The evidence is mounting that Australian universities are more concerned with protecting students from offence than upholding the free expression that once made campus life great.
Around a fortnight ago, a rally held by the no-vote campaign group ‘Our Vote, Our Voice’ at the University of Queensland made the national media when it erupted into an ugly standoff when same-sex marriage advocates crashed the event in an attempt to shut it down.
The rally started out as a fairly tame affair. The speaker stood atop a grassy knoll next overlooking a major thoroughfare and explained why he, as a gay man, did not support same sex marriage. His megaphone was loud enough to be audible, without blaring, and he was joined by a little over a dozen supporters.
Within minutes, the scene was stormed by protestors trying desperately to drown out the megaphone with their own chants.
I didn’t find the speaker’s argument that same-sex marriage would forever change the family unit all that convincing, and I’ll likely vote yes. Still, it was more edifying than the vicious, personal jeers from the protestors, who among other slurs, accused the speaker of suffering from ‘internalised homophobia.’
The unseemly stoush was unfortunate for what it revealed about both the ugly intolerance of some in the yes camp, and the increasingly febrile intellectual climate that pervades our universities. Rather than using passion and persuasion and to counter the speaker’s argument on its merits, the kneejerk response was to hound him into submission, and pathologize his views as irrational self-loathing.
But what happened next shows just how deeply hostile universities have become towards opinions that clash with the saintly wisdom of the campus hive mind.
In the days that followed, a student counsellor and Manager of UQ’s ‘Student Help On Campus’ took to Facebook to encourage students to lodge formal complaints about the rally in the hope of banning all future campaign activities led by no-vote activists.
He even drafted this template letter of complaint prompting students to describe how the rally made them feel, and why banishing all future rallies would make them more comfortable coming to campus.
It is a grim sign of our times that a mental health professional thinks teaching students that censorship is an appropriate response to encountering an opinion that clashes with their own worldview.
Notice the logical progression in the letter’s structure: the student’s feelings of discomfort and offence at bearing witness to the no vote’s message are set up as the rationale for why the university shouldn’t permit these kinds of heretics to have any voice on campus.
The University of Queensland has a proud history of campus activism; spanning the suffrage movement, Vietnam war, and the end of the white Australia policy. It’s not a former technical college that churns out business diplomas like cheap sausages. It’s a more than hundred-year-old sandstone university with one of Australia’s oldest humanities faculties. It is by definition the type of institution where you would expect free and frank debate on topical issues – not least the subjects of national plebiscites – to be allowed, and frankly encouraged.
That the counsellor not only saw fit to push for the censorship of one side’s argument, but also incite students to call for the eviction of no campaigners from university, shows how far the debate on campus has shifted from the traditional tribes of left and right. More accurately, today’s campus divide is between people who think there should be a debate, and those who don’t.
What’s lost on today’s campus authoritarians is that without freedom of expression, it is inconceivable that just a little over two decades after decriminalising sodomy, we would be on the cusp of legalising same sex marriage. Sure, the polls now suggest overwhelming community support for same sex marriage. But let’s not forget that in the broader sweep of history, this is an extremely recent development. The idea of traditional marriage as comprising a man and women has a lineage that traverses different religions, countries and cultures for millennia. Knowing this, it’s unsurprising that some are reluctant to adjust their outlook. After all, Julia Gillard – a self-described feminist, member of Labor’s socialist left faction and atheist – opposed same-sex marriage as late as 2013. The same goes for Penny Wong, circa 2010.
So how is it that a view, which until a matter of years ago was regarded as a self-evident truism, is now deemed so obscenely backwards and hateful that it’s at risk of being embargoed from the eyes and ears of university undergrads?
From the standpoint of the UQ sociologist who used his thin veneer of academic credibility to claim those who vote no are less intelligent than yes voters, it no doubt seems obvious that traditional marriage supporters are both intellectually and morally defective.
But let’s not forget that a decade and a half ago same-sex marriage was considered as a fringe idea, well afar of mainstream opinion. And without the ability of same-sex marriage advocates that advance their cause freely, that view would likely still hold today. The lesson here is that you won’t reap the rewards of free expression in the long run unless you’re prepared to accept all speech that runs against the grain of popular opinion. In this case, that includes the views of no-voters.
But besides all that, urging students to write a letter begging the university to make a group persona non grata because they dislike their views is setting them up for a life of misanthropy and misery. It teaches them their feelings matter more than another person’s freedoms, and, that contrary opinions are something to be feared – not grappled with, scrutinised, and understood. It deprives students of the intellectual growth and resilience that only comes through being forced to re-examine why it is they believe what they do. It fosters childlike brittleness at the very time young adults should be growing a thick skin.
The United States is a roadmap of where this kind of intolerance towards intellectual difference leads. It’s censorious, illiberal and ugly. Real progressives should reject it.