Opinion //

Spence’s response to complaints puts USyd students in danger

Careless responses to complaints show the University's real priorities: reputation over students

Two weeks ago, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence received a complaint alleging that a recent Honi Soit article had “dismissed”, “trivialised” and “othered” Hindus and Hinduism. The complaint did not quote any particular parts of the article to support these allegations, which is unsurprising, given the article does none of these things. 

The article in question, published in the week 9 edition of Honi Soit, investigated the complex question of how spiritual practices come to be defined by religion. Written by a reporter who was himself raised Hindu, the article concludes that it is inaccurate to label the widely varying spiritual practices that have been practiced throughout South Asia for centuries as a singular religion. The author argues that the idea of a unified religion of Hinduism emerged in British colonialism, through colonists’ attempts to describe indigenous spiritual practices by forcing them into the mould of a unified religion.

If Spence had ever bothered to spend the minutes required to read the article, I doubt he would have flattered the complaint with his response. Instead, his generic response to the complaint states that “any form of religious vilification or discrimination… is unacceptable on our campuses” and a promises that the University “will consider this matter seriously.”

It is the latter remark that has now made headlines in several national-level Indian and American Hindu newspapers, which restate in almost exact terms a press release from the complainant. That is how the outrage machine works: send a strongly worded complaint about a vaguely described misconduct to the University, use the vice chancellor’s promise of “seriously” considering the matter in a press-release to sympathetic publications, wait for outrage to spread, rinse and repeat. For the editor of Honi, it was through one such article we first learnt we had been referred to the Student Affairs Unit for assessment of the complaint.

In this case, it appears the complainant, an American “Hindu statesman” (an apparently made up term) spends some significant portion of his life doing this. A brief perusal of the media releases on his website indicate that he has led important crusades against Etsy for selling Ganesh underwear, Japanese manga for “trivialising” Lord Shiva, and the Paris Opera for “hosting culturally insensitive ballet La Bayadère”. Though the complainant’s name features prominently in all the releases I read (what good luck for his public profile), the releases also consistently frame outrage on behalf of all 1.4 billion Hindus, rather than the complainant himself. Little wonder Etsy pulled their underwear. 

The article published in Honi was exactly the kind of critical, good faith public debate on the part of a student that the University appears to encourage in its newly-enacted Free Speech Charter. But only the deeply naive would think that is something the University is actually committed to. When push comes to shove, when the interests of students come up against even the vaguest threat to the University’s image, as it will constantly do due to opportunistic, outraged entrepreneurs, it is always clear the path which the University cares about more. That Spence could not even be bothered to read a short, well-written article before fanning the flames of outrage with a careless response says it all.

Filed under: