Analysis: NZ POLITICS DAILY: Freedom of speech v PC culture

Around the world at the moment there’s a resurgence of a radical liberalism that is often characterised as “political correctness.” Sometimes termed “identity politics,” “social liberalism,” “call out culture,” and said to be the province of “social justice warriors,” it is mostly associated with the political left – although plenty on the political right, and even within the establishment, are also keen to embrace this type of liberal radicalism.

To its detractors, it’s a faux radicalism, whereby participants get to proclaim their own virtue by being “politically correct” – hence the term “virtual signalling,” recently used by Prime Minister Bill English when suggesting why he thought some politicians were keen to call themselves feminists, while he wasn’t.

Much of the politically correct culture of activism and conflict concentrates on advancing the plight of those oppressed or disadvantaged by gender and ethnicity. So, there are certainly important and worthy goals at the heart of this liberal radical form of politics. Ending discrimination and inequality is something most of us can agree about the value of. Yet a problem arises when this form of radical liberal politics demands less debate and less diversity of thought. 

Central to the concept of political correctness is the idea that there is one universal truth or one correct way to think and talk about something contentious in society. Hence when race relations commissioner Susan Devoy gets accused of being “politically correct” she points out “I'm actually just being correct.”

Authoritarian liberals
So, have liberals become the new reactionaries? There’s certainly an argument to be made that liberals have become intolerant of ideological diversity. And although censorship used to be the way of the conservatives, it’s now is increasingly favoured by liberals.

This is the theme of Karl du Fresne’s latest column – written just before Paul Moon’s open letter – in which he points out that although liberals in the 1960s made universities into free speech beacons, nowadays “many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence” – see: University campuses not the liberal home they used to be.

He points to campus changes involving “safe spaces” (“where students are protected from hearing opinions that offend them”), "no platform" policies in which those deemed to be racist or fascist – who decides? – are banned from speaking at universities, and "trigger warnings" (“where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting”). Similarly, see du Fresne’s earlier column, All this cultural appropriation must stop.

It’s not just on the campuses that free speech is under threat according to Heather du Plessis-Allan, who says it’s everywhere: “The same shouting-down is happening, leaving many in the workplace scared of being labelled racist or sexist. In just the past few years, there have been well-publicised dramas over words or ideas that offended someone” – see: Being offensive is not a crime.

She goes on to briefly defend subjects of recent criticism such as the Mad Butcher, Lewis Road Milk, and former Massey University chancellor Chris Kelly. Du Plessis-Allan suggests “The perceived errors are small errors, if errors at all. They are not hate speech and they are not worthy of public body slams. We will all be offended at some point and mostly we just have to suck that up.”

Although the Human Rights Commission has backed down from the idea of pushing for new hate crime laws, du Plessis-Allan warns that “the shutting down of unpopular views is still a trigger constantly waiting to be pulled.” She sees this increase in outrage culture as largely a product of Twitter and other online activism: “There are complex reasons why these shout-downs are happening but some of it at least has to do with social media. There was a time when the thin-skinned among us would have had their hurts moderated by the crowd but now they have found like-minded people on Facebook and Twitter. They validate each other and draw the courage to protest.”

Columnist Richard Swainson agrees, arguing narcissism drives those on Twitter to express their righteous and sanctimonious offence, in which “the personal emotional response to a perceived transgression of some precious social norm is deemed more important than the principle of freedom” – see: Defending Bob Jones' right to be rude and Geoffrey Palmer's right to be dull. Hence, “The culture of "being offended" smothers expression at every turn.”

Swainson puts it down to the PC-type culture demanding conformity, and parodies what he sees as the conformist authoritarianism of liberals: “because I find this offensive, you should immediately cease, desist and emphatically apologise. Fall into line or they'll be hell to pay. Racists and sexists must be rooted out. Death to the slut shamers and the fat shamers. All Donald Trump apologists shall be put to the sword. Conform. Conform. Conform.”

He also argues that these activists are faux-radicals or faux-leftists in that they are more concerned with chasing shadows than the real causes of inequality or discrimination: “It is ironic that most of these pseudo-political rantings and the resulting folk censorship work on such a surface level that the structural underpinnings of real inequality and injustice are usually missed. Why bother critiquing the policies and philosophies of neo-liberalism when you can rail against the use of Photoshop in taking a couple of inches off a supermodel's thighs? Superficial outrage works hand in hand with substantive indifference.”

