of what Verity wrote at The Dead Roo:

To me, this just draws attention to the way Australians view people with disabilities. They are the least vocal and least recognised of the various groups we label “minorityâ€? and “discriminatedâ€?, by which groups I’m thinking of immigrants, the homeless and, in many ways, women. Having worked with people with physical disabilities for some years now I find it interesting watching the way any one in a wheelchair (and anyone accompanying them) is treated. People smile brighter, faker smiles, tend to talk to a spot somewhere over the left shoulder and either stare or entirely avoid eye-contact. On a larger scale having a disability means you are immediately significantly less likely to get a decent job, live independently, maintain close and longlasting friendships and have romantic and sexual relationships.

And then they have to put up with interfering bureaucrats who most likely have very little understanding of what living with a disability actually involves, who through misplaced political correctness attempt to stifle any such action as this designed to humanise the disabled. And I say ‘humanise’ very consciously. Comedy is a great leveller, once we can laugh at something, we can begin to accept it, it is fear which maintains stigma. I think we need to take off the kid gloves many people consciously and subconsciously use when dealing with issues relating to disability. If the show’s funny, then why not air it?

I don’t feel myself qualified to write a theoretical treatise on humour and difference, but let me just give you one visual example of what I’m talking about. This is a t-shirt you can buy from AmpuTeeHee:

<img src="http://larvatusprodeo.net/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/llegstory.jpg&quot;

Now, as some LP readers might know, I am myself an amputee, with one leg. This t-shirt actually has fairly complex semiotics, which all respond to the way others read and respond to this fact about myself. When it’s fairly obvious that you’ve got one less limb than the usual quota, people are curious. But they don’t want to sound patronising, and conversely, you don’t necessarily want to have to engage with either expressions of pity and sympathy (or the “heroic crip” narrative) or for that matter, be interpreted primarily as an amputee and only secondarily as a person. It shouldn’t be too difficult to work out how the use of humour disarms (tacky pun intended) a lot of the angst that clusters around the affects inspired by my difference, using humour.

The op/ed doesn’t really need parsing, but it’s worth noting in passing that the so-called concerns expressed appear to deny all agency to people with disabilities, and construct us as poor souls in need of protection.

So I very much get where Verity is coming from. I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ve been given a fair chance to judge, what Noonan’s film project is like. Yes, there are fine lines to be walked, but that’s humour, and that’s life, isn’t it? I do know that the use of his work to prosecute personal and political grievances is pretty dodgy. And I do think humour can be empowering. It can be disempowering too. But most things can either be good or bad! Or good and bad. Including disability, incidentally.

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Posted in culture, Disability, education, Ethics, politics
35 comments on “"Laughing at the disabled"
  1. Frank Calabrese says:

    As a person with a disability myself, I can remember the outrage amongst Disability groups about Steady Eddy over 10 years ago.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Widdows

    What I find more patronising are the so called “Disability Charities” who use pictures of “Cripples in Wheelchairs” to raise money which 9 times of out of 10 is taken up by expenses of the varous professional fundraisers they use.

  2. dk.au says:

    The second is that they’ve got strange company in their rant about TEH EVILS OF POST-STRUCTURALISM. Like a previous academic op/edder, Merv Bendle, they’re making an argument which is designed to pull at all the strings of the educational traditionalists and canonical culture warriors without disclosing their own actual position – anyone who’s had anything to do with Brisbane political and cultural scenes knows that MacLennan is an unreconstructed Marxist. But I guess saying so wouldn’t sit so easily with the agenda they’re writing themselves into.

    Right on. Besides, what’s the alternative to relativism anyway?
    Excellent post, Kim. JJJ’s Hack did a piece on this. MacLennan was intent on crucifying the whole thesis with something like two years of work remaining on it. I’ve seen my fair share of intra-departmental bickering played out in the public sphere, but this is ridiculous.

  3. Nabakov says:

    At least when it comes to these kind of carefully sensitive issues Kim, you do have a leg to stand on here.

    *rimshot*

    Thank you, thank you. Don’t forget to try the veal, it’ll be here all week.

  4. Kim says:

    you do have a leg to stand on here.

    Aw shucks, Nabs, such an original! 🙂

    Thanks, dk.au – any links to the jjj show?

  5. Christine Keeler says:

    WTF are my fairly lame (sorry) comments being spaminated?

  6. professor rat says:

    IF I wanted to abandon all idea of individual worth… I would become a Marxist or a Post-structualist. Both valorize petty-bougeois authoritarian micro-managerialism by obfucatory and obscurantist technical specialists.

    Bakunin tried to warn us that the dictatorship of the specialist would be the worst in history so thanks for the heads up about McClelland.

    He, and all rotten creeps like him, need to be radically separated from all live power leads. For their own protection naturally.

