A discussion of contemporary issues in media ethics, with olives and a twist. Made with only the freshest ingredients, shaken, stirred and poured over ice. I should also mention that I do like the odd, occasional martini. Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet, dry and plenty of salty olives. Welcome to this cocktail of journalism and alcohol. A fine combination!

Friday, 25 May 2007

Freedom of Speech disabled at QUT

This is a very serious issue of academic freedom of expression. My friends Garry MacLennan and John Hookham are facing disciplinary charges at Queensland University of Technology for objecting to a PhD approval that raises serious ethical issues about treatment of people with disabilities.

This YouTube doco explains part of the story

Here is the original piece that they published criticising the university and the PhD approval process. It seems, as my mate Phil Castles points out in the YouTube piece, that Garry and John are being disciplined for going public with their concerns.

Philistines of relativism at the gates
John Hookham, Gary MacLennan
1678 words
11 April 2007
The Australian
1 - All-round Country
Copyright 2007 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Universities should provide access to the best art and literature, write John Hookham and Gary MacLennan

A TIME comes when you have to say: "Enough!", when you can no longer put up with the misanthropic and amoral trash produced under the rubric of postmodernist, post-structuralist thought. The last straw, the defining moment, came for us when we attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach.

Candidate Michael Noonan's thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. The thesis abstract explained that "Laughing at the Disabled is an exploration of authorship and exploitation in disability comedy, the culmination of which will be the creation and production [for sale] of a six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities.

"The show, entitled [Craig and William]: Downunder Mystery Tour, will be aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain." [Editor's note: the subjects' names have been changed to protect their privacy.] Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory, which in our view entails moral relativism. He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights.

In the tradition of reality television, the locals were not informed that Craig and William were disabled. But the candidate assured us some did "get it", it being the joke that these two men could not possibly understand the content of the interviews they were conducting. This, the candidate seemed to think, was incredibly funny.

Presumably he also thought it was amusing to give them an oversized and comically shaped pencil that made it difficult for them to write down answers to the questions they were meant to ask. The young men were also instructed to ask the locals about whether there were any girls in the town as they were looking for romance. This produced a scene wherein a drunk Aboriginal woman amorously mauled William.

Capping off this reality show format, the candidate asked Craig and William on camera what they would do if a girl fancied both of them. When William, a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome, twitched and was unable to answer, the university audience broke into laughter. Then Craig replied: "We would share her." This, it seems, was also funny for the university audience. They had clearly "got it".

It's worth noting that William's condition may make it difficult for him to understand the subtexts of social interaction. AS sufferers struggle to read facial expressions and body language and are often unable to predict what to expect of others or what others may expect of them. This leads to social awkwardness and inappropriate behaviour.

Hilarious, huh?

Much was made at the seminar of the potential for all humour to offend and of the ancient nature of the tradition of mocking the disabled. But the purpose of humour is not just cruelty. The butt of a joke usually has some undeserved claim to dignity and the funny incident takes him or her down a peg.

Humour undermines the rich and powerful, and it can be politically subversive. But we don't think it's funny to mock and ridicule two intellectually disabled boys. We think we, and the university, have a duty of care to those who are less fortunate than us.

At the seminar we were told there was a thin line between laughing at and laughing with. There is no such thin line. There is an absolute difference that anyone who has been laughed at knows.

We must admit with great reluctance that at the seminar we were alone in our criticism of the project. For us, it was a moment of great shame and a burning testimony to the power of post-structuralist thought to corrupt.

It is not our intention here to demolish the work of Noonan, an aspiring young academic and filmmaker. After all, ultimate responsibility for this research rests with the candidate's supervisory team, which included associate professor Alan McKee, the faculty ethics committee, which apparently gave his project total approval, and the expert panel, which confirmed his candidacy.

To understand how we have got into this dreadful situation, one need go no further than reading the series of interviews with some of the great figures of popular culture published in the journal Americana. These interviews are remarkable in that they all follow a similar narrative: the young professors who burn with a passion for popular culture take up a position at a university where they come up against the dragon of high culture. They risk life and career to slay the dragon by publishing articles on popular cultural phenomena such as TV soap operas. This, then, is the story of the heroic age of cultural studies, when teachers of cultural studies forced the academy and the schools to broaden their horizons.

