Tuesday, May 21

It’s about critiquing power, stupid!…

Or the societal necessity to support (yet critique) Academic Freedom and Free Speech.

The other day I attended the Free Speech Union AGM and was on the Academic Freedom panel. It was an interesting experience because while I am a committed supporter of Free Speech and Academic Freedom, in many ways this was a field trip into communities who see the world quite differently to how I do. That in itself is not an issue because central to both free speech and academic freedom is the central necessity of allowing and protecting a true diversity of opinions, beliefs, and attitudes.

I am old enough to remember when the opponents of free speech and academic freedom were seen to be the forces of the right, both socially and politically. It was conservative attitudes, laws, values, and communities that sought to implement and maintain limitations on free speech and to oppose and constrain academic freedom.  As a historian, I am aware that in regard to academic freedom, many of the issues were those of conservative institutions and staff seeking to exclude or limit the participation and thinking of those on the left, especially those regarded as socialists or communists. There were also constraints on the academic freedom of women; feminists had to fight to be able to teach courses addressing feminist critique and history. The same issues arose for lesbian and homosexual staff.  Māori staff and courses were excluded or severely limited to certain areas and this still, sadly, continues today. Pacifica staff and courses also suffer such limitations.  

There were strong and necessary fights for academic freedom and freedom of speech to challenge and change the often very conservative nature of universities. Such challenges and changes occurred over decades, with certain periods seeing greater change and concerns, other times seeing constriction and reduction. But change did and does occur and yet academic freedom and freedom of speech has not been properly achieved – and nor will it.  As a sociologist I am also aware that academic freedom and freedom of speech does not occur in a vacuum; they are always contextual in conception and expression and both rely upon and challenge existing societal beliefs, structures, and power balances.

Let’s be clear, a belief in academic freedom and a belief in free speech are, at root, beliefs. They are not truths; nor do they arise independently of politics, culture, society, and particular histories. To claim and support them is to align oneself with particular beliefs as to what is the nature and function of the university and to align oneself with particular notions of universal humanity, the citizen, and the individual.   We also need to be clear that those who hold beliefs regarding academic freedom and free speech will not necessarily agree as to the detail, expression, meaning, or outcomes of such beliefs.  And this is how it should be, otherwise, we find ourselves believing in and espousing totalitarianism.  In the church of academic freedom and the church of free speech, there is both orthodoxy and orthopraxis – that is beliefs and practices agreed upon as correct and true. But, as someone from a stiff-necked Presbyterian heritage (if no longer belief or practice), I also continually hold the belief and right to dissent – even for the necessity of that deemed heresy – for reformation and change. Of course that may result in me being excluded, or self-excluded from the mainstream, but as  Martin Luther stated, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’;  even if mine is a secular faith and belief on such matters. 

It is important to position both academic freedom and freedom of speech as beliefs because otherwise not only do we fail to understand what is being articulated and undertaken, but we also fail to understand why they might be rejected, dismissed, or claimed to be problematic. It is also important to understand both as beliefs that have a variety of adherents, who claim allegiance but undertake their own individual practice, beliefs, and actions in response.  As a sociologist and historian of religion, this comes as no surprise.  Beliefs, religions, churches, or other institutions are never singular in beliefs and practice; these change not only over time but also in contexts, between locations and communities, and even between individuals within the collective institutions and beliefs. 

My position is we must be wary of, and oppose, fundamentalist and totalitarian beliefs and actions wherever they arise and this applies as much to the proponents of academic freedom and free speech as it does to those positioned as opponents. My concern is that debates on academic freedom and on free speech always hold within them the danger of slipping into the articulation of fundamentalist and/or totalitarian statements and attitudes, whether of the right or the left politically.   I am also wary of any claimed notion of ‘liberal’ truth and values as self-evident and universal in themselves;  for these are but beliefs, not revealed truths on human nature or society.  As the American satirist P.J. O’Rourke remarked, “Inside every liberal is a little Mussolini  saying ‘I know what’s best for you’.” Therefore when those promoting academic freedom or free speech invoke ‘liberal’ self-evident truths, histories, and values, we must question them as rigorously as we may do other expressions from the right or the left; the ‘liberal centre’ is in itself nothing but a series of beliefs.  

My position is not one of post-modern relativism (for in practice we cannot be relative ‘all the way down’ – and having studied and worked with and within postmodernism and postmodern thought for over 30 years, it is never what it is claimed to ‘finally’ be) but rather a plea to be aware of hubris and the siren calls of fundamentalism and totalitarianism – whether of the left, the right, or the liberal centre.

 As to the specifics. 

