Friday, May 13, 2022

The Free Speech Union meeting that earned a trigger warning from Salient

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.)


Frank Black said...

Link does not work (saved you a click)

Karl du Fresne said...

Try again. Should work now.

Hilary Taylor said...

Go you Karl. It's too weird to be..true, but the new puritans are in the ascendancy. Its been a week for firing off emails to the cowards who run these places..AUT last week. Lexie Matheson rules the roost there while the bosses hide away.
Someone remarked on Kiwiblog this morning that the current governor of the NZRB gets flak from some whereas Don Brash never did/does...they'd have to get in the long line is all I can say, though I suspect he meant flak from insiders/economists.
Kudos to all who brave the times and the religious domgatists...she's a hard row to hoe.

Anna Mouse said...

Some very salient points, pointing out how Salient is not very salient anymore.

Doug Longmire said...

My God - how universities have changed since I was there.
They used to be hot-beds of free speech, much of it on the radical side, no topic sacrosanct, challenge every belief and idea, and no holds barred. Hot debate was common and accepted and expected.
Look at them now - cringing, whining, poor me, hand wringing hurty hurty feelings. Terrified of any opinion that is different from theirs.
Oh Dear - You poor sensitive students - go home and curl up on a soft couch, suck your thumb and cuddle a soft teddy !!

Anonymous said...

As a Victoria lecturer and a member of FSU (so I would prefer to be anonymous), I am sad to say this is exactly what I expect from our students. Students nowadays are extremely lazy; most of them don't even bother to attend lectures. Critical thinking and meaningful debates are just not things under their radars. I don't blame students but the university administration. The university administration is a bunch of failed academics who do not really care about education and research. All they care is their position and would do everything possible to pander students in order to get money from the government. As a lecturer, our constant pressure from the university is how to make students happy and get more of them, not how to train better citizens of the future.

Doug Longmire said...

And, I might add - that was an excellent article Karl. Very perceptive and your sense of humour made for very entertaining reading.

Odysseus said...

It's way past time we defunded the universities. They no longer serve a useful purpose. Taxpayers should instead support specialist institutes for medicine, engineering and the STEM subjects.

You were charitable in calling BLM a "crusade". It is also known as the terrorist wing of the Democratic Party.

Jim Rose said...

The linked article doesn't quote anything you actually said just the listener's impression of it. Your speech went up online pretty quickly so is pretty easy to quote words from it.

James said...

I went to the FSU event at Massey University, Palmerston North to see Dr Brash speak a couple of weeks ago.

It too was threatened with closure, with Palmerston North’s deputy mayor advocating that Massey cancel him again. Clearly that city council has not learned from the disgraceful debacle attempting to ban Speak Up for Women from the city library. Fortunately the university did not listen to her, and he was allowed to speak. There was minimal fuss or protest from either the uni or student bodies as far as I could tell.

I thought Dr Brash could have articulated his points better, and on some points I thought he was misinformed and inconsistent. But that’s the point of these things isn’t it - so that people like me can go along and make up my own mind and use my own judgement.

Also in attendance were some activists intent on tripping him up, either by asking him to say the ‘n’ word (which he obviously wouldn’t), then trying to say that his refusal to say that word meant he actually advocated for limits on speech. That was a specious argument…

There were others there trying to debate him about his views as spokesman for Hobson’s Pledge. Which was nothing at all to do with the topic of his speech, which was all about free speech. But credit to Dr Brash, he engaged and answered as best he could, and again people like me could hear both sides of an argument and make up our minds for ourselves.

I asked Dr Brash if NZ was too far gone, given how media, political parties, universities, major corporations and the entire public sector seem to be aligned against free speech, and collude with other various woke causes. He said it was all very depressing. I think I agree with him and to be honest don’t have any optimism for NZ. This nonsense from Salient reinforces my pessimism.

Andy Espersen said...

The remarks from the anonymous “Victoria lecturer” are indeed interesting – and frightening. Even if his/her remarks are grossly generalising (I feel sure that not all students are "extremely lazy"!), the future poorer leaving qualifications of students from Victoria University will surely be very obvious (unless the University is also falsifying exam results).

Who actually appoints the administrators at Victoria – and at other universities?? Governments at present give huge financial support to all tertiary, educational institutions. Perhaps the time has come for the taxpayers simply to give less financial support to any such institution that is obviously unable to create an efficient, healthy teaching and learning environment.

hughvane said...

There are several words to be used to describe the ‘people’ who compose such tripe as does Salient, some of them possibly actionable, but one thing that stands out for me is the puerile and tiresome use of the suffix ‘ist’, eg. rac’ist’, supremac’ist’ and so on.

I remain puzzled however - where is real’ist’?

The terms used in Salient’s article reeks and smacks of Mao’s Little Red Book, and I can picture in my mind’s horror comic the agitators who claim to be the voice of Vic Uni students as parrots who gather to voice the same garbage over and over again until their diatribes appear in print.

