[csaa-forum] RE: Another attack on CS

Danny Butt db at dannybutt.net
Sun Jul 30 09:51:37 CST 2006

As I was rethinking the motivation behind my snarky comment, Amanda  
and Ien have raised the "hurt", so against my better judgement, let  
me try a few points again about Dawson's piece, because when Mark  
Davis is chiming in with support for it, it worries me a lot :).  
Actually, it's about the genre, because I'm sure many of us have read  
many pieces like it, if not always directed at conferences we're  
organising ourselves. Looks like I've written a lot, again, must be  
tax time.

1) Pieces like Dawson's cause me hurt, as they cause hurt to other  
people who are engaged in complex activism around cultural politics  
and who sometimes use technical language  - a.k.a "my crew".  
Moreover, it's written with language ("academic weasel words") and a  
style that has a long history in causing hurt. There's no respect for  
the intellectual work done, and no respect for the practical work  
done at the coalface of intercultural interaction, work which is much  
more complex than tossing straw people around in newspaper columns.  
Mark, I'm sorry, I'm not in the "our" whose intellectual practice  
Dawson is "defending".

It's possible to write clearly and straightforwardly, in Murdoch  
newspapers, with that respect (cf. Probyn, Lumby). Dawson's language  
is that of the hater. There's no way that any evidence I could  
marshall about multiculturalism or academic practice would influence  
her argument, which is worked out in advance and not very specific to  
the conference (or to Australia for that matter). Everyone's already  
rehearsed a number of reasons why the argument is wrong. I'd like to  
keep the focus not on the argument, but on the lack of respect, which  
is the real source of the hurt and the responses here to these  
attacks. I guess my experience is that you don't bridge political or  
cultural gaps without respect, so immediately I see Dawson's  
particular vision of a more united and organised "academic Left" as  
both impossible and suspect, because she doesn't practice what she's  

2) Next methodological problem: for someone preaching audiences and  
communication, Dawson's handle on how you communicate to audiences is  
shaky at best, based on bad faith at worst. Who's the audience for  
this piece, me? It's supposedly addressed to people like me, who are  
supposed to stop using complex language and be more plain speaking.  
Why am I not convinced? Ah, the piece isn't addressed to me at all,  
which is part of the reason I feel hurt! I'm being spoken about, not  
spoken to. Someone speaking *to* me would be showing respect. The  
people being spoken to by Dawson seem to agree with her argument that  
academics are elitist and need to find the common touch for  
Australia's benefit. Who could disagree with such mom and apple pie  
sentiments? The only people who would argue are those who are being  
spoken about, who would have to cough politely and intrude on the  
cosy conversation. Hmm, why does this dynamic seem familiar when  
we're talking about multiculturalism?

Dawson may be well-intentioned, but unfortunately, as the Coup put  
it, she's getting hustled only knowing half the game. The sad fact is  
that while her personal experience of exclusion form academic  
language may be genuine (and a genuinely well-worn strategy for  
adding human interest to a newspaper column about such personal  
topics as the Left, Australia, academia, etc.), that's not why her  
column is being published. It's being published because forums like  
the Australian, with a resolutely nationalist and masculine mode of  
address, have always relied on the "maverick native informant" who  
will find a career for themselves by translating information about  
feared minorities into a palatable morality play, finishing with the  
need for "others" to be more "like us". "I'm an aspiring academic,  
and I can tell you that academics conform to all the things you  
already thought about them!  Luckily, I'm not interested in becoming  
one of those, and maybe I can change them for you!" "Oh, she's a good  
girl! I wish there were more like her."  It could be women dissing  
feminism, migrants preaching assimilation, former marxists disavowing  
the left, or indigenous people telling the whites how their  
communities need paternalistic "tough love" from the government. (Or  
"young fogies", Mark!). The narrative of personal identity and  
insider-outsiderism is really tailor-made for op-ed. Unfortunately,  
making  a "public" career for oneself by selling division within a  
specific community to the press might not lead to a happy life, or a  
particularly sustainable form of professional practice. Because when  
shit goes down, you can to turn to your community for support, but  
"the Left" or "Australia" or the other abstractions you might be  
writing for might not remember you.

3) I know most of Dawson's fans have given up by this point, but  
let's talk about this "out there" or "public" where our intellectual  
work is supposed to have an impact. If Dawson's underlying point is  
that we need to find greater public impact for our work, I'll say,  
"Of course, what are you doing a PhD for if you want to write op-ed  
for the Australian then?". It's like getting an computer science  
degree to retail computers. That's not saying the Australian doesn't  
have an impact, but it's through the reflection/refraction of  
sentiment, rather than evidence-based intellectual argument of the  
kind academics are trained for (and I think the real transformations  
of people's imaginations through the press come in feature writing,  
rather than op-ed, though I think op-ed can have a useful "disrupting  
storylines" capability when done well). The press is also seductive  
in its reach, yet impossible to gauge in its real impact, so it's the  
perfect domain for academics to project their fantasies about  
changing the world. It's dangerously overrated by CS as a sphere, in  
a way that only seems to feed the anxieties Dawson and other  
postgrads are expressing about the field.

I know plenty of people trained in cultural disciplines by the  
academy who have a massive impact on the "public out there" - they  
work in policy. I think educators would do well to steer students who  
want to affect the public in a general way into that domain. Most  
would quickly realise they've become too busy with real politics to  
worry about people writing theory :7. I do policy work occasionally,  
and it's hard and frustrating and makes me realise I'm much better at  
other kinds of textual work. But because it's attached to law/ 
resources, the effects are real. In policy/govt. there is an actual  
political mechanism determining "the common", rather than just a  
vague sense that your writing should conform to a certain style to be  
politically effective. I think that lack of confidence in the  
"publicness" of that style is a part of the resentment and anxiety  
over theory comes from the chattering classes.

At the other end of the scale, the other place you know your work can  
have an impact is in teaching. The feedback on your performance is  
measurable. Whenever I run facilitation exercises where non-academics  
talk about significant events in their lives, I get surprised at how  
many will talk about experiences where a teacher inspired them or  
shifted their thinking. They don't talk about what they read in the  
paper.  Personally, I think that individual good teachers I know have  
had more of a transformational impact on "culture" than Keith  
Windschuttle, and that makes me happy. Personal interaction might  
seem marginal to the "public", but what it lacks in scale, it makes  
up for in depth, impact and longevity. I'll always forward that  
against the ivory tower argument, and I miss teaching for that reason.

If you want to talk about *writing* (which is ultimately what Dawson  
was talking about: language, not real political impact), then your  
style reflects your own capability and the forum you're working in,  
and hopefully as an academic or media professional you learn that  
those are going to be different depending on the circumstance.

For me, that's the most important message that can be, should be, and  
too occasionally is put forward in places like the Australian, both  
for academia and multiculturalism: there's more than one way of doing  
things, and that's good, because everyone's different. If people use  
obscure language, have unusual customs, or seem to be somehow out of  
step with the "public" we're all used to, that can be an opportunity  
for us to learn, rather than being a threat to our interests.

Dawson's underlying message is the opposite: the urgency of the  
situation means we need to agree on a collective set of values/ 
strategies to "benefit Australia". If the currency of op-ed is  
mobilising sentiment, all I see in Dawson's message is a reflection  
of the more pernicious attacks on tolerance, difference, and  
expertise that we're becoming used to.  And it frightens me, to be  


Danny Butt
db at dannybutt.net | http://www.dannybutt.net
Suma Media Consulting | http://www.sumamedia.com
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