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 Australianâs 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 âminorityâ? and âdiscriminatedâ?, by which groups Iâm 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 âhumaniseâ 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 showâs 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:
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.