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September 25, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The importance of being rational

First, a caveat: I don’t claim to be a decent human being. I am a Media Studies major. I text in all caps. Just last week, in fact, I set my hair on fire.

But even in the face of these grave character flaws, I strive to be rational, a trait that is not prized enough by modern society. Fuck being earnest—earnestness is just, as P. J. O’Rourke so rightly said, stupidity sent to college. The importance of being reasonable, however, is paramount: if we can’t reach conclusions from deliberate consideration, if we can’t connect our beliefs to our reasons for belief, and our actions with our reasons for action, we are chickens without heads.

Too often, issues that are shaded grey are discussed in black and white terms. The argument over Voluntary Student Membership is a key example: to articulate it as a binary of compulsory or voluntary undermines the influences on and implications of the debate. Even worse than such total statements is hand-wringing, hysterical rhetoric. The New Zealand Union of Students’ Associations were quite rightly mocked for their “desperate” press release that declared that “members of the press release” would “tonight be appalled” that the “extreme… Bill” had not been reconsidered. I understand the intended effect of emotive language, but this verges on being insulting.

The same issue arose at the tumultuous ‘We Are The University’ protest on Kelburn campus a fortnight ago. Call me heartless, but changes to the International Relations programme does not constitute “the death of tertiary education”, and saying so undermines your point, alienates potential supporters, and makes it easier for your detractors to ignore, dismiss or rebut you. Moreover, the letter addressed to Vice-Chancellor Pat Walsh was, quite frankly, cringeworthy—petulant, sarcastic, and reeking of entitlement. I don’t dispute that the lack of consultation with students on changes to the University is disturbing, but snarky repetitions of “Pat” do not convey this, and that the protest’s organisers felt that this was an appropriate way of articulating these concerns—especially on behalf of other students—was acutely embarrassing.

Sometimes people confuse “discussion” with “sermon”, “lecture”, or “verbal assault,” but it’s easy to engage in reasonable dialogue, and doing so fosters constructive, rewarding, authoritative debate. Just be respectful of and open to new ideas; provide proof and justification; and concede to evidence that disproves your point. Your argument is never so powerful that it’s not necessary to talk about it.

By the same token, it is important to recognise the limitations of your opinion. Above all, you need to come to terms with the fact that all your opinions, without exception, are framed by your own experience and understanding of the world. Being a student of Victoria University, you are likely to be a white, middle-class New Zealander, aged between 17 and 25—and by that definition, you cannot be a leading authority on China’s economy or Michele Bachmann or the Israel-Palestine conflict. Not even if you hold a full online subscription to The New Yorker. It is of course vital to pay attention to international affairs, but fronting like an expert on issues that neither you nor I, by virtue of our position within the world, could ever hope to fully comprehend is misleading and presumptuous.

This is why we need to initiate a return to reason. Rationality does not preclude creativity or innovation: in fact, it reinforces their foundations. As one creative type, filmmaker Lars von Trier, noted—”if one devalues rationality, the world tends to fall apart”, and I am deeply concerned about the world falling apart. It is so, so important that we articulate ourselves clearly and intelligently and reasonably; otherwise, we just look like dicks. And if I’m going to look like a dick, it won’t be because I’ve made a blanket or overwrought statement that highlights the flaws in my logic. It will be because I’ve set my hair on fire.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (35)

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  1. Patrick says:

    Bravo Elle! Bravo!

  2. Paul Comrie-Thomson says:

    Word.

  3. MH says:

    My thoughts exactly.

  4. MJO says:

    Front foot cover drive, four runs. Well played, E Hunt.

  5. Josh says:

    Dig it — especially your thoughts on the We Are The University protest. Definitely changed my thoughts a bit. Whatababe.

  6. Shaun says:

    Hey Elle,

    Thought I would post here before the page was filled with drooling fan-boys. Just wanted to express my surprise that you have this deep seated commitment to rationality. It really was not even slightly present when you addressed me on the board for last week’s editorial.

    Unless this is written with a supreme sense of irony that went over my head? For reference the gif. you posted here:

    http://www.salient.org.nz/columns/editorial-mens/comment-page-1#comments

    is a great example of your willingness to engage in reasoned discussion.

  7. Elle Hunt says:

    Shaun—always a pleasure to hear from you, and thanks for reading. You forfeited your right to engage in a rational discussion with me when you resorted to personal attacks on me and my co-editor Uther Dean; when you showed yourself to be immune to and unmoved by alternate viewpoints and arguments; and when it became rapidly apparent that your knowledge of Salient ’11, which you are so critical of, was cursory at best. I will not display my “deep-seated commitment to rationality” when I am not treated with the same respect.

  8. Alpha says:

    ^ BOOM!

