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Karl du Fresne

Another Dismal Setback for Intellectual Freedom

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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.