For a time I have been observing from afar, with rising horror, attacks on open debate and free speech on university campuses in North America, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Speakers – usually, but not always, from the right of politics – have been harassed and assaulted by protesters and sometimes ‘de-platformed’ – a euphemism for being deprived of the opportunity to speak – by university administrations.
Until very recently New Zealand campuses were blessedly free of this phenomenon. Now, thanks to Professor Jan Thomas, Vice-Chancellor of Massey University, that has changed.
Now only has this never happened before, it has happened to a former politician who 40% of the country voted for.
What is almost as outrageous as the Massey decision itself is that, to the best of my knowledge, the other universities and their leaders have been virtually silent on the incident. As an academic, I am embarrassed by this silence.
Where are the other VCs? Where is the TEU? Where are the hundreds of academics who benefit from academic freedom?
The tactic of labelling an opponent’s point of view “hate speech” is a dishonest and craven attempt to write it off without contending with its substance. For the vice-chancellor of a university to use such tactics is, as current National Party leader Simon Bridges put it, “an absolute disgrace”.
Don Brash is opposed to race based seats on local authorities. So I suspect are most New Zealanders. So rather than debate the merits, the Massey VC labels such views as hate speech.
A less well-rehearsed argument in favour of free speech, and one especially important to the fundamental mission of universities, is that, for human beings, thinking is a linguistic process: to formulate ideas, the use of language is required. A complex line of thought must be formulated, revised, analysed, debated and reformulated. All of this requires the expression of ideas in language.
An attempt to restrain speech, then, is an attempt to restrain thought.
This is at the crux. How dare some of us think the wrong thing. We must be reeducated.
Learning to think inevitably involves encountering ideas we find offensive. In fact, to learn to think rigorously, we have to become accustomed to feeling uncomfortable – and even offended – and to maintain a spirit of reason in the face of that negative emotion. Deeply held ideas are, almost by definition, intrinsic to people’s identities. To challenge such an idea, therefore, is to challenge a person’s identity.
An environment in which people are enabled to develop the ability to contend with ideas that are alien or unpleasant to them comes at a price. That price is allowing people who may not be arguing in good faith to say things that are deliberately hurtful. (For the record, I do not believe Brash is such a person.)
The proper response, even to them, is not to silence them but to allow them to express their ideas and then to point out in a rational manner why we believe they are wrong.
This is the depressing thing with the debate on Maori seats and wards. There are good arguments both for and against them. But so often each side just accuses the other of being racists, rather than recognise that there are legitimate pros and cons to having Maori seats.
As Richard Dawkins has pointed out, universities are not supposed to be intellectually ‘safe’ environments. They’re supposed to be places in which ideas are put to the blowtorch of evidence and analysis.
They are, but no longer at Massey it seems.