    Love this so much.

  9. smackdown says:

    shaun of the dead boring posts

  10. Shaun says:

    Thats better!

    Excellent Elle, truly top-class. See, we disagree but we are talking about WHY. I’m not sure it’s quite fair to disqualify me from rational discussion just because I couched my concerns in some personal attacks. Also, I don’t believe I made any personal attacks against you; in fact you complained that I was not recognising you at all.

    For you to conclude that I was immune and unmoved by alternate view points surely you would have to see me actually presented with some. In fact, drawing that conclusion does not seem at all reasonable or rational.

    I do have some questions about your opinion piece, though I will refrain from asking them if you still feel that I have forfeited my right to rational discussion. Please let me know when it is okay for someone to be other than cultishly supportive of you and Uther.

    Cheers.

  11. Elle Hunt says:

    Shaun, I have no interest in conversing with you further.

  12. Nicola Wood says:

    Shaun I’m sure there are many people who are not “cultishly supportive” of Elle and Uther who are still less of a dick than you.

  13. Shaun says:

    Read the first few comments on here. If I was a little more cynical I might think she was writing them herself.

    Does it not bother anyone that as soon as someone disagrees they are shut out?

  14. Alpha says:

    I agree with Shaun. Reading through the comments in the editorial he linked, I didn’t see evidence of Shaun “…[resorting] to personal attacks on me and my co-editor Uther Dean…” or Shaun “…[showing himself] to be immune to and unmoved by alternate viewpoints and arguments…”

    Well, I saw a little of that, but only AFTER his concerns were ignored. In fact after his concerns were ignored, Elle posted a .gif of herself flipping the bird. Two birds, actually.

    It’s not too late to retract your puerile behaviour and engage his opinion, Elle.

    Still, kudos for this one. My favourite piece in this week’s edition. Which is saying something because this week was the best yet.

  15. Adam says:

    Shaun, be quiet, no-one wants to talk to you. There are too many cool things to talk about without worrying about some entitled crybaby who dishes out insults with impunity then cries about “being shut out” when subject to the same.

    Also cool article Elle I quite agree

  16. MH says:

    Shaun. You are very annoying.

  17. Kim Wheatley says:

    While I don’t entirely agree with all of We are the University’s rhetoric, I take issue with your casual dismissal of them here Elle. We have a genuine attempt to engage students politically taking place on campuses around the country right now, and I think it’s a genuinely exciting moment.

    The 500 strong protest in Auckland was the headline story on stuff last night, generating the biggest bit of coverage (at the national level) that the opposition to the VSM bill has had since the beginning. I think this makes it pretty clear that direct action like this is potentially a far more effective way of gaining political traction than the slow, steady and ‘rational’ processes which our student associations have been attempting to engage in. This is particularly significant, because it’s happening in spite of all the awful cliches about how apathetic we are supposed to be.

    You claim to speak from the position of ‘reason’, but in this piece you make little attempt to engage with any of the (numerous) reasons why students are feeling alienated by the current university regime. Surely a reasoned debate would engage with these ideas, rather than simply dismiss them on the basis of one of their protest slogans?

    I don’t think We are the University mean their statement about the death of tertiary education to be taken literally, rather, it’s a metaphor for the ways in which the institution is increasingly being run into the ground by neoliberal doctrine, managerialism, commercial imperatives, and the steady decline in govt. funding. These processes aren’t ‘disturbing’, they’re downright cynical and exploitative. We are currently attending a university where staff are too afraid to turn up to a protest because they are worried about losing their jobs. Pause for a moment and reflect on this. What’s the value of your reasoned debate if you don’t have the freedoms to adequately engage in it?

  18. Kim Wheatley says:

    Also, you sound a lot like Ayn Rand here. Sure, reason has its uses, but people often behave irrationally. This isn’t always bad, think of falling in love! You should watch Adam Curtis’ latest doco, ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Love Grace’ for a nice little story about the dangers and limitations of pure reason. They sure came back to hurt Ayn Rand badly in the end anyway:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C17zbTTYVME

  19. Elle Hunt says:

    Kim—
    I don’t believe I do dismiss We Are The University here. My only reference to them is my criticism of their overtly emotive, overblown rhetoric, and I stand by this. For example, an administrator’s comment on their official Facebook page (of which you are an admin) includes “keep your own fuckin head down Joyce.. most students want it on a pike”. This opinion piece is on the importance of articulating oneself clearly and reasonably in order to validate and strengthen one’s point, not “the (numerous) reasons why students are feeling alienated by the current university regime”—which I could by no means do justice to in a 600-word opinion piece.

