I was stunned to read that the Queensland University of Technology has suspended two Brisbane based academics, Gary MacLennan and John Hookham, without pay for six months for criticising their colleagues in a newspaper article.
In a comment rich with irony, QUT vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake justifies the ban by saying “Academic freedom is a great privilege and it should not be used to denigrate or ridicule people.” Yet the issue the academics were being critical about was the support given by colleagues at the University to a PhD thesis called Laughing at the Disabled, and their belief that the whole tenor of the thesis denigrated and ridiculed disabled people. Whether you accept this perspective or align more with the arguments of those who say the thesis is an effort to improve understandings of how we relate to people with disabilities and to the disability itself, the University’s decision to respond to this public criticism of the institution by suspending people for six months without pay seems to me to be an incredibly draconian over-reaction which seriously threatens free speech and robust public debate.
For an outline of the original circumstances, read this post from back in April, written by Kim over at Larvatus Prodeo. She was assessing the article by the two academics, which was published in The Australian newspaper.
There is also a clip on YouTube which is a response from some in the disability community to the “Laughing at the Disabled” project. It is about 11 minutes long, but is worth watching. It includes commentary by people from Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, which is a very effective and respected advocacy organisation for people with disability. The comments thread on this is very much worth reading too. It includes comments from Michael Noonan, the researcher behind the original project, a QUT student who has seen some of the footage in question, and people from the disability community.
Chris Griffith at The Courier-Mail has also blogged about it. Interestingly, among the comments to that piece is one from Tess Livingstone, the journalist who wrote the story about the suspension for the paper, which is critical of QUT’s action.
The article in The Australian last April was quite a scathing piece. There was some extra irony in the fact that The Australian has been running a blatant campaign for many months, using a flimsy caricature of post-modernism as a bogey-man to blame a flimsy caricature of the ‘Left’ for putting moral relativism ahead of basic standards, thus causing all that is wrong with modern education. I don’t know John Hookham, but I have a passing acquaintance with Gary MacLennan, and I don’t think he would dispute being described as a hardline left winger. MacLennan and Hookham suggested post-modernism was the reason why it people could justify doing a PhD thesis which they believed was ridiculing people with disabilities (something which the thesis author disputes).
Kim at Larvatus Prodeo was not very sympathetic of their line of argument, although it seemed to me to be partly in reaction to the personal nature of some of the criticism, as well as the use of post-modernism as the whipping boy. However, she made some valid points. She is an amputee, so is able to bring the perspective and experience of life with that disability to her comments.
Other commentary made at the time included Mel at Home Cooked Theory, and Verity at The Dead Roo. As is usual for me, I can see some validity in all the varying perspectives, but none of that justifies sacking people for six months because they were publicly critical.
No doubt the people who devised, approved and oversaw the thesis knew it would be contentious and should not have been surprised if it drew some harsh criticism.
Disability advocates in Brisbane who I have a lot of respect for have been critical of the PhD thesis. There is already too much ignorance and discrimination towards people with disabilities, which causes very real and unnecessary extra hardship. Encouraging ridicule or making fun of such people, even if unintentionally, could well make that worse.
However, there is a danger that being too protective and delicate about disability issues can risk de-humanising people with disabilities, and using humour to puncture the excessive sensitivities which people can feel about topics like disability can be very valuable. One of the funniest comic performances I ever saw was Steady Eddy, an Australian comedian with Cerebral Palsy whose entire show was about his condition. It shows the double edged sword of humour- both edges razor sharp at times: it can be both very liberating and unbearably cruel.
I haven’t seen all the specifics of the thesis or the film that was produced. But despite all the competing arguments, I still believe that suspending people for six months without pay for being publicly critical is excessive and very dangerous. I’m sure QUT didn’t like being criticised so publicly and harshly, or the people behind the thesis, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that all academics are being sent the very strong message that academic freedom of speech and debate ceases to apply when it comes to any criticism of one’s own University, and presumably their funding sources and opportunities too. As the Courier-Mail editorial notes, it will make every academic think twice before speaking out.
PS: It may seem like a separate issue, but I thought I would also just note in passing that QUT recently decided to abandon the teaching of Humanities subjects.
ELSEWHERE: There’s some other YouTube videos on this topic. This one deals with the wider issue of alleged censorship of comments about the situation on QUT student websites. I assume this is being done on legal advice, and I can sympathise with that, but it shows how wide the ramifications can be once this sort of thing is started. This is another YouTube video. Some more background on Ethical Martini. UQ based academic John Quiggin also has some comments.
And in what I presume is coincidental timing, Ockham’s Razor on the ABC has a discussion with Professor Roger Rees from Flinders University on “the importance of humour for people with disabilities and illnesses.”