[csaa-forum] RE: Another attack on CS

Mark Davis davismr at unimelb.edu.au
Sun Jul 30 22:31:11 CST 2006

Yes, I know what you mean about being hurt by this sort of stuff, Danny,
and I can sympathise with Amanda, too. Sitting down with the paper and
discovering your work dismissed in an op-ed tends to come as a shock. That
said, if we’re so thin-skinned as to let these things worry us, we’ll
never get past first base, and it’s important that we do (and yes, Danny,
I am including you in this ‘we’!), not least because of the pernicious,
indeed frightening tone of much current public debate.

Ien is absolutely right; the media-public sphere proper is not nice. The
conventions of collegiality most of us are used to just don’t apply.
Worse, the space, as I see it, is specifically constructed so as to
bully-out possible contributors. In my own experience, and I’m by no means
alone, serious misrepresentation, factual errors, argument twisting, and
personal slur are all par for the course. They’ll protect their columnists
at all costs, esp the high-profile regulars. It’s almost impossible to get
right of reply even to highly libellous pieces unless you’re very high
profile and therefore dangerous in other forums. A short, highly edited,
letter to the ed, often held over for over a week or two after the
original piece, is about the best you’ll do.

But I think it’s also a matter of knowing how the space works as a
discursive formation, and knowing how to read it and use it. In the case
of the Dawson article, the mildly derogatory terms that worried some
people — expressions like ‘weasel words’ and ‘gobbledook’ — just didn’t
worry me. True, I’m extremely thick-skinned, but I also doubt the article
would have been accepted had they not been there, and I moved past them
looking for what the piece was actually trying to say knowing that such
expressions are little more than generic markers often used by writers
(I’ve done it myself) to push the right buttons with the op-ed editor.
Sorry, but that’s how op-eds work — buzz-words are all they know. And
playing the ‘maverick informant’ doesn’t hurt either (great point, Danny).
All this to get your argument in, esp if you’re young and new blood. In
Dawson’s case I found the final argument worth listening to despite this.

Does all this render the space unusable? In some ways I think, yes. But at
the same time I think we have to unlearn some of our own privilege here.
If middle-class, educated and articulate people like us are ‘hurt’ by the
way we get spoken about in such spaces, then what about the often
completely voiceless people who bear the real brunt? And if intellectuals
abandon such people, then what’s the point of our work?


> 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
> preaching.
> 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
> honest.
> x.d
> --
> Danny Butt
> db at dannybutt.net | http://www.dannybutt.net
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Mark Davis
Publishing Program
Department of English with Cultural Studies
University of Melbourne

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