Editor’s Note: Here below is Dr Bryce Edwards’ New Zealand Political Roundup – which analyses one prominent topic being debated in New Zealand and links to media coverage. You can sign up to NZ Political Roundup for free here.
Political Roundup: Culture wars stifling critical debate on our campuses
“Cancel culture”, “callout culture” or “woke politics” – these trends are often accused of reducing political debate and diversity of thought in society. And it’s on university campuses where this is said to occur the most.
Yet until now, it hasn’t been clear if academic freedom is being eroded and whether academics are being stifled in their role as “critic and conscience” of society. We have had occasional controversies – such as the fallout at the University of Auckland and in the Royal Society over the academics who questioned the way that mātauranga Māori is being used in the education curriculum, but it’s been hard to know whether this type of controversy is indicative of wider problems.
There is now evidence that there is indeed a problem. The first New Zealand Annual Survey on Academic Freedom, published today, shows that a significant proportion of university academics feel very constrained in what they can discuss and disagree with. The survey, commissioned by the Free Speech Union and carried out by Curia Research, asked academics how free they felt in challenging consensus, debating issues such as gender or the Treaty of Waitangi, and so forth. Respondents were asked to rate their academic freedom on various topics on a 0-10 scale, in which 0 meant “unfree” and 10 meant “entirely free”. There were 1266 responses to the survey.
Results of the first Annual Survey on Academic Freedom
For five of the eight questions, about a third of academics rated their academic freedom below 5 (out of 10). On the general idea of being able to question and test received wisdom, 45 per cent felt more constrained than free. On the question of being able to raise differing perspectives or to debate and discuss gender or sex issues, 47 per cent felt more constrained than free. And when it came to debating and discussing Treaty issues and colonisation, 50 per cent felt more constrained than free. On this last question, the average rating on academic freedom was 5.4 out of 10.
Generally, these results show that there is a serious problem. Further analysis is required in terms of what these results mean. For example, does the fact that academics at some universities evaluated their academic freedom as less than at other universities mean that things are worse there or simply that there’s more awareness and unhappiness about the stifling of debate? Similarly, younger academics in the survey were much less inclined to signal impingements on academic freedom. Is this due to them being more “progressive”, or simply because they are more acclimatised to the new environment?
The Tertiary Education Union is also currently surveying academics on the “state of the sector”, which includes issues of academic freedom.
The role of culture wars in stifling campus debate
At universities there has been a strong trend towards what is called “no platforming”, a concept that argues “platforms” shouldn’t be provided for harmful or wrong ideas and debates. It’s essentially the concept of “banning” bad ideas from being available. This concept has led to several speakers and ideas being kept off New Zealand campuses. Not only that, but it has also sent a strong message to academics about the possibility of being “called out” or marginalised if they don’t conform to orthodox views.
To understand how the culture of universities has shifted in this way, it’s important to consider how the “political left” has evolved in recent decades, especially on campuses. When I talk to first-year students – I teach about 1300 each year – and I ask them what “leftwing” means to them, some of the words and phrases I hear are: anti-racism, diversity, gender, censorship, cancel culture, boycotts, LGTBQ+ rights, political correctness, identity politics, environment and peace.
These definitions of leftwing are quite different to traditional ones. Today’s students certainly don’t talk so much about economic inequality, poverty, working class, trade unions, collective struggle, universalism, etc.
I think this illustrates how the political left has evolved over recent decades – the parties, activists and politicians representing the left are now quite different to what they were for most of the twentieth century.
Much of this shift had its origins in the 1980s when most leftwing forces, particularly the political parties, transformed into middle class vehicles, and others such as unions declined as a social force. The left also started to lose the debates on economics globally. In New Zealand this meant the introduction of neoliberal economic reforms, in our case by the Fourth Labour Government.
Left-wingers generally gave up on economics, choosing to focus more on non-economic issues: social issues, foreign policy, post-materialism, and what are often called the “culture wars” – involving personal morality and behaviour. So since then, the left became more associated with cultural issues, gender and ethnicity. They don’t focus so much on class, socioeconomics, or the general concerns of the working class.
