Free speech at universities, unless someone says they hate it

Free speech versus hate speech discussions continue, with the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University joining with a promotion of free speech at universities – as long as it isn’t deemed hate speech.

A key question that again isn’t answered – who gets to decide what should be banned as hate speech, and who gets to decide who might say something at some future event that someone else may claim is hate speech?

Professor Jan Thomas (NZH): Free speech is welcome at universities, hate speech is not

An “alt right” speaking event in Auckland has been cancelled after Mayor Phil Goff made it clear the two speakers, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, were not welcome and the council would not provide a venue for “hate speech” by people who sought to abuse and insult others.

While I support Mr Goff’s decision, it has kicked off a tide of controversy and has again raised the issue of what differentiates free speech from hate speech.

Issues such as this are increasingly common in New Zealand. Last year a group of high-profile New Zealanders put their names to a statement supporting free speech on New Zealand university campuses.

The open letter warned that freedom of speech was under threat at our universities following the demise of a student group promoting white supremacist beliefs.

If anything threats to free speech have become more pronounced since then.

Let me be clear, hate speech is not free speech. Moreover, as Moana Jackson has eloquently argued, free speech has, especially in colonial societies, long been mobilised as a vehicle for racist comments, judgements and practices.

She is not clear at all about what could constitute ‘hate speech’.

How racist could speech be before it is deemed hateful enough to ban?

Hate speech is repugnant, or as one American legal academic has stated, hate speech is “a rape of human dignity”.

Some hate speech can be repugnant to most people, but no clear line can be drawn between hateful and simply hated, or disliked.

Hate speech should be called out for what it is, especially when it incites violence against minorities.

I think that the law covers inciting violence, in theory at least. But again, it’s difficult to pin down what exactly ‘hate speech’ is.

Beyond the reach of the law, however, the battle against hate speech is fought most effectively through education and courageous leadership, rather than through suppression or legal censure.

Yes, to an extent. It is probably better fought by the weight of condemnation from many people. But that can only be done if the hate speakers are allowed to speak in public in the first place.

And this is where universities can take positive action by providing a venue for reasoned discussion and cogent argument.

After all, the Education Act 1989 compels us to act as “critic and conscience” of society.

This does not just mean protecting the values of academic freedom, it also means standing up for what is right.

Standing up for the freedom to speak, even if some people may not like or agree with what is said, is the right thing to do, isn’t it?

Academics have a responsibility to engage with the communities we serve, to correct error and prejudice and to offer expert views, informed by evidence, reason and well-informed argument.

Speech correctors? By all means speak against crap speech, but not by becoming the speech police.

Academics are not the only ones who can provide expert views, informed by evidence, reason and well-informed argument. And they are also susceptible to being unreasonable, ill-informed poor arguers.

Given the current dominance of wall-to-wall social media and the echo chambers of fake news, universities are in many ways obliged to make positive societal interventions.

Interventions? Sure, any positive input into discussions should be welcomed, but becoming arbiters of what is positive and what is negative, and what is valid discussion versus what is what could be hated or damaging, and what is good to go and what should be banned, is a very tricky thing for university academics to get too involved in.

In this regard, I am guided by the University of California’s former President Clark Kerr’s oft-cited maxim that “the role of universities is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas”.

That could be interpreted in different ways. When does edgy commentary and debate become unsafe for students?

Public universities have an obligation to uphold our civic leadership role in society and our first responsibility, I would argue, is to do no harm.

Being too heavy handed on what constitutes safe or reasonable speech has the potential to do a lot of harm.

Universities are characterised by the academic values of tolerance, civility, and respect for human dignity.

They may be a self characterisation, but somewhat idealistic and superior.

And that is why it is important to identify and call out any shift from free speech towards hate speech. The challenge we face is to clarify when that shift occurs and to counter it with reason and compassion.

Speaking up against speech you disagree with or dislike is good.