And ironically, despite being liberal, such practitioners end up pushing quite authoritarian solutions: “A far more bitter irony is that police themselves have called for an extension of their powers with regard to so-called ‘hate speech’. Any move in this direction is truly a more toward fascism. Given their inherent conservatism, a society where the police have the leeway to determine what is or is not acceptable in terms of political discourse is a recipe for disaster.” See also Swainson’s January column So much offence is taken that issues are not seriously explored.

Looking at where hate speech legislation has been implemented in Canada, Narelle Henson reports that it hasn’t worked out as intended, and she argues that any such attempt to legislate against hateful ideas is dangerous and inherently restrictive of freedom – see: Hate speech laws threaten right to freedom of speech.

For Hensen, the lessons of Canada are that definitions of hate speech become very subjective, and “when you try to apply these laws, all sorts of people get swept up in them who were simply trying to express or argue a point of view. In the end you find the laws are just being used by different groups in society to try to control each other.”

The Paul Moon open letter
Academic Paul Moon has been at the forefront of opposition to the introduction of hate speech laws, and was the initiator of last week’s open letter about threats to free speech in New Zealand universities. This is best covered in Vernon Small’s Prominent Kiwis pen open letter saying free speech is under threat in NZ universities.

In this, Dr Moon explains that there is a "tsunami" of threats to free speech in overseas universities, and "The question is when, rather than if, that happens here. Once it happens it's very difficult to undo, so we would like to head it off”. He clearly thinks the problem relates heavily to issues of debates about ethnicity: "The preparedness of the state to curtail free speech in the (name) of either good race relations or order or whatever else is a very dangerous step. Because it doesn't actually solve any problem it, it really just suppresses it."

For a better elaboration of Moon’s concerns, you can read his own piece, Freedom of speech in New Zealand's universities under attack. In this, he asserts that “Universities teach people how, not what, to think. Now more than ever, they must protect the very core of their work – free expression.”

Dr Moon is clearly worried about recent trends and is worth quoting at length: “The pretext of avoiding offence is regularly hauled out as the basis for curtailing free speech on campuses. If a group is offended by an idea or argument, it is increasingly – and misguidedly – believed it is better to ban or ‘disinvite’ the causers rather than ruffle sensitivities or risk the speaker being drowned out by vigorous protest. This patronising sanctimony continues to gain ground along with an absurd notion that universities should provide intellectual ‘safe-spaces’. There is no inalienable right not to be offended. It is paradoxical that those who clamour for such ‘safe spaces’ often seem untroubled by the intimidation being used to shut down unpopular speech. It is precisely these intellectually dangerous or subversive spaces that academics and students must enter and explore. Political dissent, artistic deviance and intellectual rebellion are at the heart of a healthy and progressive society, and universities have traditionally played a leading role in challenging conventions and ushering in new ways of thinking and doing.”

Is free speech in our universities really under threat?
Moon’s warnings have been taken seriously, leading to plenty of debate, and various degrees of support. The Dominion Post published an editorial that was largely sympathetic to Moon but admitted that “How big a problem this is in our universities is hard to gauge” – see: Even the wicked and the dishonest have the right to speak.

The editorial shared concerns about a changing atmosphere: “Universities are supposed to be places where comfortable truths and opinions are contested. But too often both students and university staff seem to believe that their liberal certainties are beyond dispute and that those who disagree with them forfeit their right to speak.”

The Press newspaper also supported the idea that “We should not support the unnecessary regulation of speech” – see: Is free speech really threatened? But it questioned the extent of the problem: “When examined more closely, it seems that Moon's letter has overstated the threat. He cites just one example, ‘the forced closure of a student club at Auckland University,’ which he calls a slippery slope.”

Indeed, a large part of the current debate on freedom of speech has arisen due to the recent controversy about a group of Auckland students attempting to set up a club called the European Students Association, which was widely deemed to have highly racial or racist motives. The scandal eventually resulted in the students abandoning their club, reportedly due to threats of violence against them.

The president of the Auckland University Students' Association, Will Matthews has given an insight into his experiences and in particular, about how students dealt with the Auckland University – see: Free speech is not under threat at universities.

Although the student association reserved the right to refuse registration to the student group on the grounds of its politics, Matthews points out “if the European Students Association felt that it had been misrepresented then it should come forward and engage in open discussion about their aims and values with the student body. This is key. At no point did AUSA or the student community attempt to repress the group's right to free speech.”

Matthews says that “In my six years as a student at the University of Auckland, I have never experienced an impingement of free speech.” Likewise, other University of Auckland students are quoted with similar observations in Stuff’s Students: freedom of speech alive and kicking at Auckland University.