As academics who have published articles on The Simpsons and Deadwood, we warm to these tales of derring-do. However, it is vital that one recognise that the heroic age of cultural studies is long past. The dragon of high-culture elitism has been well and truly slain.

What holds centre stage is not a critique of how popular culture provides -- in the words of scholar George Lipsitz -- the "links that connect the nation, the citizen subject, sexuality, desire and consumption". What we have instead is the reality that cultural studies is in the grip of a powerful movement that we call the radical philistine push. It is this same movement that has seen the collapse of English studies and the consequent production of graduates who have only the scantiest acquaintance with our literary heritage.

It is also undermining the moral fabric of the university.

Let us be clear: we are not blaming students. In our line of fire are the academics who have led the assault against notions of aesthetic and moral quality in cultural studies. This has taken the form of a direct attack on those who do not celebrate every offering that comes out of the maw of corporate culture. We are all supposed to wave our rear ends and become cheerleaders for rubbish such as Big Brother and Wife Swap. Lest the reader think we exaggerate, let us turn to the views of McKee, the enfant terrible of the post-structuralist radical philistines within the creative industries faculty at QUT.

In the university newspaper, Inside QUT, he was reported as saying: "Teaching school students that Shakespeare is more worthy than reality television is actively evil" (italics added) and in his "ideal world programs such as Big Brother would be at the centre of thecurriculum".

In a similar vein, John Hartley, Federation fellow and the founding dean of the faculty, has claimed there are similarities between Big Brother and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in that both explore issues of marriageability. Of course there are similarities; almost all stories deal with the quest to find a mate. But, in any comparison between Shakespeare and Big Brother, what counts are the differences, not the similarities. In Shakespeare we can point to, at the very least, the complex and sophisticated way in which the text is shaped, formed and structured. Every aspect has been deliberately crafted so that no feature is superfluous.

But by elevating Big Brother to the level of Shakespeare, the radical philistines have taken the high culture v low culture distinction and inverted it. Low culture is the tops and anyone who so much as refers to high culture becomes the enemy and is subjected to the politics of abuse and exclusion. This is what has led us to Craig and William: Downunder Mystery Tour.

And now, when we say that in civilised society it is repugnant to mock the disabled, most academics in our field appear to disagree with us. When we say it is morally wrong to laugh at the afflicted, our colleagues seem indifferent to the truth of this statement. Presumably for them it is just our "narrative".

They can take this position because in the postmodern world there are no theories, no knowledge and no truth; there are only narratives, fictional stories, all told with bias.

Yet we and almost everyone outside of the cultural studies ghetto reject this moral and epistemological relativism. If we are to take meaningful political action, if we are to act morally, if we are to teach our students how to live, how to act in an ethical fashion and how to make progressive and powerful art, then we need to be able to determine what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false.

Is there an alternative to the moral relativism, the schlock aesthetics and the dumbing down of the postmodernists? Yes, but to transcend the position staked out by the new philistines would require a commitment to aesthetic and moral education.

The aesthetic component would once again undertake the task of cultivating and improving aesthetic taste and judgment. That means providing access to the best that has been written, painted, said and filmed.

This aspect of the curriculum would necessarily be anti-relativist.

There are dangers and difficulties here, but the present situation is one where educational institutions are beset with wilful ignorance and culturally the ruling slogan appears to be "the grosser the better". This is nothing less than an offence to the human spirit.

John Hookham is a filmmaker whose work has been screened at festivals such as Cannes. Gary MacLennan's expertise includes documentary theory and practice. Both are senior lecturers in the creative industries faculty of the Queensland University of Technology.

Below I've inserted the coverage of this story. I think it is important that we support John and Garry and condemn QUT's heavy handed approach, which seems designed to cover the administration's embarrassment.

Uproar at student's disabled comedy
Dorothy Illing, Higher education writer
418 words
11 April 2007
The Australian
1 - All-round Country
Copyright 2007 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved

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.

Mr Noonan, who is one year into a three-year PhD and has the support of his supervisor, Geoff Portmann, said he was surprised the academics had taken offence.

"I love these guys and would never exploit them," Mr Noonan said of the two characters in the planned television series, which will form part of his thesis. "It looks like they were in a vulnerable situation when they were not."

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.

The issue erupted late last month when Mr Noonan showed 10 to 20 minutes of footage at a confirmation seminar, a standard process in which a panel of academics assesses a PhD student's work 12 months into the degree to see whether she or he can continue.

