Sunday, August 1, 2021

Karl du Fresne: Another dismal setback for intellectual freedom

Attacks on free speech – even freedom of thought, since that’s what the enemies of free speech ultimately want to control – are coming so fast, and from so many directions, that it’s hard to keep up with them.

The latest involves seven University of Auckland professors who have effectively been blacklisted for writing a letter to The Listener politely but firmly challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the status of science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.

In the febrile ideological climate of 2021 the professors’ stance counts as heresy, and it brought the full, vindictive fury of the woke academic left down on their heads. Already the pressure has proved too much for Prof Douglas Elliffe, who has stood aside as acting dean of science. In an email to his colleagues, Elliffe said he was concerned that his involvement in the controversy would cause “division” within the science faculty. That doesn’t say much for the intellectual open-mindedness of his colleagues, but there you go.

What a triumph for the enforcers of ideological conformity, and what a dismal setback – another one – for intellectual and academic freedom. How much longer will universities maintain the sanctimonious pretence that they serve as the critics and conscience of society? In truth, they promote and protect an authoritarian culture in which dissenters risk ostracism.

University vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater, who should have been the first to defend the letter-writers’ right to express themselves, came up with the all-too-familiar mealy-mouthed copout: they’re entitled to their opinion, but …

There’s always that pregnant word “but”. When you hear the upholders of identity politics and cancel culture make ritual noises about freedom of speech, you automatically brace yourself for the disqualifying proviso that you know will follow. Usually this can be summarised as “You’re entitled to express your opinion, as long as it’s one we're happy with. Otherwise we’d rather you kept your primitive, reactionary views to yourself.”

In this case, Freshwater didn’t want her university’s reputation tarnished by association with the letter-writers. In an email to staff, Freshwater said the Listener letter had caused “hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni”. Really? I wonder how many she consulted.

It doesn’t appear to have occurred to Freshwater that the university’s reputation has been tarnished anyway, and in a much more damaging way, by her eagerness to cut the heretics adrift when all they were doing was expressing, in a non-inflammatory manner, a considered opinion backed by sound academic credentials.

(As an aside, I note that Freshwater is another import, this time from Britain. It was an Australian, Jan Thomas, who barred Don Brash from speaking at Massey University in 2018. Are our universities really so useless that they can’t produce New Zealanders capable of running them, or is it the case that overseas appointees are more likely to have the desired ideological sympathies?)

This nasty little episode shows in stark relief just what academic dissenters are up against. They not only risk the wrath of censorious colleagues but must also face the probability that they won’t get a fair run in the media. Radio New Zealand broke the story yesterday, and its account – written by Maori news director Mani Dunlop – consisted mostly of quotes from activists and academics condemning the Auckland renegades and questioning, or perhaps I should say trying to undermine, their credibility. The primary object seemed to be to snuff out the Auckland professors’ (supposedly) bigoted ideas before they had a chance to take hold, much as one might stamp on a cockroach.

Special mention should be made of Victoria University professor Joanna Kidman’s impeccably thoughtful, mature contribution to the debate. In a sneering tweet reproduced (with implied approval) by RNZ, Kidman referred to the Listener letter signatories and asked, “Where do these shuffling zombies come from? Is it something in the water?” It was accompanied by a video clip from a zombie movie.

Now there’s intellectual engagement for you. If you ever wondered why the once honourable title of professor no longer commands the respect it once did, there’s your answer, right there. It probably comes as no surprise to learn that Kidman (Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Raukawa) is a sociologist - an academic discipline steeped in strict scientific rigour.

The takeaway message from all this? As usual, it’s that even respected academics speak their minds at their peril. Depart from ideological orthodoxy and you can expect to be howled down, possibly even at the expense of your career. The aim is to deter dissent and discussion, and the tragedy is that it works.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Kiwi Kid said...