And University of Auckland political theory expert Kathy Smits gives her views on the European Students Association saga, saying that “the democratic process has worked out pretty well” – see RNZ’s What we talk about when we talk about freedom of speech.

Smits also comments on the Paul Moon letter, saying: “I don't actually agree with the letter, and I don't feel in New Zealand that freedom of speech is under threat.” And she provides some scholarly explanations of freedom of speech issues.

But elsewhere around the country, there are currently claims from academics about freedom of speech problems. At Victoria University of Wellington, a new draft policy on academic freedom is causing concern for the Tertiary Education Union – see Brigid Quirke’s Academic Freedom under attack.

At the University of Canterbury, sociologist Greg Newbold claims that some students are targeting him due to his research on rape law and related issues. He says “What they are trying to do is repress free speech; they are trying to silence anyone who says things they disagree with” – see Adele Redman’s UC professor Greg Newbold alleges smear campaign by feminist society.

Threats to free expression are reportedly happening in other spheres. For example, with the Harmful Digital Communications Act now in place, the Ministry of Justice is ensuring its implementation. And blogger Martyn Bradbury says his political blog posts are being targeted – see: Dear Netsafe – you can censor The Daily Blog the day you take the keyboard from my cold dead hands.

What about the mainstream media? According to media watcher John Drinnan, this area is a fraught one for media outlets – see: When does plain talk become hate speech? On the one hand, the media plays a part in driving these culture wars: “Stories about people being offended by perceived slurs on their race or sexuality have become staples of mainstream digital media.”

But on the other hand, some in the media are feeling the chill from the new environment. For instance, Drinnan quotes Herald cartoonist Rod Emmerson: “As a cartoonist, I need to tiptoe through issues of defamation, political correctness and offensiveness for some” and “There is a new generation who are utterly sensitive. If they can't be easily offended, they will find someone who is. It is taking political correctness just a little bit too far."

The case against censorship claims
Of course, not everyone agrees that the resurgence of this radical liberalism is any sort of threat to free speech. For example, columnist Alice Snedden has put forward a counterview, saying: “The idea that PC culture in anyway restricts your free speech is false. Free speech, meaning the right to speak freely without prosecution, it is not and has never been an unlimited right. You cannot, for example, speak in a way that incites violence. You can though, express your political views or offer your unsolicited opinions” – see: Why I hate 'PC gone mad'.

Herald columnist Lizzie Marvelly also bristles against such claims: “The idea that the freedom of expression is under threat at New Zealand universities - or in New Zealand generally - is preposterous. I can't think of a single example of the government or the courts censoring a tertiary institution” – see: Words can hurt like sticks and stones.

Marvelly’s general argument is: “words matter. Words can combine, twist, percolate, compound and eventually incite violence or discrimination”, and she is critical of “persuasive and malignant actors who use ugly rhetoric to whip fearful people into a frenzy for their own means.”

Therefore she champions students pushing back against those with offensive views and politics: “If a controversial speaker is scheduled to speak at a university event, or if the formation of a group alarms some students, it is the students' right to speak out. It is also the university's right to listen to the concerns of its students. Indeed, many of those students likely have a much better idea of the consequences of freedom of speech taken to its extreme in the digital age than the somewhat fusty group of signatories of Moon's missive – many of whom are long past their student days and unlikely to have faced either online abuse or the dangerous rhetoric of groups like the neo-masculinists or the alt-right.”

And in fact, one of the signatories to Paul Moon’s open letter is likely to agree. Camille Nakhid says she agrees with the need for free speech, but has come out against Moon’s statements against regulating hate speech – see: Academic distances herself from freedom of speech comments.

According to Nakhid, “Hate speech is never OK. People that get to express it are usually in the dominant group and those in the minority group are usually unable to stand up for themselves." She is reported as stating that “everyone should know the difference between free speech and hate speech” and that "It's disingenuous to think they are one and the same."

Finally, for a one-minute education on the problem, you can watch Mike Hosking’s video: You can be affronted or offended and not actually die. Here’s his key point: “The PC crowd value blancmange and beige over anything robust and truly colourful. Being offended or indeed being offensive isn’t a crime. But the angst-ers want it to be.” Alternatively, for a much more in-depth discussion of the issues, listen to Lynda Chanwai-Earle’s 19-minute RNZ documentary, Hate speech vs Freedom of speech, or just read the article.

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