Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Barrie Davis: Free Speech in Universities or Where’s Voltaire?

In a recent article in The Post, “The problem with the Government’s proposed ‘free speech’ law for universities” (here), Professor Nic Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Te Herenga Waka (was Victoria University of Wellington), wrote “Paradoxically, I believe insisting on everybody having a platform will diminish our capacity for people to talk respectfully together about difficult topics and discuss conflicting ideas.” Yes, that is seemingly absurd and self-contradictory, but I fail to see how it could be true.

 My reasons are these. First, we each of us have different experiences and various personalities which give us a perspective on issues. That is a main purpose of the public debate, to get all the evidence and arguments on the table, including or especially the unorthodox. The second is that we have a tendency to individually and collectively swing to one side or the other of a pair of opposites, often called Left and Right. To be rational, we still need to consider both sides. So no one person has the full picture and all views need to be included, irrespective of how far out they may seem to be. The solution is for people to be tolerant of the views of others, not to close them down.

Professor Smith argues, however, that extreme views create an environment in which debate is stifled so that “important topics are not discussed or understood from multiple perspectives”:

The problem is that today … protagonists often shout at each other from evermore extreme positions, each asserting they occupy the higher ground. This is creating an environment where the reputational risk is just too high for many with views that contain shades of grey that cannot be captured in a sound bite. The result is that those occupying the middle ground are stepping back from publicly contributing to discussions.

 It is generally held that the universities together with the Mainstream media, such as The Post, are from the Left. There have been a couple of posts on Breaking Views recently regarding media bias and the things that Stuff does not publish (here and here), to which I can add my Letters to the Editor. If that is also the case for the universities, then even a center-right view is outside the purview of academia and a full-on Rightist view can be considered extreme, where a full-on Leftist view would not.

Moreover, rather than enlighten academics, by confirmation bias (or myside bias) their enhanced learning only serves to entrench their regular predisposition. By restricting free speech in their universities, they exclude anything but what they wish to hear, which they research compulsively. The universities are therefore not in a position to judge what is extreme.

James Flynn, erstwhile Professor Emeritus of Political Studies at Otago University, authored In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor and sent it to Emerald Press for publication. They declined because “the work addresses sensitive topics of race, religion, and gender” and “the work could be seen to incite racial hatred and stir up religious hatred …” Heaven forbid that we should have our delicate sensitivities ruffled by mere facts on risqué topics. Nevertheless, it was subsequently published in 2020, shortly after Flynn died, by Academica Press as A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities with a paperback price of $125.99, which is itself a form of censorship.

Steven Pinker of Harvard University wrote, “The fact that the original publisher pulled this book is shocking even by today’s standards of contemporary restrictions on free speech.” Charles Murray, author of Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (2020) wrote, “I have seen first-hand what happens when a core ideal of the university – free intellectual expression, conducted with civility – is discarded. It is ugly in the moment. It is devastating to the life of the University in the weeks and months thereafter. James Flynn’s defense of free speech is essential to understanding just how devastating.” And Thomas Bouchard Professor Emeritus of Psychology of the University of Minnesota claimed “This is a bold and courageous book.”

Jim Flynn is known for the Flynn Effect – the steady increase of average IQ during the last century – and he worked with Richard Lynn who authored Race Differences in Intelligence (see my previous post here). Flynn says in his book, “Many US academics simply do not want to know the truth about race and IQ because even the suggestion of a racist component is deeply disturbing to them.” (p. 194)

Flynn wrote further:

“Even if the university adopts a mission statement that endorses free speech, campus culture prevails …. When students arrive, they are immersed into a student body that knows it can limit free speech whenever it mobilizes itself to do so. This is compounded by the fact that a sizable number of academics do not believe in free speech themselves and lead or at lease tolerate the student mob. The minds of both are closed against public debate, open classroom discussion, and research on important questions about race, class, gender, and current politics.” (p. 294)

Flynn is commenting with American universities in mind, but Professor Smith’s article mentioned the New Zealand example of Massey University Vice-Chancellor Jan Thomas’s decision to ban Don Brash from talking about Treaty issues on the campus in 2018.

Newshub reported the case 7 August 2018 in part as follows:


The planned event sparked protest from some students.

One published a letter on Facebook addressed to the Vice Chancellor Jan Thomas.

