Monday, December 6, 2021

On the Royal Society and the stifling of free speech

Last week the Free Speech Union, of which I’m a member, asked me to write something about the modern-day heresy trial initiated by the Royal Society of New Zealand following complaints about a letter written to the Listener in which seven respected academics very civilly challenged the idea that matauranga Maori – traditional Maori knowledge – should be given the same status as science. My article was to be distributed to media outlets in the hope that it would help draw attention to the parlous state of free speech in academia.

My article, which was sent out last Tuesday, is published below. It doesn’t deal solely with the Royal Society controversy, since I wanted to contextualise the society’s inquisition (which has attracted attention in the latest issue of the UK Spectator) by setting the current issue against the backdrop of other free speech controversies, just to remind readers that there’s a pattern here.

I deliberately adopted a low-key tone, bearing in mind the article was to be offered to mainstream media and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to reject it. But as of today, I’m told that only one small provincial paper has published it. People may feel entitled to assume from this that the protection of free speech doesn’t rate highly in media priorities, although all media outlets depend on it for their existence. (Of course it's also possible that it was rejected because it's a crappy article. You be the judge.)

Freedom of speech is a fundamental right in a liberal democracy – as important, even, as the right to vote, since people’s ability to cast an informed vote depends on them first being able to participate in free and open debate about political issues and ideas.

This is one of the crucial factors that distinguishes a true liberal democracy such as New Zealand from authoritarian “pretend” democracies such as Russia, where people are allowed to vote but are denied access to information and opinion that doesn’t conform to the agenda of those in control.

Accordingly, the Bill of Rights Act, passed by a Labour government in 1990, states that every New Zealander has the right to freedom of expression, “including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. The wording is similar to that of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, except that the UN declaration goes a step further by asserting the right to “hold opinions without interference”.

Even before the Bill of Rights Act made it explicit, free speech was a right that New Zealanders took for granted. They exercised it (and still do) every day in letters to the editor and on radio talkback shows.

Yet a perception has grown in recent years that New Zealanders’ right to speak freely and to hear or read all shades of political opinion, short of those that incite violence and hatred, is under sustained attack. Concern at the fragility of free speech rights led to the formation this year of the Free Speech Union, which has drawn support from across the political and ideological spectrum.

One celebrated case involved the Canadian “alt-right” (so-called) speakers Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, who were barred from speaking at a council-owned Auckland venue in 2018. The excuse used for denying them a platform was that the event might be disrupted by protesters.

Activists quickly realised they could force the cancellation of speeches by people they didn’t like simply by threatening protest action – a tactic sometimes referred as the heckler’s or thug's veto.

A similar pretext, fear of disruption, was used by Massey University to cancel a speech by former National Party leader and Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, although it’s hard to imagine anyone less likely to incite trouble than the unfailingly civil Brash. Emails released under the Official Information Act subsequently revealed that the real reason Massey’s vice-chancellor banned Brash was that she didn’t want the university to be seen as “endorsing racist behaviours”. In other words, she didn’t agree with Brash’s opinion on the Treaty of Waitangi.

The Southern-Molyneux controversy is still being played out in the courts, the crowd-funded Free Speech Union having gone all the way to the Supreme Court in a test case aimed at preventing public authorities from using the supposed threat of disruption as an excuse to “de-platform” speakers.

In the meantime, other developments have reinforced the perception that freedom of expression in New Zealand is imperilled. The feminist group Speak Up For Women (SUFW), which advances the unremarkable view that only people born female can call themselves women, has been barred from holding meetings in public premises and had a prominent advertising billboard taken down in central Wellington. Some newspapers refused to accept their ads.

SUFW’s struggle to get its message across in the face of determined opposition from trans-gender activists illustrates that the defence of free speech cuts across the usual ideological and political lines.