Assistant dean in QUT's faculty of creative industries Brad Haseman said the project was cleared by the university ethics committee in September, but that a special ethics reference group would be established to monitor the work.

Professor Haseman said Mr Noonan had been told he could proceed on the condition he changed the title, which was "offensive" and "regrettable".

Higher Education -- Page 33

Here's a bit more, to bring you up to date with what's happening.

1067 words
25 April 2007
The Australian
1 - All-round Country
Copyright 2007 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved

Disabled project a crisis

IN attempting to defend the Laughing at the Disabled project ("Funny business", HES April 18), Brad Haseman tells us what we already know: namely that the PhD project went through all the appropriate channels at the Queensland University of Technology. That's what bothers us. If this went through all the right channels, then those channels must be hopelessly flawed.

Haseman makes no comment about the nature or content of the project. His only defence is that we must trust the experts. But it takes no expertise at all to know that one should not laugh at the disabled. It is a matter of basic decency.

Haseman assures us that the project was reviewed properly by the ethics committee. Our information is that the project received expedited approval.

If this is so, we call on the committee members to justify what they have done.

We challenge Haseman to make the project footage that was shown at the confirmation seminar available to mainstream disability groups. Let them judge this project.

Haseman has accused us of abuse of PhD candidate Michael Noonan. This is a most serious charge. It is one we reject absolutely. If anyone has been abused in this sorry affair, it is the two intellectually disabled young people unfortunate enough to have become entangled in the project.

But let us try to help Haseman understand what he and his experts have approved. Let him take the (belatedly changed and sanitised) title from the candidate's thesis, Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. Let him substitute the word Aborigines for Disabled. Let him try to speak this sentence into a mirror: Laughing at Aborigines: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. Do we need to say more?

But Haseman seems more interested in chastising the whistleblowers. Our offence is that we have defended the disabled. We have defended the true ideals of our university. These include academic freedom and a pastoral relationship with the wider community. For this reason we call on the university managers to intervene and to jettison the Laughing at the Disabled project. We urge them to recognise that this is a crisis. We remind them that, in the words of Allan Bloom, "a crisis in the university, the home of reason, is perhaps the profoundest crisis [we may] face".

John Hookham

Gary MacLennan

Creative industries faculty

Queensland University of Technology

This next piece explains how and why the university has moved to discipline Garry and John. They are now facing suspension without pay and charges of academic misconduct. I'm bloody angry about this. It is a serious attack on the rights of academics to engage in public debate about important issues in the intellectual domain.

Critics of PhD face discipline
Bernard Lane
590 words
9 May 2007
The Australian
1 - All-round Country
Copyright 2007 News Ltd. All Rights Reserved

TWO academics who went public with their opposition to a PhD project called Laughing at the Disabled face disciplinary action from their university.

John Hookham and Gary MacLennan, senior lecturers at the Queensland University of Technology, wrote an article in the HES last month saying the PhD project showed the amoral influence of postmodernism within their creative industries faculty.

QUT stood by the project, complaints against the two critics emerged from the faculty, and they face misconduct charges and possible suspension without pay.

Kevin Cocks, a Brisbane-based disability activist and another critic of the project, said that once again it was the whistleblowers who were pursued.

It is understood that the charges arise from an alleged lack of respect in their criticism of the PhD student, Michael Noonan, and his supervisors.

"This is not about speaking up -- it's about events that allegedly occurred and how they occurred," vice-chancellor Peter Coaldrake told the HES yesterday. "The university supports the right to academic freedom on the basis that it comes with responsibility, particularly when students are concerned."

Mr Noonan said his project, which includes a reality television-style depiction of two young intellectually disabled men interviewing locals in a country pub, had the full approval of the men's parents and guardians.

"I've talked to their parents and guardians [since the controversy erupted] and they still support it," Mr Noonan said. "It's frustrating when things are taken out of context. I don't think [Dr Hookham and Dr MacLennan] have got beyond the title."

The title was changed after the HES coverage appeared.

John Hart, chief executive of the disability group Spectrum, reaffirmed his support for Noonan's work, which would empower the disabled and give them "a voice through comedy".

But Mr Cocks, director of Queensland Advocacy Ltd and a QUT distinguished alumnus, said a letter from Professor Coaldrake had not eased his concerns about the ethical pitfalls of the project.

