Towards a More Civil Society 2

I titled my previous blog essay Towards a More Civil Society. In that essay, among other things, I deplored the curtailment of free speech in our universities. There have been many instances in recent years of Universities avoiding confronting students with opinions counter to the conventional wisdom of the students and faculty members. Students are sheltered from having their ideas challenged by such artifices as “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”. They have prevented speakers from putting their counter-views by convincing university administrations to cancel speaking invitations or shouting down speakers so they could not be heard. Universities conspired to aid this abhorrent behaviour by making the organisers of controversial speakers pay more for security! This is a gross injustice because the security issues are not directly caused by the speakers but by the hostile reactions of those that oppose them.

But since I wrote my essay, the Federal Government has engaged former High Court Justice, Robert French to lead an inquiry into free speech on university campuses because of its concerns that free speech is being curtailed by the influence of left-wing activists.

I would like to examine this issue of free speech again, including, but even moving beyond, the issues at out universities.

I don’t want to approach this issue in a partisan way. My prime motive is to see that freedom of speech is maintained so that all views, irrespective of political or ideological perspective, should be entitled to be considered, particularly in academic institutions.

There are many issues where people are quick to take partisan viewpoints. Let us name a few controversial areas:

  1. Identity politics relating to gender, nationality, and religion,
  2. Global warming,
  3. The relationship between radical Islam and terrorism,
  4. The importance of the tenets of Western Civilisation,
  5. Indigenous victimhood,

and many others.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my previous essay, the very institutions that should be championing free speech, our universities, have been complicit in shutting down dissenting points of view.

As an example Professor Peter Ridd was hounded out of James Cook University because he maintained that the Great Barrier Reef was resilient enough to sustain itself despite the impact of the many environmental factors his colleagues posited would be fatal to its existence.

Now I don’t have the scientific expertise to tell whether Ridd was right or wrong. But I am sure his point of view had sufficient substance to warrant his scientific peers giving it due consideration. Yet he was not afforded that consideration because he challenged the conventional wisdom of his academic peer group.

Psychologist, Bettina Arndt has been prevented from speaking at universities because she wants to dispute the reputed “rape culture” of universities and points out that much of the so-called evidence of such inappropriate behaviour has come from “cherry picking” statistics and relying on arguments almost exclusively derived from latter day feminists.

Or take the negative reaction of some academics and students when the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation attempted to set up a school in a major university funded by a bequeath by the organisation’s founder, Paul Ramsay who ran a large healthcare organisation. Invariably opponents claim that Western Civilisation should be discounted because of its links with colonisation, white supremacy, paternalism and Christianity.

The Ramsay Centre states its purpose is to advance education by promoting studies and discussion of western civilisation.

John Howard, who is a director on the board of the Ramsay Centre in a recent interview said:

The Western cultural tradition, it’s not perfect, no tradition is, but essentially it’s made us who we are, it’s where we came from. Western civilisation has given us parliamentary democracy, it’s given us freedom, it’s given us an enormous inheritance of literature and music and culture. By all means debate it, analyse it, but for heaven’s sake, don’t pretend it hasn’t moulded us. I’m not using this as a platform to attack other civilisations; I’m using it as a vehicle to remind the Australian people of just who we are and where we came from.


To my mind, Howard’s position is an eminently sensible one. Western Civilisation has its warts and they should not be glossed over. But it’s hard to deny that Western liberal democracies have provided the most beneficial social environments that the world has yet experienced. It is no surprise that refugees attempting to establish new lives fleeing from war and oppression largely seek out such countries. Most refugees don’t seek to go to Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea or Somalia; they flock to Western Europe, the United States and of course Australia.

Controversially, the very universities that eschew the study of Western Civilisation welcome the study of other cultures. They gladly accept the munificence of China to set up Confucius Institutes to study Chinese culture or largesse from the Arab world to establish Centres of Arabic Studies to study the history of Islam. Now I am happy to advance such studies but they should be balanced with an equivalent examination of Western Culture.

And a study of both Chinese and Islamic cultures quickly reveals that they suffer much the same deplorable attributes that Western cultural critics highlight. Both cultures pursued colonial excursions, displayed extreme paternalistic tendencies, demeaned the status of women and so forth. Western culture, whilst it had a history of such faults, moved faster to embrace the ideals of freedom, democracy and egalitarianism. It is indeed a paradox that the very attributes of Western culture that have enabled our universities the freedom to pursue unrestrained academic endeavour are now abhorred by these beneficiaries.

