Saturday 5 October 2019

An Open Letter From Closed Minds.

Ivory Folly? The University of Auckland’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, upheld the right of the radical nationalist group, Action Zealandia, to exercise their freedom of speech – no matter how distasteful that speech might be. A wiser community of students and scholars would have nodded their agreement and moved on. But, no: the position taken by the Vice-Chancellor was immediately challenged by his own staff. Into the valley of censorship and suppression rode the four-hundred!

FEW SPECTACLES are more tragic than those in which a community destroys its core values in the misguided belief that it is upholding them. The 400+ academics who put their names to an open letter condemning racism and white supremacy on the Auckland campus undoubtedly did so with the best of intentions, but in signing the document they have either deliberately, or unwittingly, endorsed a document of profound illiberality. They have placed their reputations at the disposal of extremists whose exhortations will only exacerbate the intolerance they purport to condemn.

The Open Letter begins by invoking the idea of the university as a community of scholars and students: a place “dedicated to the creation, preservation and sharing of knowledge”. This fine beginning is marred almost immediately by the jarring claim that the university is also a place where: “We build our collective understanding of the world and ourselves, while nurturing innovation and maintaining what is best in our society.”

This transformation of knowledge: from the fruits of work undertaken by individual scholars; to a collectivist endeavour undertaken for the maintenance of “what is best in our society”; is as sinister as it is tendentious. By this definition, the university is a place where individual insights must be subordinated to those which, in the collective judgement of the individual’s peers, constitute “what is best”. Ignored completely in this formulation is the fact that “what is best”, both in and for “our society”, has been a matter of continuous disputation since at least the time of Socrates and Plato.

In case we were in any doubt, the Open Letter declares it to be the opinion of the 400+ signatories that “racism and white supremacy have no place at the University of Auckland”.

No place? Not even in the disciplines of Anthropology, History, Philosophy and Sociology? Is it truly the case that the ideas and behaviours constitutive of so many of the characters and cultures of the University of Auckland’s students (and staff) are unworthy of academic scrutiny? Is the ideology of white supremacy, potentially so dangerous when driven underground, not to be interrogated and analysed? Is the near ubiquity of racism in everyday human behaviour not something to be investigated and discussed?

Apparently not.

The Open Letter makes it clear that its authors have already investigated the website of those responsible for postering and stickering the Auckland campus – the casus belli of this little culture war – and, in their own words: “have no difficulty in identifying this group and such displays as white supremacist in nature”.

It is most unlikely that “Action Zealandia”, the proprietor of the website and publisher of the offending posters and stickers, would disagree. These “radical nationalists” (as they prefer to call themselves) make no attempt to disguise their belief that a reassertion of European male supremacy is “what is best” for New Zealand society.

Many New Zealanders would assume that such an obviously anachronistic political organisation would not present much of a threat to a university full of highly-educated men and women. Surely, a group of confused young men, nostalgic for the lost social and political verities of the nineteenth century, are more to be pitied than feared?

That was certainly the opinion of the University of Auckland’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, who upheld the right of those putting up the posters and stickers to exercise their freedom of speech – no matter how distasteful that speech might be. A wiser community of students and scholars would have nodded their agreement and moved on. But, alas, throughout the twenty-first century academic world such expressions of tolerance (and intellectual maturity) are as rare as they are inflammatory. The position taken by the Vice-Chancellor was not to be allowed to stand unchallenged. Into the valley of censorship and suppression rode the four-hundred!

The world-view of the Open Letter’s authors merits every bit as much scrutiny as that of Action Zealandia’s – if only because both display an equal measure of ideological vehemence. Enveloping the academics’ critique is the Tiriti O Waitangi, serving here as the incongruous stand-in for New Zealand’s yet-to-be-written bi-cultural constitution. As such, it becomes the principal tool for delegitimating not only Action Zealandia and its by-right-of-conquest arguments for the hegemony of European males in Aotearoa, but also un-reconstructed Vice-Chancellors.

