Friday 25 March 2022

Unsubscribing From Freedom.

Conscience And Critic Be Damned! It has become increasingly clear to the Free Speech Union, along with many other advocates of freedom of expression, that the place where academic freedom is most at risk is, paradoxically, academia itself.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM is one of those “public goods” that most people seldom question. Even in New Zealand, a country not especially hospitable to intellectuals of any sort, academics are seldom identified as persons in need of official restraint. New Zealanders prefer to joke about the otherworldliness and impracticality of academic research – especially in the social sciences and liberal arts. That is to say, they used to joke about it. Over the last few years academics have given ordinary New Zealanders small cause for laughter.

Indeed, it has become increasingly clear to the Free Speech Union, along with many other advocates of freedom of expression, that the place where academic freedom is most at risk is, paradoxically, academia itself.

The banning of Don Brash from the Palmerston North campus of Massey University – by no lesser person than the Vice-Chancellor herself – was one of the most dramatic early examples. There have been many others. Not the least of these was the initial failure of the University of Auckland to defend the seven members of its own academic staff who dared to declare, on the pages of The NZ Listener, that Mātaurānga Māori was not Science.

While paying lip-service to the principle of academic freedom, New Zealand’s university authorities have begun to hedge it around with all manner of restrictions. The pursuit of research subjects and/or the articulation of ideas capable of inflicting “harm” on other staff and students has become decidedly “career-limiting”.

To discover exactly how pervasive this revisionist approach to academic freedom has become, and to identify how many academics still uphold freedom of expression, the Free Speech Union commissioned Curia Research to survey a representative cross section of the New Zealand academic community. That survey is ongoing, but one of the responses received was so startling that the FSU posted it on its website.

This is what it said:

Tēnā koe,

Please remove me from your e-mail list.

Freedom is an archaic feudal principal
(sic) employed by colonial capitalism to advance the upward mobility of the few and maintain the status quo, and I do not subscribe to it.

It is important to bear in mind that the person who wrote this is a member of the academic staff of a New Zealand university. Someone bound by the terms of their employment to uphold the highest standards of scholarship. Someone who is almost certainly lecturing to and/or tutoring young New Zealanders. Someone who, by their own admission, does not subscribe to the principle of freedom.


Let us begin by unpacking the anonymous respondent’s declaration.

The first observation to make is that the his/her understanding of both European and New Zealand history is entirely untethered from reality. To begin with, feudalism was not based upon the idea of freedom, but of reciprocity.

In the fiercely hierarchical societies of the medieval period even those at the summit of the social pyramid owed a duty of care and protection to those whose status was inferior to their own. Those at the bottom, far from being free, were legally tied to their lord’s land. Male dependents of the lord were also expected to fight for him when required to do so.

What the serfs (as these dependents were called) received in return was access to the sustenance that the lord’s land provided, as well as military and legal protection against those seeking to harm them. In certain rare circumstances a serf might be released from his obligations, thereby becoming a “freed” man. With nobody now obligated to care for him, however, such a person faced a difficult future. Unless he was especially gifted, a freed man would hasten to “bind” himself to another lord or master.

Clearly, feudalism and freedom are not concepts one usually finds grouped together – quite the reverse in fact. What about “colonial capitalism”? Is it legitimate to associate the capitalist economic system with feudalism and freedom?

Not really.

Historically speaking, capitalism is the economic system that dissolved feudalism, along with the aristocratic political system it sustained. Rather than a society founded upon hierarchy and mutual obligation, capitalism gave rise to a society based upon the freedom of the individual to enter into contracts with other individuals – for money. If you were inventive, clever, or just plain lucky, these contracts could make you rich. If you had nothing to offer but your unskilled labour, then the contracts entered into generally offered little more than the barest subsistence.

In the context of New Zealand’s colonisation, however, a persistent shortage of skilled – and unskilled – labour offered working-class colonists a considerably better existence than the one they were escaping on the immigrant ships. At least initially, it wasn’t freedom that underpinned the growth of the colony, but the prospect of a more prosperous and open-ended life – which emigration to New Zealand promised.

New Zealanders’ interest in political freedom grew out of the failure of the colony’s rulers to ensure that opportunity and prosperity remained a realistic prospect for the ordinary colonist. A large part of that failure was attributable to the difficulty encountered by the colonial authorities in acquiring sufficient land from the Māori to keep the New Zealand enterprise going.