In a sense, the left has swung from one extreme in the 20th century, when everything was about economics and class (and important issues around gender and ethnicity were not given their due focus) to one where the focus is much more on culturalist and identity politics.
Essentially there was something of a political compromise in which the “right” won the “economic debates” in the latter part of that century – setting up an economy we’ve still got, that is structured in favour of wealth, business and elites – while the “left” has won the “social debates”, largely setting the agenda on issues of gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and culture.
The modern version of the left – or the “liberal left” – has different ways of pursuing political change. Largely it’s an elite, top-down model of politics, reflective of the left being made up of the highly educated stratum of society. They confidently believe that they know best.
This elite leftwing approach is very compatible with a more censorious approach to politics and that partly explains the authoritarian impulses we are seeing today. Traditionally the left has been the force in society most favourable to “free speech” and mass participation in politics – championing the rights of the oppressed or marginalised to organise, to communicate politics, to win human rights and political gains. In contrast, it used to be the forces of the right and the Establishment that clamped down on political expression and activity. This is why it’s all the more jarring that increasingly the left wants either the state or society to put limits on political debate and expression.
The rise of “culture wars” has been incredibly important for shaping the political atmosphere we are currently in. Rather than debate and discussion, or finding a middle ground, it’s more polarising – with both conservatives and liberals focusing more on personalities. For example, from the left we see widespread labelling of opponents as racists or sexists. There is now a sneering tendency on the left – especially at those who are seen as socially backward. This was infamously demonstrated in the case of Hilary Clinton talking about the masses as “deplorables”.
One logical consequence for many on the left is to take an approach of “language policing” and concern for “cultural etiquette”, in an almost Victorian way. Again, this is topsy-turvy – it used to be the conservative or rightwing side of politics that was concerned with policing people’s behaviour, and looking down on the less educated and enlightened.
The contemporary left has a mistrust in the ability of society to make the right decisions or to understand the world. In an elitist way, many on the progressive side of politics view the public as being ignorant or lacking enlightenment. Hence, the view of gender or ethnic inequality or oppression is often understood as something to do with personal behaviour and “bad ideas” (racism, sexism, homophobia) – rather than a fundamental part of how our society is structured.
So, if the problems of society are seen as being all about the individual, then it follows that the solutions are as well. The old slogan of “the personal is political” now underpins the focus on how to fix the problems of the world – we need to change individuals, providing them with the correct politics. And of course, it is so much easier for left political parties to make grand gestures regarding race and gender than they can on inequality and class.
Nonetheless, there are very good reasons that universities have incorporated a much greater focus on gender, ethnicity and other forms of oppression. After all, like the left in general, universities have historically left oppression and inequality experienced by some groups in society badly unaddressed.
Redressing past inadequacies is therefore something to appreciate on our campuses. But it’s unfortunate if this is just done in a way which creates more unquestionable orthodoxies, constraining students and academics from being able to debate and be critical thinkers. The chill of self-censorship in this area can be considerable.
Similarly, although there’s now a huge emphasis on diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender, there’s been a major reduction in any sort of social class diversity or focus on socio-economic issues – another way in which academic debate has unfortunately become narrower and more conformist.
Finally, I’d note that my own university has been very supportive of my attempts to fulfill my “critic and conscience” role. This extends to encouraging me to establish an independent vehicle for fostering debate and diversity of analysis on politics and current affairs – the Democracy Project (www.democracyproject.nz). And this is how columns like this, and others, are generated and distributed freely for the public good.
Further reading on academic freedom
Sam Sachdeva (Newsroom): Academics divided on their own freedoms
Jonathan Ayling (The Platform): Research finds many Kiwi academics feel unfree to exercise academic freedom
Other items of interest and importance today
PUBLIC TRUST IN GOVERNMENT AND MEDIA
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voted Australia’s most trusted politician for second time
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Kiwis trust business more than government, media – What can we learn?
RNZ: Business more trusted than government, media in NZ – survey
Wayne Hope (Daily Blog): Trusting the news?