"If anyone had said laughing at Aborigines or laughing at women those groups would be rightly angered," he said.

"[The project] is sending a message to the community that it's OK to treat people with disabilities as objects of ridicule."

He said he would pursue the issue by seeking a meeting with Queensland's Anti-Discrimination Commission, the Public Advocate and the Adult Guardian. Professor Coaldrake had ignored his request to meet.

"We don't want to escalate this issue, we'd like to talk to [Professor Coaldrake] to see if this can be resolved," Mr Cocks said.

Dr MacLennan has told students by email of the disciplinary action against him, saying "this crisis has taken a terrible toll on my health".

About 40 students, mostly from the creative industries faculty, met yesterday to work out a campaign in favour of Dr Hookham's and Dr MacLennan's right to speak out, according to student Daniel Cabrera.

"We're taking some footage and making a documentary about this as well," he said. He said not all students at the meeting agreed with the thrust of the Hookham-MacLennan article.

In a QUT online forum one student posted: "I am not an activist. I know nothing about petitions, marches or fighting `the man'. What I do know is that what QUT has done is wrong.

"Their actions have filled me with indignation and compelled me to act. We cannot be silent and let them administer undeserved punishment."


Unknown said...

Marty, are you the author of the YouTubed documentary? (If not, do you know who is?)

Unknown said...

Never mind, The Australian tells me it was created by Adrian Strong

Anonymous said...

Interesting comment from Don Robes because many of us who know Mr Robes are aware of his pathological hatred of heterosexuality. At one meeting, a female participant tried to explain to Mr Robes that an anus was actually much different from a vagina. (Sorry, Don, but if you're going to defame people in public, you're past is fair game as well.)


Marty said...

I have been advised that the two comments above - from "don robes" and "Roger" are defamatory. I'm sure that's right and I've also been advised that this is a very litigious issue, writs could soon be flying all over the place.
I'm going to take the risk of leaving these comments here, because I think it shows just how inflammatory and personal this issue has become.
However, I'm turning on the "moderation" button so that I can, in future, check comments on this topic.
Sorry if that inconveniences anyone, but it's probably necessary.
If I do choose to delete a post from someone, I'll let them know privately and invite them to resubmit a comment.

Anonymous said...

I am not a QUT student & have no affiliation with any of the people in question. A friend of mine put me onto this, knowing full well I'd be pissed about it! I just wish I'd heard about it sooner!
I have a 20yr old sister with downsyndrome (i understand thats quite a different disability to the young lads in the film, but in the eyes of most ignorant folk 'it's all the same') & all through our schooling life I fought (physically & verberly) for equality for her & her friends who were picked on by simple minded trash like Mr.Noonan. You only have to walk down the street with her to see the looks/glares, smirks & snide remarks that people give. I'm not just talking kids or teenages, but fully grown adults that should know better.
A film (if u'd call it that) such as this is mear ammunition for those pathetic souls who are so sad in their own life that they need to laugh at the less funtunate to make them feel better about thier pitiful existence! This monstrosity is no better than the taliban arming children with AK's!
I would love to see this Mr.Noonan make a film called 'Laughing At Muslims', or as previously stated Aboriginals, & see just how far that would get him! NOWHERE! So why was such a degrading act such as this allowed to be made?
I believe the ethics committee has alot to answer for, & by shunning the 2 lectures that opposed this, shows they're running scared.
So those reading this with the power to change these events around, should do so with the knowledge that there are still descent people behind you 100%! Don't just let this fade into the background, make a stand, or your morals are no better than Mr.Noonan's!
BTW: Don Robes, get on subject! Are You trying to say this film is right?!

Anonymous said...

I have an M Ed Special Ed with a secondary teaching qualification whilst also Cerebral Palsy which I acquired through an instance on medical madness which I was compensated for and I am totally disgusted to think that QUT would support such a thesis.

I don't find any part of having a disability comical or funny and don't understand how people could find an indivifual like Steddy Eddy funny - I think it's a poor coping strategy that he employed and voyeuristic for audiences to laugh at such a topic.

For QUT to support such a project one questions what type of message that they are sending to any future students.

Angela Moore
M Ed Special Needs

Martini King said...

Unbeleivable! I hope they got this sorted out. I need a drink after reading it.