Hate speech has no place at a university.

Any sort of definition is still absent from the discussion.

I have some concerns about what the Vice-Chancellor of Massey University seems to be angling at.

We should be debating  free speech versus hate speech.

But there are signs of major problems and difficulties, where hate speech is often no more than a subjective view on hating what someone says (or could say). Or increasingly, deciding that others might hate what is said or could be said.

Whatever hate is. It is a grossly overused word. It’s common to hear people say they hate all sorts of trivial things.

And protecting free speech is not a trivial thing.

 

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29 Comments

  1. Alan Wilkinson

     /  July 17, 2018

    The lady is an Aussie vet. Not sure why that qualifies her to pontificate on unfree speech.

    Reply
  2. The fact that people say that they hate trivial things is an irrelevancy, there is a massive difference between saying that one hates sickly sweet caramel and actual hate speech which seeks to stir dissension and hatred as people like David Irving do.

    Hate speech is like what one judge is supposed to have said about pornography; he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it.

    Total freedom of expression would mean no censorship and no controls over what is said and seen anywhere. I used to see porn in magazine shops and on railway station newspaper & magazine booths in Belgium and Holland – and I mean porn, as in sex acts, not nudity. Thank goodness people can walk through a railway station here without being unable not to see photographs of people having sex in various ways.

    There is, I believe, a case for some form of when and where control. In the case of hard core porn, if people want it, let them have it, but to make it impossible for everyone else NOT to see it is an infringement of our rights to not see it.

    Reply
    • Gezza

       /  July 17, 2018

      Hate speech is like what one judge is supposed to have said about pornography; he couldn’t define it, but he knew it when he saw it.
      One lazy judge, imo.

      Reply
      • Kitty Catkin

         /  July 17, 2018

        Not al all.

        Intention is everything. A nude is not per se porn, but some nudes certainly are. Rodin’s The Kiss is erotic, but not pornographic.

        Reply
        • Gezza

           /  July 17, 2018

          Yes, but everybody with any sense (and that is by far the majority of ordinary adults in this context) KNOWS that is not porn. Voluntary sexual shennaigans of just about every conceivable kind (and from what I’ve seen on the net, even some almost inconceiveable kinds – man there is some really weird stuff involving vegetables that turns some people on ) between consenting adults is pretty well nearly all not pornographic in the sense of requiring prosecution & punishment.

          Reply
          • Kitty Catkin

             /  July 18, 2018

            I’d say that a bloke sodomising another bloke (and really doing it) on a magazine cover thoughtfully displayed at eye level as one walked through the station at Ghent, or a row of people all plugged into each other is porn, Porn needn’t be prosecutable, surely, just graphic. If people want to do things to each other, that’s their own business, and if other people want to watch, that’s theirs, but I can’t see the need to have this in full view of everyone.

            ‘Mummy, what are those people doing ?’

            Reply
            • Gezza

               /  July 18, 2018

              Kiddy & animal porn are a no-no everywhere as far as I can see.

              As regards other types of porn between consenting adults – it’s always going to be contextual ,& be dependent on what society’s prevailing morés are. Most magazine covers I think are still, and likely to remain, erotic & restrained. The graphic stuff is inside.

              The internet is another story together. Google any sexual activity you can think of, select images, or videos, & hit enter & what instantly comes up is as graphic and in your face as can be.

              To see something that graphic openly on display in the window of a Gay bar or cinema most, all societies don’t consider acceptable yet, primarily I reckon because we don’t want prepubescent chikdren exposed to something they can’t truly comprehend the implications of & down want them to be easy prey to sexual predators.

              I should have asked for the context in which the judge you referred to made his remark. ‘Porn’, per se, these days, covers everything from ‘self-love’ to missionary position to hanging upside down off a bar with your lips stapled & a brick tied to your bits.

            • Geoffrey

               /  July 18, 2018

              Is it my imagination or are folk happier talking about porn than seriously addressing the use of the term “hate speech” to shut down valid dissent?

