Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Karl du Fresne: Free speech on campus - has the wheel turned full circle?

Remember the 60s? That was the decade when middle-class baby-boomers rose up in defiance of their elders.

Nothing was sacred. Traditional morality was scorned and conventional political values overturned as the protest generation stormed the barricades of conformity.

Censorship became a hot-button issue as the conservative establishment fought in vain to hold the line against a tsunami of liberalism in films, literature, television and music. 

At the heart of this cultural revolution were students, vigorously pushing back the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in terms of both behaviour and speech.

University campuses served as incubators for much of the social and political liberalism that was to transform New Zealand society. The same was true overseas, where student radicalism flourished from California’s Berkeley to France’s Sorbonne.

How ironic, then, that many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence.

At Cardiff University in 2015, students tried to ban Germaine Greer – a stroppy feminist heroine of an earlier generation – from giving a lecture.

Her crime? She had offended transgender people by suggesting a man couldn’t become a woman simply by having surgery. For expressing this “offensive” opinion, she was branded as transphobic.

Being Germaine Greer, she went ahead with her speech regardless – and infuriated her critics even more by saying “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock”. Police officers and security guards were on hand to ensure her safety.

More recently, Berkeley University – the same Berkeley that was a hotbed of student rebellion in the 1960s – cancelled a planned speech by the provocative gay libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos after thousands of students gathered to protest and black-clad “anti-fascist” activists threatened violence.

Closer to home, three students from the Queensland University of Technology were sued for “racial hatred” after posting online comments objecting to their exclusion from an “indigenous only” computer lab.

One of the students had posted: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?” Another had asked: “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” That was as racist as it got.

For this they were sued for $250,000. Fortunately a federal judge put a stop to the nonsense when he ruled there was no case to answer.

The university’s indigenous administrative officer, who brought the court action, linked the students to America’s Ku Klux Klan (now there’s a truly defamatory statement) and said she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been suspended or disciplined.

In Britain, meanwhile, universities have created “safe spaces” where students are protected from hearing opinions that might offend them, and the National Union of Students has a “No Platform” policy which prevents “racist or fascist” organisations from speaking at any student function.

Who defines racist and fascist? The NUS, presumably.

Another recent development in the United States is the advent of “trigger warnings”, where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting. How fragile we’ve become.

As far as I know, we have had no direct parallels with the above cases in New Zealand. But we have come perilously close.

Last month a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association was forced to disband after an outbreak of moral panic over its recruitment stand at Orientation Week. Someone alleged the group’s slogan, “Our honour is our pride and our loyalty”, was similar to that of the Nazi SS.

I have no idea whether the group’s members were white supremacists or whether, as a spokesman said, they merely wanted to promote European culture. If it’s the latter, then they were no different from any number of organisations wishing to celebrate their ethnic or cultural heritage. 

But we never really had a chance to find out, because the association claimed it had to disband following abuse and threats of violence.

If that’s true, you have to wonder who poses the greater threat – a small group of young men with a fondness for Celtic imagery which some people found a bit creepy, or the self-appointed enforcers of cultural correctness who intimidated them into folding their tent and melting away into the night?

What’s going on here? Is this really what the student radicals of the 1960s wanted? Did the bold liberalism of that era take a wrong turning somewhere, eventually spawning a generation frightened of, and hostile to, ideological diversity? 

Or was the 60s revolution a bit of a fraud all along, the real “liberal” agenda being to replace one form of bigotry and conformity with another?

Part of the problem is that an overwhelmingly left-leaning academic establishment (one leading American academic calls it an “intellectual monoculture”) has promoted a type of groupthink that is intolerant of dissent.

The irony, of course, is that today’s speech police are the direct ideological descendants of those 1960s radicals. Only now they are in control, and seeking to impose a type of censorship that’s just as prudish and po-faced as anything from that supposedly oppressive era. 

FOOTNOTE: This was written before, and without prior knowledge of, Professor Paul Moon's open letter, signed by the likes of Bob Jones and Geoffrey Palmer,  expressing concern at intolerance of free speech on university campuses. 

Karl du Fresne blogs at First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail.


Brian said...

Excellent Karl,

Let us not not confine it to the right to speak, how about the written word? The lead taken by the NZ Herald in publishing extracts from the Washington Post and locally produced articles from N.Z. journalists against President Trump and the Republican administration are seemingly without end. Well that is their right to publish.

But, and here's the rub, the general public are entitled to both sides of the arguments, in a democracy of free speech and thought? Viewpoints from the other side, just now and again might be advantageous to us all in forming an opinion.

It is now becoming obvious that our leftist liberal governmental society demands control over what we now think. The choice is not ours anymore, as we are bombarded by their ideology day in and day out. Shades of Goebbels "Tell them long enough and often enough" and they will believe it. Examples abound, Farmers polluting, Descendants of colonial oppressors carrying a tradition, etc etc.

