Critic, Conscience and Kaupapa: the ongoing Free Speech clash at UoA

By Nick Hanne

Spare a thought for election officials in India who have just run the largest national election in human history. Equally impressive though is the fact that India’s is just one of more than 60 different national elections which will take place in 2024, affecting 50% of the global population. If you were an alien visiting from outer space you could be forgiven for thinking this impressive democratic spectacle represented an upward trend toward greater global liberty and enlightenment.

Everything, however, is not what it seems.

According to a recent article from University of Auckland magazine Ingenio, democracies around the world are in serious freefall. It cites findings released this past February in the Democracy Index (produced by the Economist Intelligence Unit) which paint a grim picture. Nations may be going to the polls in greater numbers, but democratic institutions and egalitarian ideals are in retreat. Dr Stephen Hoadley, recently retired associate professor of Political Studies at UoA, goes on in the article to point out that modern democracy is a “brilliant invention,” but that we, the people, need to keep it alive by, among other things, “exercising freedom of speech” and “engaging in debates.”

Truer words could not be spoken.

But does the University of Auckland hierarchy recognise these things are needed to preserve and promote the democratic ethos?

Let’s consider the University’s Draft Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom Policy which is currently open to submissions from its staff and students. It is, you may be relieved to know, a brief read. Unfortunately its brevity doesn’t quell legitimate concerns about its content.

Two points are worth highlighting.

Firstly, the draft policy describes the University as being the “critic” and “conscience” of society, but instead, it should be academics with this role. Universities should strive for institutional neutrality where diversity of thought can occur within its community allowing academics to take their own stance on issues. So, why is this lack of impartiality so troubling?

The introduction to the draft policy also states that the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi shape the University’s culture and are “central to its mission.” Many of us might think this is fairly unremarkable given how pervasive such Treaty references have become in NZ organisations over the past few decades. I’ve no doubt even my kids’ sports clubs make mention of Te Tiriti in their charters. I recognise the honorable intentions which many Kiwis have towards race relations in this country and I share that aspiration. Yet the wording of the UoA draft policy goes beyond this and has serious implications for free speech, especially when we consider it in the context of the “Listener Seven” controversy.

If you didn’t follow the story at the time, an attempt to blend mātauranga Māori content - traditional Māori knowledge and practises – with the NCEA Science curriculum in 2021 provoked a small but determined reaction from seven UoA professors who signed their names to a public letter of protest in The Listener magazine. While these dissenters were willing to concede that mātauranga Māori offered some useful insights when it came to improving things like ecological management, they were deeply concerned that certain activists within academia – assisted in their aims by university administrators – were radically attempting to rewrite the definition of science in this country. The Seven argued that the natural sciences operated on very different foundations to mātauranga Māori, and if people wanted to study either, they could already do so – as separate disciplines. But to combine them would undermine the fundamental tenets of the natural sciences and create “misunderstandings of science.” Furthermore, they believed the move was designed to discredit and undermine scientific achievements by portraying the whole modern scientific enterprise as “Eurocentric”, “colonial” and “racist” in nature. The universal applicability of the scientific method was, they argued, explicitly being challenged by a relativistic and reductive approach which spoke of  “Western/Pakeha epistemologies” and portrayed modern science as a villain.

The Listener Seven were immediately accused of being everything from colonial apologists to social Darwinists. After all, wasn’t the proposed curriculum simply just acknowledging that indigenous beliefs might have some usefulness in the modern world? The answer was an emphatic “no.”

Ocean Mercier, associate professor at the University of Auckland, and a key proponent of the proposed curriculum disabused people of this more charitable interpretation in her response to the Seven. "I think if there is one thing this particular incident reminds us of is that there is need to decolonise first, to decolonise the science systems before we can create a safe space for mātauranga and indigenous knowledge,” and adding “this is a reminder that this space is not completely safe."

Mercier was by no means alone in her views. The Seven were excoriated by colleagues, journalists and students alike. Many fellow academics, though equally disturbed by the proposed curriculum, remained silent for fear of receiving the same treatment. One of the Seven resigned his role as dean. Three others faced calls for their expulsion from the Royal Society. Prominent figures in the University who knew better and could have publicly lent support to the Seven instead wilted in the face of a vindictive and highly vocal pile-on. The time-honoured tradition of academic freedom may not have been down, but it was certainly on the ropes.

