Tuesday, May 21

Back to the Chalkboard: Free Speech on NZ University Campuses

A card player should know he’s in trouble when he thinks he has to stack the deck. But does a university realise how fundamentally flawed it has become as an institution when it decides to load a free speech panel with pro-censorship viewpoints? 

The very public battle of the Free Speech Union (FSU) to uphold free speech rights at Victoria University Wellington (VUW) this past week is proving to be something of a litmus test for the rest of the country. Let me provide three troubling examples of further ways in which a culture of censorship has been operating in tertiary education and then more optimistically what lessons might be offered if things are to change for the better. 

Let me be also clear up front by offering this disclaimer: I do not work in the tertiary sector – I am just a lowly high school teacher who happened to spend a total of seven years in tertiary study. (Yes, my student debt was horrendous). So, as an ‘ex-professional’ student here is my take of the current free speech predicament on campuses throughout the country. 

Lesson #1 – Free speech is not a natural impulse but something we learn about and emulate.

I completed my first degree in 2004. On returning to the University of Auckland in 2011 to undertake my postgraduate studies in Political Science, I was greeted with an altogether different educational world to the one I’d known a decade earlier as a fresh-faced undergraduate. On the surface, things appeared just as I’d left them. The quad was still filled with enough weed to put Cheech ‘n’ Chong to shame, Shadows Bar throbbed to the alternative beats of bFM, and students who’d grown up in places like Ponsonby and Queenstown were still dressing in homespun caftans and lecturing passersby about the need for a free Tibet. The familiar campus cliches were, in their own eccentric way, reassuring to me. But beneath the surface it was another matter entirely. 

A strident form of thought suppression in the Arts and Social Sciences was taking hold. Postmodernism had for decades been priming many minds through its ‘fifty shades of grey’ approach to truth. Intersectionality was also making its stroppy march through the academy, categorising everyone and everything in its path like some impersonal biscuit grading machine in a Griffin’s factory. And free speech – the very principle which once distinguished the great universities of the West from those found in Pyongyang or Riyadh – was starting to fall prey to the pronouncements of the ‘sensitivity clique.’ 

Of course, not everyone was happy about the changing speech climate. They just weren’t confidently speaking up about it. Many remained silent either for fear of being called that most detestable of things, ‘intolerant’. Others were concerned that a defence of free speech, if it really was under threat (many were sceptical of the claim), might appear alarmist. But the fingerprints of postmodern intellectuals like Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, and Butler were all over the scene. My impression of postmodernism in the early 2000s was that it was no more than a permissive thought experiment. Beyond the lecture theatres and tutorial rooms it was difficult to imagine how such relativistic thinking could manifest practically in the real world without tearing apart our most fundamental customs and institutions. For most of us at the beginning of the new millenium Kant’s words still rang true: “Two things awe me most, the starry sky above and the moral law within me.” Postmodernism, if followed to its logical end, would mean the explicit abandonment of a common moral and ethical touchstone for ethics and civility. In academic terms, public discourse as a means of resolving societal discord would be abandoned in favour of more kinetic approaches. Or in more straightforward terms, instead of solving our problems by talking to each other, we would resort to censorship and intimidation. Given the violent images of two fallen towers still fresh in our memory, most of us weren’t ready to abandon moral objectivity altogether and concede that Osama Bin Laden’s “truth” was equal to any other. 

The outrage which the Iraq invasion produced in my generation should not be underestimated today. Along with the 2008 Financial Crisis, geopolitical and economic events in the first decade of this millennium became a catalyst for the postmodern experiment. Cynicism towards Western moral exceptionalism gave way to more revolutionary fervor. Academia had been the ideological incubator. Social media would become the ideal vector for its spread. Politics, though held hostage by tenaciously incumbent Baby Boomers – Clinton, Bush Jr., Blair, Clark – would with the rise of Gen X and the Millenials – Obama, Cameron, Johnson, Macron and Ardern – give postmodernism its full expression. But this would all come later. In the early 2000s you could still take the mickey out of almost any sacred cow on campus and reasonably expect not to be ripped limb from limb by a baying mob. If you put up a truly spirited argument, you might even get a grudging modicum of respect from your opponents. Robust dissenters were the protected class and if someone in those days had suggested that your political musings were in and of themselves ‘violence’, you would have been laughed out the room. In those days fragility won you few friends or favours. 