Thank you Karl. Any one who wants to further this debate would do well to familiarise themselves with the book ‘Kindly Inquisitors - the new attacks on free thought’ by Jonathan Rauch.
He describes exactly how and why Science is science and how its application crosses all boundaries and gives humans a common way to come to the truth - in a way that is owned by no one, and therefore by everyone.
It is the ultimate leveller and the ultimate in allowing us to disagree in a way that moves us forward in common humanity.
This is the exact opposite of the ‘new’ way being bulldozed forward, in which group identity and power dynamics disrupt and dismantle everything which holds us together.
We are up against a relatively small and intellectually depleted but nasty and vocal cabal of comrades who know how to manipulate our desires for fairness and equality against us and who are 100% focussed on pushing their racist Woke agenda.
Their vapid nastiness indicates we are having an impact.
Keep up the good work.

Unknown said...

Well said Karl, I totally agree with you.

DeeM said...

This shows what a ridiculous state our tertiary institutions - in fact, pretty much ALL our institutions - have gotten themselves into. A tiny activist minority has seized control and has created an atmosphere of intimidation, fear and conformity.

The question is whether Maori knowledge should be considered science. Now let's put this in perspective. A civilization which had not invented the wheel or discovered basic metals technology. So they had learned how to survive, navigate (although we don't really know how well) and treat minor ailments, just like every other basic civilization. That's not science it's the acquiring of knowledge!

In the recent past, virtually every academic would have unequivocally answered no to the question. But the woke wave has changed all that. Because Maori are an ethnic minority AND considered to be indigenous (even though they're not) they are fawned over and feted as special and a shining example to all.
Never mind their nefarious practices, pre-Europeans, which are erased from the latest history curriculum, instead painting a picture of a people happily co-existing in a near perfect society.

NZ, along with most of the Western world, is in a parlous state. Logic and reason has left the building to be replaced by dogma and blind obedience.
Academia, which is supposed to represent the brightest and best of us, is broken and corrupted and will lead to a chronic mistrust and cynicism by the public.

Despite the amazing advancements humans have made our woke age shows that we are still just as susceptible to extreme and illogical ideology as we ever were. How sad!!

Ray S said...

The very reason many in academia dont stand up and get counted is demonstrated with the response provided by Frehwater and Auckland University.
Professor Elliffe et al have shown there is hope that more academics will stand up without fear of retribution for their stance.
The people who the general public deem to be educated to the nth. degree and teach others, regularly demonstrate their personal views override truth and reason.
I often wonder how some people continue to be employed, but then, the lofty heights of academia is a big old boys club.

Perhaps we should consider being labelled a heretic an honor.

Fred H. said...

I would describe "mātauranga Māori" as similar to "folk lore" as per your definition of "traditional body of Maori knowledge". It is not scientific but as the Professors said “Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.”

What is wrong with that ? Are Maori such snow-flakes that they cannot accept other knowledge can be better than theirs ? Or is it the White Ants at work?

As for our Universities, the running of them has been taken over by leftwing, grievance-conscious, virtue-signalling Vice Chancellors who appear to lack true education. They may sport degree plaques around their Offices but those degrees appear meaningless in the absence of honesty and commonsense.

By the way, Dawn Freshwater has been in NZ for less than two years but is already an expert on Maori culture, folk-lore, and history or is it just in the "grievance industry" ?

Then we have Victoria Uni Joanna Kidman who doesn't deserve the title of professor as she degrades it.

With Jan Thomas at Waikato Uni and Rod Carr, erstwhile Vice Chancellor at Canterbury Uni, who has demonstrated that he's at the top of the class in "wokeness" while chairing the Climate Change Commission, we have a four-card trick of lefty nonsense governing our Universities.

Is it any wonder that NZ's education standards are slipping to the bottom of the pile. Perhaps we should downgrade our Unis to "Woke Indoctrination Camps" and start again with real Professors at new universities.

Peter Bacos said...

" And all our knowledge is ourselves to know." (Alexander Pope 1688-1744)