Remarkably, more than a year after this saga had played out a leading AUT researcher and lecturer in mātauranga Māori, Georgina Tuari Stewart writing in E Tangata, admitted that she herself was not prepared to say whether mātauranga Māori and the natural sciences were indeed compatible, let alone similar. There was, she warned, “a danger in rushing to a final and definitive answer on whether Māori knowledge is a science,” but that this “disjunction was an opportunity for learning.” In other words, educators still needed to debate the matter. Such candour came too late for the Seven who’d already been labelled anachronistic, racist and bigoted by many of their learned peers.

The second concern to note about the University draft policy document concerns clause 14. Here restrictions may apply when the speech of visitors to the University “involve the advancement of theories or propositions which fall below scholarly standards to such an extent as to be detrimental to the University’s character and its performance of the functions characteristic of a university.”

Considering that Te Tiriti principles are “central to its mission”, does this mean that Te Tiriti and mātauranga Māori also inform UoA's “character”? And would the Listener Seven, or dissenters like them, therefore still fall foul of the University's speech code should a re-run of the controversy of 2021 somehow occur and the current draft policy end up being ratified?

The subjective wording in the draft policy as it stands would appear to leave the University significant discretion to disinvite or ban outright any visiting speaker it deems unworthy. Those sceptical of decolonisation may well be blacklisted. 

Moreover, determining which “scholarly standards” to apply depends very much on the subject area, the type of event a visitor might be speaking at, and the purpose of the speech. For instance, scientists will not usually engage in questions concerning metaphysics. Theologians or philosophers on the other hand are almost certainly going to be preoccupied with just those sorts of questions. How exactly then would even just a relatively straightforward interdisciplinary lecture on, say, ‘metaphor in medicine’ be assessed according to such criteria?

What then does the University of Auckland policy tell us more broadly about the culture of free speech, debate and inquiry in this country?

The censorial approach we see eroding academic freedom and civil liberties often reflects the insecurity of would-be-censors. They know deep down that certain kinds of claims or beliefs they hold will not withstand intellectual scrutiny when presented to some audiences, particularly audiences equipped with critical thinking skills, specialist knowledge and expertise. Yet often an individual can’t bear to part with a dearly held idea or belief because of their own deep emotional or psychological attachment to such thinking, even if the error is obvious. This is especially difficult when an idea or belief is considered fundamental to one’s identity and status. Ironically, failure to receive the desired approval can often make the desire for approval greater. The trouble is that it also makes us spiteful.

The basic life lesson we need to revive in our homes, our schools and on our university campuses may seem harsh. But it can be expressed quite simply.

If you’re unwilling to allow your ideas to be tested, and if you only want affirmation rather than risking an honest response, stop pushing for intellectual recognition from institutions traditionally shaped by a culture of free speech, reason, standards of evidence and debate. Seek affirmation from someone or something other than a university. Try a social club.

Academic excellence demands humility, a recognition of our shortcomings and awareness that we have only begun to scratch the surface of all that there is to know. As Socrates was fond of pointing out, the wise have a responsibility to question everything, but especially those things we’ve been warned not to question.

Free speech culture in universities requires a society that is brave enough to submit its most sacred, dearly held knowledge claims to the rigorous testing ground we call academic inquiry, the scientific method, and peer review.  Without courage, we resort to a herd mentality and mob rule – even if it more often these days occurs online. Without intellectual honesty, we end up ostracising the dissenter by ignoring their attempts at reasoned debate, straw manning their arguments, and reducing them to distorted caricatures – much like happened to the Listener Seven.

Aside from wanting control or fearing our ideas might be exposed as inadequate, there are obviously instances where we censor out of a genuine concern to protect the powerless and vulnerable. I don’t let my kids watch certain shows on TV for instance. But if we are talking about universities then we are talking about censoring on behalf of other adults.

So we ought to confront head on the claim that some people in our universities aren’t strong enough to handle certain ideas. Because that is palpable nonsense. They can handle it. They just don’t feel comfortable doing so. With exposure and the necessary critical thinking skills, they’ll learn how to better handle it.

We shouldn't be surprised that there are voices in our society who feel aggrieved at the way their forebears were treated. Such injuries run deep for some and we ought not to underestimate the power of inherited memory, whether or not we believe the rest of us have a duty or even capacity to fix the wrongs of the past. Universities are a natural place in which to explore these sorts of questions.

At the same time, in our attempts to expose past wrongs, and consider how we address them, let’s not dispense with the essential tools of critical thinking – free speech, reason, and evidence – which will in the long run actually help to break cycles of injustice rather than perpetuate them.

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  • Nadia Braddon-Parsons
    published this page in Blog 2024-06-24 15:39:29 +1200

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