Anthem for genocide: Why sound and the law need a fair hearing

Wednesday, Nov 4, 2015, 10:23 PM | Source: Pursuit

James Parker

For an institution built on principles like a fair hearing in court, the law has been strangely tin-eared when it comes to questions of sound.

So says Melbourne Law School lecturer, radio broadcaster and music critic Dr James Parker, who is issuing something of an injunction to encourage what he calls an “acoustic jurisprudence” to bridge the gap.

“When we think about law we really should pay attention to sound and we often don’t,” Dr Parker says. “Sound is at the centre of our story about law: it is called a hearing for a reason.

“The gavel is one of the most recognisable symbols of justice globally. And what is it? It’s something that makes a sound. The gavel is an acoustic equivalent of the judge’s robes, a symbol of their authority to speak and be heard.”

Dr James Parker speaking at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane. Picture: Supplied.

Dr Parker says in a world where technology enables everything from gathering acoustic data from our phones to listening to us through our TVs at home, the links between sound and the law need to be urgently re-examined.

“In 1769 eavesdropping was a crime,” he says. “Now it’s completely ubiquitous. Our mobile phone is listening to us constantly (Siri, OK Google) and if it’s not then it certainly wants to. In 2013, song-identification app Shazam debuted a new ‘feature’ which would enable it to listen to you and any songs you encounter 24/7.

Everybody, everywhere, can listen in. Picture: Alamy.

“Auditory profiling is threatening to become extremely sophisticated. We need to have a serious conversation about what’s at stake in this.

Melody and mayhem: Listen to Dr James Parker on our Up Close podcast.

“It’s not just the odd privacy concern here and there. It’s an entire new regime of auditory surveillance and data mining that’s being produced.”

Dr Parker is the director of the research program Law, Sound and the International at the University of Melbourne, and says viewing the law as inherently interdisciplinary is something vitally important to society.

His research is being conducted through Melbourne Law School’s Institute for International Law and the Humanities, a hub which combines legal studies with areas like history, anthropology, literature and music.

The academic has taken up just such a collision of ideas in his recently published monograph Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi which examines the trial of one of Rwanda’s most well-known and popular figures who was accused of inciting genocide through his songs.

Dr Parker’s new book explores how music and sound became part of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Picture: Supplied.

In analysing the proceedings, Dr Parker argues the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda missed an opportunity to see how Bikindi’s songs actually worked during the 1994 Hutu massacre of the minority Tutsis.

“These songs played an enormously important role in the genocide then, but as to exactly how that worked or the nature and extent of Bikindi’s responsibility for them, these are much more complicated questions and the trial doesn’t really resolve them.”

In calling linguists as expert witnesses instead of musicologists, the tribunal signalled it was interested in the lyrics over other elements such as the music, delivery, distribution and reception, a situation Dr Parker finds problematic.

“Just to be clear, they (the songs) were sung as people were killing other people,” he says. “It’s not just that people were listening to them and saying that they were sparking their genocidal thoughts but they were actually singing them as they were hacking people up with machetes.

“But if songs are capable of moving people to violence, it is surely not, or not just because of their lyrics, or the ‘messages’ they convey.

Songs matter to people because of what they do and how they make us feel, at least as much as what they mean.

Dr Parker says the difficult relationship law has with music was starkly apparent when Bikindi actually sang his closing “statement” at his appeals hearing and the court was “clearly a bit affronted”.

“There’s a moment when the presiding judge raises his eyebrows. He doesn’t shut it down but he’s clearly taken aback.

Simon Bikindi sings during his trial. Picture: Supplied by Dr James Parker, courtesy of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda.

“We are shocked when we hear someone singing in court because we know law is supposed to be about speech and not song. The reason it’s about speech is because law is meant to about reason. That’s a very dangerous idea that law is or should be exclusively rational.”

The tribunal eventually decided the songs incited racial hatred but not genocide. Instead, it was a public speech the musician gave which had him convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

Dr Parker says the importance of sound is often overlooked or not taken seriously in other areas like music torture. Reports about detainees forced to listen to Britney Spears on a loop are often seen as funny rather than horrific, which makes the practice even more insidious, he says.

Reports say Britney Spears songs being played on a loop have been used as a form of torture against detainees. Picture: Jason Smith/Flickr.

“Music torture is not designed to damage your ears. The reason it’s used is because it dissociates you from where you are. It’s very hard to get a sense of time and place because this song is rolling over and over again for literally hours on end.

“You can’t hear environmental sounds, you can’t have a conversation. Detainees report not being able to hear themselves think. Ultimately you just go crazy basically because you can’t hold a thought.”

The weaponisation of sound, such as blasting protesters with new technologies like the Long Range Acoustic Device, is another area Dr Parker says the law needs to keep a vigilant ear out for. “We need to become more sensitive to questions of sound,” he says.

It’s more about developing a richer understanding of the many, many ways this can play out as an issue.

Dr Parker, a lapsed saxophonist, has been playing music since he was four and says the university has given him space to develop his own ideas directly from these interests.

“I would like the conversation about sound and law to be expanded beyond just copyright and noise pollution,” he says. “There are lots more areas in which the two issues come together. Ultimately one horizon is legislative reform.

“Interdisciplinarity is extremely important not just for realising particular policy outcomes but in its own right. Intellectually, it’s really important that we are able to think across disciplines. And in fact that we realise that a discipline like law is necessarily interdisciplinary to begin with.

“Seeing people around you who are doing this sort of work is also very exciting.”

Acoustic Jurisprudence: Listening to the Trial of Simon Bikindi by Dr James Parker (2015) is available now through Oxford University Press.

University of Melbourne Researchers