David Seymour’s Massey speech

spoke at Massey last week. Some great points worth highlighting:

Thank you to the Massey Politics Society for inviting me here today. You folks have weathered a storm for a very important cause, the right to be a thinking and valuing individual who can express their thoughts without intimidation by thugs and bullies.

The Problems at Massey

I have said several times in public that your University Council should be looking for a new Vice Chancellor. I stand by that assessment, because any institution is bigger than one person. If an individual undermines an institution then the institution must save itself, not that individual.

But why does Freedom of Speech matter? I think the best answer comes from the Sir Karl Popper. Sir Karl was Jewish and lost 16 members of his family to the Nazi regime. He was lucky to be in New Zealand during World War II, and it was at a New Zealand University that he wrote the Open Society and its Enemies.As Michael King wrote in the Penguin History of New Zealand, this was ‘probably the most important book to come out of New Zealand.’

Sadly, Sir Karl left New Zealand at the end of the war because he was treated abominably by the University of Canterbury. New Zealand lost one of the greatest 20thcentury philosophers because we treated him terribly. He writes about all of this in a foreword to later editions of the book. That’s the choice our Universities face, they can either be centres of intellectual enquiry with global appeal, open societies; or closed-minded backwaters.

That is the choice that Massey especially faces.

Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society

Popper went on to describe the difference between thinking and valuing individuals and primitive life forms. He started with bacteria and Amoeba, extremely simple creatures that have no ability to hold an idea, let alone generate new ones. They simply do what they’re genetically programmed to do, and if the conditions change they die.

Animals, of course, are a bit more sophisticated, but they have the same basic problem as micro-organisms. They live or die based on the instinctive behaviours they are born with. They don’t have intelligence, the ability to assess and reason for themselves.

Humans obviously do have that ability but whether we use it depends on the kind of rules we have in our society. In a closed society, we must follow the leader. The leader tells us what the course of history will deliver us, and we must obey. If the leaders get it wrong, our society fails just as a badly adapted species of amoeba dies out when the conditions change.

On the other hand, an open society has the ability to think and value for itself. An open society is able to absorb new ideas, roll them around on its members’ tongues, and decide whether they fit. An open society never dies, because when its ideas go out of date, it has new ones to choose from.

Our very survival depends on the ability to have an open culture of ideas. We are not going to solve poverty, inequality, environmental challenges, transport, housing, remain competitive in the world economy, or even get a better quality of craft beer if we are not able to try new ideas on for size, discard those that don’t work, then relentlessly look for better ones.

Sadly many don’t want an open culture of ideas. They only want their ideas. They want other ideas silenced because someone may be offended by them.

We cannot afford to behave like closed societies, like Amoeba that just accept a fate tied to their identity. We have to be an open society, that welcomes the contest of ideas. But sadly we are facing a range of bogus arguments against . Let me tick off two of the most common:

Free speech doesn’t mean you get a free megaphone or the right to an audience. No serious free speech advocate believes that free speech means the right to a platform. This is an egregious straw man argument. It does, however, mean that institutions committed to free speech should not discriminate because the people who run the institutions don’t like particular views.

Free speech doesn’t include hate speech. What does that even mean? There are certainly limits on speech that have evolved in the common law over a long period of time. These are ones that can be objectively tested in a court of law. They include that you can’t incite violence. You can’t make a nuisance of yourself such as the classic example of shouting fire when there is no fire. You can’t defame people by deliberately leading reasonable people to believe something you don’t actually believe if it damages an individual’s reputation. Hate speech, on the other hand, is just a subjective test that can be used to bully unpopular opinions.

Conclusion

We are not amoeba, or any other primitive life form. We are intelligent beings with the ability to sift through ideas and consider whether they fit our aspirations. We can only do that, though, in an open society that accepts the scientific method of conjecture and refutation. Our Universities should be the primary place where free thought and open enquiry are not only not suppressed, but encouraged. With that, I’d like to thank the Brave Students of the Politics Society for making this speech possible today.

There is a small glimmer of hope at Massey. The Herald reported:

The chancellor of Massey University has announced a review into the process surrounding the recent cancellation of Don Brash’s appearance at a student politics club.

Massey University Chancellor Michael Ahie said the Council of Massey University was undertaking an independent review into the process surrounding the cancellation of the former National Leader’s appearance on the Manawatū campus.

“The Council has already expressed its support and confidence in the Vice Chancellor and it is now seeking a review of the processes involved in the issue so that it can fully understand the lessons learned and have clarity over future events,” Ahie said.

The review may just be window dressing. Designed to make it look like the Council has done something. The fact they have already fully backed the Vice-Chancellor makes me fear that is the case.

But if the review leads to a change of policy so this can’t happen again, then this will be worthwhile.

But the new facilities use policy was designed to allow the VC to ban speakers who don’t share her view on the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi. Unless that policy is changed, we will get a repeat.

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