Mr Bashful recently applied to the ‘Venues’ section of Sydney University, offering to perform his public speaking services for one week, free. He planned to stand on his soapbox on a lawn and speak to the students for an hour each day, at lunchtime.
He completed a form explaining himself. In a prodigious effort to prove he was not a ratbag or pill-popping dill he told them he had presented a talk on ABC Radio National’s prestigious Ockham’s Razor program, and had won the ‘Now Hear This’ competition on the same radio station. Further, he had been received well in Sydney’s Ignite talks. All of it verifiable on the internet.
In other words, he wanted them to know that despite being a soapbox speaker, he still had some of his marbles.
The Venue officials required him to explain what he would be talking about. This mildly surprised the unassuming Mr B, but he guessed they were concerned he might incite violence and leave the university in rubble. Or incite hatred, and prompt the constabulary to visit. Or, he might defame a litigious cad and diminish the university’s bountiful coffers.
To put the officials’ trembling hands to rest he complied with their request, stating he would talk about:
– why we need to burn the Mona Lisa,
– repealing the Unfair Dismissal laws,
– the three reasons for Third World poverty,
– why we should not try to reach our full potential,
– the Meaning of Life,
– the Positive Thinking myth,
– why James Hardie Industries should not compensate asbestos victims,
– a good way to punish corporate thieves.
It would be a stretch to view these topics as subversive or extremist.
Mr B added that he would not talk about religion, was not a member of any organisation, and had no barrow to push. He concluded by saying that his main aim was for the students and himself to have fun.
The officials replied.
Instead of one of the officials taking the trouble to write a brief reply to express regret on behalf of them all, and to give a reason for the rejection, it was left to the clerk who had taken Mr B’s request to give a verbal reply.
If Mr B ever gets to talk on that university lawn he will add an extra subject: manners.
It must be noted: the clerk herself was helpful and courteous. She is an asset to the Venue department and to the University. (Unlike the Venue officials, who seem to be on the ‘liability’ side of the ledger.)
Mr B pressed this helpful clerk to obtain from the officials an answer in writing. He was eventually given a brief written response.
By now you might be asking, What is this article about? Is it a sulk from Mr B because his request was denied? No, it’s a tirade about why his request was denied.
‘On this occasion, our stakeholders have advised that allowing you to conduct your event on University grounds is considered not in the best interests of staff and students.’
(‘Stakeholders’?? What’s that about?) No one put their name to the reply. By now that’s no surprise, is it? Let’s focus on the reason they gave:
‘. . . not in the best interests . . .’
Mr B rang the helpful clerk to ask why the topics would be deemed ‘not in the best interest of staff and students’, pointing out that the university housed the Socialist Alliance Party. He was told, ‘Yes, they’re troublesome.’
Troublesome? The Venue officials see the socialists as ‘troublesome’?
No doubt those socialists are troublesome. This scribe has met them. They’re ratbags. But should ‘troublesome’ be a concern for the administrators? Surely it is their job, as well as their privilege, to create a fertile environment in which ‘troublesome’ students thrived? Would they not take pride in fostering an environment in which students challenged authority? Their job is, after all, to assist young minds develop the capacity to think thoughts not yet thought, and be the doers of the future.
Many students enter university under enormous pressure to succeed and repay their parents’ financial investment in them. And, in their desperation to meet their parents’ expectations – indeed, to justify their very existence – they cannot spend time indulging in new thought and ideas. They must toss such luxuries aside in their scramble to succeed.
However, we need those students to venture from the path. Free thinking students will be creating a world we don’t yet have. We want that future world to be a better one. We want those students to be a lifeline for humanity.
Therefore, the administrators should be encouraging those students to venture from the path and think freely. Instead, they see free-thinking students as ‘troublesome’ and view unorthodox speakers as problematic. Instead of providing a springboard for new ideas, they choose to protect the students from a soapbox speaker, for goodness sake.
Did the officials truly see in Mr Bashful a subversive who would corrupt fragile minds?
Perhaps they thought his views would be trite? If that were so, then when Mr B spoke he would be ridiculed or ignored. His problem, surely?
Perhaps the officials were concerned the students might be offended? But a university is the place to be offended. That’s where students need to learn to cope with offence, and deal with it, and decide for themselves what is offensive and what has merit.
Further, it’s an administrator’s role to help each student develop a first class, A-grade bullshit detector, so that one day they can help guide the rest of us through a world seething with bullshit. Students need all the practise they can get sorting bullshit from the truth.
Common thinking is entrenched in our day-to-day lives, and it’s well protected. In earlier days, common thinking gave us the belief that women shouldn’t vote, or be allowed in pubs, or have jobs. Common thinking is often stupid thinking, and only when clear thinkers make an impact can the rest of us begin to grow.
Each and every clear thinker is deemed weird and wacky at some point. And troublesome. We need our students to become clear thinkers so that painfully, slowly, the rest of us can catch up and grow. If they are shielded from views perceived to be ‘not in the best interests of the staff and students’ they will not develop the confidence and grit to develop their own fresh thinking.
From where else will new and exciting ideas spring?
In short, if a university is to assist students develop new ideas, then shielding them from ideas, wacky or otherwise, is not the way to go. To protect the students (and staff) from any speaker is to treat them like children. It demeans the students, it demeans the staff, it demeans the university.
And, it must be asked: if the administrators choose to reject a soapbox speaker to protect their students, in what other ways might they be hobbling their students’ development?
There is one other possibility: could it be that the officials are rejecting anything unorthodox simply to make life easier for themselves?
No, surely not. A laughable suggestion . . .
Mr Bashful will apply to the Venues Department again next year to be rejected again.
aka Mark Avery.
Postscript: After receiving the Venue’s reply, Mr B wrote to the university’s Students’ Union, which is a body elected to protect the interests of the students. Mr B wasn’t after their assistance; he simply thought they might be interested in the fact that the university’s administration was protecting the students from outside influences, and in doing so, treating the students like children.
The reply: ‘Many thanks . . . it is something I will certainly keep in mind next time an issue such as this comes up.’