By the end of last week, “Changing The Course”, the Human Rights Commission’s report into sexual assault and harassment on campuses, was teetering on the edge of failure, with multiple criticisms (including those of this writer) of its research methods, and of the lurid publicising of results that suggested that assault/harassment was less common in university settings than among the public at large.

Then in the Sunday Age, Julie Szego propelled the report all the way to the Unsatisfactory Progress Committee and out into the afternoon shift at Gloria Jean’s. Szego, longtime writer from an explicitly feminist angle — with some sympathy towards wars against Muslim tyranny, and an obsession with Ayaan Hirsi Ali that the AHRC report might have sorted into stalking — damned the report for blending vastly different categories and throwing in a “stare from a sweaty engineering student on the tram” with everything up to assault to yield big numbers. “What will we do with a report that says there’s less sexual harassment on campus than outside, and half of that’s on the bus?” one pro-vice-chancellor told me this week. “We’ll use out own figures and teach ‘respect’.”

The shortcomings of the report, which obscured rather than illuminated the state of the problem on campuses and the initial claims made for it, raise several important questions about all of the institutions involved, and some of the motivating political campaigns behind them. They’re important questions, because they relate to what the university is, how rights are determined, and who gets their case taken up by the process. What has come crashing together in the “Changing the Course” mess is some of the contradictory relations of privilege, liberation and freedom in our society.

[Rundle: AHRC uni sexual assault report seriously flawed and endangers academic freedom]

The impetus for “Changing the Course” came from the vice-chancellors of Australia’s 39 major universities, who commissioned the AHRC to do it. The vice-chancellors were responding in part to a build-up of pressure from the “End Rape on Campus” movement, and a group screening the Hunting Ground documentary on rape and harassment on US campuses. Such groups allege there’s a “rape culture” on campuses; the AHRC report did not find that, or that there was any specific spike in harassment or assault in a university “setting”.

Despite that, the report contained a number of suggested measures that would increase surveillance and speech policing on campuses, and one aim of the “End Rape On Campus” movement has been to lower the burden of proof for on-campus “guilt” findings, from “reasonable doubt” to “probability”. Neither of these have a compelling case made for them by the AHRC’s report; if anything, it suggests there is no need for any departure from common social practice (which may itself need reforming).

Given that the report did not generate a compelling case for increased hard and soft social policing on campus, it’s particularly regressive to keep pushing such policies in a university setting. Cliched though the idea is, the university does remain a place where as much freedom — of speech, of thought, of image-display — as possible should be protected. “Should” because campuses have in recent years become places where speech has become more policed than elsewhere: policed by “no-platforming” of allegedly unacceptably offensive speakers, trigger warnings on contentious material, and challenges to course content held to be sexist, racist and other forms of speech held to be offensive. These pressures have come from one part of the left. From the right has come another pressure, to “balance” given notions of “left” and “right” in university teaching (an obsession of the IPA’s John Roskam, who would be happy to see the state dictate internal conduct of the university, in the name of freedom). Sections of the contemporary university, especially parts of the humanities, have become fraught places, where more rather than less silencing takes place. Regimes of “offensiveness” policing, absent of compelling cause, would add to that.

Given the absence of any great difference between university and non-university conditions, the insistence on a focus on university and students, and sexual harassment/assault, is also something other than progressive. Students obviously have the right to campaign about their own conditions, but if conditions are general, then a focus on the student experience excludes from consideration many people who don’t have the sense of “specialness” and privilege that attaches to students. There is presumably quite a lot of sexual harassment and assault in, say, fast food and supermarket retail — places where many young people without much social power work, and where the backroom sexual shakedown is an old standby. Yet such a setting does not have the same narrative attached to it — or the same advocates. One central absurdity of the AHRC’s report was to include student incidents on public transport as occurring in a university setting. Somehow the university student on the number 75 tram has a special quality to them. Hidden in the campaigning around campus conditions is a class privilege, running along the knowledge-class divide.

[Violence against women: how ‘not now, not ever’ became business as usual]

That in turn is magnified by the manner in which the AHRC sees its mission — increasingly,  not as defending a series of very general human rights, but as producing new and more particular rights and oppressions, and new forms of subjectivity and social categories arising from them. That is a situation in which the AHRC becomes a rights factory, and its own interests as an organisation are advanced by the more general expansion of the “rights” ideal. Interests, literally in this case — the AHRC was subcontracted by the university vice-chancellors — but also in a more general sense. The more that everything is seen through the prism of “rights”, the more central the AHRC is to the process of social change. I am not suggesting this is conspiratorial or nefarious; it’s simply that activist lawyers are bound to see the world in this way, and to try and make this a master social process. In Scandinavia, where this problem has been known for decades, it’s called “the entrepreneurial state”, the process by which multiple competing agencies simply work to reproduce themselves under conditions of scarcity — of funding, of power — with no overall steering relevant to the general social good.

Rights expansion is a classic example of this, and its collision with the university throws that into sharp relief. For there can be no question that a simpler and restricted notion of “rights” should apply to the university. If the university is the place where the most basic and presupposed social values are questioned and critiqued, it must be a place where subjective notions of “offensiveness” should have relatively little influence. Yet it’s subjective notions of what’s offensive that is prioritised in the AHRC report, and that generates the bulk of the figure of 51% of students sexually harassed in 2015-16, on or off campus. Put into official practice and process, this would entirely shift the particular premise of campus life. Quite aside from the chilling effect on a pluralist sphere of engagement, such notions of offensiveness would rebound on the left, and on social and cultural movements. Explicit discussion, the active comparison of values, standards, testing ideas, is — or should be — part of student life. This is a case where the specialness of the university should be taken into account. Significant amounts of LGBT campaigning involve sexual explicitness around allegedly non-mainstream sexual practices, bodily expressions, etc. Socialist Alternative, a major presence on campuses, tends to recruit with the fighting slogan “Fuck [Tony Abbott]/[Malcolm Turnbull]/etc”. Offensive? We all understand how a sexual term is being used here. But such general frameworks become undermined when subjectivity is put at the heart of the process. This is analogous to the way in which Zionist groups have used anti-racism statutes and protocols to shut down pro-Palestinian and BDS campaigns.

There is no reason to suppose that such processes would continue — not merely as game-playing by the political right, but out of contested notions of offensiveness, safety and autonomy. The very dialogic processes by which rights and collective claims to social justice were elaborated would be — are being — interrupted, in such a way that becomes a form of self-administering divide-and-be-ruled. The university is where revolution comes from. Reason is what makes it happen. Those with a genuine passion for the advancement of individual rights need to reflect deeply on the collective process that underlies it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey