April 19, 2012, by Tessa Houghton

Don’t Mention the VIPs on Campus: Protest, Censorship, and Hierarchies of Oppression

I must admit to being particularly unimpressed by the thrust of the recent student piece on the Impact (‘The University of Nottingham’s Official Student Magazine’) website, entitled Don’t Mention the Tuition Fees: British Students Silenced at Malaysia Campus Talk. The article bemoans the fact that UK students at UNMC were not allowed to attend the recent UNMC-hosted foreign policy discussion held by Malaysian PM Najib Razak and UK PM David Cameron in order to air their grievances over UK HE fee-hikes.

For anyone who knows me, and my research, this disapproval may seem counter-intuitive. I’m interested in (nay, obsessed with) protest and activism, disruptive, small ‘p’ politics – particularly hacktivism and online protest dynamics and mobilization. I’m usually head of the queue of those standing up for the rights of freedom of expression and protest, and it’s part of the reason why I applied for (and accepted) a job at UNMC – because there’s real work to be done here. But it’s this research interest, and in particular the work done on radical conceptions of the public sphere and on democracy and difference  that underpins my reception to what I call the Don’t Mention article.

Iris Marion Young’s work on activism and protest, and on the somewhat uneasy relationship that these forms of political communication have with traditional or Habermasian conceptions of the public sphere and deliberative democracy has been one of my theoretical touchstones since I first encountered it, and remains so here.

Her perspective on the significance of protest, or aesthetic-affective communication, as opposed to the pure legitimation of rational-critical political communication is essentially that:

“…the enlightenment ideal of the civil public sphere citizens meet in terms of equality and mutual respect is too rounded and tame an ideal of a public. This idea of equal citizenship attains unity because it excludes bodily and affective particularity, as well as the concrete histories of individuals that make groups able to understand one another. Emancipatory politics should foster a conception of the public which in principle excludes no persons, aspects of persons’ lives, or topics of discussion and which encourages aesthetic as well as discursive expression. In such a public, consensus and sharing may not always be the goal, but the recognition and appreciation of differences, in the context of confrontation with power.”

I’m in total agreement with this perspective – the lines of power and dominance that structure our socio-political existence are too extreme for the argument that we must all attempt to operate as rational-critical equals, or to mutually “self-abstract” ourselves from our particular and dis/em/powered realities – to hold much, if any, water. The ability to self-abstract is a massively differentially distributed resource, and this, along with the fact that arenas for political communication are so heavily controlled by the already-powerful, means that any self-respecting democracy should enshrine the rights to freedom of expression and protest within its constitution (or legislative equivalent).

So the question remains – having just espoused my support for the right to protest, why then turn around and express disapproval for these students’ ‘thwarted rights’? The answer is, as it so often is, to do with context.

As Young argues, our goal should be “the recognition and appreciation of differences, in the context of confrontation with power.” My interpretation of this is that it can, and should be read both ways. We should recognize and appreciate  the ‘ineradicable other’ – and there should be space for the expression of that ‘otherness and difference’ through ‘other and different’ modalities.

However, I think it can also be read that amongst us – with ‘us’ being the collective of variously oppressed and subordinated others differentially yet simultaneously confronting power – we should recognize and appreciate that we are internally heterogeneous, and have different realities and oppressions to live within and through. A core aspect of this ‘mutual recognition of the oppressed’ should be the acceptance that some oppressions are more severe than others, and that given that we are often only presented with very limited chinks in the strategies of power within which to engage in tactical resistance, we would likely do well to dedicate our resources intelligently.

It’s worth reflecting upon the relative and differential ‘powers of the disempowered’, and the way in which certain counterhegemonic discourses may in fact silence or marginalize the voices of even more oppressed and subordinated others and issues. The following might serve as ‘reflection aids’:

  • Don’t Mention the Fact that Cameron Did a Traditional ‘Walkabout’ Around UNMC: Could Have Been Asked Anything
  • Don’t Mention the Absence of any Student Protest on the Grounds of UNMC: Isn’t That A Bit Odd?    and
  • Don’t Mention the Fact That One Malaysian, One Iranian and One Burmese Student Wanted To Protest: The Rest of the UNMC Student Body Was Too Scared To Speak Up (also known as):

I could continue, but hopefully you begin to see my point.

The original Don’t Mention article seems to me have committed a cardinal journalistic sin – they didn’t invert their ‘pyramid’, and what I think is the most significant information of the whole piece in the final paragraph/s. Beyond that, it simultaneously displays a staggering lack of solidarity with and empathy for the subjectivities of fellow students and the citizens and democratic struggles of Malaysia.

So, as I said, I’m unimpressed, but I’m also not particularly surprised. This article, and the corresponding dearth of any ‘local’ or ‘international’ student representations of the event in Impact or anywhere else, seems to me to be yet another iteration of the ‘mothership’/’rule Britannia’ postcolonial complex proving particularly difficult to eradicate from the ‘global Nottingham’ endeavor.

As of yesterday, I note that there is a new article on the Impact website, entitled The Global University: Are We Really Inclusive Of Our Internationals? Although this article engages with a different set of microcosmic Nottingham University-attempted ‘integrations of global society’, I can only agree with The Global University’s authors’ conclusions.


If we still think that our #firstworlddemocracyproblems trump all else, we’re really not all that inclusive, and we need to do, and think, a lot more.

Dr. Tessa Houghton (School of Modern Languages and Cultures at The Univeristy of Nottingham Malaysia Campus)

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