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When the Authorities Tell You to Dissent

The University of Melbourne advertises itself as Australia’s best university—the first and only member of the Australian Ivy League. This isn’t an unreasonable claim. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings for 2019 put the University of Melbourne 32nd in the world, 17 spots ahead of Australian National University, its nearest Australian rival. Numerous other figures seem to demonstrate the school’s excellence at preparing students for prosperous employment and at developing their critical thinking skills.

Naturally, I was pleased and even proud to have been accepted into the University of Melbourne’s 2017 Master of Journalism program. I believed, without really thinking about it, that I was in for a challenging year and a half at a school far more rigorous than the one from which I received my baccalaureate. (The University of Oklahoma consistently lands somewhere in the 400s on the Times Higher Education index.)

Of course, I was aware of the complaints directed at Australian universities—that the integrity of their curricula had gradually been compromised to appease social justice activists. Ubiquitous Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson expresses these concerns somewhat apocalyptically:

You may not realize it, but you are currently funding some dangerous people. They are indoctrinating young minds throughout the West with their resentment-ridden ideology… They produce the mobs that violently shut down campus speakers, the language police who enshrine into law use of fabricated gender pronouns and the deans whose livelihoods depend on madly rooting out discrimination where little or none exists… And now we rack up education-related debt, not so that our children learn to think critically, write clearly or speak properly, but so they can model their mentors’ destructive agenda.

It’s natural that these denunciations should sound wildly hyperbolic—a bit like Joseph McCarthy’s claim that there were 81 Communists lurking in the State Department. Who but a political cultist would be willing to believe something like that without seeing it for himself?

The first indication I received that something had gone awry at Australia’s best university was in a criminology class titled “Violence, Trauma, and Reconciliation.” According to the University of Melbourne handbook, this class “considers the forms of trauma people experience as a response to… forms of violence and explores how this trauma propels calls for apologies, truth commissions, retribution, and torture.”

The instructor, Dr. Juliet Rogers, devoted a lecture to female genital mutilation—a natural enough topic for a class on trauma. In Rogers’s view, however, the true source of trauma was not the practice of FGM itself, but the “violence” of anti-FGM laws. After all, Western societies pressure women into body modification in the form of ear piercings—so who are we to pass judgment on those who practice clitorectomies and infibulations on children? And isn’t it true that legislators’ supposed concern with FGM is actually motivated by “Islamophobia”?

In the article “The First Case Addressing Female Genital Mutilation in Australia: Where is the Harm?” Rogers takes issue with Australian “prejudice” against the practice of clitoral “nicking”:

For each claim that a woman’s sexual health is impacted, there is a study which suggests it is not, and others which suggest it is enhanced. For each claim of trauma, there is another which claims empowerment. However, it is the violent images which are played and replayed, on airport shelves, in documentaries and in fiction that form opinion. These, “through repetition” have come in Obermeyer’s terms again “to gain authority as truth.” Similarly, in the FLC’s [Family Law Court’s] Report the image of violence is only presented and then repeated, with the name “female genital mutilation” always attached. There is no discussion of the benefits of the practices, the increases in sexual enjoyment that women report, the cultural empowerment that women experience, the desires of many to undergo the practices or the rage that many women have at being called ‘mutilated’ when so many clearly feel that they are not.

While working with the US Peace Corps in rural Gambia, I encountered the practice of female genital mutilation firsthand. The empowering effect of having one’s clitoris razored off was not readily apparent.

It was clear from the tone of Rogers’s lecture that she regarded these ideas as quite subversive and challenging. However, most of the room nodded along quite comfortably. If we didn’t actually find these ideas challenging, we could at least derive some satisfaction from the thought of how challenged a less enlightened third party might be.

Another peculiar class was Terror, Law, and War, ostensibly a survey of legal and military responses to terrorism. In practice, the class focused almost exclusively on American, European, and Israeli misbehavior, and on the perceived ridiculousness of Australian anti-terrorism measures. Islamist terrorism was left unconsidered except as a hallucination of xenophobic Westerners. As if to drive the point home, one presentation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict referred to Palestinian suicide bombings as “terrorism,” in scare quotes.

We spent a period discussing a televised interview with Wassim Doureihi, spokesman for the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. During the interview, Lateline host Emma Alberici took a combative stance, demanding that Doureihi either clearly denounce the Islamic State’s tactics or admit that he condoned them. Doureihi refused to cooperate, instead pushing the conversation toward Australian mistreatment of Muslims.