If I did not work in the university, if I had not been part of the tertiary system since 1985, I could perhaps, possibly,  believe that universities were awash with Marxists seeking to overthrow the state and Western civilization. I could perhaps believe that courses espousing Cultural Marxism were everywhere and that universities were hotbeds of radicalism, both among staff and students. Yet, honestly, this is not the case.  Almost no one is reading – or has read – Marx, Gramsci, Lenin, let alone Mao or Marcuse. There’s the odd bit of Fanon, but not much. Yes, there is Foucault, but let’s remember he also endorsed Hayek’s ‘Why I am not a conservative’ in support of the agency of the individual.   But if we believe in free speech and in academic freedom then such thinkers should be allowed to be taught. Yet most of what is taught, if not often read, let alone understood by students, is very middling, status quo thinking and attitudes.   Very, very few leave the university determined to overthrow western capitalism and society;  almost every graduate is in fact determined to find their own ways through and within existing capitalism and society as one or another form of neoliberal individual. The forms this takes will vary, but radicals – of the left or the right, whether staff or student – are in extremely short supply. Noise does not equal numbers. Therefore what I saw and heard at the AGM was in fact very close to a moral panic regarding academic freedom.   

What was expressed and concerned me were statements, whether regarding academic freedom or wider free speech,  that veered very closely to strongly anti-Māori attitudes. What we have here is part of a much wider societal and academic debate regarding the role of a wide variety of cultural beliefs and values (whether Pakeha, Māori or with immigration, of others)  in a bi-cultural society and education system. What this means is an ongoing discussion, debate, contest, agreement and disagreement, engagement and disengagement. The power balance shifts continuously, and there is no universal agreement, and never can there be. What we have is various contextual, situational, ‘consensus’ decisions and statements, that by necessity, not all will ever agree with. A nation is a project constantly under construction. 

New Zealand is a diverse, bi-cultural society that has no state religion and has a secular education system and yet it is awash with beliefs,  traditionally religious and otherwise,  that we fail, often willfully, to understand, engage with, or tolerate to be expressed. I personally do not believe in vitalism or idealism but I accept and understand that many do. I do not believe in ‘God’, but many do. I do not believe in either capitalism or socialism as ‘good’  or ‘true’ systems of society, but many do. I do not believe that any document or text ever has a singular or fixed or revealed truth, meaning, or value within it, but many do.  But that is also why I do believe in academic freedom and free speech, full knowing that many do not or will not.  If people have concerns they must be prepared, able, and supported to speak up; but also,  to speak and be heard is not analogous to being agreed with. We speak – and may be ignored or dismissed.  What we actually have is a situation of power politics aligned with quietism.

The issues (as always)  are those of the performance of power politics in a democratic society and the question of whether universities are – and in fact, ever have been –democratic institutions. Anyone who has ever sat in a school, faculty, or higher management level meeting within a university knows of course it is also a very framed performance of ‘democracy’ and consensus.  The same goes for the student body in classes, in social and informal settings, in clubs, and within their student unions.  Academic freedom and the right to be conscience and critic has always been much preferred and supported to occur outside the university than within it unless it supports the status quo.  But anyone who thinks otherwise is foolishly naive and lacks both historical and societal knowledge and understanding. This is why I believe we must continuously fight for small victories for both academic freedom and freedom of speech within the universities, knowing full well we may lose or not be supported – by good people – for a variety of reasons. And that is life. 

We must also remember the problematic, anti-democratic histories and present-day anti-democratic experiences of universities of women, the gender diversity, of Māori, Pacific, and non-white communities. What free speech proponents need to be wary of is enshrining the complaints of those who traditionally have had or seek to retain power, as if power and authority are truth in itself. For I believe we must always be prepared to challenge and critique those who hold, exercise, and proclaim power, whether traditional or new expressions of power and authority, whether inside the university or outside it. We must also challenge and critique fundamentalist, authoritarian, and totalitarian beliefs, claims, and attitudes –  again from wherever they arise. 

This is also why free speech and academic freedom cannot and should not be seen as the concern and (self)interest of those on the centre-right to right of politics and society; yet  I fear free speech and academic freedom are in danger of being regarded in this fashion by many, whether supporters or opponents. With a  change in Government, it is time for the centre left and left in society and the universities to ensure that free speech and academic freedom is supported and engaged with  – even if it does mean they find themselves alongside those who see the world quite differently to how they do. For that is the basis of society: living with and alongside those who are not like you nor often in agreement with you, but you find some values and actions in common.  Free Speech and Academic Freedom are, for me, such values and actions – but they must be worked for, alongside those often quite different to me, whether of the right, the left, or the liberal centre.