Another institution that has considerable influence in our society, the ABC, often also denigrates the basic platforms of Western culture. A recent episode of Q & A was devoted to exploring the political bias in the works of Shakespeare! Shakespeare who was an acute observer of humankind and innately seemed to understand many of the basic psychological issues we must confront in our lives is indeed a pillar of the Western canon. Not that I believe that Shakespeare is beyond criticism – of course not! But I don’t see how it is helpful to judge a genius of four hundred years ago through the lens of twenty first century political correctness.

The trend seems to be in our society that political and academic elites and the purveyors of political correctness are shaping the rules, largely ignoring the voices of ordinary people. And as we saw above, in universities at least (and certainly other places as well), people are reluctant to challenge the conventional wisdom constructed and articulated by these elites in fear of being shouted down, demonised and even, sometimes, physically assaulted. Those taking up the arguments for those thus disenfranchised are denigrated as “populists”.

(For a good expose´ of how the elites are impacting on our democracy it is worth reading Salvatore Babones recently published little book The New Authoritarianism.)

Two occasions (and there have been others), on the world stage where the populists were able to overwhelm the elites were the election of Donald Trump in the USA and the pro-Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Because the elites chatter among themselves in what are called these days “echo chambers,” where their beliefs are continually reinforced rather than challenged, they grow remote from the concerns of average people. Hillary Clinton famously titled those that did not agree with her, and consequently voted for Trump, the “deplorables”.

On an individual basis, another example of this phenomenon is the surprising popularity of the political correctness critic, Canadian Psychology Professor, Jordan Peterson. Peterson came to fame when he refused to comply with a Canadian Government edict, which his University supported, to use particular pronouns when referring to self-identifying transgender people. Peterson maintained that the government was transgressing his rights to free speech and as such he couldn’t comply. Peterson’s point of view was not a mere knee-jerk reaction but founded on deep philosophical considerations partly outlined in his best-selling book 12 Rules for Life. He has struck a chord with those who feel subjugated by the elites enforcing meaningless political correctness standards.

In my previous essay I referred to the insightful book The Coddling of the American Mind, by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. Lukianoff and Haidt maintain that Western society is under threat because of three generally accepted lies that are undermining our culture.

These lies are:

  • That disputes and differences today are a battle between good and evil, the oppressed (the virtuous victims) and the oppressors (evil tyrants of the status quo).
  • That people will be weaker by being challenged in their ideas and preconceptions.
  • That we should rely on “emotional reasoning”, that you should always trust your feelings.

It is easy to see how these “untruths” might contribute to a more dysfunctional society.

The first lie suggests if we disagree with someone, that person must be evil and deranged and therefore not deserving of consideration. Consequently it is difficult to have meaningful debate about opposing ideas.

The second lie suggests we need to shelter people from contrary opinions. Yet the progress of Western society has always been dependent on robust debate. But the believers in this particular lie manufacture “safe places” and “trigger warnings” so that our young people in universities can avoid confronting dissenting viewpoints.

The third lie encourages us to dispense with rational thinking and promote that which “feels” right to us. Consequently our choices made in this fashion do not need rational justification and are therefore automatically immune from rational debate.

As soon as Humankind could think, philosophers understood that in seeking to understand the world thinking was a superior process to feeling. The Greeks elevated rationality over passion in coming to understand the world. Pascal talked of the “internal war” between reason and emotion. For most of our history a brave confidence in reason has prevailed.

In more recent times Ghandi said:

In the march towards Truth, anger, selfishness, hatred etc., naturally give way, for otherwise Truth would be impossible to attain. A man who is swayed by passions may have good enough intentions, may be truthful in word, but he will never find the Truth.

There is a place for non-rational responses and a well-rounded human being will always respond to the world with some resort to feelings and intuition. But it is likely that disastrous results will emanate from a total abandonment of logic.

The common acceptance of these lies, of course, as Lukianoff and Haidt maintain, is a disastrous foundation for scholarship and intellectual progress.

Haidt, in other works, has famously proclaimed that identity politics is a reversion to tribalism. As Haidt says there is no getting away from the fact that we are tribal primates. It is such forces that drive people to bunker down in polarised positions. He writes:

We love tribal living so much that we invented sports, fraternities, street gangs, fan clubs and tattoos.

