Last week Pelican’s Diversity Editors Elanor Leman and Eliza Huston wrote an article that covered the UWA Freedom of Expression Student Consultation Session, an open guild meeting that aimed to, as Guild President Conrad Hogg claimed in the email mailout, “contribute to the formulation of a principled and practical UWA approach to freedom of expression.” Specifically, this meeting would be addressing the degree to which the expression of certain ideas should or shouldn’t be restricted on campus. While such a blurb certainly seems to address the important issues in light of last year’s incident on campus of transgender denier Quentin Van Meter’s almost being allowed the space to speak on campus, it has shown a vast inability to adequately address the issues at hand, both on paper and (far worse) in the actual meeting itself.
What Leman and Huston’s article recounted was the lack of productive speech on the very matter of freedom of expression in the meeting, leading to a discussion that centred on how individuals could defend their right to express their discriminatory views on race and sexuality amongst other things. Crucial here is Leman’s insight from the aforementioned article:
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 … 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.
Clearly this meeting lacked a core focus on pertinent issues of discussion, focusing less on the ability for discriminated minorities on campus to express their own experiences and concerns and more so an arena for which individuals could more or less give their opinions on vastly unrelated issues. Such a problem far exceeds the nature of the Consultation Session or the University itself and is rather an issue at the very foundations of contemporary populist discourse on Freedom of Speech and, likewise, projects that take emancipatory politics as their aim.
In order to provide any kind of remedy to this issue, the true antagonism should be addressed, specifically, the difference between Productive and Unproductive speech, which can be further delineated as the difference between a Universalist or Particularist approach to significant societal issues. In an early 80s interview, cultural critic Fredric Jameson presciently stressed the increasing specialisation and fragmentation of discourse in academia and society at large, mourning the loss of a unified system of thought able to articulate itself in an area of knowledge outside itself. Jameson’s lesson here is that while such a trend of liberal tolerance and pluralism has proliferated more specific forms of thinking, it has arguably developed into a platform solely invested in making isolated claims, only allowing for individuals to feel truly comfortable in expressing their own personalised truth (an occurrence that functions seamlessly in polite society). In the more contemporary but nonetheless related account in 2017’s What is Sex? Alenka Zupancic supposes that the dominant form of contemporary morality:
has abandoned the idea of a (harmonious) totality to the advantage of a non-totalizable multiplicity of singularities forming a “democratic” network … We are all conceived as (more or less precious) singularities, “elemental particles,” trying to make our voices heard in a complex, non-totalizable social network.
Here we can note that Zupancic’s articulation has a certain resonance within our localised UWA debate about Free Speech. Specifically, the debate on Free Speech could equally be characterised as a kind of vortex of individual voices, with the implicit rule being that no one single issue group holds any more importance than another. Such an approach to free speech can be described as the “politics of the particular,” a withdrawal from any kind of productive speech that might aim to address the overarching issue that brought the topic into disrepute in the first place – again in the case of UWA it is clearly the discussions that took place after UWA decided to cancel transgender sceptic Quentin Van Meter’s appearance at the University. While such a “politics of the particular” seems to be the deadlock that plagues contemporary political discussion, Zupancic offers her solution to the impasse via the concept of “concrete constitutive negativity,” or more simply, an approach that isolates the excluded element of the engaged discourse and elevates it above all else as the cornerstone of the social antagonism.
But in the context of our problem of ‘Freedom of Expression Meetings’, how does this reveal what is and isn’t productive speech? In effect, all notions of productive speech seem to rely on an individual’s understanding of a common good, which naturally varies based on the individual. While concrete interrogation of who should and can articulate productive speech qua the common good is certainly a polemical topic, Zupancic’s idea has a far more precise intention that perhaps receives its best articulation in the contemporary example of the Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter.
Prima facie, it might appear that the All Lives Matter movement is the more universalist approach to the issue of human rights because it promotes the value of all lives, in effect, surely this is the most pragmatic approach? In reality however, such a premise truly misses the point of the form of emancipatory politics, as the overarching purpose isn’t simply to recapitulate the system as a collective of particular elements, but rather to (follow Alenka’s logic) find the excluded element and make it central to the discourse. In this sense, the Black Lives Matter movement takes on an entirely new valence in relation to All Lives Matter, not simply that Black Lives matter more than any other, but rather, by explicitly generating a movement around the excluded or repressed element. In the US context (where the BLM movement originated), the issue of the excluded element is identified as such: Black Lives count as fundamentally less grievable than others, as shown by ongoing police brutality and discrimination. In this sense, BLM stands as a fundamentally emancipatory project because it illuminates the issue at hand, elevating it to the dignity of the struggle against the issue and the very title of the movement.
Returning to UWA, a similar structure now becomes clear, that of the repression of the issue at hand and the retreat into particularity that characterised the Freedom of Expression meeting. In such a neutral and unfocused title as ‘UWA Freedom of Expression Student Consultation Session,’ the very focus of such gatherings lose their pertinent political valence and actually work to hide the very issue at hand which is lost within the expression of unrelated particularities. Of course, unwritten social norms deem the implicit solution of labelling future meetings by their actual name (ex. Anti-Transphobia on Campus Action Meeting, Anti-Racism on Campus Action Meeting) a veritable faux pas, but without a clear target, the very point of such meetings tend to lose their focus and cede to aimless speech.
To draw a quick conclusion, the UWA campus doesn’t simply need more opportunities for people to express their opinion aimlessly (the internet as the seemingly limitless void fills such a role), it needs events that identify and elevate the actual issues at hand. Free Speech cannot and does not begin from a neutral standpoint; the excluded elements of the discourse are precisely the ‘particular that changes all particulars,’ the unexpressed perspective that illuminates the entire conversation. Without reference to the excluded element as such, all words effectively lose their value.
Words by Laurent Shervington
Laurent is Pelican’s 2019 Literature Editor and spends the majority of his time at The Bird.