  7. Don Wigan says:

    I had a read of Alan Marshall’s “I can Jump Puddles” recently, having picked it up cheap at an op-shop. A great read by any measure.

    He had an interesting observation in relation to people’s attitudes then to disability. Adults were invariably over-protective and had far too much of the “Oh, poor thing” type of attitude. Kids, on the other hand accepted you as you were – you played, interacted and competed more or less on equal terms. There was a lot more humanity in their approach.

    I’m with Frank on Steady Eddy. If he can make a crust laughing at his condition, good luck to him. At high school my daughter formed a rhythm & blues duet with a cerbral palsy bloke also named Eddy. He played the harmonica and sang rather well in the Leadbelly style. But the other amazing thing was that he was able to convert the shakiness of standing into rhythmic-type movements with their music. It usually had the audience wildly cheering.

  8. Katz says:

    Michael Noonan’s thesis, “Laughing at the disabled: Creating comedy that confronts, offends and entertainsâ€?, has been attacked for its reality TV-style depiction of two intellectually disabled men interviewing locals in a country pub.

    Maybe the intellectually disabled men should have used shorter words.

  9. Adam Gall says:

    Great post, Kim.

    “there’s often personal animosity and workplace grouches behind academic arguments”

    In my experience, yes, but it’s more to do with the extent to which philosophical differences are pursued or the tone that disagreements take, rather than the arguments themselves. If you get on with a colleague who has a totally different outlook, then you tend to frame things a lot more generously. If there is personal animosity, you might not be so pleasant about those differences.

    I’d be interested to know what others experiences in universities have been like.

  10. FDB says:

    Shit.

    Fuck.

    Astronomical.

    Great post Kim. Just one question – if you’re not an “heroic crip” does that mean you’re an heroic blood?

  11. Kim says:

    Thanks, Adam.

    Sorry, Christine, can’t find anything in the spaminator.

  12. FDB says:

    “Sorry, Christine, can’t find anything in the spaminator.”

    There’s a Moving Pictures number I just can’t quite put my finger on here…

  13. Kim says:

    And a bad cover of the same song!

    Fished out, FDB. The spaminator really loves your work!

  14. FDB says:

    It’s been over a month now of everything ending up in there. Keep getting fished out, but the damn robot won’t learn? When will people learn to teach robots to learn properly?

    Dunno how akismet works really, but I’ve emailed them with no response. Maybe because I’m not actually the registered user of their plugin.

  15. tigtog says:

    You probably need to go commenting on more friendly blogs with Akismet enabled (like mineminemine) and get despammed there as well. If lots of blogs are sending despam reports on your addy to Akismet then it should change your rating (speculating on how it all works, no inside knowledge).

  16. Dave Bath says:

    I left a comment at DeadRoo on a post there by Kim.

    As an epileptic, I too hate it when I get the “poor thing” treatment from those who think that I need “protection” from simple facts of life.

    Saying a disability can’t be the key premise of a joke is itself offensive to me. These “senior academicsâ€? haven’t got a clue from my perspective.

    Humor is an essential part of human interaction, and individual flaws are a natural source of mirth. Why should disabilities prevent people from fully participating?

  17. Grendel says:

    As the father of a child with a disability (Autism) I am more worried about ensuring he gets a fair chance to access services he needs that enable him to participate than I am about some PhD student making a comedy – if it does not exploit individuals, and it encourages people to laugh and think, then yes, I’d agree that the gripers are griping for reasons other than those they pretended to.

    Shifting society to accept disability should involve popular culture – perhaps in a similar way to the role it played in encouraging acceptance of gay and lesbian people.

    The ability to laugh without rancour is part of learning to appreciate difference as a quality. Laughter makes people more comfortable with the concept of difference and then to put the difference in perspective to that they can see the person.

  18. dj says:

    Adam – when i was a postgrad student, some of the departmental seminars we went to used to crack us up. You could guarantee that particular academics would ask particular questions with an obvious undertone that was as much based upon personal enmity as intellectual disagreement. It almost didn’t matter what the topic was, the same questions or questions along the same lines got asked. It really illustrated how personality can override intelligence to turn people stupid.

  19. Adam Gall says:

    I’ve also had those kinds of experiences, dj. It’s a feature of academic life, I guess. I do feel like, at the intellectual level (which is only part of what’s going on), the repetition of questions is also about staking out an area of expertise and a set of concerns or preoccupations, and keeping that position visible to other working in a similar area. I have one colleague who tends to ask the same kinds of questions of my work, and I always give the same kinds of answers, but I appreciate the reminder. I don’t think that’s how it usually plays out though.

  20. dj says:

    In some cases that may have been true, Adam. However, many of these academics would frequently ask these questions even if they had no real connection to the presentation that had been given, as if to say “I am an important member of the department therefore you must answer my completely irrelevant question and a failure to do so will evince further irrelevant questions with your failure revealing my intellectual superiority, so there!”