According to the Open Letter, these colonialist throwbacks are guilty of taking the “absolutist” position that “freedom of speech extends to the right to speak in ways that are hateful.” Hateful to whom? Ah well, that’s not a question that can be responded to straightforwardly. To answer that question required this little masterpiece of what the unkind might call “woke-speak”. (Or, what the even more unkind readers of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would call “Newspeak”.)

“We also understand that the language of rights is complex and nuanced, recognising that such displays create an environment that brings harm to segments of our community, fraying the cultural tapestry that provides our diverse campus community with vitality and energy.”

Or, to render this unicorns-and-flowers circumlocution into plain speech: “Our students have become so fragile, psychologically and ideologically, that they fall to pieces when confronted by people who do not like them or the cultures they come from.”

Not that the authors of the Open Letter were above fraying a cultural tapestry or two of their own. How about this for a flowery way of calling the Vice-Chancellor a “pale, stale, male”?

“We also note that by virtue of their race, gender, class, country of origin, religious affiliation, sexual or gender identity, many people empowered to judge conduct on university campuses are less likely to be the focus of hate speech, and may be slower to recognise its impact on its intended targets.”

Upon further analysis, however, the humour of this sentence begins to fade. At its heart is the idea that credible political judgement derives purely and simply from one’s identity. Followed to its logical conclusion this variety of “identity politics” accords more weight to the opinions of a 19-year-old undergraduate woman from a non-European cultural background, than it does to a male Professor of Philosophy who has been teaching, writing and publishing peer-reviewed articles and books for the best part of 40 years.

This surrendering of expertise to identity is not the worst of it, however: not when one considers this remarkable sentence:

“However, ‘speech’ has many forms, including gesture and nonviolent protest. If these posters constitute ‘free speech’, the same can be said of the actions of individuals who remove those that they encounter.”

Um, no, actually, it can’t. Action Zealandia, in displaying its posters and stickers, is asserting its right to have its ideas considered, debated, and, if unable to convince its interlocutors, rejected. Bluntly, it is declaring: “We are here – so come and contend with us openly on the battlefield of ideas.” The only honourable answer that “any university worthy of the name” can give to such a challenge is: “Bring it on!”

No such luck. That is not the way the authors of the Open Letter roll. They are not really into contending openly on the battlefield of ideas. The only form of speech they’re willing to defend is the form that rips down posters and tears off stickers. The form that screams “STFU!” at everyone with whom it disagrees.

The anonymous authors of the Open Letter may wax eloquent about an “environment that celebrates free and open enquiry, teaches the lessons of the past, and builds a better future for all”, but their interpretation of “what is best” for society looks suspiciously like the one provided by every other totalitarian ideology: “What is best is what we say is best.” It may be the Academic Left that is ripping down posters today, confident that it possesses the power to silence all those who refuse to toe its line. But, times change.

Those insisting upon ideological conformity and suppressing dissenting opinion today may yet be given cause to look back upon the sentiments contained in this Open Letter and rue the day that the “critic and conscience” of society gave away the chance to expose the Right’s weaknesses in front of those who, 20 years later, are telling them that their left-wing ideas “have no place at the University of Auckland”.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 4 October 2019.


Anonymous said...

An excellent column Chris. Why are people so afraid of free speech? Every day we encounter views that we may personally find ridiculous or perhaps hateful or which may test our own deeply held beliefs, but it is absurd to demand that they be shut down. How on earth do people expect to get through life this way? I attended university 50 years ago and while many students then held Left wing views and protested regularly and vigorously against the Vietnam War and Apartheid, I don't recall the "Right wing" identities on campus (and there were a few) being subjected to vicious abuse and threats of violence. Some of them were even treasured for the challenge they presented during the weekly debates which were held in the Student Union. I am afraid our universities have degenerated since then into "Left wing madrassas" where students, especially in the humanities whose values have largely been hollowed out, learn Left wing cant by rote. We are heading towards an authoritarian dystopia in this country at a very fast pace.