Social media has tended to reinforce our tribes.

So, in essence our democracy is threatened because our freedom of speech is curtailed by the necessity to defend the dogmas that prop up our tribes and because of the political correctness that our elites seek to impose on us. The civility of our society is threatened because we treat those that disagree with us as our enemies. Often those disagreements relate to the defence mechanisms of the particular tribe we have decided to align with. We shy away from debate, as well, because of the notion that confronting challenges to our viewpoints make us weaker. And when confronted with opposing ideas we too often rely on how we feel and abandon rational argument.

Well what might be the antidotes to these afflictions?

First we need to disavow people of the three lies that Lukianoff and Haidt identified.

Those that disagree with us are not our enemies. They can often be our teachers and if we disagree with them we can agree to disagree and put aside our cudgels. It is a sign of some psychological maturity that we don’t have to convert others to our beliefs. It is a further sign of our maturity that we can maintain our equanimity when others disagree with us. So let’s stop avoiding confronting the ideas of those who have contrary views, shouting them down or using the childish response of taking offense.

Similarly we are not made weaker by avoiding confronting opposing ideas – we are made stronger! Just as every athlete knows they benefit from being challenged by the fastest and the strongest, every thinker should appreciate that their concept of the world is enhanced by being challenged and engaging in robust debate.

Finally, the progress of Western thought has been enhanced by the application of rationality. No doubt none of us can avoid having our thoughts effected by our emotions, but we are doomed to disaster if we allow our passions to largely displace our reason.

But I think we must also question the phenomenon of identity politics. Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, He defines identity politics as:

Political mobilisation organised around group characteristics such as race, gender, and sexuality, as opposed to party, ideology or pecuniary interest.

It has been claimed that identity politics was an outcome of the philosophy of the Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. Marcuse argued that tolerance of the ideas of others was normally good, but it is counterproductive to be tolerant of the ideas of elites who had undue power over the populace. If a majority of a society is being repressed, it is justified to resort to repression and indoctrination to right the balance.

Lukianoff and Haidt write:

In a chilling passage that foreshadows events on some campuses today, Marcuse argued that true democracy might require denying basic rights to people who advocate for conservative causes or for policies he viewed as aggressive or discriminatory and that true freedom of thought might require professors to indoctrinate their students.

It is easy to see how such an approach might encourage the various tribes to argue their victimhood and thus feel justified in being intolerant to opposing ideas and shouting down their critics without resort to rational argument. In this way the various strands of identity politics are encouraged to maintain and highlight their separateness.

Yet the champions of freedom, like Martin Luther King, Mohandas Ghandi, Nelson Mandela eschewed manufactured separateness and urged us to acknowledge our commonality as human beings.

In Buddhist meditation practice, when we meditate on love and compassion we are advised to begin with a small circle. We first envision those close to us – our friends and family, and we metaphorically flood them with our love. But as we progress we widen the circle and include those not so well-known to us, and some we might not care for greatly, and we work on loving them as well. As the circle widens we begin to include those whom we might have in the past regarded as our enemies. Thus the separateness of tribalism and identity politics is overcome.

It seems to me a dangerous practice to tie our sense of our identity to such things as race, gender or politics. Our race and gender are random accidents associated with our birth and are differentiators over which we had no choice. Quite often our political views are similarly determined by the views of our parents, our peers and the communities that fate has bequeathed us.

The world would be a better place if we could move away from the strictures of our various tribes and align our interest with the overarching, all-inclusive tribe of the human race.

But I can’t finish this essay without acknowledging some sensible statements from a recent article by Anthony Albanese, the federal opposition spokesman for infrastructure, transport cities and regional development. Albanese is the leader of the left faction of the Labor opposition, but he is renowned for his ability to connect with everyday Australians.

Albanese urges politicians to eschew social media and get out and have personal conversations with Australian citizenry. He points out that with social media:

….many people are not just dismissing alternative views but actively choosing not to hear. Australians are denying themselves access to facts or arguments that may allow them to reconsider or assess the basis or the value of their own ideas.

This should be an issue of great concern for progressive activists.

If our aim is to persuade others to a particular view, our starting point must be an understanding of, and respect for, their existing views. We need to talk to people that disagree with us.

With a philosophy like that it is not surprising that Albanese is more popular with the rank and file than party leader, Bill Shorten!