  21. steve says:

    Sometimes there is a dark Humour surrounding serious issues and a movie currently on at Centro has a humorous look at Mental Health iissues which had the audience hooting with laughter throughout the movie. An added bonus is that the Murdoch press only rated it two stars as they do with nost of the gems because they just get the reviews off the internet without seeing them themselves is my guess. ‘Running wirh Scissors’ is a hoot.

  22. david tiley says:

    I can’t get my head around this. Michael Noonan provides 20 minutes of footage – raw, cut, fine cut? – which to be condemned, not to attack Noonan himself but his supervisors.

    But a disability support organisation backs the project –

    “The project is backed by Spectrum, a not-for-profit group that helps disabled people in mainstream society.

    Spectrum chief executive John Hart said Mr Noonan’s work would change the way people viewed those with disabilities: “Michael is a wonderful human being; he is going to break down so many barriers.”

    Mr Noonan recently sold another series to ABC television, Unlikely Travellers, also backed by Spectrum. It is expected to screen later this year.

    Dr MacLennan said that Unlikely Travellers, a documentary about six disabled people, was warm and beautiful, but the characters in Mr Noonan’s latest project were portrayed as objects of ridicule.”

    Dr MacLennan seems to know bette than disability advocates here.

    The post modern supervisor is not some arcane academi but Geoff Portman, ex head of comedy at the ABC, who probably knows a lot about interdepartmental back stabbing and the sacrifice of junior careers to whack senior personnel.

    And this is national news, worth two articles in The Australian?

  23. Kim says:

    David – thanks for the detail on the sponsor of Noonan’s project.

    dk.au already added to the point I made in the post – the seminar Noonan gave is a quality check after the first year of his PhD candidature.

    Why is this shit in the Australian? Because Gary MacLennan is bitter about the way his Faculty has turned out and he’s turned his personal problems into a bullying op/ed picking up on the POMO IS THE EVIL line that apparently enables anyone who will recite the appropriate mantra to get an article published in a Murdoch rag.

  24. Kim says:

    What are the ethics of senior academics taking to a national newspaper to attack a Doctoral candidate? That seems to me an outrageous abuse. The writers would have much more power to be heard than the PhD student, and seem cavalier about damaging his career and reputation in pursuit of their own agenda. No doubt a lot of their gripe is with his supervisors, but he’s a much weaker target.

    A postdoctorate student is grown up and fair game. Particularly if he is silly enough to expect public subsidy for publishing this kind of tripe.

    He has to be prepared to cop it and dish it out since the day will come when he will take mouse into hand and start his own blog. Then he will come to know the real meaning of “vigorous debate”.

    Kim quotes:

    A PhD student’s TV comedy about disabled people has sparked outrage from senior academics and prompted an investigation.

    Gary MacLennan and John Hookham, of Queensland University of Technology’s film and television school, believe that work such as Mr Noonan’s is being validated under the rubric of postmodernist or poststructuralist thought, where “you abandon any idea of individual worthâ€?.

    “For us, this is symptomatic of a wider intellectual and moral problem,â€? Dr MacLennan said.

    You don’t say! You know you have a “wider intellectual and moral problem” with Arts faculties when it falls to Marxists to speak up for common sense and decency.

    Still the occasional Marxist is a small price to be paid for temporary respite from the toxic gases emmitted from the slowly leaking nuclear reactors that are out Arts faculties.

    Muggeridge, giving a post-mortem of the British security system in the aftermath of Burgess Mclean, suggested that they “clear out the current occupants, fumigate the premises and start again”. This strikes me as the sanest course of action for our contemporary Arts faculties.

  25. Cliff says:

    To a certain extent, humour is inextricably linked to human weaknesses and mishaps. I mean, no one finds Carl Lewis funny because he runs fast.

    The question, I guess, concerns the context. Humour based on disability must be treated with particular sensitivity because people have no control over the fact that they have been disabled and the experience is often associated with traumatic experiences. But the ability to make light of and laugh at our own disadvantages or grim experiences is very natural. However, I think that people who aren’t disabled should be more cautious about making light of disability. Its kinda like the difference between a black man making black jokes and a white man making black jokes…. the difference between self reflection, and humour which could be construed as a statement of one’s superiority or good fortune vis a vis another person or group of people.

    But you have to be pragmatic. Humour can be used to essentialize a seemingly strange aspect of another person and exclude them. But at the same time it can also be a great leveller, and can make possible more equal, inclusive and open relationships between different people. But I should stress that the basis of good humour is not the ability to laugh at others, but the ability to laugh at yourself.

