(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, April 5.)
Remember the 60s? That was the decade when middle-class baby-boomers rose up in defiance of their elders.
Nothing was sacred. Traditional morality was scorned and conventional political values overturned as the protest generation stormed the barricades of conformity.
Censorship became a hot-button issue as the conservative establishment fought in vain to hold the line against a tsunami of liberalism in films, literature, television and music.
At the heart of this cultural revolution were students, vigorously pushing back the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in terms of both behaviour and speech.
University campuses served as incubators for much of the social and political liberalism that was to transform New Zealand society. The same was true overseas, where student radicalism flourished from California’s Berkeley to France’s Sorbonne.
How ironic, then, that many universities overseas have become repressive environments where political debate is shut down and anyone daring to challenge ideological orthodoxy is intimidated into silence.
At Cardiff University in 2015, students tried to ban Germaine Greer – a stroppy feminist heroine of an earlier generation – from giving a lecture.
Her crime? She had offended transgender people by suggesting a man couldn’t become a woman simply by having surgery. For expressing this “offensive” opinion, she was branded as transphobic.
Being Germaine Greer, she went ahead with her speech regardless – and infuriated her critics even more by saying “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock”. Police officers and security guards were on hand to ensure her safety.
More recently, Berkeley University – the same Berkeley that was a hotbed of student rebellion in the 1960s – cancelled a planned speech by the provocative gay libertarian Milo Yiannopoulos after thousands of students gathered to protest and black-clad “anti-fascist” activists threatened violence.
Closer to home, three students from the Queensland University of Technology were sued for “racial hatred” after posting online comments objecting to their exclusion from an “indigenous only” computer lab.
One of the students had posted: “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?” Another had asked: “I wonder where the white supremacist computer lab is.” That was as racist as it got.
For this they were sued for $250,000. Fortunately a federal judge put a stop to the nonsense when he ruled there was no case to answer.
The university’s indigenous administrative officer, who brought the court action, linked the students to America’s Ku Klux Klan (now there’s a truly defamatory statement) and said she couldn’t understand why they hadn’t been suspended or disciplined.
In Britain, meanwhile, universities have created “safe spaces” where students are protected from hearing opinions that might offend them, and the National Union of Students has a “No Platform” policy which prevents “racist or fascist” organisations from speaking at any student function.
Who defines racist and fascist? The NUS, presumably.
Another recent development in the United States is the advent of “trigger warnings”, where lecturers are required to advise students in advance of any material they might find upsetting. How fragile we’ve become.
As far as I know, we have had no direct parallels with the above cases in New Zealand. But we have come perilously close.
Last month a group calling itself the Auckland University European Students Association was forced to disband after an outbreak of moral panic over its recruitment stand at Orientation Week. Someone alleged the group’s slogan, “Our honour is our pride and our loyalty”, was similar to that of the Nazi SS.
I have no idea whether the group’s members were white supremacists or whether, as a spokesman said, they merely wanted to promote European culture. If it’s the latter, then they were no different from any number of organisations wishing to celebrate their ethnic or cultural heritage.
But we never really had a chance to find out, because the association claimed it had to disband following abuse and threats of violence.
If that’s true, you have to wonder who poses the greater threat – a small group of young men with a fondness for Celtic imagery which some people found a bit creepy, or the self-appointed enforcers of cultural correctness who intimidated them into folding their tent and melting away into the night?
What’s going on here? Is this really what the student radicals of the 1960s wanted? Did the bold liberalism of that era take a wrong turning somewhere, eventually spawning a generation frightened of, and hostile to, ideological diversity?
Or was the 60s revolution a bit of a fraud all along, the real “liberal” agenda being to replace one form of bigotry and conformity with another?
Part of the problem is that an overwhelmingly left-leaning academic establishment (one leading American academic calls it an “intellectual monoculture”) has promoted a type of groupthink that is intolerant of dissent.
The irony, of course, is that today’s speech police are the direct ideological descendants of those 1960s radicals. Only now they are in control, and seeking to impose a type of censorship that’s just as prudish and po-faced as anything from that supposedly oppressive era.
FOOTNOTE: This was written before, and without prior knowledge of, Professor Paul Moon's open letter, signed by the likes of Bob Jones and Geoffrey Palmer, expressing concern at intolerance of free speech on university campuses.