Postmodernism had proven itself to be not a what but a how, a way of reconstructing social norms and public discourse. And it was already dismantling the traditional framework of civil interaction by showing that to win you didn’t just have to attack your opponent. You needed to attack the game. In this case, the game included our democratic culture of free speech. My return to the university in 2011 was therefore disconcerting. Voices were few in tutorials either because people didn’t know what they thought about a subject anymore or they didn’t want to be criticised. The great majority unsurprisingly seemed to either be thinking about lunch or whether their car was being towed from the dodgy parking spots along Waterloo Quadrant. Many tutors with an eye to end-of-semester student satisfaction surveys expedited proceedings with health and safety or public relations foremost in mind (the two things being, in my opinion, fairly indistinguishable these days). 

When I undertook my master’s degree the following year the full import of what was transpiring had yet to sink in. My supervisor suggested I consider going on to do a doctorate. Had I ever contemplated a career in academia? Yes, I said, I had. Buoyed by this encouragement, I ploughed into my thesis exploring the ideological precursors for the Marxist justification of coercion and violence. I lived like a trappist monk that year in uneasy, silent company with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao and the hellish tragedies of their good intentions. In one sense I could handle it – these guys were long dead and the revolutions they inspired or led were well and truly consigned to the dust bin of history. However, it was the influence of their postmodern offspring which alarmed me most. My criticisms made my supervisor uneasy. He was a brilliant professor, not in the thrall of the new ideology, but certainly alert to the growing consequences for those who challenged it. Called into his office one day near the end of that year, he cautioned me. “You know that whoever grades your thesis is in all likelihood going to be a neo-Marxist or a postmodernist.” Scholarship in this area of interest, he went on apologetically, was getting more restrictive. Was I getting his point? “Yes,” I was getting his point, and thanked him for the concern. Yet even though I promised to think it over, I knew I would stand by my claims and submit the thesis without alteration. I decided there and then my future lay elsewhere. 

Lesson #2 – The vast majority of students arrive at university without a basic grounding in epistemology.

I was raised on debate. My grandfather had been a staunch rationalist, atheist and communist in the inter-war years before the growing revelations of the dreadful reality of life in Soviet Russia burst the idealistic bubble of many socialists in the West. By the time my father came along my grandfather had softened in his political outlook, though he was no less intellectually demanding of his children when it came to debate around the family dinner table. My father was encouraged to argue anything he liked, but three rules were to be in effect at all times: 1) you must use evidence; 2) don’t repeat yourself because I heard you the first time; and 3) be gracious always (victory laps are for athletic events as your goal should be to win over your opponent, not just the crowd). This approach to any knowledge claim could be best summarised as: “Are you sure?” 

As a natural result of my grandfather’s rigorous influence I have a couple of academics in my family. My father was offered a full scholarship to Cambridge University, my uncle the same to Oxford – both later went on to teach in different disciplines at the University of Auckland, one in Medicine and the other in Languages and Comparative Literature. Therefore, in my mind, to teach was a noble profession. To inquire fearlessly – no matter the findings – and to debate robustly – critically yet graciously – these were the vital prerequisites for the pursuit of truth. All of this was manageable, mind you, because I’d also been raised to believe that others were my equals. All people had an inherent dignity and I was, to quote a great teacher, “to do unto others as I would have them do unto me.” For a time, I entertained my own plans for a career in academia. 