The letter raises concerns about providing “a platform for separatist and supremacist hate speech”.

“Their type of "Free Speech" does not come Free of Consequences,” the letter concludes.

Professor Thomas says the event booking was cancelled due to security concerns.

ACT Party leader David Seymour says Professor Thomas should resign for the “cowardly barring” of Dr Brash.

“I have long feared that American-style anti-intellectual, violent intolerance would come here,” Mr Seymour said.

“It has appeared at Massey this week and the university has completely failed the test.”

Dr Brash is a most reasonable person and I cannot imagine him perpetrating discord. Furthermore his is not an isolated case. Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux left New Zealand without being heard after Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and the Auckland Council owned Regional Facilities Auckland (RFA) cancelled the booking of the venue for their speaking engagement in August 2018.

Professor Smith’s article also mentions Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull (aka Posie Parker) who planned to visit Wellington, 26 March 2023. Keen-Minshull is a feminist who complained that trans people are infringing women’s rights and made the claim that a woman is an adult human female. There was no compulsion to listen to her and if you did there was no compulsion to agree with her. You have your own independent mind, right?

Yet she was made the subject of an open letter by the Rainbow Greens (Dr Elizabeth Kerekere, Ricardo Menéndez March and Golriz Ghahraman) to Immigration Minister Michael Wood calling for Keen-Minshull to be banned from visiting Wellington. Wellington Pride co-directors Vivian Lyngdoh and Tahlia Aupapa-Martin said they supported the open letter and “staunchly believe there is no room in Aotearoa for individuals who incite violence against our most marginalised”.

But if it transpired that there was violence committed by or on trans people, Keen-Minshull would not have been the perpetrator. Those who do the act can either accept responsibility for their behaviour or they should be prevented from repeating it. The problem lies not with the speaker but with the entitled brats who spit the dummy when they don’t get what they want, and the universities willingly acquiesce to that.

Although, the high court ruled that her entry to New Zealand was lawful, the protests during her visit were violent and chaotic and she was verbally and physically abused in Auckland. Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull left the country without speaking and without coming to Wellington as planned. I was embarrassed for my country. We are being treated as children who need to have our information selected for us.

That was around the same time that Stuff reviewed a short poem of racist hate-speech by Tusiata Avia about New Zealand consequent to the arrival of Captain Cook, which reads in part: “Hey James, it’s us. These days we’re driving round in SUVs looking for ya or white men like you … and I’ve got my father’s pig-hunting knife in my fist and we’re coming to get you … then we’re gonna F…. YOU. UP. FOR. GOOD. BITCH.”

The poem is a threat of physical violence to white men and even Free Speech Union council members Ani O’Brien and Dane Giraud called it racist. It is immature racist hate-speech feigning validity in the guise of naïve art. The indignant indigenous author is having a tantrum while being patronized by a quixotic intelligentsia who are also trying to circumscribe opposing views.

Whereas Keen-Minshull fled the country due to mob violence, Avia’s poem was published in a 2020 VUP book that won the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in 2021. I’m neither a feminist nor a poet and I cannot see why the former should be cancelled and the latter honoured. Note also that it was Te Herenga Waka that published Avia’s poem, where Nic Smith has been the Vice-Chancellor since January 2023.

Professor Smith says, “The problem is that today … protagonists often shout at each other from evermore extreme positions.” Yet here we have an example of his university, Te Herenga Waka and VUP, actively facilitating just such an occurrence. His university has participated in creating the environment that Smith is now criticizing. That is different from a university simply allowing someone to present their views on campus without necessarily subscribing to those views. By publishing Avia’s poem without qualification, the university endorsed it.

These are the people – academics influenced by radical students – who will judge who is too extreme to be allowed to speak at our universities. It seems to me likely Professor Smith would not have allowed Jim Flynn to speak at Te Herenga Waka campus on race differences in intelligence.

In response, Flynn quoted Orwell from the original preface to Animal Farm:

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

The excuse used for banning speakers was that they were a security issue; namely threats of violence. I expect that is mostly a tactic for the Left to get their way, but whatever substance it has is a sorry reflection on the state of New Zealand society. It means there are people in New Zealand who will do violence to stop others from speaking. There are people who threaten violence and so presumably wish to do it, like Tusiata Avia, “I’ve got my father’s pig-hunting knife in my fist and we’re coming to get you …”, and Peeni Henari, “I lift my gun, and I let the shots do the talking”. We tend to ignore it, seemingly because they are Polynesians. But why? Why are there not consequences for their provocative hate-speech the same as for Europeans?

