It seems that more and more of us take our cherished freedoms for granted. Recent surveys of young people indicate that many of them see no great advantage in our democratic way of life. Sure, I guess many of them have known no other way and haven’t had to struggle as our forefathers did to establish and maintain it, but it seems to me that such a point of view is largely a result of an education without a proper understanding of the history of the Western world.
The struggle for individual freedom, resulting in an escape from the tyranny of both the state and the church, has been a long and difficult one. Unfortunately our children know little about such history having been schooled in an era where deconstructionism, political correctness and identity politics have captured our curricula so that such a history seems more likely to be associated with shame rather than gratitude in their young minds.
Dr Craig Hassed, Associate Professor at Monash University writes:
History is full of noble examples of human beings promoting freedom. The central players in those events deserve to be revered and their stories taught in schools so that following generations can learn from them, be inspired by them, and follow their example. And because history has a habit of repeating itself, there is also the need to learn to read the signs and recognize the conditions that led to the suppression of freedom in the first place.
Unfortunately as we shall shortly see not all academics support such a liberal view about the teaching of history.
The progressive march of capitalism and democracy was largely initiated in that period of history that is often called “The Age of Reason” or more simply “The Enlightenment.” This epoch, commencing in the late seventeenth century questioned traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity could be improved through rational change. The Enlightenment produced numerous books, essays, inventions, scientific discoveries, laws, wars and revolutions. For example the American and French Revolutions were directly inspired by Enlightenment ideals.
Essentially the Age of Reason was liberating because it taught that the universe was eminently knowable through the mechanism of exploration utilising reason and, as a consequence, science became to be held in high esteem. And for the best part of three centuries this approach proved fruitful indeed. Not only did it nurture the development of capitalism and democracy, it rapidly advanced the standard of living of the Western world.
But in the late twentieth century, and largely in the West, a movement developed that questioned whether rationality and reason were useful tools in the progression of Mankind. This movement has been called postmodernism. Its architects only intended that this should be a temporary name until they could come up with something better. The underlying principle of the movement was that truth was not to be discovered (which was the thesis of the Enlightenment) but in fact truth is created! And inspired by this egotistical belief the proponents ran off to create their own truths.
But postmodernism has produced many paradoxes. One of the early players in postmodernism, the psychologist Kenneth Gergen, argues that reality is socially constructed. In this scenario postmodern experience depends on how it feels to live amid a rich, often contradictory barrage of cultural stimuli.
As the American political scientist and social psychologist, Walter Truett Anderson, has written:
…..the postmodern individual is a member of many communities and networks; a participant in many discourses; an audience to messages from everybody and everywhere – messages that present conflicting ideals and norms and images of the world. Gergen believes that this condition (he calls it multiphrenia) is the major psychological problem of our time – but also possibly the birth pangs of a new kind of human being.
But this wasn’t a particularly new idea. Giambattista Vico, writing in the early 1700s, held views that were far ahead of his time. He proposed that different peoples of different times and places had fundamentally different realities.
In modern times Anaïs Nin, the American essayist and novelist wrote:
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
This expresses a similar sentiment to Vico. Postmodernists express such notions too but then often go on to act as though their own particular determined reality is the only truth! And as we saw earlier, in the rush to highlight tribal differences they lose sight of Mankind’s commonalities.
As author and science journalist Robert Wright wrote in his ground-breaking book The Moral Animal:
Today’s Darwinian anthropologists, in scanning the world’s peoples, focus less on surface differences among cultures than on deep unities. Beneath the global crazy quilt of rituals and customs, they see recurring patterns in the structure of family, friendship, politics, courtship, morality. They believe the evolutionary design of human beings explains these patterns: why people in all cultures worry about social status (often more than they realize); why people in all cultures not only gossip, but gossip about the same kind of things; why in all cultures men and women seem different in a few basic ways; why people everywhere feel guilt, and feel it in broadly predictable circumstances; why people everywhere have a deep sense of justice, so that the axioms “One good turn deserves another” and “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” shape human life everywhere on this planet.
Here again we must confront one of the manifestations of primary dualism. We have to reconcile our individual uniqueness with our undoubted oneness with all humans.
