Time To Reopen Debate

Written by:
3 January 2018
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Our universities are restricting speech like never before in a misguided attempt to protect students’ feelings

Australia’s universities are becoming increasingly hostile to intellectual freedom, threatening their truth-finding mission. The Institute of Public Affairs’ Free Speech on Campus Audit 2017 -systematically analysed more than 165 policies and actions at Australia’s universities.

The audit found that 34 of Australia’s 42 universities are hostile to free speech on campus. Seven of Australia’s 42 universities threaten free speech, and just one, the University of New England, fully supports freedom of expression.

The level of censorious activity on campus has escalated in the past year. At the University of Sydney, a Christian student stall against same-sex marriage during the postal survey was surrounded by protesters in an incident that turned violent.

Sydney University’s student union tried to block the screening of a film, Red Pill, because, it was claimed, the mere showing of a video could “physically threaten women on campus”.

Monash University become Australia’s first to formally introduce trigger warnings in course guides, and withdrew a textbook after a quiz question offended Chinese international students.

Meanwhile, university policies make section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act look like child’s play.

Universities vaguely forbid “offensive” behaviour without even the 18C requirement that it “reasonably likely, in all the circumstances” to cause offence, or the 18D exemptions for genuine purposes.

James Cook University, for example, explicitly prevents “unintentional offensive language”.

And many universities go even further.

Federation University prevents hurting another person’s “feelings”. The Australian National University prohibits behaviour that is “unwelcome”. La Trobe University’s new policy on bullying forbids “unintentional offence” and “emotional injury”.

RMIT University forbids students from behaving in an “offensive” manner that makes “any others feel unsafe”. The University of Queensland, Western Sydney University, and Charles Sturt University ban “sarcasm”.

These policies hinder robust debate. It is impossible to discuss ideas without potentially causing unintentional offence or hurting someone’s feelings.

Rules such as these also epitomise a growing culture in which students and academics self-censor, erring on the side of caution to avoid offending people in the first place.

Australian universities are not even meeting the legal requirement to protect intellectual freedom.

In 2011, the Gillard government amended the Higher Education Support Act 2003 to require universities, as a condition of funding, to introduce “a policy that upholds free intellectual inquiry in relation to learning, teaching and research”.

The IPA’s Audit found that just eight of Australia’s 42 universities have a stand-alone intellectual freedom policy.

Australian campuses have not reached the dramatic censorious heights of American colleges. However, we are walking down the same dangerous path.

Australia’s universities, just as much if not more so than the US, have largely become a monoculture in which there are only a limited set of acceptable ideas.

This is damaging to students, who are exposed to fewer perspectives and will, as a consequence, lack the intellectual resilience necessary outside of the narrow ideological bubble of a university.

It also defeats the entire purpose of a university in the first place. Universities depend on the contest of ideas, the debate in which good ideas beat the bad ones on the way to truth. This is why there is a growing backlash against campus censorship.

New York University social psychology professor Jonathan Haidt has founded Heterodox Academy, a network of scholars that advocate for viewpoint diversity.

It now has more than 1400 academics from across the Anglosphere, including 21 in Australia.

The premise of Heterodox Academy is built on Haidt’s moral foundations research which has established that conservatives, libertarians and progressives prioritise different fundamental values and therefore have divergent world views.

Progressives prioritise care and fairness; libertarians focus on liberty; and conservatives give higher priority to loyalty, authority and sanctity.

Haidt stresses the yin and yang of different moral foundations. Progressive, libertarian and conservative thinkers are complimentary. Their different natures can challenge each other, taming -extremity in the pursuit of truth. For example, progressive thinking, which by instinct rejects the status quo, can be improved and moderated through debate with conservatives, who seek to protect the tradition and the group.

Today’s politically correct academia mostly attract one sort of thinker: A conforming politically correct progressive leftist.

Whether or not you share this world view, this is a matter of serious concern.

A fully functioning university depends on the presence of people with a diversity of viewpoints to challenge each other, to point out flaws in logic and reasoning, and to ask different questions.

It essential that the minority of students and academics with a different perspective are able to express themselves freely.

A monoculture supported by university speech-code policies, established from a postmodernist ideological framework that sees speech as dangerous rather than something to be welcomed, make this difficult.

It is incumbent on our universities to show that they are open for debate. This starts with introducing the missing intellectual freedom policies, reforming censorious policies highlighted by the IPA’s Audit, and, making clear declarations that they value intellectual freedom.

Australia’s intellectual health and future prosperity begins with protecting free speech on campus.

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