Alan McDonald (Transparency International NZ): What’s driving the distrust of media
Mike Hosking (Newstalk ZB): No surprise the trust in the media is dropping
Pattrick Smellie (BusinessDesk): Distrust in media undermining democracy: two new reports (paywalled)
INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, UKRAINE, AND DEFENCE
Zane Small (Newshub): NATO to help New Zealand and Australia combat ‘China’s growing influence’
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Russia ‘blacklists’ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Cabinet ministers, Parliamentarians, military and spy chief
Josie Pagani (Stuff): The case for military intervention in Ukraine
James Hollings (Stuff): NZ has surplus armoured vehicles; Ukraine needs them. Why won’t we send them?
Alexander Gillespie (The Conversation): Beyond tougher trade sanctions: 3 more ways NZ can add to global pressure on Russia
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): Yes. Absolutely, yes.’ – Ukrainian government wants NZ ‘lethal aid’
Tova O’Brien (Today FM): NZ Government still won’t commit to sending lethal aid to Ukraine
Lloyd Burr (Today FM): Ardern on wrong side of history with Javelin snub
Stephen Hoadley (Stuff): Establishing guilt for war crimes is not straightforward
Malcolm Evans (Daily Blog): Herald Hoadley Western propoganda
Chris Trotter (Daily Blog): America’s to lose: But the outcome of “The Great Game” remains unclear
Chris Trotter: Bloody Anniversaries
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern shoots back at Christopher Luxon’s defence spending barb, saying Labour is already spending more than National
PARTNERSHIP POLITICS (CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM, CO-GOVERNANCE, THREE WATERS; MĀORI WARDS)
John Bishop (Stuff): The agenda for transforming our constitution
Felix Desmarais (Local Democracy Reporting): Rotorua Māori ward local bill law change passes first reading
Grant Miller (ODT): Council ties to Maori integral to funding
Steven Walton (Stuff): Council takes another step towards co-governance of riverside red zone
Amber Allott (Stuff): ‘A clear attack on the authority of Ngāi Tūāhuriri’ — hapū slams occupation’s claim of red zone ownership
Rukuwai Tipene-Allen (Māori TV): Willie Jackson hits back at ACT’s call for referendum
RNZ: National, Act urged to reconsider Māori Health Authority stance
RNZ: Establishment of Māori Health Authority stirs controversy ahead of election year
Keiller MacDuff (Stuff): Timaru’s mayor takes swipe at Government over timing of water report
Zane Small (Newshub): Rotorua Council’s Māori ward restructure sparks co-governance debate
Elijah Hill (Stuff): Decision to have just one Māori seat for Taranaki Regional Council ‘a loss’ for Tangata whenua
Rachel Smalley (Today FM): Odd time for the Director-General of Health to resign, don’t you think?
Damien Venuto (Herald): Resignation problem runs deeper than Ashley Bloomfield and health bosses
Derek Cheng (Herald): Who might be the next Ashley Bloomfield, and why they won’t face the same scrutiny (paywalled)
Sharon Brettkelly (RNZ): So long, Dr Ashley Bloomfield
ODT: Editorial – Thank you Dr Bloomfield
John MacDonald (Newstalk ZB): Don’t blame Ashley Bloomfield for the state of our hospital system
Rachel Smalley (NBR): Why the Ministry of Health reforms are starting to resemble KiwiBuild (paywalled)
RNZ: MidCentral chief executive joins exodus of health bosses
Today FM: ‘Work pressure is an issue’ – Government doing all they can to support health frontline
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Outgoing public health chief Dr Caroline McElnay ‘moving on’ as Covid-19 response shifts
Audrey Young (Herald): Labour MP Louisa Wall lands new job with Foreign Affairs
Thomas Manch (Stuff): Outgoing Labour MP Louisa Wall appointed gender equality ambassador by foreign minister
RNZ: Recently resigned Labour MP Louisa Wall lands gender ambassador role
PARLIAMENT AND GOVERNMENT
Matthew Hooton (Herald): Chloe Swarbrick odds on to join Marama Davidson, replacing James Shaw as a co-leader of the Green Party (paywalled)
Thomas Coughlan (Herald): Jacinda Ardern and Christopher Luxon’s letters to each other revealed (paywalled)
Ellen O’Dwyer (Stuff): ‘Indictment on our society’: Minister expects abuse to ramp up in by-election race
Jamie Ensor (Newshub): Tauranga by-election: David Parker doesn’t think Labour’s Jan Tinetti will win electorate
Dan Sheridan (Stuff): Luxton to stand for ACT in Tauranga by-election
RNZ: Builder to stand for Act in Tauranga by-election
David Farrar: More misinformation
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Parliament protest: Hundreds of parking fines yet to be paid; all towed vehicles released
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): David Seymour denies buying social media followers after Instagram jumps by 48,000 in a day
POLITICAL AND PUBLIC INTEGRITY ISSUES
Catrin Owen (Stuff): Serious Fraud Office closes investigation into Phil Goff’s election expenses
Michael Macaulay (Transparency International NZ): Whistleblower protections watered down yet again in new bill
Gareth Vaughan (Interest): As the govt seeks to improve clarity around the controlling owners of companies & limited partnerships why are trusts excluded?