It was precisely the freedom to contract, or not to contract, with the Crown in respect to the sale of land – a freedom guaranteed by the Treaty of Waitangi – and exercised vigorously (to the consternation and rising fury of the settler government) by the Kingitanga and its allies, that caused the British Crown to make war upon the Māori.

If anyone was defending freedom in 1860s New Zealand it was the tangata whenua.

In making war upon the Māori, the colonial capitalists and their servants in the colonial legislature were not defending the status quo, they were tearing it – and the Treaty of Waitangi – to pieces. Their legal justification for seizing Māori land had nothing to do with the laws of capitalist enterprise, but to archaic English laws pertaining to rebellion against the Crown. Feudal laws.

What’s more, the seizure of Māori land did not advance the upward mobility of wealthy capitalists alone. Thousands of Pakeha colonists benefitted from the parcelling-out of the territories seized, mostly in the form of leased small-holdings – later translated into freehold farms. It was the Pakeha many who prospered, and the Māori few who were dispossessed.

It is hard to see how this great wrong can ever be righted in an Aotearoa-New Zealand where freedom has no subscribers among the tangata whenua. Harder still to see such a rectification being accomplished where the research and intellectual labour needed to convince a majority of New Zealanders that change is necessary is not rigorously monitored, or the fierce debates it sparks given the freest rein. Academic freedom must amount to more than protecting ignorance and sanctioning disinformation.

The simple truth of the matter is that freedom is always and everywhere indivisible. Suppress it in our universities and its suppression elsewhere will soon follow. Those who do not subscribe to freedom have no place in our halls of learning – or anywhere else enlightened human values are cherished.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 March 2022.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

It's ironic that those people who advocated and agitated for fewer regulations on private companies, and promoted the establishment of universities as pretty much private companies, are now bitching about what private companies do with their freedom.
You either allow them their freedom, rightly or wrongly – in which case you have to accept censorship – or you constrain them and force them to promote speech which may well lose them money.
You've also allowed media companies such as Facebook to grow to the point where they have a virtual monopoly on speech – free or otherwise. This growth is the natural outcome of capitalism you espouse. I must say I find it mildly amusing to watch capitalists squawk about freedom of speech without mentioning the problems and results of enforcing it.
I will ask again, because I have had not one reply so far: do you believe in forcing companies to promote speech that will lose them money? Not holding my breath because this is the question that everyone seems to avoid answering.

Odysseus said...

We have too many universities, and far too many young people lacking in ability attending them while taking on huge debts that will handicap them for life. For the most part universities ceased to be places of learning, especially in respect of the arts and humanities, at least a generation ago. We need more skilled people in this country. not idiots parroting fashionable attitudes.

Kat said...

Ah.....the doers and the thinkers and the wise men that don't know what its like to be thick as a brick............

Song for the post:

Unknown said...

Could it be argued that when universities accepted state or taxpayer funding they lost their contracts with society and became obligated to politicians and civil servants thus funding was tagged. The founders of Otago University (and mine) must be less than amused with the loss of free and independent thinkers?

DS said...

I will ask again, because I have had not one reply so far: do you believe in forcing companies to promote speech that will lose them money? Not holding my breath because this is the question that everyone seems to avoid answering.

Yes, actually.

But Universities aren't companies. They're state-owned institutions, tasked among other things with being the critic and conscience of society. Not sure how you can fulfil that role while clamping down on anything that certain people find remotely challenging.

Jens Meder said...

Plain capitalism of saving for profitable investment enables the modestly educated to compete successfully in profitable productivity with the high educational capital investors and owners of university education.

Therefore, apart from the capital invested in elementary and higher education -
participation in plain capitalism and wealth ownership by all is the missing factor in our democracy of unequal Haves and Have-Nots.

Anonymous said...

This essay reads well until it goes of on a tangent about Maori land. Gore-Brown, McLean and Pakeha New Zealand generally saw themselves as defending the freedom of individual Maori and small hapu to sell their own pieces of land. It was Wiremu Kingi and the Kingitangw who were determined to stop any sales of land by anyone.

As an aside I think we have to look at least somewhat askance in a Vattelian manner at the claims of 50 or 60,000 Maori to "own" every last piece of mountain and swamp in New Zealand in 1840, including vast areas which had hardly seen a human foot in generations. A traveller in the 1840s could look down from the edge of the volcanic plateau on 100,000 acres of what is now prime farmland in the Waihou valley and see not a single dwelling or cultivation. Exploring the Auckland isthmus for the site of a new town in 1841, Felton Mathew and his wife came across only a few acres of cultivations and a temporary travellers' camp. The total Maori population of the South Island was 1200 or so.