In his collection of essays that he titled The Crack Up, American author F Scott Fitzgerald wrote:
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
With respect to the above dualism, many have shown an inability to hold two opposed ideas at the same time.
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, American republican senator, Orrin Hatch wrote:
At the heart of the West’s message is the idea that all of us – no matter our race, religion or background – have the right to be more than one thing. It’s a message that resonates with millions of Americans who refuse to conform to stereotypes – me included.
But identity politics has subverted all of this. Identity politics essentially says that who I am in the collective is who I am as an individual. Who I am is largely determined by the tribe I belong to. As a result I am part of the LGBTI community, or I am an environmental activist, or I am a monarchist, or I am indigenous, or I am a unionist, or I am a Muslim, or whatever. So many people now identify with one tribe to the exclusion of all other considerations that we would have to deduce, if Scott Fitzgerald was right, our intelligence should be questioned.
Now this tribalism, hiding under the notion of identity politics, is impinging on our essential freedoms. In a liberal democracy the essential underpinning of our freedom has been our freedom of speech and its other manifestations such as the freedom of the press. The special balancing act required of such a democracy is to preserve the freedom of the individual whilst ensuring the welfare of the majority. It is fit and proper that we should allow all these minorities a voice. But the reciprocal is also true, that the minorities should not be allowed to quell the voice of the majority or indeed other minorities.
And yet increasing numbers of such minorities seemed determined to shut down opposing voices. Unfortunately, those institutions that we once relied onto stimulate debate and open up our thinking –universities – are some of the worst offenders in progressing identity politics and shutting down voices that don’t conform to the norms of their particular constructed realities. Here are but some recent examples of such illiberal action.
Currently the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is trying to establish degree courses in the history of Western civilisation. The leftist, politically correct in our universities are strongly opposing this initiative. They argue that learning the history of Western democracy merely reinforces colonialism, Christianity and paternalism, and is detrimental to the cause of feminism, multiculturalism and the value of other cultures such as Islam. But history taught properly should come without value judgments, and an understanding of our particular history is essential for us to know who we are and how we got here. (The good Dr Phil warns me that nothing comes with its meaning attached. The meaning is manufactured by each particular individual and will, as related above, be influenced by the worldview and particular circumstances of the beholder.) And we saw earlier the undoubted value of understanding these fundamental underpinnings of our modern, liberal, capitalist democracies. The ANU Student Association was strident in its criticism of the proposed Ramsay Centre on the basis that studying the history of Western Civilisation was often a “rhetorical tool to continue the racist prioritisation of Western history over other cultures”. Yet centres for Islamic and Chinese studies are quite prevalent in Universities.
A year or two ago an attempt was made to have Bjorn Lomborg set up a research institute in an Australian University. Lomborg heads an internationally renowned economics institute with a number of Nobel Prize winners. Lomborg believes in global warming but advocates that from the point of view of economics there is less utility gained by pursuing an abatement program than spending money on adaptation. This of course flies in the face of the climate warriors in our universities who subsequently hounded him out of Australia. Consequently Lomborg was forced to retreat from any notion of setting up an institute in an Australian university. These so called seekers of truth could not endure the thought of someone questioning the basis of their identity politics.
And how many times recently have we heard about controversial speakers who don’t take the politically correct line being shouted down on university campuses or banned from appearing there. Jordan Peterson is a case in point. Peterson is a Canadian academic and rose to fame for rejecting forced speech rules that the Canadian government had mandated must be used in talking about transgender people. Despite his rejection from University campuses Peterson has attracted a huge following on U-Tube and social media. His appeal is enhanced by the fact that when he is under threat by the politically correct and the proponents of identity politics, he maintains his equanimity and debates the ideas rather than try to belittle his opponents by personal attacks. His opponents find this disarming because in effect he makes them justify their thinking rather than pour scorn on them as individuals.
As Simon Birmingham, the Federal Minister for Education and Training has recently written:
Universities should be places where ideas are debated. Just as freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of Western civilisation, the development of independent universities with academic freedom is intertwined with the history of Western civilisation.
Today’s universities need to do more to stand up for the values that created them, not just the noisiest voices who inhabit them.