People who identify with the radical left have found themselves on the same side as conservatives and libertarians in pushing for the right to say what they think. The Free Speech Union’s supporters, for example, include veteran leftists Matt McCarten and Chris Trotter.

In the latest outbreak of the speech wars, the action has shifted to a new and worrying arena. Seven respected university academics found themselves blacklisted in July after they wrote a letter to The Listener challenging the notion that matauranga Maori – which can be defined as the traditional body of Maori knowledge – should be accorded the same status as science, as proposed by an NCEA working group preparing a new school curriculum.  

In an unprecedented pile-on, more than 2000 fellow academics, urged on by professors Shaun Hendy and Siouxsie Wiles, signed a letter denouncing the Listener Seven and implying they condoned “scientific racism”.

The response went well beyond legitimate disagreement. The sheer weight and vehemence of the denunciation sent an unmistakeable message to the academic community: express dissent at your peril.

More alarmingly still, two of the Listener Seven are now being investigated by the Royal Society – an organisation dedicated, ironically, to the advancement of science – and may be expelled.  

What started as an academic debate has thus taken on the character of a heresy trial. Even more ironically, one of the professors under investigation, Garth Cooper, is a Maori who has earned international acclaim for his achievements in Maori health.  

Once again, the Free Speech Union has stepped up by creating an academic freedom fund to help defend the two accused. If the complaint against them is upheld, union spokesman Dr David Cumin says, academics will inevitably feel less safe expressing honestly held views on contentious issues.

The union accuses universities and research institutions of trying to muzzle the very people whose job is to ask questions. “Academic freedom is under attack.”

The bottom line here is that science and academia need people who challenge accepted wisdom, otherwise we would be stuck forever in the status quo. But in New Zealand in 2021, the price for deviating from approved orthodoxy is punishment and ostracism.

[Anyone interested in defending free speech is welcome to republish or distribute this article. The Free Speech Union website is here.]


Anonymous said...

Do you think that Ardern is disrespecting Maori Science by forcing vaccine mandates on Maori who may believe their traditional healing methods make the vaccine unnecessary? Why should they submit to further colonialist oppression from Ardern. Does Pakeha really know better?

pdm said...

Fat chance of Stuff publishing this Karl.

I am banned there for just questioning some of their climate change articles. No abuse or bad language involved just expression of alternatives.

Andy Espersen said...

You write in your article : “I deliberately adopted a low-key tone, bearing in mind the article was to be offered to mainstream media and I didn’t want to give them any excuse to reject it. But as of today, I’m told that only one small provincial paper has published it”.

Why do you, why do we in New Zealand, worry about, crawl for, fawn on the “mainstream media”??. Please ignore them from now on. They have had it. They will be going bankrupt soon (perhaps excluding the Allied Press). In their place we will find a lot more independent, provincial papers (unless, of course, those big monopolies are bribed by us tax-payers!)

I would much rather you had come out, all guns blazing, with a vicious, hard-hitting article against this so-called “scientific” association – as I am sure you would have been able to do. Just look at their proud history; just look at their proud motto, “Nullius in verba”.

And observe their shameful behaviour now.

Terry M said...

Another case of academia does not necessarily equal intellect?
Maybe the councillors need a little councilling in common sense?

homepaddock said...

John Mcwhirter, writing on More Indigenous Anger from New Zealand about Real Science concludes: “I shouldn’t have to point out that scientists who defend their discipline and the knowledge it produces should under no circumstances be put in danger of their jobs, careers, or reputations simply for defending the toolkit of science as the best way to understand nature.

New Zealand is a wonderful place, and I love it, but many of its residents have got to stop pretending that there are multiple ways of knowing that can be taken as science! There is no special “Maori science”; there’s just “science.” .”

The irony of indiganti’s cries of racism over science is that their indignation is racist.

Ele Ludemann

homepaddock said...

John McWhorter, not McWhirter.

Doug Longmire said...

