In the early 1960s, artist Nam June Paik experimented with pointing a camera at a screen it was linked to in order to create a series of infinite repetitions. This was a conversation between two objects which provided the semblance of large, stretching space, while actually only existing in a very small area between two flat surfaces. The feedback loop is an analogue to the modern University campus – a sanitised echo chamber, which offers only the appearance of dialogue and depth.
Last October, student representative from the University of Leeds Toke Dahler became semi-viral when he debated David Aaronovitch on Newsnight, encouraging Student Unions to ban controversial speakers from University campuses. Universities, Dahler argued, must be made a ‘safe space’. Students need to feel calm and welcome on their campus, and outside influences should not intrude upon those conditions.
There are two issues with his philosophy. The first is the very action of excluding these people from participation in campus dialogue. To exclude someone is to acknowledge they exist and pretend they don’t, which is ludicrous. Dahler said that students “shouldn’t feel uncomfortable as the result of a speaker being on their premises”. The unfortunate truth behind this is that students won’t remain on campus forever. Ignoring the viewpoint of someone who exists in the real world is to fabricate an environment, and prevent students from experiencing philosophy that evidently exists in the real world. Students should feel uncomfortable, and learn how to react to it – we’re after all getting dangerously close to a Trump presidency, in which the uncomfortable may become institutionalised.
The second problem is the idea that speech could be of possible harm should students themselves choose to go and listen to it. This argument is frequently employed by the young political left, and has essentially no basis. Being exposed to a viewpoint you do not agree with, even vehemently, is positive. Engaging with an idea is far from accepting it – in fact in most cases, the importance of being exposed to an idea lies in your ability to criticise and reject it. In early 2015, when a pig’s head was left in the bathroom of a Muslim prayer facility at UWA, students were presented with violent, blind Islamophobia. In the wake of the attack, the masses weren’t necessarily swayed towards condemning Islam; instead they were able to acknowledge the harsh reality of extant anti-Islamic culture, and ultimately unite to denounce bigotry. Though this wasn’t a formally organised debate, it was in essence a clashing of ideologies in a university environment. Hearing someone speak out against Islam, or gay marriage or vaccinations or intake of immigrants or the reality of climate change only stimulates positive conversation around the issues. Ignoring voices of controversy and hate, and shutting them off our campuses, won’t effectively silence them.
This feeds into the socratic dialectic – the age-old idea of debate in which better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. Eliminating redundant hypotheses is only possible if we identify and engage with them. In 2014, Uthman Badars’ lecture titled “Honour killings are morally justified” was cancelled by the Sydney Opera House after outcry from the public, students of UNSW among them. The talk was part of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, an annual symposium dedicated to presenting controversial viewpoints and stimulating conversation. Ostensibly this festival is a fantastic idea, but its cornerstone concept was completely undermined by the choice to remove a speaker on the basis his ideas were too radical. Of course I don’t believe that honour killings are even slightly defensible (neither did Badars when he really presented his argument) but that’s beside the point – ideas that seem barbaric and immoral should be heard and engaged with. The tenets of the socratic dialectic require free speech from all parties. Only then can we progress towards an informed, rational solution. I quote from Barrack Obama:
I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African-Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women. I don’t agree that you, when you become students at colleges, have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. I think that anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them. But you shouldn’t silence them by saying, “You can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”
Thus is the nature of dangerous ideas – they don’t necessarily corrupt the individual, and as long as they are viewed critically, they create the best form of progression. We could quote Hegel at length on ‘Aufheben’ and learning from our enemies, but Vonnegut in Piano Player seems to say it more succinctly: “The most beautiful peonies I ever saw were grown in almost pure cat excrement.” We see pure excrement in the bombastic rhetoric of commentators like Glenn Beck and Donald Trump, but better to listen to them and move onto higher, more beautiful solutions than ignore them and only accept the safe, watered-down jejunities of someone like Waleed Aly.
The university would very likely not have allowed Uthman Badars to deliver his speech, and I believe Toke Dahler would be buoyantly accepted into their midst. Universities tend to stick to social sentiments so obvious and positive at times they begin to seem like a parody group of the typically naive, left wing student. Dissent on political issues is not encouraged – it isn’t even really allowed. A University is a nebulous institution which should contain institutional conflicts of opinion and ideology. It’s a place of dialectical progression as a result of conversation and debate, not a sports team working towards one definitive objective. We must recognise the uncomfortable truth that it is important to give equal attention to ideas you agree with and ideas you don’t. Every beneficial progressive social movement has, by definition, come out of someone presenting a viewpoint that was, at the time, communally unacceptable. UWA only allowing its own form of emetic ‘progression’ can only result in ideological stagnation, since without several antitheses there can be no reasonable higher thesis.
Vice Chancellor Paul Johnson offended on the same grounds recently in his reluctance to accept the many recommendations for change to the Renewal Project. Here, in part aided by voluble staff, student and union action, open communications has been allowed in a sense. As one UWA staff member has expressed however, responding to the closed structure of online feedback submissions, “there should have been an open location where submissions could be read by the University body at large… that would have been more in keeping with a process of open consultation”. Moreover, following the Senate’s announcement in March of the finalized proposal, the numerous criticisms haven’t seemed to have made any real difference.
Perhaps the trend of political sanitisation will extend into the future to the point of complete singularity in dialogue. We can’t depend upon the university to seek and accommodate varied points of conversation anytime soon, so the best we have as students is to discuss exciting ideas between ourselves. For the best source to express and receive them I emphatically recommend this beloved campus magazine: The Pelican may be run by a bunch of socialists, but at least they’ll print something slightly out of their comfort zone once in a while.
Words by Harry Peter Sanderson
Art by Clare Moran (more_ankles)