And of course we have our own academic hero in Queensland in the person of Professor Peter Ridd who, until recently, was the James Cook University’s head of the school of physics. Ridd is critical of marine scientists taking an alarmist view of coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef. He maintains that there is a virtual conspiracy within the academic population to propagate such a point of view. He suggests it is likely the reef has experienced many such setbacks in the past only to recover. He casts doubt on the process that researchers use of subjecting their papers to peer review. He argues that those that do the “peer reviewing” belong to a club who all have like beliefs. Researchers can only progress their careers by publishing their research findings and that process is made much easier if the researcher “toes the line” and reflect in their published works the conventional wisdom.
Ridd argues that:
We need universities to actually encourage different viewpoints so that we can get argument.
Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business has done some fascinating research into the moral values of Liberals and Conservatives. He is also concerned about critical evaluation of research in universities. He writes:
When everyone shares the same politics, the disconfirmation process breaks down.
This implies that many of the usual peer reviews are ineffectual.
But all this dysfunction in academia stems from the notion that Western culture is reprehensible in many ways and as a result it should be abhorred and students should be sheltered from its insidious influences. Western history is largely the story of European religious, cultural and scientific progress. In its later pages the USA and the Commonwealth countries became also embedded in the story.
Any student of history would acknowledge that there have been injustices inflicted along the way. Critics will inevitably raise the issues of slavery, the subjugation of women and the uninvited colonisation of other, less developed countries.
But such critics are slow to acknowledge that the interventions to abolish slavery, recognise the rights of women, counter racialism, offer religious freedom and legislate for universal suffrage were initiated largely in the West.
And some commentators, tellingly for me at least, point out that the oppressed, the displaced and those fleeing from violence predominantly choose to seek refuge in Western countries. I am not sure they get many refugees knocking at the doors of the borders of China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran or Cuba. (It would be interesting to have someone poll the objectors to the Ramsay Institute to ascertain in which culture they might prefer to live!)
Now the purveyors of identity politics have a number of mechanisms for propagating their particular obsessions.
To begin with they eschew the viewpoint of Senator Orrin Hatch outlined above;
……the idea that all of us – no matter our race, religion or background – have the right to be more than one thing.
Such people pin their identity to one particular differentiator, be it climate change, feminism, racism or whatever. Furthermore, in order to justify their particular obsession they seem compelled to exaggerate its importance and magnify its supposed impact. As Bjorn Lomborg found out when dealing with such people, it is not enough to just believe in climate change, you must believe climate change is catastrophic. And as Peter Ridd discovered, it is not enough to acknowledge that coral bleaching is a problem for the Great Barrier Reef, it must be portrayed as a likely destroyer of the reef.
Those who rely on other sources of identity seek to find injustices wherever they can to support their particular identity allegiance.
Feminists insist that paternalism keeps women from board positions and create wages injustice for women without conceding that women’s vocational and lifestyle choices have any impact on such matters.
Activists who supposedly have the welfare of indigenous people at heart are keen to blame colonisation, the stolen generation, bias in the courts and law enforcement agencies, disrespect for indigenous culture and other like excuses for the appalling conditions in indigenous remote communities. Anthony Dillon who has an indigenous father and works as a researcher at the Catholic University wrote in a recent blog:
The situation here in Australia of some groups needing to see racism everywhere is very similar to that described by Black American Shelby Steele:
“When I visit university campuses today, black students often tell me that racism is everywhere around them, that the university is a racist institution. When I ask for specific examples of racist events or acts of discrimination, I invariably get nothing at all or references to some small slight that requires the most laboured interpretation to be seen as racist.”
In Australia many more indigenous people are graduating from university and taking their places among the ranks of professionals. These role models are unlikely to see themselves as victims of colonialism, dispossession or racial intolerance. Of course there are still many disadvantaged indigenous people but this problem is exacerbated by the activists who encourage the disadvantaged to see themselves as victims thus removing any sense of personal responsibility from the individual.
It is undoubtedly true that those seeking to denigrate our Western, liberal, capitalist society find an easy target. And in some ways this is a good thing. It shows we are a tolerant society and allow free speech even when it is critical of our society. But it is easy to be critical. The problem is that our critics never offer viable alternatives. And in the meantime our freedoms are being eroded away.
