Non-Concluding Postscript On Violence

 

Protests always seem to be marred by the accusation of violence. Indeed the recent efforts of the Education Action Group (EAG), most notably two attempts to vocally object to the presence of Julie Bishop on the ANU campus, have refocused most criticisms towards the issue of violence. We, as the fairly sheltered kiddies we are (though I dare not presume to speak for the entirety of the student body), have a woefully low threshold for what constitutes violence. Shouting and interruptions seem to be the line for at least some in the student body. The first attempt to protest Julie Bishop’s appearance on the ANU campus on the 18th of June found the Facebook page for the protest filled with people questioning the underlying methodology. That methodology tends to involve presence, vocalisation (being loud), either soft or hard picket lines and generally being a menace. The EAG have a history of interruptions and occupations – interrupting the deputy VC’s presentation on open day, occupying the ANU Chancelry, etc. I think when people talk about violence this is, coupled with a fear of escalation, what they imagine. I’m not too sure I disagree with this weak definition of violence – disruptions, noise, occupations, are all a kind of violence, but it is unclear they are a morally bad kind of violence as a oppose to a disquieting violence.

However what I am concerned about is that these accusations of violence are the result of something far more insidious. In a long forgotten article, Mark Edmundson, then a lecturer at the University of Virginia, pinpoints a loss of displaying emotion, of getting too invested in anything. I quote at length:

“On good days they [Edmundson’s Students] display a light, appealing glow; on bad days shuffling disgruntlement. But there’s little fire, little passion to be found.

“This point came home to me a few weeks ago when I was wondering across the university grounds. There, beneath a classically cast portico, were two students, male and female, having a rip-roaring argument. They were incensed, bellowing at each other, headstrong, confident and wild. It struck me how rarely I see this kind of full-out feeling in students anymore. Strong emotional display is forbidden. When conflicts arise its generally understood that one of the parties will say something sarcastically propitiating (“whatever” often does it) and slouch away.”      

Edmundson relates this to an expanding consumer culture (he was writing in 1997), in which cool, disinterested, non-invested and laconically ironic characters dominate television and advertisements focus on ‘persona ads’ where the emphasis is on purchasing something to be something, “buy in order to be”. Some of Edmundson’s ideas that stem from this, about people being trying to be ‘cool’ and ‘disinterested’ to fit in, do not seem to be reflective of some radical epoch that was emerging in 1997, but rather a fact about modern western society. However his point about our lacking of displaying emotion is what I want to highlight. It seems that many of the criticisms levelled at the EAG and protesters are not so much about violence, they are about displays of emotion, and our revulsion is to a thing we have long rejected – people who are invested. Thus it seem the accusation people are levelling against the EAG is one of having passion.*

Of course there are psychological reasons we avoid these displays of emotions. Heated, ‘rip-roaring’ arguments are intense and decentring affairs. Displays of emotion are emotional (duh) – they are uncomfortable, upsetting, enraging. They feel hideously unproductive. For some reason we assume a considered opinion will be delivered in soft, dulcet tones. However just because there is belligerence and tension, does not mean ears are closed. There’s a story about an Australian ambassador who used to argue furiously with his staff whenever they proposed any slightly off kilter idea. However, he often took on board the ideas of his staff.

Passion, anger, etc, may not be endearing. It comes across as self-affirming and is alienating. However, this is a two way street, you can affect your own response to these things. Just as we have learnt to quiet down our arguments, to suppress getting too excited, or angry, we can learn to think through our response to those showing passion and anger, to suppress our feelings of alienation, to suppress getting disheartened.

What we need to do is to walk a difficult path between not marginalising emotion and those who are angry and vocal and not marginalising reason and calls for balance. To quote an article by the organiser of the Louis Klee:

“Just as reason can be marginalising to students who have legitimate concerns, anger can also be alienating and destructive. Just as there is a violence of reason, an exclusionary violence that silences voices of those who are deemed irrational, there is no less dangerous violence of anger.”   

Our task is to find a way to walk a middle ground between emotion and reason, and not lose either into an abyss. To think through each step those who protest fee deregulation (and protest in general) are taking, without dismissing them. To not shy away from ‘rational’ engagement with the ANU Chancelry, or people who object to the methods of the EAG, while remaining sceptical of the how and why upon which those engagements are staged.

 

*I understand I am making sweeping claims, and some disagreements have more substance than I am suggesting, however I am seeking to engage with a general gripe of several comments. Something is bound to be lost in the detail.

 

1Edmundson, Mark “On The Uses Of a Liberal Education”. Harper’s Magazine 295:1768(September  1997) 39-49.
 
2Klee, Louis, “An Open Letter to Hannah KY Mcann on Anger, Reason and The Act of Reading”. Woroni, published June 16 2014 <http://woroni-legacy.dev/comment/an-open-letter-to-hannah-ky-mccann-on-anger-reason-and-the-act-of-reading/>.