            • Gezza

               /  July 18, 2018

              No, it’s your imagination. I’m not all that crazy about discussing it in detail – but it’s relevant to this topic in the sense that Kitty suggested that it could compared to the difficulty there is in deciding what is objectionable in the context of ‘free speech’. I am saying there several factors in the case of what is objectionable ‘porn’. What is objectionable free speech (should be banned) seems to me to be somewhat similar in that respect, but not totally. Even defining what is hate speech or racist in a law I think it is problematic.

            • If a man wants to put his penis up another man’s bum. that is their business and nobody else’s, but I don’t see that there is any justification for having it on a magazine cover in public for all to see. If people want to see that sort of thing, they are welcome to, but not having it in all its glory on a magazine stand (and I am talking about actual sex acts, not simulated ones) won’t affect their ability to see it. and own it.

              It was a real surprise to see photos of people having sex on magazines in public places. It was impossible NOT to see it, even if one looked away at once.

              Even the postcards had porn ones among the scenic ones.

            • Gezza

               /  July 18, 2018

              Ok Geoffrey – I’ve taken it as far as I wanted to go. If anyone else wants get really grubby up to them but I’ve made the points I wanted to.

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  July 18, 2018

              I just wanted to clarify that I was talking about the real thing, and had to be graphic to make the point.

  3. Alan Wilkinson

     /  July 17, 2018

    Ironic that googling “critic and conscience” brings up this article – another instance of a university suppressing free speech and doing the opposite of their supposed mandate:
    https://stuff.co.nz/national/education/104138865/otago-university-critic-and-conscience-or-censor

    Reply
  4. Gezza

     /  July 17, 2018

    In this regard, I am guided by the University of California’s former President Clark Kerr’s oft-cited maxim that “the role of universities is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas”.

    I disagree. The role of universities is to make students safe WITH ideas. Including other ideas than theirs.

    Reply
    • Alan Wilkinson

       /  July 17, 2018

      Yes, it’s a silly arrogant statement. The role of universities is to promote and support excellence in all fields of knowledge, teaching and research. That means allowing ideas to be challenged and tested.

      Reply
      • Blazer

         /  July 17, 2018

        when did that become their role?I thought people went there to get qualifications for future employment!

        Reply
        • Alan Wilkinson

           /  July 17, 2018

          Employers want professional excellence, B.

          Reply
        • Gezza

           /  July 17, 2018

          Not in all cases. Some go there just to further their knowledge or to undertake research & create new knowledge or learn to analyse knowledge. Some courses ostensibly designed for employment actually seem to turn out people whose practical usefulness is mostly zero & can even stuff working organisations (& government departments) up completely.

          Because they often come in at senior management level, haven’t got a bloody clue what their staff actually do, or the clients need, never actually know how to properly find out, and make policy, management, & frequently restructuring decisions that are based on esoteric management theory fads that have already been superseded, discredited, just don’t fit the business concerned, & have often already been thrown out overseas – where their study material came from.

          MBA’s, BComs, Public Policy Studies graduates spring to mind, & have me retching already.

          Reply
  5. Geoffrey Monks

     /  July 17, 2018

    Yes Gazza. The role of a University is not to act as a screen or filter. But it is to enable thinking, reasoned, debate among the fully informed. Sadly, much of what is termed hate speech in this land is in reality no more than a challenge to a precariously held point of view.

    Reply
    • Blazer

       /  July 17, 2018

      People go to university to get degrees to enable better employment prospects.You don’t know what you’re talking about.

