In a public debate in Canada a few months ago with the psychologist Jordan Peterson and the philosopher Sam Harris, Bret Weinstein, the American evolutionary biologist, got to the heart of the crisis engulfing some of our society’s key cultural and political institutions.
“We’ve arrived at a place in history where the sense-making apparatus that usually helps us figure out what to think about things has obviously begun to come apart – the political parties, the universities, journalism – all of these things have stopped making sense, and alternative sense-making networks have begun to rise,” Weinstein said.
The story that’s emerged this week of three university academics having their hoax research papers on gender and race published in academic journals is evidence for Weinstein’s argument.
The journal Gender, Place & Culture published one of those hoax papers, on the topic of the sexual behaviour of dogs in dog parks. One reviewer supported its publication but said more attention should be paid to the question of “black feminist animal studies”. The point is not only that such a paper was published, but that papers that were not intended as a joke have been bestowed with academic credibility. Last year the same journal published a “feminist posthumanist” analysis of what squirrels ate “to question and retheorize the ontological given of ‘otherness'”.
Such examples of academics no longer making sense could be dismissed as isolated, one-off cases if it wasn’t for the fact that an attitude that gives us a feminist posthumanist critique of squirrel food morphs into something else. Like the opinion expressed by someone like Catharine Coleborne, the Dean of Arts at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, who last year claimed that universities should not teach the concept of “Western Civilisation” because to do so perpetuated notions of hierarchy, inequality, gender difference and elitism.
When traditional political parties stop making sense, the alternative sense-making networks Weinstein describes produce Brexit, Donald Trump and democratic populism. But at least those traditional political parties have started a process of reflection and analysis. There’s no guarantee that, say, here in this country the Liberal and Labor parties will exist in their current form in 20 or 30 years.
Threat of extinction
The government doesn’t guarantee the future of political parties, unlike what the government and taxpayers do for universities and journalism (or to be more precise, the ABC). Which explains why although political parties have sought to reform themselves and maintain their relevance to the public, universities and the ABC have not, for the simple reason they see no need to.
Some of the work of the ABC still helps Australians figure out what to think about things, but it is an ever-diminishing proportion of what the ABC does. If it didn’t already exist there’s little chance a government of any persuasion would decide to spend a billion dollars a year inventing it.
The pity of the debacle at the ABC which has seen the managing director sacked and the chairman resign is that from all appearances it wasn’t the product of a difference of opinion about principle. By all accounts the chairman wanted a journalist sackedbecause he thought doing so would help get the ABC more money from the government. Such is what taxpayer-funded journalism has turned into.
In the absence of the threat of extinction, there’s no impetus for the ABC to undertake any sort of reform such as – for example – airing a wider diversity of political viewpoints. Which is why it is pointless for any Coalition MP to talk about reforming the ABC unless they support the ultimate sanction of denying the ABC government funding if the ABC doesn’t change.
The same principle applies to publicly funded universities. Any private organisation is free to provide or deny a platform and an audience to whosoever it wishes. But publicly funded universities are in a different category entirely. With public funding should come at a minimum a commitment from university administrators to the free expression of ideas without the threat of violence.
Australia’s public universities and the ABC are probably the two institutions that since the 1980s successive federal Coalition governments have complained the most about. Yet for decades Coalition governments have left universities and the ABC to do as they’ve pleased.