QUT suspends two academics

John Sweeney

The central reason for the suspension was that their article (The Australian) represented a breach of the University’s code of conduct in the matter of Academic Freedom, a value, says Vice Chancellor Peter Caldera which is central to the University and one which all academics are bound to uphold. (See the Queensland edition of the ABC’s Stateline, available on YouTube).

The suspended academics are complaining about a PhD student’s project which comprises a television program originally entitled “Laughing at the Disabled: Creating Comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains”. MacLennan and Hookham claim that the notion of the project is offensive to people with a disability. They focus on one particular scene where two young men with intellectual disabilities were sent to a pub in the Queensland west to conduct a survey about the mysterious “min-min lights” as well as to ask whether there were any girls in town looking for romance. They were given a “novelty” oversize pencil to use which made it more difficult to make their notes. MacLennan and Hookham judge that the student film-maker, “had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept.” They go on to say, “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.”

MacLennan and Hookham had participated in a review of the project and objected at that point, questioning the ethics of the project to no avail. They then published the article in The Australian.

At first glance this is a dispute about conflicting rights: the right to academic freedom versus the right to dignity. However, academic freedom should not so extend as to infringe some other right. It should not result in harming some person. UNESCO defines academic freedom to be:

“the right, without constriction by prescribed doctrine, to freedom of teaching and discussion, freedom in carrying out research and disseminating and publishing the results thereof, freedom to express freely their opinion about the institution or system in which they work, freedom from institutional censorship and freedom to participate in professional or representative academic bodies. All higher-education teaching personnel should have the right to fulfil their functions without discrimination of any kind and without fear of repression by the state or any other source. Higher-education teaching personnel can effectively do justice to this principle if the environment in which they operate is conducive, which requires a democratic atmosphere; hence the challenge for all of developing a democratic society. “ (UNESCO: Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel)

So MacLennan and Hookham have the right to “freely express their opinion about the institution or system in which they work”, while they are free to criticise intellectual currents of thought such as post-structuralism. Their taking issue, for example, whether “Big Brother” is just as worthy as Shakespeare is just such an academic dispute and it would seem both sides have the right of academic freedom on their side to discuss that to their hearts’ content.

The ethical issue is different and for the sake of clarity, despite the fact that post-structuralism may be criticised on ethical grounds, it should be kept separate from the intellectual or artistic values of “Big Brother” versus “The Taming of the Shrew”. Has anyone been harmed by the production of this television program? Has any person’s dignity or rights not been respected in the process? Presumably the QUT ethics committee asked these questions, or others very similar to them, before the project was approved. Presumably, the two young men who participated in the production gave their consent. The parents of one of them appeared on the Stateline program and said that they saw nothing wrong with the program, that they were proud of their son and of what he was doing.

However, securing the consent of the individuals is not sufficient. An individual, for whatever reason, may give consent to another to disregard some human right that they hold but, according to the current understanding human rights are inalienable: they cannot be given away. So such abuse, with or without consent, is still abuse and a violation of human rights. Is “not being laughed at” a human right? Obviously not a universal one. Much humour depends upon provoking laughter at the actions or statements of either the subject or of some other third person, such as a politician. This perception of humour and sense of a legitimate social role is culture specific: not all cultures share is: laughing at religious leaders, for example, is not understood to be acceptable in some cultures. However, one of the overall intentions of the Human Rights regime is to protect human dignity and being laughed at can harm one’s dignity in particular circumstances.

A further question, perhaps should be considered. Was the consent informed? Did the two young men understand sufficiently well what the project would entail and how they would be portrayed? There is no clear answer to this question, except to hope that the ethics committee at the University should have taken due precautions that, given the sensitive nature of the project and the objective difficulties the two young men have in gaining an adequate comprehension of situations. The Australian article discusses the fact that one of them suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, where “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 raises at least a prima facie question whether, in the context of humour, these young men sufficiently understood what they were consenting to. It would be interesting and probably in the public interest to read the QUT ethics committee’s determination on the project: working our way through ethical reasoning can only help us all.

Various associations of people with disabilities have expressed their rejection of the project as abusive and demeaning. (YouTube) In short, it was not funny to them, and there is the distinct possibility that they will be affected by such a television program were it to be broadcast.

We should also consider the impacts beyond the individuals concerned. Many people have struggled for considerable periods of time to win a place for people with disabilities to participate as full members of society and to be treated with respect and dignity. This has involved community education about the nature of various disabilities, familiarisation with how to respond and, above all, the introduction of anti-discrimination legislation and creating structures and expectations to enable that legislation to have real effect in public places, work places and places of learning. Given this recent historical context, humour which objectifies and increases the sense of “us” (no disability!) and “them” (with a disability) would seem to go beyond most senses of humour in western cultures which either lampoons “us” or those who have more access to social goods and power than most.

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