Odysseus said...

Thanks for publishing my comment at 08.57 Chris. I didn't intend to be "Anonymous", I must have pushed the wrong button.

John Hurley said...

I concur with this letter in The Press. The principle could be extrapolated to "white supremacy" in majority white countries.

The opinion pieces of Ali Shakir (Oct 2) and Donna Miles-Mojab (Oct 3), when put together, place us inevitably on the horns of a real dilemma—given the secular nature of our society in the 21st century.
To be sure, while a number of us might pursue certain spiritualities, as the census data shows we’re broadly non-religious types nowadays.
These translate, given also the plastic nature of secular culture, into many an identity being really rather malleable, it seems, and so open to political forces of anyone’s choosing.
At bottom, since secularism is able to espouse pick-and-choose values, based on pluralism, who’s to evaluate between their respective ‘‘opinions’’? And how? Certainly not pluralism itself, since it’s inherently illogical.
Claiming to allow the validity of any and every stance, it determines nonetheless its own stance to be ultimate.
Just so, we’re back to where we started — with our basic dilemma. And just so again, right belongs only to mere might ... perhaps. Bryden Black, Merivale

Anonymous said...

Well written article Chris and I agree with your comments. It is almost as if the academics don't want it discussed because they realise their arguments are so threadbare.
Universities have long since stopped being the centres of excellence and are now just degree mills. One has to spout the correct newspeak to get through. Even the most obtuse student realizes this. They just follow the rules, get their piece of paper and get out, leaving the academics in their own little increasingly disregarded bubble.
Chris Morris

Paul Dunmore said...

Thanks for this, Chris. It is striking that the old lefty George Orwell still seems to be the strongest defender of the importance of being allowed to say (and think) that 2+2=4, even if the powerful interests in society want it to be otherwise. And the essential corollary is that one must be allowed to say (and think) that 2+2=5. Then the two positions can be evaluated and we have some chance of progress.
My rough position when I was an academic was that every individual is entitled to the utmost respect, but that ideas deserve only as much respect as they can earn in mortal combat with other ideas. There seemed to be a remarkable number of people who felt that "if you attack my ideas you are attacking me personally." I have lived long enough that quite a few ideas I had when I was young have since been supplanted with better ideas, while my identity has remained pretty much intact. Discovering that distinction may be part of what a university education used to be about, but perhaps no longer.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Left wing madrassas"
Funny how freedom of speech has become a cause célèbre of conservatives when worldwide it's them that are cracking down.
In the US.
Trump tries to get American football teams to fire players who kneel during the national anthem. I would suggest this is far more serious than some boofhead rugby league player being fired for bringing the game into disrepute.
Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s commencement speech was cancelled after she criticised Trump. And of course she received death threats on the Internet.
A New York Times writer tries to get an American professor fired for calling him a bedbug.
And in the US left-leaning professors are twice as likely to be fired as conservative ones.
Religious universities in the US regularly and openly censor students' speech.
In Britain.
The Tories are gagging charities in Britain that are now not allowed to criticise government policies.
The Tory "counter extremism bill" was trying to suppress free speech they don't like.
In Turkey.
They are imprisoning journalists at a tremendous rate.
In France.
You can now be put in jail for five years for publicly condoning terrorism.
So yes, get back to me when you've looked at the beam in your own eye.

David George said...

The academics getting their panties in a bunch over this appear unable to see the screaming hypocrisy in their position.
They clearly believe that some genders/ethnicities/cultures/religions are entitled to promote their cause but not others. They thus show their identity politics ideology to be entirely unreasonable; a dangerous fraud. Did they seriously think that the attractions of identity based victim-hood would remain confined to their chosen groups?
"We may certainly live in a society in which nobody should be held back from what they can do because of some personal characteristic allotted to them by chance. If somebody has the competency to do something, then nothing about their race, sex or sexual orientation should hold them back. But minimising difference is not the same as pretending that differences don't exist. To assume that sex, sexuality and skin colour mean nothing would be ridiculous. But to assume that they mean everything will be fatal."
Conclusion, The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray.