Try getting a reply from any Member of Parliament on anything controversial, and the fobbing off with platitudes and handouts is an arrogance to anyone's intelligence. It is a great pity that our New Zealand Television does not have the quality of interviewers as Australia has; such as Andrew Bolt and Paul Murray.

Such people have been very thin on the ground in "God's Own" for decades. But then it is doubtful whether we have Parliamentarians who could stand up to such intense investigation and criticism, or more to the point able to handle and answer it.
Brian. said...

Thanx Karl for a generally far-sighted & cogent essay. I feel strongly about your theme; I was a grad student at the U of California at Berkeley (that's it's name, please - 1, the oldest, of the many campi of the U of Calif) in the latter half of the 1960s when most of the turmoil occurred. The vast majority of those demonstrating for free speech there 1964-69 were asking for no more than enfordement of the USA Constitution. Inevitably, however, they were used by hardened Marxists as 'useful idiots', but such efforts achieved little success in that period. The recent USA, UK etc suppressions which you sketch will doubtless be used by Marxists to whatever extent they can, but their influence is not apparent from my perspective on the events such as you mention. BTW the shutting out of Milo was not exactly devoid of violence; some mildly spectacular damage was done to the main Student Union bldg, and thugs did threaten Milo. Far more respectable pundits have, since then, been heckled down or repelled by prior threats. (They tend to have names even odder than Milo's - Heather Mac Donald, Myron Magnet ...) The apparent prime movers are 'snowflakes' who act 'ofended', hurt, and requiring a safe space, at the idea that anyone discuss in a scholarly way the PC Axis: wimmins"Lib", anti-white racism, militant homosexualism, and most recently militant 'transgender'ism. Suppression with threats of violence, in a fog of emotive raving, is the dominant fad – tolerated, often assisted, by cowardly or perverted administrators.
We can safely assume this 'snowflake' fad will break out in NZ. The now forgotten Mrs Yates MP conducted an 'inquiry' to explore the scope for statutory restrictions on 'hate speech'. The Commissioner of Police has had to insist very recently that no such new restrictions are needed. No end is in sight in the burgeoning trends of 'angry wimmin', 'angry Maadi', 'solemn aggrieved pervert' - the PC Axis. Lacking any constitutional right to free speech, we'll have to act vigorously to protect it. The media are largely staffed by PC creeps exerting key influence by endless biased promotion of 'transgender', as well as the older partners in the Axis. Don Brash's excellent 'Hobson's' anti-racism pronouncements get minimal coverage. I have been black-listed by nearly all media for decades, having previously been a main informant on dangerous technologies. The voters are worse informed than they were 3 or 4 decades ago, and lying has been legitimised, especially by the gene-jockeys.
Among possible actions is speaking with one's MP, especially if representing an electorate. Let's hear some more ideas for action to protect free speech.

Peter D said...

In fact the idea of Political Correctness as a tool to control society was recognised by Antonio Gramsci an Italian neo-Marxist who was imprisoned by Mussolini during the 1920's and 30's.
He is best known for his theories of "cultural hegemony" which describes how the state and ruling capitalist class use cultural institutions to maintain power.
It does not require much imagination to see how current so called democracies that have state and corporate control over their main stream media are using Gramsci's theories via political correctness to silence any opposing opinions and in fact use fear of PC labeling to stifle discussion of contentious issues.
Of course the next stage might well be to reduce the capacity of language to express a thought that conflicts with the agenda of the state. This is the concept so well expressed in Orwell's 1984.

Robert Mann said...

Cogent post, PD. But what do you mean by putting in the FUTURE the closing-off of language so as to restrict political discussion? Isn't that trend well under way? Lies in the language are already proliferating. The accurate term homosexual, not in itself an inherent pejorative, was ousted by the tendentious 'gay' a few decades ago; the term 'homosexual' is now treated as if 'ofensive'. A growing list of terms is declared by the snowflakes 'ofensive', opressive', microaggression', etc.

Peter D said...

Robert, yes I must agree with you about the PC alteration of language to placate the "snowflakes" that you refer to.
At the time of writing I was thinking more in terms of Orwell's concept of reducing the breadth (and depth) of language so as to bring about an inability to think through issues and of course communicate with other minds. This would be the ultimate means of subjugating the "bewildered herd" so that they pose no threat to the ruling elite and is definitely more comprehensive than the use of propaganda that we are all subjected to now.

Jules31 said...

I am extremely disappointed that a European Club was banned by the University if Auckland. People of all cultures, coloured skin, and religions should be able to promote their views on campus. Universities are supposed to be bastions of free thought, and so they should promote free thought. Banning any club is contary to the ethos of a university. But perhaps univertities are not universtites anymore and instead are simply training organisations. This is true to some degree as some so called universities are already simply training organisations when Technical Colleges became univerities.