  26. david tiley says:

    Interesting point from Jack. I was mentally replying by saying that he is but a lowly fee-paying student in the first year of his program – but it turns out he is also a lecturer in the same department so is a bit more robust than I had thought at first.

    But he is still surely entitled to stand in front of the assembled academics of his department and find out – in Jack’s vigorous debate – if he is being a dill or not without turning up in a national newspaper as an object of censorious mouth-pursing.

    Ironically for senior academics claiming to attack a subjectivist and relative approach to ideas, the debate turns on an interpretation of the footage, on which we have no direct evidence.

    Except that a disabiity support group is not offended. And they don’t have such an evident axe to grind.

    I wonder if Noonan would win a libel case?

    ——

    Interesting too that he manages to be a fairly vigorous filmmaker with many no/lo or PFTC supported films to his credit. I wonder if that creates tension.

  27. Adam Gall says:

    So it’s “exterminate all the brutes” then, Jack?

    Can anybody actually answer that kind of position constructively?

  28. Tyro Rex says:

    I would like to point out that the main article in the higher ed section, as well as attacking this poor PhD candidate in public, was basically pushing the same old tired reactionary agenda.

    In the view of these two gossipy QUT luvvies having their after-work-drinkies bitch-session, in the full glare of the public gaze, the Academy’s one and only True Purpose is educating the Ignorant Masses about the Glories of the Canon such that they can be Uplifted from their Humdrum and Dreary Existence. Because you know, otherwise the aforementioned Masses are only interested in the Footy Tips Competition, Reality Television, or Britney Spears’ Drug-Induced Breakdown, or whatever it is the Great Unwashed actually do for entertainment nowadays.

    Morality plays and floggings for the recalcitrant ingrates at 11.

  29. John Greenfield says:

    Somehow I doubt we would have seen a thread like this had the Ph.D student been on the “right” side of the Leftist pomo vs. realist Culture War. 😉

  30. Luka S says:

    There seems to be a generation gap developing between many of the writers of the above comments (presumably postgraduates and/or graduates), and undergraduate students. In the last couple of days, at QUT in the Creative Industries Faculty, large numbers of MacLennan’s undergraduate students have contribtued to online Forums supporting MacLennan’s stand. I’m told that they’re even holding a support rally this coming Tuesday on one of QUT’s campuses (on the Kelvin Grove campus probably). Seems that what amounted to a “farewell email” sent by MacLennan to students has cause a big stir amongs the undergraduates. I’ve actually seen some copies of their posts, and they’re agreeing with MacLennan’s arguments as they’ve appeared in the media. What I find interesting about this as one of those postgrad researchers myself, is that it would appear Generation Z is in rebelling against postmodernism. I’ve heard and read anecdotal stories about how this seems to be the case in many Nth American college classrooms (interestingly, on many so-called liberal campuses), and maybe this is also the case in Australia, although I’d hestitate to call QUT a liberal university.

    I’d imagine the undergraduates are having to make some hard decisions here: while a lot of them may have heard lectures from MacLennan, many of them would have had Michael Noonan as their tutor, at least in some subject. Yet they’re coming down on MacLennan’s side.

    I’ve heard a lot said about MacLennan’s activisim during the Joh Years, and he’s survived it all. So he’s a seasoned campaigner who, it would seem, knows which way the wind is blowing. In a power tussle between MacLennan and McKee, I’d bet I know what side the undergrads would take.

    And, I dare say, that at QUT and other universities, Vice-Chancellors and Academic Boards, are beginning to pick up on this change in thiniing amongst Gen Z as well — at least in part. QUT’s Vice-Chancellor, Peter Coaldrake, has said on the press that he’s closing down QUT’s Humanities school because he thinkgs that ‘the creative industries’ are the ‘new humanities’.

    I’ll have to leave it there, because Spider-Man 2 has just begun on free-to-air TV, and I happen to be a fan of the movie.

  31. Mark says:

    Or, alternatively, if QUT hadn’t junked the teaching of social science, people might learn not to generalise from anecdotal evidence about “Gen Z”.

  32. Interesting post-script to this story, with the two academics in question being suspended without pay for 6 months as a consequence. A totally over the top response in my view, however harsh their original public criticism was.

  33. steve says:

    QUT seems to have forgotten that there are more general issues surrounding this case than the narrow interpretation and in-house view that they have applied in this case.

  34. Mark says:

    Yes, indeed. The suspension of the two academics without pay for six months seems a totally disproportionate (if hardly unsurprising) action by QUT.

  35. Kim says:

    Update: I’ve written a post on the latest development in this affair, the suspension of Hookham and MacLennan for six months without pay, which I think is a completely over the top reaction, and says something very dodgy about QUT. I still hold to my original criticism of the two academics, but the chilling effect of this over-reaction on freedom of speech is deeply worrying.

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