David George said...

John Hurley, perhaps the quote from G K Chesterton is appropriate:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”

Guerilla Surgeon said...

“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
Well I guess GK Chesterton was a man of his time, but this is complete bullshit, because the very processes (i.e. scepticism) that lead us to disbelieve in gods also lead us to rejecting other fanciful claims. On the other hand religious people, because they are taught to accept ideas from authority rather than reason are much more susceptible to ridiculousness. That's why the leaders of mega-churches fly around in private jets, and most of their parishioners are poor.

John Hurley said...

On the Action Zealandia website
Any individuals that partake in self-destructive behaviours such as drug use and sexual deviancy will never be allowed to partake in the movement.

It depends what they mean by sexual deviancy - it is crudely put?

Action Zealandia requires that its members be physically fit independent thinkers. We encourage activities that both the keep the body and mind healthy, such as bushwalks, sports, reading books, and writing. Having fit and educated men will shape the success of the movement.
That's a bit militaristic but would anyone apply the slippery slope argument at this point. If so what about Antifa?

Given the current climate I would hardly blame them for being a "European" group.

Either way the Auckland University Vice Chancellor has given in to the mob.

The bottom line here is that multiculturalism is a European project where one group believes itself to be an Uber people (post ethnic cosmopolitans) dragging along a lower self (knuckle draggers). It shows all the markers of a religion. Richard Dawkins concurs

David George said...

Thank you for your reply GS, I think G K Chesterton's famous quote is far more nuanced than you realise. The key is in his use of the word "believe". Falling for the blandishments of an evangelical huckster is firmly in the belief category (as opposed to knowledge and reason); exactly what Chesterton is alluding to.
The Church of Climatology with it's high priests and child mascots, it's witch hunts and persecution of heretics, is a modern manifestation; widely believed and promoted but with no evidence that changes in CO2 have any causal effect on the Earths climate. Or the belief that a man can simply decide he is now a woman.
Above man and his ideologies and beliefs, above and beyond the material is the incorruptible fabric of reality, the truth; God. Elevate belief to the status of God and there will be hell to pay. That is what I think Chesterton is saying.

John Hurley said...

What do you think of this Chris?

Ranginui Walker had a thing or two to say about his jibe about Cook

His definition of free speech excludes the public's right to hear and judge and ends up with the woke academics right to seal speech in a bag and tell us all about it (which he ends up doing). After all there couldn't possibly be a counter argument?

Brendan O'Neil

John Hurley said...


Guerilla Surgeon said...

John Hurley. Am replying to this because at least it's coherent. This is one of the woman's comments.
"It is time consuming and energy depleting, as you say, and it’s a challenge not to fall into the same oversimplifications and ready dismissals of other people that critiqued."

And yet she does manage to fall into the same oversimplifications and ready dismissals. I suspect she hasn't got rid of all of her evangelical thinking. Changed the content but not the processes. Not to mention that most of the things that trigger her I associate with conservatives.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Kiwi Dave. I am not discussing climate change with you. Your beliefs on this matter are unscientific bullshit.
And Chesterton was a misogynistic anti-Semite, and close to being a fascist – as I said a man of his time.

David Stone said...

"John Hurley, perhaps the quote from G K Chesterton is appropriate:
“When men choose not to believe in God, they do not thereafter believe in nothing, they then become capable of believing in anything.”
A belief in God is a belief without evidence save beliefs of other people from thousands of years ago. It is this training of the mind to believe implicitly in something completely imaginary simply because some other people around also believe it that sets a mind free to believe in anything. Not the discipline of assembling verifiable facts.
However wise G K Chesterton was he was wrong.