This has led to possible disciplinary action from their university.
And: The Australian today (09 May 2007, 'Critics of PhD face discipline', by Bernard Lane:
Here is the "offending" article:
ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate
Philistines of relativism at the gates
By John Hookham and Gary MacLennan
Posted Monday, 16 April 2007
A time comes when you have to say: "Enough!", when you can no longer put up with the misanthropic and amoral trash produced under the rubric of postmodernist, post-structuralist thought. The last straw, the defining moment, came for us when we attended a recent PhD confirmation at the Queensland University of Technology, where we teach.
Candidate Michael Noonan's thesis title was Laughing at the Disabled: Creating comedy that Confronts, Offends and Entertains. The thesis abstract explained that "Laughing at the Disabled is an exploration of authorship and exploitation in disability comedy, the culmination of which will be the creation and production (for sale) of a six-part comedy series featuring two intellectually disabled personalities.
"The show, entitled (Craig and William): Downunder Mystery Tour, will be aimed squarely at the mainstream masses; its aim to confront, offend and entertain." (Editor's note: the subjects' names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Noonan went on to affirm that his thesis was guided by post-structuralist theory, which in our view entails moral relativism. He then showed video clips in which he had set up scenarios placing the intellectually disabled subjects in situations they did not devise and in which they could appear only as inept. Thus, the disabled Craig and William were sent to a pub out west to ask the locals about the mystery of the min-min lights.
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.
Presumably he also thought it was amusing to give them an oversized and comically shaped pencil that made it difficult for them to write down answers to the questions they were meant to ask. The young men were also instructed to ask the locals about whether there were any girls in the town as they were looking for romance. This produced a scene wherein a drunk Aboriginal woman amorously mauled William.
Capping off this reality show format, the candidate asked Craig and William on camera what they would do if a girl fancied both of them. When William, a sufferer of Asperger's syndrome, twitched and was unable to answer, the university audience broke into laughter. Then Craig replied: "We would share her." This, it seems, was also funny for the university audience. They had clearly "got it".
It's worth noting that William's condition may make it difficult for him to understand the subtexts of social interaction. AS 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 leads to social awkwardness and inappropriate behaviour.
Much was made at the seminar of the potential for all humour to offend and of the ancient nature of the tradition of mocking the disabled. But the purpose of humour is not just cruelty. The butt of a joke usually has some undeserved claim to dignity and the funny incident takes him or her down a peg.
Humour undermines the rich and powerful, and it can be politically subversive. But we don't think it's funny to mock and ridicule two intellectually disabled boys. We think we, and the university, have a duty of care to those who are less fortunate than us.
At the seminar we were told there was a thin line between laughing at and laughing with. There is no such thin line. There is an absolute difference that anyone who has been laughed at knows.
We must admit with great reluctance that at the seminar we were alone in our criticism of the project. For us, it was a moment of great shame and a burning testimony to the power of post-structuralist thought to corrupt.
It is not our intention here to demolish the work of Noonan, an aspiring young academic and filmmaker. After all, ultimate responsibility for this research rests with the candidate's supervisory team, which included associate professor Alan McKee, the faculty ethics committee, which apparently gave his project total approval, and the expert panel, which confirmed his candidacy.
To understand how we have got into this dreadful situation, one need go no further than reading the series of interviews with some of the great figures of popular culture published in the journal Americana.
These interviews are remarkable in that they all follow a similar narrative: the young professors who burn with a passion for popular culture take up a position at a university where they come up against the dragon of high culture. They risk life and career to slay the dragon by publishing articles on popular cultural phenomena such as TV soap operas. This, then, is the story of the heroic age of cultural studies, when teachers of cultural studies forced the academy and the schools to broaden their horizons.
As academics who have published articles on The Simpsons and Deadwood, we warm to these tales of derring-do. However, it is vital that one recognise that the heroic age of cultural studies is long past. The dragon of high-culture elitism has been well and truly slain.
What holds centre stage is not a critique of how popular culture provides - in the words of scholar George Lipsitz - the "links that connect the nation, the citizen subject, sexuality, desire and consumption". What we have instead is the reality that cultural studies is in the grip of a powerful movement that we call the radical philistine push. It is this same movement that has seen the collapse of English studies and the consequent production of graduates who have only the scantiest acquaintance with our literary heritage.
It is also undermining the moral fabric of the university.
Let us be clear: we are not blaming students. In our line of fire are the academics who have led the assault against notions of aesthetic and moral quality in cultural studies. This has taken the form of a direct attack on those who do not celebrate every offering that comes out of the maw of corporate culture.
We are all supposed to wave our rear ends and become cheerleaders for rubbish such as Big Brother and Wife Swap. Lest the reader think we exaggerate, let us turn to the views of McKee, the enfant terrible of the post-structuralist radical philistines within the creative industries faculty at QUT.
In the university newspaper, Inside QUT, he was reported as saying: "Teaching school students that Shakespeare is more worthy than reality television is actively evil" and in his "ideal world programs such as Big Brother would be at the centre of the curriculum".
In a similar vein, John Hartley, Federation fellow and the founding dean of the faculty, has claimed there are similarities between Big Brother and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew in that both explore issues of marriageability. Of course there are similarities; almost all stories deal with the quest to find a mate. But, in any comparison between Shakespeare and Big Brother, what counts are the differences, not the similarities. In Shakespeare we can point to, at the very least, the complex and sophisticated way in which the text is shaped, formed and structured. Every aspect has been deliberately crafted so that no feature is superfluous.
But by elevating Big Brother to the level of Shakespeare, the radical philistines have taken the high culture v low culture distinction and inverted it. Low culture is the tops and anyone who so much as refers to high culture becomes the enemy and is subjected to the politics of abuse and exclusion. This is what has led us to Craig and William: Downunder Mystery Tour.
And now, when we say that in civilised society it is repugnant to mock the disabled, most academics in our field appear to disagree with us. When we say it is morally wrong to laugh at the afflicted, our colleagues seem indifferent to the truth of this statement. Presumably for them it is just our "narrative".
They can take this position because in the postmodern world there are no theories, no knowledge and no truth; there are only narratives, fictional stories, all told with bias.
Yet we and almost everyone outside of the cultural studies ghetto reject this moral and epistemological relativism. If we are to take meaningful political action, if we are to act morally, if we are to teach our students how to live, how to act in an ethical fashion and how to make progressive and powerful art, then we need to be able to determine what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is false.
Is there an alternative to the moral relativism, the schlock aesthetics and the dumbing down of the postmodernists? Yes, but to transcend the position staked out by the new philistines would require a commitment to aesthetic and moral education.
The aesthetic component would once again undertake the task of cultivating and improving aesthetic taste and judgment. That means providing access to the best that has been written, painted, said and filmed.
This aspect of the curriculum would necessarily be anti-relativist.
There are dangers and difficulties here, but the present situation is one where educational institutions are beset with wilful ignorance and culturally the ruling slogan appears to be "the grosser the better". This is nothing less than an offence to the human spirit.
First published in The Australian on April 11, 2007.
John Hookham has worked in the film and television industry in England, South Africa, New Zealand and the USA. His films have won a number of awards and have been screened internationally at festivals including Locarno, Montreal, Goteborg, Amsterdam, Durban and Cannes.
Gary MacLennan was born in Northern Ireland and has worked internationally as a teacher of English, writing, literature and Australian film. Areas of expertise include documentary theory and practice, critical realism, cultural studies, current affairs and the media, film history and theory.
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