      Reply
      • Geoffrey Monks

         /  July 17, 2018

        That’s a rather ill-informed remark Blazer. But stoutly said nonetheless

        Reply
  6. sorethumb

     /  July 17, 2018

    This is hate speech

    Racism is the ideological belief that people can be classified into ‘races’ … [which] can be ranked in terms of superiority and inferiority … racism is the acceptance of racial superiority … It is often used to refer to the expression of an ideology of racial superiority in the situation where the holder has some power. Thus prejudice plus power denotes racism in the modern sense … racism is essentially an attitudinal or ideological phenomenon. … A dominant group not only holds negative beliefs about other groups but, because of the power to control resources, is able to practice those beliefs in a discriminatory way … This ideological concept structures social and political relationships and derives from a history of European colonialism. The idea of ‘race’ has evolved from its use in scientific explanation (now discredited) and as a justification in the oppression of colonised, non European people
    I have condensed this in Mutu (2011) to “Racism can be defined as the attitudinal or ideological phenomenon that accepts racial superiority, and, when present in those with power, justifies them using that power to discriminate against and deprive others of what is rightfully theirs on the basis of their race” (3). This is the definition I have used in all my dealings with the media. In these dealings I have explained that, following Spoonley’s definition, Māori are not able to practice racism, and more particularly institutionalised racism, because they do not have the power to do so. The third message I tried to get across was the obvious point that it is not racist to talk about racism. Finally, I asked the country to recognise and discuss its own racism so that we can all find a way to fix it.

    https://medianz.otago.ac.nz/medianz/article/download/34/39

    Reply
    • sorethumb

       /  July 17, 2018

      You can see why they don’t want Molyneaux.

      Reply
      • Gezza

         /  July 17, 2018

        Moyneux shifts his ground all the time & is a very, very dody character, aiming at the low-rent alt right, far right, conspiracist types who haunt Infowars & anti-feminist (not feminazi), white supremacist sites. He lies frequently and uses books & evidence long ago discredited, knowing his audience won’t check for rebuttal evidence. Definitely a cultist. Making a fortune from lost boys n girls, I bet.

        Reply
        • Gezza

           /  July 17, 2018

          * dodgy
          To understand Molyneux – who feeds off people like Southern & Peterson – but doesn’t have the respect for facts & data that Peterson often shows – you have to watch or at lesst listen to his 90 minute to 2 hour monologue harangues & pause & check the stuff thst sounds suspicious. It always is false, when I’ve done that.

          Just listening to the guy, and his constant snide remarks & statements that he makes as fact, & just casually quickly then says “or maybe that’s just me”, makes you realise pretty soon thst he’s a charlatan, sprinkling mischief in amongst good, true stuff. But the best way to handle him is to let him do it, then show people afterwards what the truth is and where the lies are.

          Reply
          • Gezza

             /  July 17, 2018

            * mentally chuck a’s in where the s’s don’t look right, thanks. God I hate this FiP sometimes. 😠

            Reply
  7. sorethumb

     /  July 17, 2018

    Good luck getting a definition of Alt-Right”. It is as vague as “far right”. Almost as though left and right light up different parts of the brain.
    ——
    The open letter warned that freedom of speech was under threat at our universities following the demise of a student group promoting white supremacist beliefs.
    ============================
    A good example. They were too shy to face the media bullies. Duncan Grieve said “when the lights come on the rats scurry away”, however they get a label pinned to them. That’s what they want to do with Molyneux & Southern. So we were spared a lot of Heil Hitlers and Jackboot marching.
    On the other hand maybe they do have a case. Perhaps their is a whole different take on what is going on.

    “Freedom of expression is one thing, but hate speech is another. As a concept that has now entered common parlance, hate speech refers to attacks based on race, ethnicity, religion, and increasingly, on sexual orientation or preference.”
    ========
    As far as I can see that is a close as she comes to a definition. Very poor scholarship.

    Reply
  8. Rickmann

     /  July 21, 2018

    Oh god save us ! More academics telling us how to think, speak and live our lives. After 20 years of university common rooms, I can’t think of a more ill suited, arrogant, isolated group of people, many of whom have never left the educational system, to “advise us” in these matters. Barf.

    Reply

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