Let some knowledge flourish?

Then-vice chancellor of Massey Chris Kelly provoked outrage after making comments about women vets:

Kelly told Rural News that 75 to 85 per cent of vet students were women and in the first year when there was a high ‘cull’, it was the female students who continued because the work was largely academic.

“That’s because women mature earlier than men, work hard and pass,” he told Rural News. “Whereas men find out about booze and all sorts of crazy things during their first year.” . . 

When I went through vet school, many years ago, it was dominated by men; today it’s dominated by women. That’s fine, but the problem is one woman graduate is equivalent to two-fifths of a fulltime equivalent vet throughout her life because she gets married and has a family, which is normal. So, though we’re graduating a lot of vets, we’re getting a high fallout rate later on.” . . 

Shortly after the outrage, he stepped down.

He apologised yesterday and said the information he gave in the article was incorrect.

He told the university today that he intended to step down from his position, effective immediately.

In a statement, Mr Kelly said his decision followed media coverage of his comments.

“Having had time to carefully consider the views of many staff, students and stakeholders, I believe that it is in the interests of the university that I step aside,” he said. . .

Martin van Beynen wrote at the time that the chancellor’s point was lost in the silly vet sexism fracas:

 . . But there is a wider problem with jumping from a great height on a man like Kelly.

Kelly spoke his mind giving a view which was not hateful or disrespectful. Essentially he was saying the taxpayer gets more bang for their buck by training male vets because of the nature of the job and the fact women, due to an unfortunate quirk of biology, have babies and want to spend some time with them.

It sounds like a defendable view which should prompt some debate. There might actually be a problem brewing away in vet education due to the dominance of female graduates. That won’t be talked about now because no-one will be brave enough to raise it.

The danger is that due to the sensitivity of the issue and possible ramifications of expressing a view, the wrong decisions will be made, not because people don’t know the facts or what to do, but just because to raise the difficult matters is a career wrecker.

The last and important point is that it’s quite healthy for people to shoot their mouths off now and again. It’s much better to know what people think than to have their views massaged by public relations or communications staff into nothingness. People censoring themselves is far more dangerous than saying what they really think.

Exactly. It is far better to know what people think than to have their views and opinions, whether they be right or wrong, silenced.

The importance of free speech is not something the current Massey vice chancellor Jan Thomas appears to believe in:

The right to speak freely is a bedrock principle of democratic society. This includes the right to hold opinions and express one’s views without fear and the ability to freely communicate one’s ideas.

History is littered with examples of tyrants who have sought to stymie this freedom of expression and, conversely, reveals the tragedy of those whose voices have been silenced under such oppression.

So far so good but then she writes:

Freedom of expression is one thing, but hate speech is another. As a concept that has now entered common parlance, hate speech refers to attacks based on race, ethnicity, religion, and increasingly, on sexual orientation or preference. . .

But not all religions are equal when it comes to criticism. I’ve yet to read or hear anyone attacking Christianity accused of hate speech.

Let me be clear, hate speech is not free speech. . .

She’s right that hate speech, however, it’s defined, isn’t free speech.

But the point that free speech would permit people to indulge in hate speech appears to have escaped her.

. . . Academics have a responsibility to engage with the communities we serve, to correct error and prejudice and to offer expert views, informed by evidence, reason and well-informed argument.

Given the current dominance of wall-to-wall social media and the echo chambers of fake news, universities are in many ways obliged to make positive societal interventions.

Universities support our staff and students to push boundaries, test the evidence that is put to them and challenge societal norms, including examining controversial and unpopular ideas.

This also obliges our institutions to support staff if and when they are attacked for engaging in such debates.

In this regard, I am guided by the University of California’s former President Clark Kerr’s oft-cited maxim that “the role of universities is not to make ideas safe for students, but to make students safe for ideas”.

And as I regularly remind our graduates, with rights come responsibilities.

Public universities have an obligation to uphold our civic leadership role in society and our first responsibility, I would argue, is to do no harm.

Universities are characterised by the academic values of tolerance, civility, and respect for human dignity.

All of that is reasonable.

And that is why it is important to identify and call out any shift from free speech towards hate speech. The challenge we face is to clarify when that shift occurs and to counter it with reason and compassion.

While I have concerns about what exactly hate speech is, I can’t argue against countering it with reason and compassion.

But then she concludes:

Hate speech has no place at a university. My university values our commitment to ideas and scholarship and free expression. . .

Spot the contradiction: a commitment to free expression and the exlusion of hate speech.