  20. Gerald says:

    I would just like to express my support of this piece. Reasonable and rational discourse is too often forgone, in favour of emotive, hyperbolic claims made to further an agenda. Whilst I completely support the underlying message of the We are the University campaign, the tactics employed have only sought to distance students from the movement, rather than engage them. Good on you Elle for having the guts to point this out.

    Also you guys should just ban “Shaun”, seeing as his life obviously consists of making vindictive attacks that have little substance.

  21. No. says:

    i would like to express my total and utter rejection of this piece, and quite frankly, my disgust. Elle, i know you well enough, you have NO experience in student activism, you took no part in last week’s protest, you’ve had nothing to do with We Are the University, and you have the audacity to give a healthy, burgeoning student movement advice? you claim to be a voice of rationality for 300 drooling irrational nutcases? how truly arrogant and conceited. then, in an irony that is astounding, you criticize student activists for campaigning on issues which they couldn’t possibly hope to understand, when anyone who knows you will know that you have not a shred of experience with the subject you are attempting to address.

    i have been horrified by some of the reactions to last week’s protest, and this article typifies it. those students are out there fighting for the rights of all students to better quality, more accessible education, and all you lazy, self-righteous dicks can do is sit around thinking of different ways to appear intelligent and ‘above that sort of thing’ by criticizing them.

    Elle, students are angry, they have tried dialogue with administrators, it has failed. militant demonstrations have driven some of the most important developments in human history. conversely, self-righteous Salient editors with inflated egos do nothing to help anyone.

  22. Elle Hunt says:

    Again—this opinion piece is emphatically NOT a commentary on or response to the We Are The University movement, beyond the fact (and it is, objectively, a fact) that its organisers could better articulate their points to both the wider student community and the University.

  23. Alpha says:

    Hey No, you’re not fighting for “all” students. You’re fighting for the couple of hundred who turned up. I can fight my own battles, and felt ashamed at the way your protest represented students. DON’T claim to represent me.

  24. smackdown says:

    “Elle, students are angry, they have tried dialogue with administrators, it has failed. militant demonstrations have driven some of the most important developments in human history. conversely, self-righteous Salient editors with inflated egos do nothing to help anyone.”

    oh big whop students have been angry since god cancelled adam and eve’s stupid student services in da garden of eden cos they were rude. get a clue balloo the world is changing every day

  25. smackdown says:

    didnt read kim wheatleys post was it about tv disko y/n

  26. Electrum Greenstone says:

    Sure, protests may or may not be effective or representative, depending on the issue and the circumstances, but they at the very least carry the voice of those who actually bother to turn up and voice their opinions (as opposed to some who, say, rely on some rich old people faraway in parliament to impose their will on others everywhere). Anyway, are you sure the movement did nothing but protest?

    Even if that was the case, I’m not sure many of you can even imagine what it is like being prohibited, BY FUCKING LAW, from any kind of protest, demonstration or strike, period. Believe it or not, there are still a few countries that are actually like that (and there are some people in New Zealand who want the same).

    Whatever it is, do not take your hard-won rights for granted; you may well live to regret it — that is, assuming you actually go on to realise what you have lost, possibly forever.

    “So this is how liberty dies… with thunderous applause

  27. The Hawk of Liberty says:

    Excellent work Elle.

    Those who opt out from common sense and believe in entitlement to everything while being responsible for nothing will not enjoy your post so much as I did. What is important I think to remember here is that it is the same professional malcontents running the show here as all the other ‘activist’ groups on campus.

    They are against the ‘occupation’ in Palestine (which it isn’t), yet go and discuss on their page how effective an occupation is (re- pathetic sit in lunch outside someones office), completely at odds with what they preach given a different circumstance.

    Great work

    Hawk

  28. Anna says:

    Hi Elle,
    While I agree with you on several points, namely; that hyperbolic language can be alienating, and that personifying, in the form of Pat Walsh, the systemic issues that face the university elides the complexity of the problems that the institution faces, I find myself wondering (broadly), what do you mean by reason?

    By that I mean, can we take reason and the possibility to engage in reasonable debate, as a right extended to all? Or does reason, as much as the “hand-wringing, hysterical rhetoric” that “reeks of entitlement”, also remain the preserve of privilege? Who sets the rules for reasonable debate?
    I think too, that by contrasting the protest with your call for reason, you do dismiss it; as unreasonable. The very language you’ve chosen to describe the protest casts it as an overtly, unseemly display of emotion in public, which appears to shore up deeply seated notions of proper conduct relating to notions of public/private. That is to say, words such as “hysterical” serve to reinforce normative ideas that suggest public must remain the domain of reason, against emotion (never mind the gender implications!). This of course, is patently false, as emotion and affect form a very large part of being in public; for example, talk show confessionals, or cheering a sports team on. I think that “hysterical” responses are often characterized so because the response is already, in some fashion, deemed to unreasonable. The outburst, emotion, perhaps comes from a desire to be heard, to be engaged with, and to dismiss it as unreasonable changes nothing. Perhaps asking “why are people so emotional about a given topic?” is an avenue to understanding.

