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The thoroughly modern university and the many uses of hate speech

By Laurence Maher - posted Thursday, 15 November 2018

Not so long ago, Australia's universities were places where the idea that opinions on any topic under the sun could differ markedly was enthusiastically embraced by staff and students alike. Universities were then places where the pursuit of knowledge was an end in itself. Secondary school leavers entering universities had every opportunity to mature by learning to think for themselves. In that context, disagreement, debate, disputation, and "difference" – the real kind, not the confected ideological mishmash of official multiculturalism – was central to the life of the university. The word "dissent" can have no place in that ideology.

Nowadays, Australian universities project themselves as business enterprises. They compete for customers and for world class numerical rankings. They engage in incessant boasting in their sales pitch. The word "TOP" is the adjective, "CHANGE" is the constant, and the blessed organizational trinity consists of diversity, identity, and respect. All this has come about during a time when the imposition of intellectual conformity according to a hierarchy of privileged categories of group-based ideas has taken root and is thriving in areas of scholarly inquiry. And it seems to have been lapped up for varying reasons by a sizeable number of today's students.

This combination of modern "Love that Diversity!" educational hucksterism and neo-puritanical censorship has provoked plenty of controversy. It was bound to do so. That controversy needs to be promoted so as to advance the cause of resistance to the ghastly censorship.


We live in an increasingly humourless age. Genuine satire has been banished when the subject matter for suitable treatment multiplies by the hour. One example is the curious case of The University of Sydney which invites prospective students to select the nation's oldest university so that they can "Unlearn". This, its web site states, "is about challenging the established and questioning the accepted." The word "old" is disfavoured. "Context" is about "today, and tomorrow". (To borrow the aphorism used by L P Hartley, "The past is a foreign country.") Whatever the University of Sydney paid for the "Unlearn" gibberish would have been better applied on something that could be rationally connected with the pursuit of knowledge.

Again, not so long ago, the suggestion (outside the deliberate irreverence of the students' revues of old) that at the age of 17 to 19 students arriving to commence their university courses would be entering an environment in which the mere the dissemination of disapproved of ideas exposed them to the risk of succumbing to a recognizable psychological disorder would have been regarded as just too silly for words. But various university administrators are now falling over themselves accommodating calls for "safe spaces", "trigger warnings" and similar grotesque affronts to the life of the mind. Most of these fads, which display the cultural cringe of old by aping foreign developments, should collapse under the weight of their own absurd postmodern irony.

In October 2015, Richard Dawkins summed up his view on this baleful aspect of modern university life with following crisp riposte: "A university is not a 'safe place'. If you need a safe space, leave, go home, hug your teddy and suck your thumb until [you are] ready for university."

One striking example of the stifling censorship is the use of gob-smacking "hate speech" to condemn disapproved forms of "hate speech". In this regard, whatever else can be said about the Australian National University's rejection of the Ramsay Centre's offer to finance the establishment of a proposed Bachelor of Western Civilisation degree at ANU, it is notable for generating a subsidiary row which is yet another demonstration of just how ridiculous and opportunistic the widespread use of the censorious ideological abstraction "hate speech" has become.

In The Australian on 4 June last (supplemented by a column three days later)Greg Sheridan characterized the ANU decision as "a pivotal moment in modern Australian history". Professor A Dirk Moses of the University of Sydneydisagreed. On 6 June, his response to Sheridan, "Western Civilization and Conservative Hysteria", was published on the Religion and Ethics page of the ABC web site. Its focus was the ways in which Australians are, in the Professor's assessment, free to speak (or not) about the root cause(s) of and motivation(s) for contemporary terrorism and the fraught state of relations between the Western and Islamic worlds. His position is that the underlying problem is one of our own making. More particularly, Australia's participation in the US-led military intervention in Iraq co-created terrorist conflict and territorially extended it to Australia. That created the risk of revenge attacks in Australia by Muslim youths who are alienated loners. Having watched hours of videos in which Muslim civilians are bombed by aircraft and drones,they become angry and resort to violence. And Islam has not been radicalised.