A university of all places ought to be able to counter the misguided, misinformed and mistaken by reasoned and reasonable debate, not by shutting them up and shutting down their right to express their views, however wrong or revolting those views are.

Karl du Fresne writes we should be very suspicious about claims of “hate speech”:

. . . My first concern is that much of what is emotively described as hate speech isn’t hateful at all. Too often it simply means opinions and ideas that some people find distasteful or offensive. But merely being offended is no justification for stifling expressions of opinion in a liberal, open democracy that depends on the contest of ideas. 

More worryingly, accusations of “hate speech” can be used to intimidate people into silence and put discussion of certain issues and ideas off-limits. In fact I believe that’s the over-arching aim.

Anyway, who defines hate speech? The term is bandied around as if there’s some agreed definition. But there’s not, and freedom of expression is too precious to leave it to an aggrieved minority or an academic elite to define it and therefore determine what the rest of us may say.

It’s also an infinitely elastic term. In Britain, where police have the power to prosecute for hate speech, there have been some frightening cases of overkill and heavy-handedness. 

Better to set the legal bar high to allow plenty of space for free speech, as the courts have tended to do in New Zealand. By all means, draw the line at harmful acts, direct threats to people’s safety or incitements to violence against minorities. But the law already allows for criminal prosecution in such cases.

We have far more to fear from people who want to suppress speech than we do from those who say things that others find objectionable. The real issue here is language control – because if you can control the language people are allowed to use in political discourse, you can control the range of ideas people are permitted to articulate and explore. . .

No, language is the latest battleground in what is known as the culture wars. The mounting clamour for tougher laws against so-called hate speech is an outgrowth of identity politics, in which minority groups are encouraged to see themselves as oppressed or disadvantaged because of their colour, ethnicity, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation. 

Hate speech makes some colours, ethnicities, genders, religions and sexual orientations more equal than others.

This has generated a demand for protection from comments that might be seen as critical or belittling – hence the frequency with which we hear people being accused of xenophobia, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and misogyny.

No one likes to have these labels pinned on them, so people keep their heads down. Accusing someone of hate speech has the same effect. It’s a quick way to shut down debate. . .

It’s so much easier to accuse someone of hate speech than it is to debate and counter what they say with facts and reason.

Journalists, of all people, should be ardent advocates of free speech because they have the most to fear if it’s abolished. In totalitarian regimes, journalists are often the first people to be imprisoned (as in Turkey) and even risk being murdered (as in Putin’s Russia).

But the most illiberal pronouncement I have read on the supposed dangers of free speech came from a university vice-chancellor who clearly thought that ordinary New Zealanders can’t be trusted to form their own sensible conclusions about contentious issues.

This pompous academic thought we needed guidance to keep us on the right path. And where from? Why, from universities.

We can infer from this that universities see themselves as having taken over the Churches’ role as moral arbiters. God help us all.

That the academic is vice chancellor of the same university the former-chancellor resigned from for saying something which got the crowd baying intrigues and concerns me.

Kelly wasn’t criticised for saying young men mature later and drink too much. He didn’t say that women don’t make good vets. He did say women work shorter hours than men.

He got his numbers wrong – saying women vets worked two-fifths of the time men did when younger vets work similar hours and after 30 women vets work an average of 37 hours a week and men an average of 45.

He might also be accused of not wording what he said better.

But over-egging the numbers and wording what he said somewhat clumsily ought to be a minor transgression.

A vice chancellor of a university, which is supposed to be a bastion of free speech, declaring that hers won’t  be ought to be a major one.

Kelly’s comments provoked an outrage, lots of media coverage and led to his resignation. All I’ve come across in response to Thomas’s declaration that Massey won’t uphold free speech are a very few well reasoned opinion pieces arguing against her.

Liam Hehir didn’t refer to Thomas’s remarks but he highlights the value of free speech and the danger in silencing it:

. . . New Zealand has developed a similar free-speech culture.

And the value of that culture isn’t that it protects racists and crackpots. It’s that it protects the humane and decent, who will not always hold the reins of power. The re-emergence of authoritarianism in continental Europe, where free-speech rights are less embedded, may well provide a warning here.

So should we accord liberal free speech rights to those with deplorable views? Yes. But it’s not to protect them from us. It’s to protect us from them.

Kelly stood down as chancellor for speaking freely, if what turned out to be unwisely in these politically-correct times. Vice chancellor Thomas declared Massey a free speech-free university and hardly raised an eye brow.

The uiniversity’s motto is floreat scientia – let knowledge flourish.

It isn’t qualified as some knowledge but if free speech can’t flourish there, can all knowledge?

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