The latest edition of the Victoria University of Wellington student newspaper Salient contains an account of the recent Free Speech Union event at the university, at which I spoke.
It’s prefaced with a trigger warning advising, in bold type: This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist, and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.
My first reaction was that this was written as a satirical comment on the preciousness now rampant in Western universities and the hysterical aversion to any ideas that run counter to woke-think. Alas, no; it was deadly serious. I forgot that this generation of students isn’t noted for its sense of humour.
Given the alarmist tone of the warning, it wouldn’t surprise me if the student union had arranged for ambulances and mental health counsellors to be placed on standby in advance of publication, or perhaps ordered emergency stocks of smelling salts. Fortunately I can report that no one fainted at the actual meeting.
The article accused me of describing the Black Lives Matter movement as a “crusade” (guilty as charged – that’s exactly what BLM was), of making derogatory remarks about trans women (I described transgender activists as virulent and aggressive) and of spreading harmful misinformation about the 2019 mosque massacres (what I said, if I recall correctly, was that there was no evidence that tighter laws against “hate speech” would have prevented the shootings, which is true).
The Salient reporter also latched on to my criticism of the media as a “woke elite”. Exactly how all this was “harmful” wasn’t explained.
What was potentially harmful was the article’s emphasis on the role of two admirable VUW academics, Michael Johnston and James Kierstead (whose name was misspelt), who helped organise the event. Johnston was quoted as making the heinous statement that it was a great honour to introduce the union on campus.
The tone of the story seemed to suggest Johnston and Kierstead had brought the university into disrepute through the subversive act of promoting free speech. The purpose of the piece, clearly, was to put pressure on the VUW administration to follow the shameful example of other universities (most recently the Auckland University of Technology) by ensuring no such event happened again. The students’ association president was quoted as saying VUW would be “potentially reviewing guidelines at [sic] having external organisations book campus spaces” – wishful thinking on his part, one would think, since that’s not a matter for the association to decide.
(As an aside, the article was notable for demonstrating that today’s students have only the most fleeting acquaintance with the rules of grammar and syntax. The notion that the ability to express yourself clearly denotes clarity of thinking appears foreign to them.
Salient has a distinguished history, with a roll of former editors and contributors that includes Sir Geoffrey Palmer, Hugh Rennie QC, the late Michael King, economist Brian Easton, the late Supreme Court judge Sir John McGrath, broadcaster Sharon Crosbie, Sir Tipene O’Regan, cartoonist Sir Bob Brockie (he’s not really a sir, but I like to think of him as one), Sir Bob Jones and others who went on to successful careers in journalism and publishing. They must shake their heads in despair at what it’s become.)
Salient’s article noted with apparent approval that posters on the campus advertising the FSU meeting had been taken down – repeatedly, in fact – and replaced with substitutes proclaiming “Hate Speech is Not Free Speech” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) and labelling the FSU as “racist, homophobic and transphobic hypocrites”. The paper quoted one unnamed student as saying “the event is full of violent misinformation and sends [sic] an unsafe agenda for many communities who study here”.
Violent? Really?? The atmosphere was about as menacing as a meeting of the Country Women's Institute. There’s nothing to indicate the anonymous student actually attended. Why risk having your smug prejudices contradicted?
Similarly, a former president of the Queer Students’ Association was quoted as saying the FSU event “showcases an individual [I guess that means me] who sees his attempts at delegitimising Māori and trans individuals and their world views as promoting free speech. All this does is uphold the sexist, racist, and transphobic status quo and is in no way actually a valuable contribution to academic discourse.”
Like the aforementioned anonymous student, she appears to have reached these conclusions without bothering to acquaint herself with what I said. Far easier to leave your mind unencumbered by knowledge.
Just in case there remained any doubt that the FSU consists of unreconstructed, spittle-flecked, white supremacist haters, there was also this comment from students’ association “engagement” vice-president Katherine Blow (who apparently prefers to be known by the pronoun “they”): “VUWSA does not support the Free Speech Union event, because the group is known for their extremist, trans-exclusionary, homophobic and racist views.” “They” added that “ideally, the event wouldn’t have taken place”.
It’s heartening to know that Victoria’s students are driven by fearless open-mindedness, a spirit of rigorous intellectual inquiry and a willingness to engage with dissenting opinions. Is this the best New Zealand can expect from our supposed thinkers of the future: nonsensical slogans and playground-level name-calling?
(You can read the article here, but have a Valium tab on hand just in case it induces an anxiety attack.)