Introducing Dr. Roderick Mulgan, new Free Speech Union Council Member

I have had political antennae since my early teens. It was years before I read anything about the Enlightenment but early on it resonated with me that one of life’s most basic rights was saying what you thought.

Philosophical justifications like the Marketplace of Ideas were decades away for me, but life threw me in with close friends who had diverse politics and enjoyed arguing. The 1981 Springbok tour was an early influence and I was largely at odds with my student peers for preferring the libertarian view that the Rugby Union could host whoever it liked. I made it as far as the New Zealand University debating team at one point when we were wheeled around High Schools doing performance debating for secondary students. It was a stimulating phase of life but I do not recall at any point doubting that expressing different opinions was the way the world worked.

We all know things are now more complex. The concept of personal liberty has been developed to the point that many seriously believe they have the right to not be offended, and the right to define offence as anything they do not agree with. For some years I have absorbed the message from overseas media – phone apps are wonderful things – that the Northern hemisphere is well down the path of groupthink, and personal bravery is now called for to say what would once have been routine.

For me, the contagion reached these shores when the Mayor of Auckland took it on himself in 2018 to bar two speakers from council venues because of their controversial views on immigration. The reverberations of that episode are still wending their way through the justice system, but we are on notice. The ground has shifted. Settled principles of free speech can no longer be relied on.

In a short time, we have arrived at the point where certain points of view, particularly once touching on race and gender, can’t be expressed, no matter how reasonable or well founded.  

Recently a friend posted a piece on early Maori history that looked interesting and deleted it before I could read it. When I asked why she told me the abuse wasn’t worth it. Have we really come to this? Yes, and it goes well beyond online abuse. You can now lose your job or professional registration for expressing a reasonable and informed opinion. Highly regarded organisations are not immune. Universities were early casualties but more recently The Royal Society a bulwark of the science community - ripped itself apart publicly rather than stand up for its own core principles.

The parallels with dark periods in recent histories, like McCarthyism in the 1950s, and the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s, are glaring. The worthy citizens of those eras also thought they were progressive and enlightened. They too thought their insights were so vital that other opinions should permanently give way to them, and eventually common decency as well. Universities, professional bodies and trade unions cooperated. We are well embarked on the same journey and it didn’t end well last time.

I have been a member of the Free Speech Union since it was first conceived and I am honoured to have been accepted onto the Board. It is difficult to see how any other issue that matters to society can be progressed if the principles the Free Speech Union stands for cannot be relied on.  

Professionally, I have enjoyed more of a gentle meander than a climb to the top. I graduated from Otago Medical School in 1989 and got out of the hospital system and into the community fairly promptly. For the last ten years, I have been immersed in aged care. I am the principal of a group that attends around a dozen aged-care facilities in Auckland. It is a privilege, to deal with people on the last lap of life, many who no longer remember who they are or the life stretched out behind them.

Age and frailty have drawn me towards what is loosely called Lifestyle medicine, which is the science of staying well as we get older. I am the author of The Internal Flame, an account of how the immune system causes life’s big diseases and how lifestyle manipulations, particularly elements in the diet called nutraceuticals, can hold the line against them. I have a regular column on these themes in Life and Leisure magazine.  Occasionally, I have opinion pieces in Stuff and the Herald on issues of the day.

I also practise law. I have a practising certificate as a Barrister sole and I generally stick to lower-level crime. Traffic offences, burglary, whatever legal aid tosses me, in the main. I have enjoyed some headlines over the years with various outcomes and it all makes for an interesting working week. The first half is in front of a judge or beavering away on a submission, the second half wandering the wards of the frail and demented. And writing here and there.

My private life revolves around my spouse Sarah, a daughter who is a solicitor and a second one about to graduate in engineering. Sarah and I live in Auckland, with a weekend retreat at Snellsbeach. During rare periods of downtime, I enjoy walking the beach at Snells, reading and pottering in the garden.