Vam Beynen on opinions


It’s a dangerous world in which to speak your mind.

To quote from June’s Economist: “From the mosques of Cairo to the classrooms of Yale, all sorts of people and groups are claiming a right not to be offended … A right not to be offended implies a power to police other people’s speech.”

I have often commented on our overly sensitive and easily affronted society especially, it seems, if the offending speaker is an older white male, yes, like me. But not exclusively. Ask Germaine Greer or Chrissie Hynde.

I always thought it was best to challenge speech you don’t agree with,  rather than get people sacked for saying things you disagree with.

Last week it was University of Canterbury sociology professor Greg Newbold’s turn.

The University’s Feminists Society (FemSoc) complained about a lecture he gave to promote his latest book.

His lecture about feminist campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s and their impact on rape law apparently left some attendees “visibly disturbed” and “likely in shock at the inappropriateness”, according to the complaint.

The complaint accused Newbold of objectifying women and contributing to rape culture by saying New Zealand’s penalties for rape were too drastic and failed to address the impact on victims.

Newbold’s shocking comments were answers to some “thorny” questions from the floor during question time, it turned out.

“The matter of rape is always controversial, but in declaring that the lecture content should have been vetted, the dissenters seem to think university staff should not be able to voice opinions that they personally disagree with,” Newbold later wrote.

“They appear unaware that the university is an institution where freedom of expression and open debate is part of its core business.”

Sadly freedom of speech is an endangered beast on campuses.

It would all be very droll – a very first world issue – but for some potentially harmful ramifications.   

The first is that debate will obviously become more limited and one-sided. The sometimes ugly and painful exchanges that lead to change will be stifled.

With jobs, careers and reputations at stake, people who want to speak up will stay silent, keeping their heads below the parapet. They will self censor.

On the surface it will appear the zealots have succeeded in changing attitudes when all they have achieved is driving those views they find offensive underground.

That won’t benefit the zealots or those holding those discomforting views. Opinions and positions will become more entrenched as they breed like viruses in their only little petri dishes. Censorship favours the status quo, it is said. Ask China.

Then all of a sudden someone like Donald Trump, who doesn’t give a fig for civilised rules of discourse, comes along and finds a willing audience in those who feel they have somehow lost a voice.

A large part of the support for Trump is a backlash against those who try to police speech.

What happens in universities and in boardrooms is important because it influences those on the outside.

The principle of can sometimes be used to defend the indefensible but it certainly shouldn’t be curtailed to avoid hurting the feelings of over-sensitive people whose views are often as unreasonable and entrenched as those of the very people they despise. 


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