This truly is the (ex Spanish) inquisition at work.
Unfortunately - as you clearly described it Karl - this is the direction that our once proud and free nation is being driven to.

LNF said...

To digress slightly, in the Dompost today
"A new strategy to address ‘‘two of our nation’s greatest shames’’ aims to eliminate family and sexual violence within a generation, by drawing on Māori knowledge to create widespread societal change."
Wouldn't dare state the obvious

Mobfiz said...

All we have to resist this onslaught is social media. Please see Fake News and the NZ Herald .

Eamon Sloan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Odysseus said...

New Zealand is undergoing a coup which requires the suppression of free speech and the intimidation of those who question the new orthodoxies that are being imposed. For thirty pieces of silver the media have committed to aiding and abetting this transformation which will see 17 percent of the population have a veto over the aspirations of the remaining 83 percent, "the other populations" as they are referred to in the Pae Ora Bill now before a Select Committee. When you understand this, everything falls into place.

Doug Longmire said...

I have just today paid my sub to be a founding member of the FSU.
Having been a pharmacist of many years, I have a background in science. In pharmacy, one has to regularly assess unscientific claims against scientific claims, particularly for medical treatments. This process is actually titled the Scientific Method

The so called Maori "science" is, of course not science at all.
It is culture and oral history of one group of wandering peolpes, originally indigenous to Taiwan.

By their ridiculous, unscientific persecution of these scientists, Wiles and Hendy, in my opinion, have totally discredited themselves.

Russell Parkinson said...

I see a comment on BFD today with a full quote of a letter from Richard Dawkins to the Royal Society saying much the same as Karl.

Anna Mouse said...

The RS takes Government money and in NZ at the moment with the coup d'etat that is occuring taking the money comes with conditions. Just like the PIJF and NZ Sport etc etc etc.....

The fact that they are now Royal Society Te Aparani and they have everthing as Aotearoa New Zealand speaks about who is pulling their is Te Kawanatanga ao Aoteroa (that is The New Zealand Government) as it is known as now.....just check your Covid pass to see who provided it to you.

D'Esterre said...

"Te Kawanatanga ao Aoteroa"

What? I hadn't read my vaccine whatsit down to the bottom, so I hadn't spotted this until you pointed it out.

What mandate has the current government, to indulge in flights of linguistic fantasy of this sort? Bizarre....

D'Esterre said...

" drawing on Māori knowledge to create widespread societal change."

Not being any longer a subscriber, I hadn't seen this. It must be satire, surely?

Prior to first European contact, NZ wasn’t a bucolic paradise: it was Hobbesian. Tribes were ruled by hereditary elites; slavery was the norm. Inter-tribal conflict was frequent and violent, cannibalism routinely practised. So it won't be traditional knowledge being drawn on, presumably.

Perhaps the intention is, rather, to draw on contemporary Maori knowledge? But as those of us who take more than a passing interest in the awful family and sexual violence statistics here will know, Maori society is as plagued by such violence as is the rest of NZ.

Richard Arlidge said...

The Royal Society of NZ, and the likes of Wiles and Hendy, ought to be well ashamed of themselves. The former for not only undertaking a quite unwarranted review of Prof Garth Cooper, but for bringing the Society and thereby NZ into disrepute, while undermining the achievements of it past and present members. They are supporting a position that both subverts and perverts curricula for those Kiwi minds looking to expand their knowledge in scientific endeavours. While it is mentioned in passing above, I refer anyone to Richard Dawkins full response to this matter on his website: Like every tall poppy he will no doubt have his detractors, but in the world of science few would challenge his probity and even fewer best his knowledge, standing and experience. Our Society and certain members of our academia would do well to sit up, take note (especially of what Prof Cooper has said) and apologise, while pulling their collective heads in.

Anna Mouse said...

Well said Richard Arlidge.

When Dawkins enters the conversation you have to know that you have messed up!

Time to step back, apologise and ensure that your ideology gets checked at the door.