The subsequent class discussion became something like a rally: we unanimously acclaimed Doureihi’s dignity and courage and took turns mocking Alberici’s hypocrisy and ill-concealed racism. The teaching assistant declared with apparent pride that she was friends with Doureihi and that he had confided in her that the interview was a trying experience, but necessary. Some of the students who rose to voice their support for Doureihi were so agitated that their voices shook. Somehow, throughout this bacchanal of self-righteousness, the fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir is an explicitly anti-democratic organization that supports the killing of apostates and whose leaders describe Jews as “the most evil creatures of Allah” escaped mention. Evidently, one can’t take sides between liberalism and totalitarianism without knowing the pigmentations of those involved.

To hear Australia’s most privileged youth praise a theocrat like Doureihi was unsettling, but classes equally often took a turn for the comical. On one occasion, Rogers interrupted a Violence, Trauma and Reconciliation lecture to tell us about Lego’s “criminal” figure (right). The figure is about what you might expect: a child-friendly depiction of a burglar, sporting a sinister grin, a stocking cap and a black-and-white-striped prison uniform. What this piece of Lego has to do with either violence, trauma or reconciliation may not be immediately obvious: the criminal, you see, is depicted with visible chest hair. This chest hair is a coded indication that the criminal is nonwhite, thereby implying that people of color are criminals and terrorists. Oddly enough, another of my instructors also brought up this Lego figure and its racist chest hair during her own class. I suppose it had been doing the rounds among the faculty.

Students were always instructed to question their assumptions rather than acquiescing mindlessly to the status quo. At the University of Melbourne, however, the assumption that racial identification is of paramount significance, that Western societies are uniquely malignant and oppressive, that Islamist theocrats are victims and not perpetrators, et cetera, is the status quo. What does it signify when the authorities tell you to dissent?

In some classes, the frantic obsession with demographics was spearheaded by the students, against the apparent wishes of their instructors. In one nonfiction writing class, discussion of Gay Talese’s influential 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra centered not on Talese’s quippy yet unhurried scene-setting, or on his vivid portraiture of a subject he’d never actually interviewed, but on Talese’s misogyny. (One student said that Talese’s description of two Sinatra groupies as “attractive but fading blondes” was “chilling.”) David Foster Wallace’s essay “Tense Present” was subjected to a similarly myopic “discussion” of Wallace’s whiteness and his failure to acknowledge English as an “imperial language.” Any technical lessons we might have taken from Talese or Wallace were lost altogether—instead, we enumerated the things they might have learned from us.

During these Two Minutes Hate sessions, the instructor often stood back, grimacing uncomfortably and sometimes trying to steer the discussion back toward the piece of writing at hand. He was a gentle man with a clear love for long-form journalism, and I suspect he sometimes wondered why his class discussions had grown so frenzied.

What if I’d heard about this from someone else? I asked myself from time to time. What if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes? I knew the answer—I wouldn’t have believed a word of it. I would have assumed the narrator of these outlandish events to be a right-wing doomsayer ready to contort the truth however necessary to vilify his opponents. Can I reasonably expect more charity from you, the reader of this article? Hard to say.

Perhaps the most unexpected part of life at the University of Melbourne was how easy the actual work was. In Terror, Law and War, the essays I submitted consisted of structureless, deliberately turgid summaries of class readings, enlivened with the odd anti-Western cliché and handed in without proofreading or revision. This seemed to be the level of seriousness appropriate to the class. My diploma is proof that this material, produced almost without conscious effort, was up to the standards of Australia’s top university.

During one and a half years attending journalism classes, I was exposed to surprisingly little information on the actual craft of journalism. Recipients of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism degree will know about the inverted pyramid model and other basic concepts. Deeper questions, however, are left mostly unexamined. When should an interviewer rely on a list of questions and when should he improvise? How does one efficiently cut a news story down to 125 words?  How does news writing differ from other prose in grammar and punctuation? It is possible to obtain a 150-point journalism degree from the University of Melbourne without learning the answers to these questions. Of course, who has time for such trivialities when there’s a revolution on? University of Melbourne students may matriculate unprepared to produce clear and accurate news articles, but they will understand their political objectives.

I graduated in December 2018, amidst rallies against “fascism on campus.” (Given that, in 18 months on campus, I encountered no fascists, these rallies seem to have been very effective.) Behaving compliantly throughout these peculiar antics was a mistake. The most I can do after the fact is relay my observations without inventing a heroic role for myself.

Was pursuing a degree at Australia’s top university a waste of time? Not necessarily. The name of an institution whose superiority is supported by so many statistics surely helps beautify my résumé. And I was granted the chance to dip into a strange emerging culture, one whose existence I probably would not have accepted if I hadn’t seen it for myself. It seems the doomsayers are sometimes correct.


Zachary Snowdon Smith’s writing has appeared in the Herald SunAreo, and Beat music magazine. He previously headed Chess For The Gambia, a youth development project.

Photo by Fabian Mardi on Unsplash