David George said...

"I will ask again, because I have had not one reply"

I'll probably regret this but some things need to be said.
We might remember as children, or later from observation, that there's this one kid that kicks over the other's sandcastles and throws sand in their faces. The whole enterprise becomes fraught and unpleasant, poisoned you could say. No one wants to play with them, they don't get invited back but it's everyone else that's dumb and the sandpit's rubbish anyway. Nothing unusual for two year olds but by the time they're four nearly everyone has learned to channel their energies in a more positive and sustainable direction. They can cooperate and compete harmoniously for the good of the whole. Unfortunately some never learn.

It's a fascinating field, the development, across species, of a nascent morality I suppose. Two of the great scientists that have contributed so much to our understanding on this are Jaak Panksepp and Frans de Waal (both frequently quoted by JP). On a lighter note here's a delightful wee clip, from a TED talk by Frans, on the issue of fair pay among monkeys. Some might recognise the budding socialist revolutionary in one.

And one on dominance hierarchies.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well finally an answer. So you're not so much in favour of free speech as forced speech. Good luck with that. Sounds more like communism and capitalism to me. Still, you people created the conditions for this to happen, maybe you people should fix it.

I presume that somewhat incomprehensible diatribe was aimed at me David? If you think that someone challenging your beliefs with evidence is fraught and unpleasant, perhaps you should rethink your opinions. Personally I don't care if you play with me or not, I don't write for you – as I said before you're a lost cause – you won't accept evidence to the contrary of any of your beliefs, and psychologically of course I am reinforcing your beliefs by providing you with evidence to the contrary. But you're not the only person here, and some people might have an enquiring/open mind.
Ah – Jordan Peterson again, the man who is so in favour of free speech he sued any number of people for using their right to it to criticise him.:)

Guerilla Surgeon said...

And on dominance hierarchies by someone who actually knows something about it – and about lobsters.

greywarbler said...

Anonymous at 20.3
Interesting little piece with lots of self-justification for capitalist pakeha in it about Maori land. A point to remember is that Maori didn't think they owned the land, the knew they did in their bones and fingers.

Freedom of expression to present background to facts about the rules of capitalist society are available for our use and we need to use them and work freely within them as much as possible and as long as we don't end up in misusing them so we talk in circles to confuse or waste time.

Pakeha introduced money into the equation. Money is so flexible and not necessarily tied to mutual obligations or limited and it's so ephemeral. Physical assets are easier to understand to non-literate people willing to accept a token or sweetener in some transaction of blankets, axes or three muskets and they might not understand that they are giving the Wellington kumara patch for them.

Think: Contra proferentem
Contra proferentem, also known as "interpretation against the draftsman", is a doctrine of contractual interpretation providing that, where a promise, agreement or term is ambiguous, the preferred meaning should be the one that works against the interests of the party who provided the wording. Wikipedia

Anonymous said...

Soon there won't be any more than rubble too be the critic and conscience of.

greywarbler said...

I'd like to cancel the man in the image at the top. He looks mad, and I feel unsafe with his presence and/or opinions. He also does not appear to be taking the matter seriously; he has a twinkle in his eye, I have detected. This should not be allowed. /sarc

Chris prudence said...

The university has been reduced to rubble

Chris prudence said...

Make that the university is in ruins

John Hurley said...

"high intelligence may worsen prospects for obtaining a true belief...a biased person uses intelligence and education as tools for rationalizing beliefs...highly educated people have larger stores of information to search to support a desired belief"

"However much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back"

"The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it"

"One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe such a thing as that. No ordinary man could be such a fool"

George Orwell

Unknown said...

All four objections fail because they are based on a straw-man fallacy: Myers is refuting claims that Peterson has not made.

Notice that like Cathy Newman, Myers is engaged in a dominance contest with Peterson. For Myers, an intellectual discussion like this is an opportunity to show his superiority over those with whom he disagrees, as shown by his smug insulting dismissal of Peterson: "he is a loon!" So Myers gives us a good illustration of what Peterson identifies as one of the eight kinds of conversation--the dominance-hierarchy conversation. This debate over the idea of hierarchy is itself a manifestation of the natural human inclination to hierarchy.

