Violent protest and academic freedom
University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor takes the tiger by the tail
Recently, there has been a concerted campaign against an academic at the University of Melbourne, Associate Professor Holly Lawford-Smith, a feminist philosopher. Not only have student activists targeted her for her views on gender theory, but her students have been subjected to concerted pressure not to attend her classes.
All over the university, there have been posters and stickers accusing her of being a Nazi and a perpetrator of genocide, and demanding that her classes be cancelled. Earlier this year, one of her classes had to be called off, and the police had to be called, such was the violence of the student protest.
…two activists smashed windows and sprayed graffiti with words to the effect “Trans – we are not safe’’ across the university’s Sidney Myer Asia Centre Building in Swanston Street in inner Melbourne.
On the same day, in response to this incident, our Vice Chancellor, Duncan Maskell, sent an email to all staff, in which took a strong stand against violent student protests against academics, and its deleterious effect on academic freedom. Here is it is in full:
It is with great concern that I bring to your attention an incident overnight on our Parkville campus that is currently being investigated by the police as a criminal matter. Two individuals were caught on CCTV purposefully damaging university property and putting up graffiti pertaining to transgender issues.
This activity follows the distribution of material on our campuses and social media platforms recently that seeks to vilify individual members of our community.
This type of behaviour is completely unacceptable and stands in direct opposition to the values we hold as a university.
Let me be unequivocally clear - such intentional acts of damage, violence or vilification against others will not be tolerated. Resorting to violence and causing damage on our campuses is disgraceful.
I have met and listened hard to transgender friends and colleagues, and I understand the serious concerns that they have for their safety. This is also a constant and deep concern for the University.
Resorting to this kind of violent behaviour is never the right answer, especially in the context of an inclusive university environment where the freedom to express ideas and speech must be fostered and not shut down, and where differences must be worked through together through respectful, reasoned discourse.
Everyone has a right to personal safety, even when there is intense disagreement, ideological differences or academic arguments. Differences must be reconciled and not used as positions from which to harm one another.
The type of criminal behaviour seen last night has the potential to incite further physical and psychological harassment, endangering people’s well-being and safety, and it needs to stop right now.
I implore everyone involved to start to interact respectfully with one another as human beings and to stop taking implacable stances and actions that lead to heightened tensions and violence.
Resorting to criminal acts and other violent behaviour is never the solution and is unacceptable behaviour in our University community and society.
We are surely better than that.
I am proud of our Vice Chancellor for taking this stance.
In the last six months, I began to fear that if I publicly asked good faith questions about any contentious issue, I would not only be accused of being a racist or a Nazi. I’d also be subjected to violent protests by students and activist groups.
I also feared that the university would stay silent, cowed by threats of violence and accusations of bigotry from activists. No, I don’t intend to get into the gender debate here, although it should surprise no one that I have publicly expressed support for nuanced and civilised discussions on the issue, reflecting my strong belief in academic freedom and learning through respectful debate over contentious issues.
I have wanted to ask good faith questions about the efficacy of the laws suggested in the forthcoming Constitutional Referendum regarding the Voice. For non-Australian readers, we are soon to have a Referendum on whether to amend our Constitution, to add a new s 129 allowing a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to make representations to parliament and the executive with regard to laws made pursuant to s 51(xxvi) of the Constitution, the so-called “race power”, as well as other laws pertaining to Indigenous people.
I have constructive questions about the Voice proposal, not because I am racist or prejudiced towards Aboriginal people—I have Indigenous ancestry myself, and I have been teaching Indigenous students for twenty five years—but because I care, deeply. I want to ensure we respond to Indigenous disadvantage in a way which doesn’t backfire.
I am concerned about some possible unintended consequences of the proposed law. I have felt unable to speak about this. The atmosphere on campus has contributed.
It’s not myself I worry about. I’m no stranger to controversy. At one point I received hate mail; eventually it trickles away. I’ve had people call for me to be sacked. Over the last decade, I’ve been accused of being a Nazi;1 a bigot; a privileged white woman punching down on people of colour;2 a right-wing shill; unworthy of being a professor; and, most ridiculously, of being a straight white man.3 These accusations, I assure you, are untrue. After a while, you stop caring: the tribal shrieking is so risible and presumptuous that it washes over you, and you can even laugh at it.
However, I was given pause by the strong suggestion of several people that, if I publicly asked questions about the Voice, and accusations and abuse were cast in my direction as a result, in the current climate, it might have deleterious effects upon my institution and my colleagues. I’m willing to take whatever comes my way—I have developed a very thick skin after I was teased as a child for my inability to walk properly—but I’m less willing to get my colleagues in hot water.
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When academics fear that an academic institution’s reputation will be tarnished by good faith intellectual questions, it’s time to worry. Surely the ability to ask good faith questions is a sign of the health of the institution, and a credit to its reputation?
Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by how ordinary people can be driven to do dreadful things.4 This has led me to read widely on witch-hunts, crusades, genocides, the dynamics of revolution, and purity spirals. It’s led me to fear that the Western Anglosphere, particularly North America, is entering a “purity spiral”. In other words, more and more people will be deemed to be “problematic” by purist political zealots on all sides, until the purists start attacking each other, having purged everyone else.