One of the more difficult policy areas confronting us is the issue of religious freedom. I do not have conventional religious beliefs but religious freedom is important to me. I think, within reasonable limits I will elaborate on, all citizens should be free to choose and practice their religion of choice.
As I have detailed in other essays, I believe the world would be a better place if we each had a reasonable understanding of the various religious alternatives and then made a conscious decision about which religion, if any, we wanted to follow. Unfortunately the majority of religious adherents make no such choice. Mostly, in trying to meet our social needs to belong, we adopt the religious beliefs of those around us. Consequently if I live in Tibet I will more than likely be Buddhist; if I live in Iran I will more than likely be Muslim; if I live in India I will most likely be Hindu. It seems to me unfortunate that our adopted religion is likely to be determined by the accident of birth. As I have argued, our spirituality is of extreme importance to us as human beings. It needs greater consideration than this.
True religious freedom seems to me to only be possible if we have a broad understanding of the principles and ideals of the major religions and then make a free and informed choice about the belief set we wish to live under.
Also when it comes to reviewing Western history it cannot be denied that a major underpinning of Western progress has been Christianity. Unfortunately as we have pursued our important freedoms Christianity has often been unjustly disadvantaged. This seems to be an over-reaction by those who choose to denigrate Western liberalism.
Many of the so-called “progressives” who, for whatever reason, challenge Western ideals also denigrate Christianity. But in being anti-Christian, by default they often appear to be pro-Islam. Unfortunately this is an unfairly weighted debate.
I can give you just as many reasons why I don’t believe in Islam as I can for why I don’t believe in traditional Christianity. But it is far easier to be anti-Christianity than anti-Islam. The extreme Islamists allow no criticism of their religion and threaten and often enact violence against those that do so. Therefore if we are to uphold as one of our Western values, religious freedom, we cannot sustain as members of our society, citizens that are not prepared to offer such tolerance to other citizens. Fortunately in Australia our Muslim community comprises mainly moderates who do tolerate others having different religious beliefs. We should never accept however into our communities those Islamic extremists who seek to impose their religion on others by coercion and violence. Similarly we should never allow into our communities those who believe it is necessary to live under the strictures of Sharia law.
Thus, it seems to me, that true religious freedom can only occur when an informed citizen can make a rational decision on their religious beliefs based on knowledge and without coercion. Just as for most decisions made in a liberal society, this decision too needs to be made in the face of competing ideas where the proponents of such ideas are allowed or even encouraged to argue their case with their fellow citizens.
Unfortunately in this regard the “progressives” are no better than the religious extremists. Because Christianity has played a major role in the development of the West, and because they have little regard for the benefits of that development, Christianity is damned by association. They therefore have an unnatural detestation of Christianity, far beyond that they are willing to extend to other systems of faith.
In conclusion it seems to me useful for all of us to build some perspective by the study of history. Many cultures have played a significant part in human progress. Modern history was initiated by the Romans and the Greeks. Much of the knowledge gained in those cultures was preserved for us by the Arabs who also contributed to the development of mathematics, medicine and other fields of knowledge.
But once Europe shrugged off the ignorance of the Dark Ages, the predominance of the scientific, political and social progress was Euro-centric. Using the most objective of assessment criteria it is hard to deny that it was Europe that led the world to the ideals of liberal democracy and to rational scientific enquiry. It seems implausible that well-educated academics could deny this. And it seems a tragedy to me that the confected ideas of post-modernism and deconstructionism would be used to distort the plain facts of history.
And who could argue that our liberal democracies do not provide the greatest wealth, the most extensive range of freedoms, and the most generous welfare arrangements for individual citizens the world has ever seen.
We have largely come to this place in Western history by the unfettered contest of ideas. When we talk of freedom and particularly of freedom of speech we often hear the quote, erroneously contributed to Voltaire, “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In the misguided academe of today the ethos is entirely different. It runs more like, “I don’t agree with what you say and therefore I won’t allow you to say it!”
That, I can assure you, is not the way to freedom.