President’s Welcome: Culture Wars 2.0

By Professor Su Baker

Only the paranoid survive, so says William Burroughs. Similarly, as they say, you don’t have to be paranoid to think they are out to get you!

It is not hard to feel a sinister force at work as the collateral damage and excesses of global capital slices through the social fabric of nations, and produces increasing social and economic divisions through polarising economic wellbeing of the world’s citizens.

The moral panic that we see surrounding the marriage equality process currently underway has become a touch stone for broader political conditions. While now largely mainstream views support marriage equality, along with reconciliation with the nation’s first peoples, action to reduce carbon emissions, and the adoption of renewable energy targets, an increasingly vocal and politically conservative group view these as threats to national and social cohesion -  the thin edge of the wedge that aims to threaten the world as they know it.

Bundled together, this is forming a culture of fear and the distrust of the facts and evidence, and with a seeming licence to offend. It is worth noting that it was a deliberate administrative act by the former Prime Minister John Howard that changed the Marriage Act to expressly introduce the gendered nature of marriage, and that was in 2004. The beginning of a new tide of conservative stridency it seems.

In a report to the staff and students of the University of Melbourne, the Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis commented on the current state of relations between the political class and the universities.

It has been an interesting couple of weeks in the media for universities, with a number of public voices criticising Australian universities for sins real or imagined. In an age of imitation, the attacks are pale reflections of controversies over universities in the United Kingdom and the United States. We may hear more such riffing in Australia during October as the Senate debates Education Minister Simon Birmingham’s proposed funding cuts to higher education.

Though the evidence offered is thin, it is always important to hear critics and ponder carefully their arguments. Some form part of a general assault on scholarship, as when a British minister says ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’, effectively denying the public standing of academic knowledge.

While the benefits of education don’t guarantee any particular voting pattern it could once be assumed a certain confidence in facts and evidence might prevail.

But it seems we have entered into a potent and pernicious new combat zone. We have entered a new polarised culture – this so-called post-truth condition. These are the culture wars 2.0, and much more insidious as their message requires no proof, but is rather based on fear and misinformation.

If we consider, as did the late Stuart Hall, that the condition of existence is cultural, political and economic, in that order, or, alternatively, that our culture is that which we are accustomed to and that which others are not, as Raymond Williams would attest, then we see the importance of understanding the way one’s assumed culture impacts on the lives of others.

These early scholars of cultural theory were not talking about Culture as in the creative arts industry as much as the customs and conventions of communities and how they vary and change, and how the expressions of their cultures can be seen in a number of forms such as the arts, sport, business endeavours, and in university and art school cultures. These critical tools have been part of arts education for some decades and it is more or less a given set of principles.

We know that cultures grow and can be interpreted through lenses of the social and the economic, but they can also be destroyed. We must guard against a growing gap between those who feel part of something and those feeling disenfranchised. We in the higher education sector don’t want to return to the divisions so described by the term “the ivory tower” and the alienation that was implied by that term. This is the driver of the new focus on Engagement, and the re-working of university missions that pay greater attention to a reciprocal relationship with communities both local and global.

We are all aware of the need to balance advanced thinking, evidence and insight within the academy and sharing and listening to the broader population.  We know that popular culture and the media saturated world in which we all live, is imbued with political meaning, sometimes repressive, but often, counter-intuitive, subversive or transgressive, and at times redemptive and inspiring hope.

It is our responsibility to progress positive cultural advancement and it is what we are charged to do. We should not hold back.