AB said...

Come on Chris - you used one rather daft and illiterate response to suggest that some sort of undesirable revisionism is "pervasive". Universities have become big places since they were turned into revenue-generating enterprises and 'skill' factories for a business sector looking to minimise its training costs. You will find plenty of daft and self-contradictory views among academic staff. And the university rightly gives these people the freedom to express those opinions - though one hopes that their recruitment practices minimise the phenomenon.

And because you have what looks like a somewhat absolutist view on freedom of speech - then even the mildest attempt to contextualise it, set boundaries to it or seek a really workable definition of it, becomes revisionist in your eyes.

You have noted in the past how curtailment of freedom of speech has been imposed ON universities rather than BY them. Particularly the imposition on the economics profession of neoliberal orthodoxy from the mid-1980's. This is the real direction in which power flows and it remains the greatest threat - the collusion of private corporate power and the neoliberal state to limit academic freedom. Even turning universities into job factories and butchering the humanities is a step down this route.

Normally I enjoy your stuff, but I am going to call "beat up" on this one.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Unknown – nonsense. The problem is that Peterson makes such vague pronouncements that when he is challenged he simply says "I didn't mean that". Makes it almost impossible to get a grip on the man. Can't argue with the loon statement though. He lives on beef and salt. And funnily enough, people with some knowledge of nutrition have criticised this as well. Actually, Myers isn't the only biologist/palaeontologist who has taken Peterson to task about lobsters. Let's face it, whenever Peterson steps outside his sphere of knowledge, he gets it wrong.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Hodson and Busseri (2012) found in a correlational study that lower intelligence in childhood is predictive of greater racism in adulthood, with this effect being mediated (partially explained) through conservative ideology. They also found poor abstract reasoning skills were related to homophobic attitudes, mediated through authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact.The idea is that for those who lack a cognitive ability to grasp the complexities of our world, strict-right wing ideologies may be more appealing."

“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
― George Orwell

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Watch out Peterson either lies or misrepresents science. I'm not expecting you to change your mind unknown, but there might be people out there who are less convinced than you.

The Barron said...

It should be worth pointing out Dr Don Brash was not invited to Massey University as an academic. He is clearly very qualified in his area of Economics. When he appeared on the RNZ Saturday Morning Show, and stated that there was pre-existing people in NZ called the Maoriori to whom Maori committed genocide was not a statement supported by any academic work and indeed runs contrary to all accepted history and anthropology. It was an unsourced, non-peer reviewed personal rant outside his academic standing. It is simple misinformation based on ignorance and bias.

Similarly, his views on the legal interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi follows a populist line still advocated by ACT. It is not supported by national and international jurisprudence. Again, this is subject that his has no academic credentials in, and his views are well outside the academic consensus. These are political views, not academic.

If Dr Brash was invited by the Economics Department, then there is an argument of suppression of the academic voice. He was not, he was invited by a group of students to give political and social views which would be personal not academic. Indeed, they would not be supported by the History, Anthropology or legal departments.

The view of the Vice-Chancellor was that he had a history of provoking racism in such speeches. The University has an obligation to provide as safe campus and as a result policies against racism on campus.

The debate over Brash, therefore, is not one of academic freedom, but whether his views are seen as racist, and if it is - whether this should exclude an outside speaker giving non-academic views?

I am not giving an answer here, but I hope that this informs and clarifies the debate.

David George said...

Thanks for the link Unknown, that certainly demolishes that Myers' idiotic hit job.
Unfortunately this incredible resource available at our fingertips is so often used in the service, not of knowledge and truth but it's opposite, confirmation and reinforcement of whatever nonsense folk have attached themselves to. Uncritical thinking?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It certainly doesn't demolish Meyers as "hit job" which wasn't a hit job, but a rational "schooling" of people who think that Peterson knows something about lobsters.Not the only biologist that has expressed this opinion either.

Or psychologists for that matter:

Incidentally David given that you have expressed the opinion that you are in favour of forced speech, don't you feel a tad ashamed given that your hero Peterson became a "made man" by railing against so-called forced speech in the Canadian C16 affair? Of course he was ignorant of it or lied about it according to various legal opinions but you know....

David George said...