May they rest in pieces.

Don Franks said...

What pathetic drivel. The Salient article fails in every respect saving its power of invention. As a former ( 1972) Salient reporter and audience member at the meeting I intend writing to Salient, demanding that they print the text of your address.

Caryl Forrest said...

Depressing reading indeed. Are our universities now just rote-learning degree factories?

Don Franks said...

Salient's LETTERS TO THE EDITOR column advises:

"At Salient, we froth a cheeky bit of public debate, which is why we have our letters page. Letters can be anything; your take on something you read in Salient, shit that grinds your gears, something cool you saw on campus, how you think the magazine could be improved, issues of the day, whatever.” ( limit 250 words, letters may be edited or rejected)

Dear Editor

I write in response to the May 9th Salient article by Azaria Howell, about the Free Speech Union public meeting held at Victoria University on Thursday April 28th. Her article supposedly:
" examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist, and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question.”
As one of the over eighty people present at the meeting I can emphatically tell you that Karl Du Fresne’s address contained no such content, nor did any of the subsequent question time or discussion.
Azaria Howell further claims that :
"Du Fresne went on to make derogatory comments about trans women and spread harmful misinformation about the 15 March terror attacks in Christchurch”.
No such comments or misinformations were made.
As a former Salient reporter it distresses me to see the magazine printing mischievous invention in the guise of reported speech. Be assured, I have no time for racist, transphobic or sexist behaviour. Neither do I have any time for false accusations.
In the interests of fair reportage, I call on you to reprint Karl Du Fresne’s unabridged article in Salient, to let readers judge for themselves.

Yours Sincerely,

Don Franks

Karl du Fresne said...

Thank you Don.

Ben Thomas said...

I am not sure that universities have changed a great deal; the lunatics have always been present. It is just that they have managed to take over the running of the asylum. The worrying aspect is that these strange people are likely to be the politicians of the future, just because they will be otherwise unemployable.

Andy Espersen said...

Ben Thomas - Those "strange people" will be the politicians of the future only if we elect them!

Hilary Taylor said...

Ben Thomas...that's exactly what I said to the boss at AUT...the lunatics are running the asylum! No reply of course, again...they simply cower.
Depressingly, you are probably right about the future pollies.
As an ex-Vic gal I took one academic Joanna Kidman up when Speak Up For Women were battling the puritans...she had publically 'dissed' them..again, no reply from her or her boss.

Steve said...

Ben - Those lunatics & strange people you refer to already make up many of our politicians today.

One, incredibly, has even made it as far as PM.

Private Publishing said...

Sad to see Salient, to which I once contributed articles, engaging in such shoddy practices.

Just one thing, the history of the crusades doesn't recommend using this word for anything other than bigotry and mayhem.

Hilary Taylor said...

I suppose, like me if you listened to Kim Hill/Kathleen Stock int yesterday. you heard the 'this will offend some people' warning at the start...Stock is about as restrained and low-key as it comes.

Don Franks said...

Salient warned: "This article examines some of the racist, transphobic, sexist, and otherwise harmful content discussed at the event in question. Please exercise caution when reading.”
Exactly how caution might be exercised here is isn't spelled out, but it should have been. We're all familiar with cautions on gin bottles - drink responsibly and not at all if you’re pregnant - but how does caution apply to literature? What can a conscientious person actually do, to read something with caution?
I guess there exists the possibility of some incautious readers becoming instantly attracted to the racist, transphobic, sexist or otherwise harmful content examined in the article. Words have power to persuade. It may then have been more responsible of the Salient editor to forearm readers by adding: “racist, transphobic, sexist and other harmful things are socially harmful and should never be embraced, no matter how superficially attractive they may appear in this meeting report. If you are a person easily lead, it might be safer to proceed no further. ‘
Or, other incautious readers, already awakened to the undesirability of racist, transphobic , sexist and other harmful things, may become filled with rage as they take in the harmful content and spill hot coffee on their knee, or violently rock backwards on their chair and break their neck. More detailed advice could have been assisted here: “Before beginning to read this article, please unhand anything sharp, seat yourself carefully on the floor well away from draughts and loosen any tight clothing, especially around the neck.”
Perhaps the best alternative would have been "Caution, this meeting report is so removed from reality that reading it all the way through risks turning your brain into candy floss"

houtman abrolhos said...

As a student at Vic in 1973, fresh from the sticks, I was amazed by Salient. Full of Maoist articles, tedious verbiage, and let's be frank, communism. I wouldn't have thought it could get much worse but then wouldn't have believed that 50 years later there's a big retreat from free speech, logic, reason etc.

Anonymous said...

I’m also employed at Vic and would echo the aforementioned sentiments. I’ve witnessed the campus become an increasingly childish, irrational, illiberal place with frankly something of a cultish vibe. It’s not at all times and in all places (there are plenty of academics and lecturers doing good work) but the current direction of things is clear and incredibly dispiriting.