It is to be feared that the Revolution, like Saturn, will end by devouring its own children.5
The Reign of Terror after the French Revolution is a paradigmatic case of a purity spiral.6 When Maximilien Robespierre took control of the Revolutionary Committee of Safety in 1793, he began a systematic purge of those who were insufficiently dedicated to the true cause. He and his supporters began to investigate, arrest and execute the Girondins, the more moderate revolutionaries who were getting cold feet about the spiralling violence. Of course, after nine months or so, Robespierre himself was arrested and was executed by guillotine in 1794, because that’s the way purity spirals go. No one is safe from accusation, and enemies are everywhere.
There are other examples of purity spirals, including McCarthyist trials in America, and Stalinist and Maoist purges in the USSR and China respectively. Anyone who is insufficiently wedded to the cause is at risk of being denounced as an enemy of the people. Only total obedience to the cause is acceptable, and anyone who protests or says that violent action is not necessary immediately comes under suspicion.
Why do people stand by when such things happen? The answer, of course, is simple, and quite rational: we fear violent extremists who are prepared to do anything in the furtherance of their cause. They will torture and kill people, and destroy property and livelihoods, secure in the knowledge that they are doing so righteously.
Many of us, I think, hope that if we feed the beast of political extremism, and placate it and do what it says, maybe it will settle down and stop biting us. In fact, the opposite is true: the beast learns that its tactics are successful, and keeps demanding more. The extremist beast does eventually go away. This is in part because it eats itself, and in part because no society can sustain reigns of terror indefinitely. But the scars inflicted by the beast last.
A little over twenty years ago, I visited Tuol Sleng, the prison and former school in Phnom Penh in Cambodia, in which Duch arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed enemies of the Khmer Rouge.7 People confessed to crimes they did not commit, just to escape torture, and accused family members and neighbours of being traitors. Afterwards, a friend and I had dinner with one of the guides, and he told us of how his family had been affected by the Khmer Rouge regime. Most people I met had lost someone.
This is why the Vice Chancellor’s statement was important.
The campaign against Associate Professor Lawford-Smith is intended to ensure that certain topics cannot be discussed in our university. It’s also clear that anyone who disagrees with the activists’ claims will be subjected to concerted pressure to leave, or to give up study of those areas. The activists who vandalised university property clearly believe that their actions are both necessary and appropriate.8
Importantly, even academics who simply support academic freedom and nuanced, constructive discussion on contentious issues are regarded as enemies, and hence, are afraid to speak up.
If activists engage in reasoned disagreement, of course I support their right to do so. But this recent behaviour shows all the hallmarks of a purity spiral. As the Vice Chancellor’s statement indicates, we don’t want to let this particular tiger off the leash, not even a little bit. It doesn’t end in good places, and the tiger eats its own tail in the end.
Believing that you can do anything in the righteous furtherance of your cause is very dangerous; that because you are a victim, you do not need to show empathy to those whom you deem to be your oppressors or enemies.
If you think you are incontrovertibly among the just and righteous, this is precisely when you need to pause and take stock.
History demonstrates that people can do great evil precisely when they are convinced that they are doing the right thing, and that their actions are necessary for their own protection, the protection of their loved ones, or their tribe.
Frankly, I am not interested in being numbered among the pure. I am interested in knowledge, in questioning, in teaching, in constructive debate, and in learning from others. I do not think the academy has any business being among the pure, either, and I don’t want it dragged down a purity spiral. I am glad the Vice Chancellor has publicly recognised this. I hope it will cause a shift in the atmosphere of our campus.
The views expressed in this post are my own, and do not reflect the views of the University or the Law School.
If, in light of this post, you abuse me and accuse me of bigotry or fascism, or cut me off and refuse to speak to me, be fully aware that you prove my point, without me having to lift a finger. Your loss, not mine.
This entertains my Rabbi very much. He likes to joke that I’m so very obviously a Nazi, and that’s clearly why I’m a member of his Shule. No, I’m not halachically Jewish. It’s a long story. They welcomed me as a member anyway, and I am so honoured to be part of that community, as well as many others.
I posted a Tweet regarding a legal case in which a student sued his university for failing him in a Journalism Masters subject, and noted that perhaps he should have put the same effort into the assignment as he’d put into his legal action. I hadn’t actually noticed the skin colour or ethnicity of the student (in retrospect, I’m guessing he was of Hindu Indian background, from the name). My Twitter interlocutor pointed out the student’s background and skin colour: apparently this makes me racist. The interlocutor had the cheek to say that I had no idea of the experience of people of colour in Australia. My grandfather’s nickname in the Army in WWII was “Abo”. And even if I didn’t have that ancestry, go get f**ked, you presumptuous idiot. You’re the one who immediately notices skin colour, and makes judgements about someone’s worth on the basis of it, not me.
Never mind that at least one of those is very evidently not true. Perhaps none of them are wholly true. But that’s my business, not yours.
Yes. I was a very odd child.
Quote from Pierre Victurnien Verginiaud (1753 - 1793) a revolutionary Girondin who was indeed executed during the Reign of Terror. Translated and reproduced in Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution (1980) pg 191.
See, for a general description, Christopher Hibbert, The French Revolution (1980) Chs 6 - 9.
See David Chandler, Voices from S-21: Terror and History in Pol Pot’s Secret Prison (1999); Thierry Cruvellier, The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer (2014, trans. Alex Gilly from 2011 French edition). For a personal account of what happened to families, see Loung Ung, First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (2000).
Note: I regard the Trump-supporting Capitol Rioters who attacked the White House on 6 January 2021 as displaying the same belief. This is not a left-wing problem. It’s an extremism problem.