Why free speech matters

Professor Jan Thomas is Vice-Chancellor of Massey University.

Transcript of a speech made at Massey University Manawatu Campus yesterday.


Thank you to the Massey Politics Society for inviting me here today. You folks have weathered a storm for a very important cause, the right to be a thinking and valuing individual who can express their thoughts without intimidation by thugs and bullies.

The Problems at Massey

I have said several times in public that your University council should be looking for a newVice-Chancellor. I stand by that assessment, because any institution is bigger than one person. If an individual undermines an institution then the institution must save itself, not that individual.

But why does Freedom of Speech matter? I think the best answer comes from the Sir Karl Popper. Sir Karl was Jewish and lost 16 members of his family to the Nazi regime. He was lucky to be in New Zealand during World War II, and it was at a New Zealand University that he wrote the Open Society and its Enemies. As Michael King wrote in the Penguin History of New Zealand, this was ‘probably the most important book to come out of New Zealand.’

Sadly, Sir Karl left New Zealand at the end of the war because he was treated abominably by the University of Canterbury. New Zealand lost one of the greatest 20thcentury philosophers because we treated him terribly. He writes about all of this in a foreword to later editions of the book. That’s the choice our Universities face, they can either be centres of intellectual enquiry with global appeal, open societies; or closed-minded backwaters.

Karl Popper

Sir Karl Popper’s Open Society

Popper went on to describe the difference between thinking and valuing individuals and primitive life forms. He started with bacteria and Amoeba, extremely simple creatures that have no ability to hold an idea, let alone generate new ones. They simply do what they’re genetically programmed to do, and if the conditions change they die.

Animals, of course, are a bit more sophisticated, but they have the same basic problem as micro-organisms. They live or die based on the instinctive behaviours they are born with. They don’t have intelligence, the ability to assess and reason for themselves.

Humans obviously do have that ability but whether we use it depends on the kind of rules we have in our society. In a closed society, we must follow the leader. The leader tells us what the course of history will deliver us, and we must obey. If the leaders get it wrong, our society fails just as a badly adapted species of amoeba dies out when the conditions change.

On the other hand, an open society has the ability to think and value for itself. An open society is able to absorb new ideas, roll them around on its members’ tongues, and decide whether they fit. An open society never dies, because when its ideas go out of date, it has new ones to choose from.

Our very survival depends on the ability to have an open culture of ideas. We are not going to solve poverty, inequality, environmental challenges, transport, housing, remain competitive in the world economy, or even get a better quality of craft beer if we are not able to try new ideas on for size, discard those that don’t work, then relentlessly look for better ones.

This is the theory that Popper used to solve the problem of induction. The problem, at its simplest, is that we know the sun has come up every day so far, but we don’t strictly know it will come up tomorrow. We can’t claim that as knowledge. Popper’s theory of falsification tells us that we’ll never know. The best knowledge possible is a theory that could be disproven but hasn’t been yet.

That is how we get the scientific method, something that should be well respected at this university. We pitch up a hypothesis, describe the conditions where it would be falsified, then we experiment to see if the theory is false.

The process that works for the natural sciences also works in commerce. Business can learn from the scientific method. No matter what business you are in, you are constantly testing the hypothesis; “such and such a mixture of skills, investment and ideas will produce a product my costumers want to buy at a price they can afford.” If you get it wrong too many times, then you go out of business.

That’s how free markets and limited liability companies in a free market have allowed us to get products and services our grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of, generation after generation. It’s also why authoritarian states with closed economies didn’t make much in the way of technological progress, and when they did it was at the expense of everything else.

Some problems our society faces today

We can also learn from the scientific method in politics. We face serious problems in this country. Here are some of the main ones:

Over the next generation, we will see another billion low skilled workers from Africa and Asia enter the global workforce. They will be literally hungry to compete. If you are a low skilled worker in a developed country, that’s who you’re competing with. The price of unskilled labour will not go up, it may even go down. At the same time, we have an education system that turns out about one-in-six students innumerate and illiterate. It is criminal.

We have growing dependency ratios. We used to have five workers supporting each retiree. Over my lifetime we are heading for just two. The Treasury tells us that if we don’t change something, the Crown will be indebted by over 200 per cent of GDP in debt by the time current university students retire.

Compounding that, the housing market is a disaster. Even now, in the middle of a so called housing boom, we find ourselves building half as many homes per capita as the Baby Boomers built in the 1970’s. We face the prospect of large numbers of retirees without even the security of owning a home. You cannot survive on the pension if you have to pay rent.

We have a government that is not prepared to face up to these problems, it prefers to just give free money to whoever is most affected by bad policy.

These are just some of the major problems we face in New Zealand. We can either be a closed society, without open and constructive debate, the kind the pushed Sir Karl Popper back to Europe after the war, or an open society. Let me ask you, who here thinks that a Vice Chancellor who plots and schemes to shut down a retired politician coming to a university campus is part of the solution? How many people are proud of her behaviour?

The bogus limits on free speech

We cannot afford to behave like closed societies, like Amoeba that just accept a fate tied to their identity. We have to be an open society, that welcomes the contest of ideas. But sadly we are facing a range of bogus arguments against Free Speech. Let me tick off two of the most common:

Free speech doesn’t mean you get a free megaphone or the right to an audience. No serious free speech advocate believes that free speech means the right to a platform. This is an egregious straw man argument. It does, however, mean that institutions committed to free speech should not discriminate because the people who run the institutions don’t like particular views.

Free speech doesn’t include hate speech. What does that even mean? There are certainly limits on speech that have evolved in the common law over a long period of time. These are ones that can be objectively tested in a court of law. They include that you can’t incite violence. You can’t make a nuisance of yourself such as the classic example of shouting fire when there is no fire. You can’t defame people by deliberately leading reasonable people to believe something you don’t actually believe if it damages an individual’s reputation. Hate speech, on the other hand, is just a subjective test that can be used to bully unpopular opinions.

Conclusion

We are not amoeba, or any other primitive life form. We are intelligent beings with the ability to sift through ideas and consider whether they fit our aspirations. We can only do that, though, in an open society that accepts the scientific method of conjecture and refutation. Our universities should be the primary place where free thought and open enquiry are not only not suppressed, but encouraged. With that, I’d like to thank the brave students of the Massey University Politics Society for making this speech possible today.


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