(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, September 6.)
While the nation’s attention has been occupied by political drama and the election campaign, other things – serious things – have been going on almost unnoticed.
Last week, students at Auckland University voted to “disaffiliate” – “expel” would be a more honest word – a students’ anti-abortion group, ProLife Auckland. You don’t have to be opposed to abortion (as I am) to find this attack on free speech ominous.
A spokeswoman for Auckland Students for Choice, a women’s rights group that pushed for a referendum on the issue, said the pro-lifers were “an embarrassment”.
Clearly, groups that campaign to save unborn children are ideologically unfashionable, so must be discouraged by all means possible.
Overseas this phenomenon is known as “no platforming” – denying a voice to people you disagree with. This is rampant on university campuses in Britain and the United States and it’s lamentable that the practice has shown up here.
But it was probably inevitable, given that universities throughout the western world have been ideologically captured and no longer bother to maintain the pretence that they promote freedom of speech and robust intellectual debate. Yet democracy is built around the contestability of ideas, as the current election campaign reminds us.
The pro-life student group was accused of “propagating harmful misinformation”. If this phrase has an uncomfortably familiar ring, it may be because it’s similar to the language used by totalitarian regimes to silence dissidents before packing them off to re-education (read “punishment”) camps.
Ironically, if anyone could be accused of propagating misinformation, it was those campaigning to banish the pro-life group.The debate was misleadingly framed as being about misogyny – a word now used to marginalise anyone who dares to express a view that’s at odds with feminist orthodoxy. But wanting to save unborn children isn’t remotely synonymous with hatred of women. Only a seriously warped ideology could equate the two.
The students’ decision means that while the pro-lifers will theoretically still be able to organise on campus, the referendum result – 1600 in favour of “disaffiliation”, 1000 against – tilts the playing field heavily against them by denying them access to funding and resources available to other activist groups through the Auckland University Students’ Association.
But what matters more is the symbolism of the decision, and the message it sends. By expelling the group, the association has signalled its willingness to shut out voices that are deemed ideologically unacceptable.
It is a chilling example of the steady creep of intolerance and bigotry through the institutions of higher learning. I can do no better than quote a recent speech in which John Etchemendy, a former provost (the equivalent of our vice-chancellor) of California’s illustrious Stanford University, referred to an “intellectual monoculture” taking hold in American universities.
Etchemendy said he had observed a growing intolerance in universities – not intolerance along racial, ethnic or gender lines, but “a kind of political intolerance, a political one-sidedness, that is the antithesis of what universities should stand for”.
This, he said, was reflected in demands to “disinvite” speakers and outlaw groups whose views were considered offensive. The result, according to Etchemendy, was an intellectual blindness which led to anyone with opposing views being written off as “evil or ignorant or stupid”.
He might have added “embarrassing”, the contemptuous term used by the young feminist zealot interviewed on the Stuff website about the Auckland pro-lifers.
Being young, she is consumed by idealism. She will probably have been influenced by politically correct teachers and lecturers. It may not have occurred to her that once a society makes it permissible to suppress views that some people don’t like, the genie is out of the bottle and the power to silence unfashionable opinions can be turned against anyone, depending on whichever ideology happens to be prevalent at the time.
But the Auckland student referendum isn’t the only unsettling thing to have happened in recent weeks. Last month the Charities Registration Board announced that it refused to recognise the conservative lobby group Family First as a charity, which means donations to the organisation would not be tax deductible.
The board made this decision on the basis that Family First “did not advance exclusively charitable purposes”. This was essentially a re-affirmation of a decision it had made previously, but which it was forced to reconsider following a court ruling.
To be fair, Family First is primarily a lobby group. But hang on a minute: so are the Child Poverty Action Group and Greenpeace, both of which enjoy charitable status.
The same could be said of Oxfam New Zealand, which has morphed into a political activist organisation but still qualifies as a charity because it cleverly combines its activism with what you might call old-fashioned charitable work.