Even with this warning I would have still been prepared to fight my way through the hostile intellectual climate, but I could see it was a difficult task even for someone already established in an academic career. I figured I could make a more meaningful contribution elsewhere. I’d also already seen the writing on the wall – in the form of a club cancellation poster, that is. A few weeks earlier a friend of mine who was also engaged in postgraduate work let me know that votes were needed urgently. “For what?” I asked. The Auckland University Students Association were attempting to ban a small student pro-life group because it “did not reflect the inclusive values of the AUSA.” A vote had been called in the main quad later that day. Votes were needed from the general student population to defeat the motion. Would I come? “Yes, of course,” I replied, “but how’s it possible that a group could be expelled for exercising their right to free speech?” He agreed the whole thing was a fiasco. I turned up outraged not that pro-choice advocates were passionate about their cause – they had every right to argue what they believed to be true – but at the enthusiasm of our nation’s future leaders and professionals for seeking to ban speech with which they disagreed. I met an undergraduate student by the name of Simeon Brown for the first time that day. He was leading the pro-life group which up until that morning I’d never heard of before. Whatever one may think of Brown’s politics or personal views, this young man calmly and confidently stood with his humble group in the midst of a much larger jeering crowd and defeated the AUSA’s measure. The whole experience had me in mind of a Roman amphitheatre. It sounds melodramatic, but I can assure you the animus directed at that small group was truly something to behold. I saw in it a serious warning about where things more generally on campus were heading. What were students being taught about how to disagree? Was this intolerant impulse toward dissenting views purely a product of the university experience? 

Not long after this I went into secondary teaching where for the next seven years I taught an epistemology course to senior students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate Diploma (I.B.). “Theory of Knowledge” as the programme is known, takes students into the world of metacognition, examining how we think, and challenging learners to embrace a culture of fearless inquiry just as my grandfather had instituted in our family. Through the private high school in which I taught, we helped a significant number of exceptionally able students gain admission to the most prestigious universities in the world. I only hope that those who made it to Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Oxford, in light of recent events, have the one thing no classroom teacher could easily transmit to them – courage. 

Lesson #3 – Students will not exhibit courage unless they see it modelled in the real world.

My dear friend of nearly thirty years – Dr. David Cumin – is facing down intimidation and smear tactics for lawfully exercising his right to free speech in defence of a minority. The activists who’ve camped outside his faculty office at the Auckland University School of Medicine are demanding his employment be terminated. He is a Zionist, a proud one, and he has spoken up unflinchingly, particularly throughout this past six months, for Israel. Of course, you don’t have to agree with David’s views. He wouldn’t expect you to accept anything he says without investigating his claims for yourself. But I know well what he thinks, and while we have had some roaring great debates with each other on a number of issues throughout the years, he is principled to the point of upholding the right of free speech for his most mean-spirited opponents. His principled stance on free speech makes that tough for him personally. But it also makes him a true champion of free speech. He has shown the kind of courage in speaking up for a minority group that students no matter their political or personal stripes should, in my opinion, aspire to possess. His work in the service of free speech and his consistent personal example are the main reason I joined the Free Speech Union. FSU doesn’t take substantive positions on matters of free speech and David has in his capacity as an FSU council member honoured that principle even at great personal cost to himself. 

FSU exists so that everyone can give voice to their beliefs in a peaceful and democratic manner. 

So, how should we instill courage in students? Be brave ourselves. Speak up! There’s a good reason those two words – speak up – comprise the name of the new FSU educational outreach program we’re taking to high schools around the country. We promote the message of free speech to students, its vital role in fostering critical thinking skills, and the way it instills in citizens a conscious commitment to upholding the fundamental principles of democracy. We’ve recognised the problem of eroding adherence to free speech values isn’t just due to a prevailing political attitude or lack of appreciation of civil liberties. It is often due to a lack of visible examples of courage. We know what New Zealand could look like with a flourishing culture of free speech, because for the most part we used to have it – never perfect – but a damn sight better than where we’re heading now. To renew that culture of free speech we need to know what to teach our young people about civic values, because contrary to popular belief power should not determine what is right or wrong – objectively demonstrable, rationally defensible debate should. We also need students to understand how to examine their own presuppositions so that they do not fall foul of unreasonable bias or manipulation. 

So, when Jonathan Ayling as CEO of the Free Speech Union goes onto the VUW campus on the 28th of May he will be showing, along with a good deal of grace, that same kind of courage I mentioned earlier. If we care for free speech in this country, and particularly what happens in education, it is incumbent upon us to support such efforts.