I accept that Left - Right politics is unhelpful and can result in people talking past each other. But it does not take too much to recognize that and to see that the way to avoid it is to insist on evidence-based rational argument. Yes, that is easier said than done. We are better at picking holes in other people’s arguments than we are at making them. So if you assert your cherished views you need to be prepared to change them. But that is what the debate is for after all.

Admittedly, we should not tolerate all speech – perhaps not a Hamas fighter brandishing an AK47 bellowing ‘Gas the Jews’, say – but the limits should be wide. How do we judge what is unacceptable? Where is our Archimedean point of absolute knowledge from which we leverage our judgment? There isn’t one, which is why we need a debate on a broad range of options.

We, the people need to wrest ownership of debate from they, the authorities. To do that we need to lift the prohibition of putting what we understand to be the facts on the table. Of course the flip side is that we will in turn encounter views from others that are outside the present zeitgeist, or that are opposite to our personal perspective, or that make us feel uncomfortable. While Tusiata Avia’s poem is outside the realm of decency which I would publish, I nevertheless reluctantly accept that Te Herenga Waka should be able to do so. Just don’t expect I will accept what it says.

Barrie Davis is a retired telecommunications engineer, holds a PhD in the psychology of Christian beliefs, and can often be found gnashing his teeth reading The Post outside Floyd’s cafe at Island Bay


Hazel Modisett said...

All part of the plan my man.
A populace that is confused, frightened & brainwashed, is easier to control.
Global war & genocide, race wars, gender wars, climate wars, biological warfare as population control, food wars, water wars & debt slavery are all tools of the narcissistic psychopaths who believe they rule the planet & everything on it, but their day has come as is witnessed by recent global events. Banks collapsing, MSM going bankrupt, Universities & Colleges losing revenue & students & worldwide revolt against Western govts whose dehumanising ideologies can only be enforced with ever increasing totalitarian control.
I will know the resistance has reached NZ when I see farmers emptying the contents of their manure spreaders on the steps of parliament house & local & district councils & will rejoice & gladly trade my words for a weapon.

"Evil triumphs, when good men do nothing"

Anonymous said...

I hate referring to the 'left' and 'right' but here I go anyway. Why is it that the tolerance level of the left in hearing things they don't like is so much lower than that of the right?. Who even knows if there is a middle these days, I would have once considered myself in that spot. I can listen to views and ideas I disagree with, even ones I find delusional, obscene or abhorrent - and simply disagree and move on. I am not urged to violent action by hearing them nor am I overcome with intolerable emotion.

A recent online discussion I regretfully got caught up in showed me that we have already moved past 'people are free to think what they like' in NZ, and have arrived at the stage of 'people are forbidden from wrongthink'. I was not criticised for a particular belief, but for the suggestion that its OK for people to differ in their beliefs. Terribly depressing.

Erica said...

at a family gathering there was a difference of opinion on the 2022 Parliamentary protest. One family member angrily said he believed those involved which included some other family members, should have a bullet put in their heads.

Things have never been the same since and the former family cohesion has fragmented into factions.

It is not just institutions and other public establishments like universities where free speech and different opinions have been threatened and denied but also struck at the heart of family life. A leader incredibly declaring she was the source of all truth was totalitarianism. .

Our whole society has become much less tolerant of difference of any kind. All colours and shades of political belief were at the Parliamentary protest.

I feel people need to practise listening to conflicting views and learn self-control which according to the famous Otago University Longitudinal study was the main factor in a worthwhile career and stable marriage. I have to listen to TVNZ news every evening and not say anything contrary or there will be a terrible reaction from others in the room. I was brought up to believe you should always listen to the other side to understand and coolly and carefully analyze how others think. I find an opportunities does arise for me to say something after much careful consideration. on my part.

Progressive education with its lack of morality and discipline is a contributing factor in this. Not correcting children's behaviour or school work and allowing them to dictate what they want to do is a terrible error in child rearing.