There is nothing to fear in an open public debate about this. And especially not in the Professor's accompanying claim that what he labels as the insidious political rhetoric and fear-mongeringof the News Ltd commentariat – the aforesaid Sheridan and his colleagues Piers Akerman, Janet Albrechtson, Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine, Kevin Donnelly, Gary Johns, Chris Kenny, and Jennifer Oriel – is an incitement to such violence. Professor Moses has quite a way with words. He is an accomplished hater of ideas. One pet aversion of his is the idea, put about by the commentariat, that "political correctness" is corrupting Australian universities.


One risk of rushing into print in anger is to succumb to hyperbole. Another is to display the same attributes which the agitated writer abhors. By way of examples, Professor Moses has deplored resort to "grotesque comparisons" and "outlandish comparisons" and the lack of "critical self-reflection" displayed by the commentariat. He managed to display both rhetorical tendencies in 2017 when, in referring to the harassment, intimidation and incarceration of journalists and academics in Turkey and India, he stated: "It is no exaggeration to warn against such developments here when in Cronulla we had a pogrom against anyone with dark hair." Full marks for irony.

The Professor was so taken aback by Sheridan's thinking on the ANU/Ramsay Centre stoush that his reaction was that it was "much like Anders Breivik and Steve Bannon." Whatever the elastic term "hate speech" might be thought to encompass, it must surely include the intense dislike involved in comparing Sheridan & Co with the mass murderer Brevik and roping in Bannon. In a tweet to one of his pals at ABC Radio National on 6 June Professor Moses said that "there is a word limit with these pieces as you know." Readers of his 6 June article would be justified in inferring that his decision to devote a large part of it journeying back to the Cold War and the 1954-1955 ALP Split and in expatiating on the past and present defects of Roman Catholicism and Catholics indicated that he regarded his Breivik/Bannon trope not as an opinion but rather as self-evidently true in substance and in fact.

In a tweet to Moses on 6 June Chris Kenny, who had been named in the ABC article, said: "Perhaps you and the ABC ought to delete this putrid piece. And I wouldn't delay." Those last four words strike me as being the equivalent of "Or else, I'll see you in court."At some stage that day, and so far as I can tell without public explanation by the ABC, the words "Anders Breivik and" were removed by the ABC (leaving Bannon) and the following cryptic sentence was added: "[Note: This article has been edited to remove a reference to Anders Breivik.]".

The law of defamation can be ill-suited to the provision of redress for injury to reputation. Every case is, by definition, unique. Self-help will in some (perhaps many) cases be the best response to a defamatory attack like the Professor's especially if the target has easy access to the mass media. Sheridan used The Australianon 8 June to denounce the Breivik trope as "an infamous, dishonest and wholly untrue charge". The paper quoted comments made by Professor Moses who had more to say in support of his position in an article in The Sydney Morning Herald the same day.

Like a dog with a treasured bone, Professor Moses could not let go. In a much longer response in On Line Opinion on 18 June, he said he was "comparing - though by no mean[s] equating –" the alarmist rhetoric and collective defamation of the Australian academy "to the apocalyptic visions of Western decline of Steve Bannon and, yes, even to the far-right Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik." And because Breivik's wretched "manifesto" contained the words of Australians complaining about the evils of "political correctness", there was"no avoiding the question of incitement". No avoiding"? Not in his mind: but how about in the real world?

Let the last word here go to one of the Professor's admiring former students who, having read the unexpurgated ABC article, tweeted: ". . . I don't follow your work closely but you are usually measured and thoughtful. Thus I felt it bizarre that you would unfairly compare conservative thinkers to Anders Breivik in an otherwise compelling piece.

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About the Author

L W Maher is a Melbourne barrister with a special interest in defamation and other free speech-related disputes. He has written extensively on Australian Cold War legal history.

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