    Also, I must take issue with your claim that society lacks reason and rationality. Neoliberalism, the dominant ideological mode of the (western) moment, is founded on, and attempts to reproduce people as highly rational, individual beings, who must take care of themselves (see: the dismantling of the welfare state). This leaves little space for collective action, or understanding one’s obligations to others. Also, I find that the rhetoric of reason, rationality, and logic is often used interchangeably, conflating and confusing these apparently “straightforward” notions. “Being reasonable” is often invoked in tandem with “common sense”, which of course, is often “dominant sense” rather than common to all.

    Returning to your discussion of the protest, one final point: by calling for reason, and invoking P J O’Rourke (a libertarian), you seem to (and I don’t know whether you intended to do so) critique the student movement with the rhetoric that is bound to the structures that are the object of its critique. A strange circularity!

    At any rate, it’s not often I get worked up enough about articles to comment, so thank you for providing a space of reply. Your piece definitely engaged me!
    Cheers,
    Anna

  29. Electrum Greenstone says:

    1. “Rationality” < WISDOM

    2. WISDOM + COMPASSION >> “Rationality”

    3. Anna >>> Bustards of Buffoonery

  30. Atlas says:

    *shrug*

    i do not see many similarities between elle and ayn rand

  31. smackdown says:

    imagine being ayn rand

  32. Kim Wheatley says:

    Elle,

    Just to clarify, the organizers did make me an admin for the ‘We Are The University’ page when the group was first getting started, but I haven’t been at all involved in organizing anything as part of the group. I certainly wasn’t responsible for
    the comment about putting Joyce’s head on a pike, but as Anna so eloquently describes, these sorts of outbursts often go part and parcel with attempts to contest authority. I think the protest movement has actually done an excellent job (under the circumstances) to get so many people involved in on-campus politics, particularly given that they only formed a couple of months ago!

    In say that, I do find the movement’s emphasis on Walsh to be a bit of a waste of time. He’s just a cypher. The structural, political and institutional arrangements of our universities are the real issues, so to focus on trying to sack him seems pointless. But of course these sorts of disagreements always happen in any attempt to radicalize, and as I said, I haven’t been involved enough to try and convince anyone of this.

    I can understand why you take issue with the kind of language that’s used, but hopefully some of the responses on here will help to clarify why it happens, and furthermore how important it is to think critically about these sorts of issues. I’m not sure I understand what you were trying to imply in adding as a caveat that you are majoring in media studies. I think you should be proud to be a Media Studies major at VUW, I know I am!

    I’d also like to make an observation re. your comments about the privileged position of white middle class students at Vic. I’m not sure whether you were talking about the protest specifically, or the university populace more generally, but either way I find this statement a little bit problematic, given that a significant proportion of university students (and therefore your own readership) do not fall into either of these categories (race/class).

    I’m reminded of Robbie Shilliam’s wonderful talk at the first ‘We are the University’ meeting, where he pointed out that the university has only recently been a space that has been accessible to those who do not come from privileged positions (ie. those who were not male/white/straight/rich). It is vital that we do not take the NZ university’s (relatively) accessible nature for granted, particularly in light of the discrimination inherent in the closure of Gender & Women’s studies, and also because of the fact that entry requirements for tertiary education are gradually being tightened up in a manner that disproportionately affects Maori and Pacific island students, as well as working class students more generally. These are both things which (in my view, anyway) should be part of ‘We are the University’s’ orbit of concerns.

    Finally, thanks to most of the people on this comments thread (but not Smackdown) for engaging in what has been a very thoughtful discussion.

    P.S.
    Smackdown, you sound sad. I think you need some TV Disko love:

    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=277035402311843&set=a.162765490405502.45110.162764200405631&type=1

  33. Kim Wheatley says:

    On the Ayn Rand point, her personal philosophy, objectivism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism_(Ayn_Rand) ), was all about the merits of pure reason. That Elle cites the libertarian O’Rourke (whose name even has a Randian resonance), is the only clue I have to go on as far as her politics are concerned. As Adam Curtis so neatly outlines in the doco I linked to earlier, objectivism paved the way for much of contemporary libertarian, and neoliberal doctrine, so you can understand why I’d make the connection.

    Also, I retract my statement about love being irrational:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kVMuDC3TENk

  34. Alpha says:

    In this thread: the left-left-left telling the left-left that it is not left enough.

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