It's not "about lobsters"

"The reason why Peterson prefers to use lobsters as a way to explain humans’ hierarchies it is because their nervous systems are comparatively simple, with large, easily observable neurons. Because of this, scientist have been able to map the neural circuitry of lobsters very accurately. This has helped us understand the structure and function of the brain and behaviour of more complex animals, including human beings (Peterson, 2018)"

"Overall, De Waal and Panksepp arguments helped me to understand more Jordan Peterson’s attitude towards lobsters but at the same time to realise that a lot of people in psychology (myself included) had an anthropocentric education at University, where a lot of subjects are about the study of human beings exclusively without considering our similarities with other animals. Certainly, it is fundamental to analyze the scientific studies in humans’ and the investigations about human brain.

However, it is also important to encourage students in psychology to analyze deeply the behaviour and neurological systems in other animals as well. In addition, we should not only focus our attention in primates because different species in animal kingdom have a lot to teach us about our own behaviour and what we can learn from them in order to have healthier individuals in our societies. Without mention the benefits to be closer to nature and feel more empathy and compassion towards other animals."

Re bill C16, Jordan Petersons concerns have turned out to be fully justified, the claims of nothing to fear; groundless. People are being convicted, fined and imprisoned - in the most famous case for "contempt of court" for refusing to use the court required pronoun for his own daughter. When the government assumes the right tp tell you what you can say where does it end? It doesn't.

If you want to read JP's work rather than the ill informed tattle and lies that you relish you can find them here:
He has 169 papers to his credit and almost 18,000 citations. Maybe get back to us once you've read them.

I thought this one might interest you: Compassionate Liberals and Polite
Conservatives: Associations of
Agreeableness With Political
Ideology and Moral Values

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have read and listened to Jordan dissident ad nauseam. I did so at the behest of Charles, who decided that I should read some right wing "thinkers". I have two bachelors degrees and two masters degrees in subjects that require some facility with the English language, including the somewhat strange jargon used by social scientists. I found the man very difficult to follow. I found his writings and speeches outside of his hundred and 69 papers which I must confess I didn't read because they were within his subject area and he has a reasonable reputation within it.
I found, particularly in interviews he is deceptive, changes the goalposts, makes vague statements – I suspect deliberately – so he can deny the perfectly reasonable inferences people draw from them, and misrepresents other people's research – to the point where in at least one of his writings he cites in the reading list an article which has absolutely nothing to do with the reason he cited it. Having found one of these, I would find it difficult to believe there are not more. This is intellectually dishonest, and outside his own subject area is intellectually dishonest.
He also lies directly and indirectly in his interviews. I think it was an interview with Joe Rogan where he said, "No one starves to death any more." Difficult to tell if he was amply talking about the US or about the world, but he would be wrong either way.
He also said that there is an overabundance of food and this is why poor people are fat – again completely incorrect, he neglected to say that poor people do not necessarily have access to good nourishing food, or the time to prepare meals properly, as they are often working more than one job to make ends meet. So they tend to go for calorie dense convenience foods.
He has made statements about certain aspects of history with which I am familiar if not expert – again completely incorrect. I'm not going to go on and on about this David, but if you were a little more sceptical and perhaps listen to some of the people who go through his lectures or talks sentence by sentence, you would realise what a fake the man was.

Incidentally, as I understand it the British Colombian man who was jailed was not necessarily just jailed for misgendering as such but for disobeying court orders not to publicly identify the person concerned, who was a minor. He breached court orders which had been designed to protect their privacy. Court orders such as this are common throughout the civilised world. If you read a little more widely, instead of sticking to the right wing bubble, you would probably have discovered this.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Incidentally, I neglected to mention – yet again – that the man who is so much in favour of free speech sued several people for using their free speech to criticise him. Again – signs of hypocrisy you perhaps should have picked up.

David George said...

I've no interest in raking over the coals either but, it needs to be noted, seeking redress for deliberate misrepresentation lies, libel and slander is not incompatible with a belief in the importance of free speech. On the contrary, it is part of the societal mechanism that protects and sanctifies speech.
Anyway, hears a short but very important talk on the real reason for the freedom of speech and it's revelatory value. Cambridge university lecture from late last year.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

It needs to be noted that the some of the criticisms were in an academic context and as far as I can see not at all libellous. Not to mention some were said in a 'private' meeting. I mean Jesus wept, the number of insults you people on the right have slung at me over the years, including "communist!" I could have earned a fortune by suing. Maybe I'm just more in favour of free speech the new lot.Anyway here's hoping he gets the same treatment that David Irving did when he sued Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier.