FEW SPECTACLES are more tragic than those in which a community destroys its core values in the misguided belief that it is upholding them. The 400+ academics who put their names to an open letter condemning racism and white supremacy on the Auckland campus undoubtedly did so with the best of intentions, but in signing the document they have either deliberately, or unwittingly, endorsed a document of profound illiberality. They have placed their reputations at the disposal of extremists whose exhortations will only exacerbate the intolerance they purport to condemn.
The Open Letter begins by invoking the idea of the university as a community of scholars and students: a place “dedicated to the creation, preservation and sharing of knowledge”. This fine beginning is marred almost immediately by the jarring claim that the university is also a place where: “We build our collective understanding of the world and ourselves, while nurturing innovation and maintaining what is best in our society.”
This transformation of knowledge: from the fruits of work undertaken by individual scholars; to a collectivist endeavour undertaken for the maintenance of “what is best in our society”; is as sinister as it is tendentious. By this definition, the university is a place where individual insights must be subordinated to those which, in the collective judgement of the individual’s peers, constitute “what is best”. Ignored completely in this formulation is the fact that “what is best”, both in and for “our society”, has been a matter of continuous disputation since at least the time of Socrates and Plato.
In case we were in any doubt, the Open Letter declares it to be the opinion of the 400+ signatories that “racism and white supremacy have no place at the University of Auckland”.
No place? Not even in the disciplines of Anthropology, History, Philosophy and Sociology? Is it truly the case that the ideas and behaviours constitutive of so many of the characters and cultures of the University of Auckland’s students (and staff) are unworthy of academic scrutiny? Is the ideology of white supremacy, potentially so dangerous when driven underground, not to be interrogated and analysed? Is the near ubiquity of racism in everyday human behaviour not something to be investigated and discussed?
The Open Letter makes it clear that its authors have already investigated the website of those responsible for postering and stickering the Auckland campus – the casus belli of this little culture war – and, in their own words: “have no difficulty in identifying this group and such displays as white supremacist in nature”.
It is most unlikely that “Action Zealandia”, the proprietor of the website and publisher of the offending posters and stickers, would disagree. These “radical nationalists” (as they prefer to call themselves) make no attempt to disguise their belief that a reassertion of European male supremacy is “what is best” for New Zealand society.
Many New Zealanders would assume that such an obviously anachronistic political organisation would not present much of a threat to a university full of highly-educated men and women. Surely, a group of confused young men, nostalgic for the lost social and political verities of the nineteenth century, are more to be pitied than feared?
That was certainly the opinion of the University of Auckland’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart McCutcheon, who upheld the right of those putting up the posters and stickers to exercise their freedom of speech – not matter how distasteful that speech might be. A wiser community of students and scholars would have nodded their agreement and moved on. But, alas, throughout the twenty-first century academic world such expressions of tolerance (and intellectual maturity) are as rare as they are inflammatory. The position taken by the Vice-Chancellor was not to be allowed to stand unchallenged. Into the valley of censorship and suppression rode the four-hundred!
The world-view of the Open Letter’s authors merits every bit as much scrutiny as that of Action Zealandia’s – if only because both display an equal measure of ideological vehemence. Enveloping the academics’ critique is the Tiriti O Waitangi, serving here as the incongruous stand-in for New Zealand’s yet-to-be-written bi-cultural constitution. As such, it becomes the principal tool for delegitimating not only Action Zealandia and its by-right-of-conquest arguments for the hegemony of European males in Aotearoa, but also un-reconstructed Vice-Chancellors.
According to the Open Letter, these colonialist throwbacks are guilty of taking the “absolutist” position that “freedom of speech extends to the right to speak in ways that are hateful.” Hateful to whom? Ah well, that’s not a question that can be responded to straightforwardly. To answer that question required this little masterpiece of what the unkind might call “woke-speak”. (Or, what the even more unkind readers of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would call “Newspeak”.)
“We also understand that the language of rights is complex and nuanced, recognising that such displays create an environment that brings harm to segments of our community, fraying the cultural tapestry that provides our diverse campus community with vitality and energy.”
Or, to render this unicorns-and-flowers circumlocution into plain speech: “Our students have become so fragile, psychologically and ideologically, that they fall to pieces when confronted by people who do not like them or the cultures they come from.”
Not that the authors of the Open Letter were above fraying a cultural tapestry or two of their own. How about this for a flowery way of calling the Vice-Chancellor a “pale, stale, male”?
“We also note that by virtue of their race, gender, class, country of origin, religious affiliation, sexual or gender identity, many people empowered to judge conduct on university campuses are less likely to be the focus of hate speech, and may be slower to recognise its impact on its intended targets.”
Upon further analysis, however, the humour of this sentence begins to fade. At its heart is the idea that credible political judgement derives purely and simply from one’s identity. Followed to its logical conclusion this variety of “identity politics” accords more weight to the opinions of a 19-year-old undergraduate woman from a non-European cultural background, than it does to a male Professor of Philosophy who has been teaching, writing and publishing peer-reviewed articles and books for the best part of 40 years.
This surrendering of expertise to identity is not the worst of it, however: not when one considers this remarkable sentence:
“However, ‘speech’ has many forms, including gesture and nonviolent protest. If these posters constitute ‘free speech’, the same can be said of the actions of individuals who remove those that they encounter.”
Um, no, actually, it can’t. Action Zealandia, in displaying its posters and stickers, is asserting its right to have its ideas considered, debated, and, if unable to convince its interlocutors, rejected. Bluntly, it is declaring: “We are here – so come and contend with us openly on the battlefield of ideas.” The only honourable answer that “any university worthy of the name” can give to such a challenge is: “Bring it on!”
No such luck. That is not the way the authors of the Open Letter roll. They are not really into contending openly on the battlefield of ideas. The only form of speech they’re willing to defend is the form that rips down posters and tears off stickers. The form that screams “STFU!” at everyone with whom it disagrees.
The anonymous authors of the Open Letter may wax eloquent about an “environment that celebrates free and open enquiry, teaches the lessons of the past, and builds a better future for all”, but their interpretation of “what is best” for society looks suspiciously like the one provided by every other totalitarian ideology: “What is best is what we say is best.” It may be the Academic Left that is ripping down posters today, confident that it possesses the power to silence all those who refuse to toe its line. But, times change.
Those insisting upon ideological conformity and suppressing dissenting opinion today may yet be given cause to look back upon the sentiments contained in this Open Letter and rue the day that the “critic and conscience” of society gave away the chance to expose the Right’s weaknesses in front of those who, 20 years later, are telling them that their left-wing ideas “have no place at the University of Auckland”.