Hamish McNicol (BusinessDesk): MoJ review raises more questions than answers on AML reform (paywalled)
Sam Hurley (Herald): Former employee admits taking bribes for contracts in roading corruption case as others fight for secrecy (paywalled)
Belinda Feek (Herald): Prison corruption: Convict’s partner avoids jail for part in bribing guard
No Right Turn: The abuse of secrecy clauses
ECONOMY AND EMPLOYMENT
Tamsyn Parker (Herald): Cost of living, inflation over Covid, market: NZ economic fears revealed
Ireland Hendry-Tennent (Newshub): David Parker says Government isn’t responsible for record inflation, hits out at National’s Nicola Willis in tense interview
Brianna Mcilraith (Stuff): ‘No pay rise in five years’: Hospitality sector hits crisis point
Peter Dunne: Time to look again at Flexisuper
André Chumko (Stuff): Government further expands criteria for arts and culture support scheme
Brent Edwards (NBR): Treasury apologises: Missed need for increased government appropriation (paywalled)
RNZ: Matariki public holiday passes into law
Glenn McConnell (Stuff): Finally, te ao Māori gains respect through the celebration of Matariki
Debbie Jamieson (Stuff): New Zealand has to compete for working holiday workers, says Luxon
James Baker (1News): Matariki public holiday criticism an ‘ideological issue’ – Allan
Zane Small and Mitchell Alexander (Newshub): Greens co-leader Marama Davidson grilled over her public letter calling for rent controls when she’s Associate Housing Minister
Jake McKee (RNZ): Underwhelming uptake for Kāinga Ora First Home scheme
Vita Molyneux (Herald): ‘New Zealand has a serious problem’: Students shivering in cold, damp, mouldy homes
Kimberley O’Sullivan (Newsroom): Unhealthy homes leave students out in the cold
Rosie Gordon (RNZ): Students compromise on food to live in damp, mouldy homes
RNZ: Housing market: ‘Rapid decline’ in annual price growth – QV
Liz McDonald (Stuff): Christchurch house values drop for first time in two years as buyers take back control
Richard Harman: Saving our cows (paywalled)
Brian Fallow (Herald): Time to turn down the methane tap (paywalled)
David Hall (The Conversation): IPCC report: how New Zealand could reduce emissions faster and rely less on offsets to reach net zero
POLICE AND LAW AND ORDER
John Weekes (Herald): Police Minister attacked as response times jump and cops reel from gun crime, Covid demands
Kerre Woodham (Newstalk ZB): As minister, wouldn’t you make it your business to know operational matters?
Herald: Police response times soar, Aucklanders face average wait of more than 90 minutes
Erin Gourley (Stuff): Six months out from Wellington City Council elections, who is running?
Georgina Campbell (Herald): Wellington Water made to report fluoride performance after ‘unacceptable’ failure
Adam Burns (Local Democracy reporting): Displaying a Crusaders flag in your backyard could lead to a fine in Kaikōura
Newstalk ZB: Waitaki Deputy Mayor: Requirement for addresses on campaign advertisements is outdated
MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS
Herald: Heather du Plessis-Allan to return in late April, Barry Soper to take parental leave
Gordon Campbell: On framing the media debate