Pelican Diversity Editors, Elanor Leman and Eliza Huston went to the UWA Freedom of Expression Student Consultation Session hosted by the UWA Student Guild. For context, you can view the email bulletin sent by Guild President, Conrad Hogg explaining the Sessions and the context surrounding them. They both provided their thoughts on the January session below.
Eliza: My first thoughts on entering the room were, “wow, there’s a lot of people here.” But I also couldn’t help wondering why. Secondly, I noticed that the room was overwhelmingly white, and of the age-group of a typical tutorial.
Elanor: I was more optimistic on walking in. Though a quick cast around failed to spot anyone who looked explicitly queer, I was pleasantly surprised later in. I had hopes for the collective of students in the room, and my biggest worry was that I wouldn’t be able to engage with the nuances of any policy details the organisers might ask us about.
Eliza: Yeah, I was actually anticipating the typical boredom of university bureaucracy… and as it opened, that seemed to be the case. The Guild President, Conrad Hogg, introduced the meeting but essentially just handed us over to the staff in charge; the Freedom of Expression Working Group.
Elanor: And the staff seemed alright. I felt like I had confidence in them, although Eliza did lean over to tap her page where she had written “they’re not very diverse.” She wasn’t wrong – being from different parts of the university body doesn’t make a group diverse as we would understand it, although they weren’t all there, so my at that point slightly waning optimism continued.
Eliza: They sorted us into groups to split the faculties apart, so, I ended up on a table with five other people I didn’t know. As I quickly discovered, most of my group-members, compared to me, seemed to hold the principle of being able to say whatever, whenever, over the principle of harm minimisation and contributing to discourse that actively works for the common good.
Elanor: My group seemed fairly split; maybe we should allow anything to be expressed as long as it is legal, or maybe we should restrict what the university gives a platform to based on consultation with the university community. I liked that idea – if the physics faculty points out that the Earth isn’t flat and maybe those speakers are clearly and absurdly incorrect, we can not lend them the credence of our university’s name. Unfortunately, it seemed that for more than a few people present, ideas that actively promote harm to certain groups seemed more the topic for a hearty, rigorous debate than anything else.
Eliza: Exactly. Arguing under the guise of banter or playing devil’s advocate may amuse those who have nothing to lose, but for those who have to listen to these people spewing hate, dehumanising them, and calling into question their very being and worthiness of human rights, it can be devastating. It comes down to nothing more than sanctioned psychological abuse.
Elanor: Yeah, my optimism kind of died about half an hour in. I missed Eliza’s text, “this is a shitshow,” until the end – too bad my attention was taken up by mild shock at what some of the people there were saying, or to quote someone from the table over, “are you seriously defending race science?” I should have guessed that such an event would bring out the more extreme views from across campus, but it was definitely disheartening to see how most of the those alighted firmly on the allowance of saying most anything.
Eliza: I know right! I was beginning to question whether I am maybe too sensitive, and if my moral compass and sense of ethics was outside the norm. However, my existential crisis was quickly crushed by the absurdity of what was being said around me.
Elanor: There were good things. Big shout out to the other open trans woman in the room, who noted that she “can’t enter certain spaces without being in danger. And that’s something that most people here haven’t experienced.” I think it’s important to talk to those people in this sort of consultation, and I was almost saddened by how few people seemed to care about, or were even aware of, the fact that misinformation – and it is scientifically, demonstrably so – such as that espoused by Van Meter and his ilk actively harms people like myself.
Eliza: That was a breath of fresh air… perhaps, the most intelligent and thoughtful reflection on the nature of the group.
Elanor: In contrast…
Eliza: One member of my group expressed less than compassionate thoughts for those in at risk groups – “if you have a panic attack over someone disagreeing with you, then you shouldn’t be at uni. You need help.” It was interesting to note that this same person was against the working group’s proposal that university policy might increase support provisions for such people.
Elanor: It felt that the room was largely made up of people unaffected by the majority of these issues, and apparently unable to imagine it, but quite in opposition to those who are affected, for fear of changing the status quo.
Eliza: The understanding that dominant ideals and attitudes are rooted in hegemony seemed to fly over most people’s heads, as well as the fact that these same thoughts are based on uneven power balances that have ruled society for centuries to the disadvantage of marginalised groups. What may be considered the general consensus is not necessarily the most understanding and empathetic point of view.
Elanor: It’s all well and good to encourage healthy debate on genuinely contentious issues, but when the anti-vaxxer in the room compared freedom of expression to letting our bodies build up their natural resistances to the masterful analogy of ‘bad ideas,’ my heart sank. Yes, there are things we can debate on campus. Is vegetarianism the best way forward? How do those gravity waves I’ve been hearing so much about work? Just – can we please separate these from “how should we deal with the Transgender Problem™?” I don’t really appreciate the fact that so many of my fellow students feel that debating whether or not my identity is real is a good policy stance.
Eliza: At the end of the session, I left the room feeling deflated and cynical about the university’s future handling of freedom of expression; if those people represent the university, I’m afraid for the groups that will suffer as hate speech is apparently encouraged under the guise of fair discussion.
Elanor: Walking away, my heart was racing and I felt very high energy. It was an intense experience, much more so than I was expecting. I was more than a little disappointed in the students around me, and I so so hope that this was a vocal minority out to secure their interests.
Eliza: Honestly it seemed like an outing for some of these people. Groups with actively discriminatory ideals had arranged to come here in numbers. It felt like the discussion was drawn from how to protect people, to how best to defend their right to express their damaging views.
Elanor: On a more positive note, I felt vaguely confident in the staff running the session. I got good vibes from them, and I hope that the eventual decision made by the Senate is a considerate and understanding one.
Eliza: And in the words of Conrad Hogg, “If you feel that today’s discussions left you feeling under the weather or in a bad headspace, please remember that there are support services that are here to help, including UWA Counselling and the Guild’s independent service Student Assist.”