Massey University capitulates to the self-appointed censors – and another democratic institution slides towards the abyss
In an extraordinary display of political cowardice, Massey University in Wellington, New Zealand, has capitulated to the pressure of a mob of self-appointed censors and reneged on their contract to provide the venue for a meeting organized by the group Speak Up for Women, which was due to be held on November 13. Apart from providing the venue under an ordinary commercial contract, the university had no involvement in the meeting. They have now cancelled the venue booking, forcing the organisers to find a new venue at late notice. They didn’t bother to inform the organisers prior to announcing their decision publicly.
In doing so, the university has struck a severe blow against the right of women to meet and discuss problems and challenges affecting them, and to organise politically. Women-haters of the world – and their fawning sycophants – greeted the decision with glee. The decision also has profound implications for any other political and social groups who may not meet the approval of the gang of self-appointed censors. The political space for working class political currents to meet and discuss, both in public and in private, and to organize independently of the capitalist authorities and without requiring their approval, has been significantly narrowed by this decision.
In a statement released on October 16, the university attempted to justify its decision in terms of outside ‘advice’ which had informed them of a risk to the health and safety of its students and staff. This little subterfuge is as spineless as the decision itself. There was, of course, never any threat to anyone’s safety or well-being posed by a group of women meeting and discussing. No one is ever threatened or harmed simply by being exposed to ideas, including ideas they find objectionable.
The fabricated ‘threat to safety’ rested on a slander promoted by forces trying to shut the meeting down, and often repeated in the news media, accusing Stand Up for Women of being an anti-transgender hate group.
(Typical of the media falsehoods was a statement in the once relatively professional RNZ that “Speak Up For Women campaigns against the inclusion of trans women in sport”. It does no such thing. It simply argues that sports competitions must be categorised by sex, not gender identity, because of the obvious unfair physical advantages of trans-identified males competing against females in women’s competitions. For example, Laurel Hubbard, who won the gold medal for weightlifting in the women’s division at the 2019 Pacific Games, competed in the men’s division until his early thirties, and has the musculature and bone density of a male.)
Centrepiece of the slander campaign was a petition organised by the Massey Students Association and its newspaper Massive, which was signed by nearly 6,000 people. The petition reiterated the ‘hate group’ falsehoods against Speak Up for Women and called on the university to cancel the venue booking.
Challenged to provide factual evidence, or quotes from any of the many published articles on the website of Speak Up for Women – or any of the invited speakers – to support these allegations of ‘hate’ against transgender people, the petition organisers simply repeated the slanders. The nearest anyone got to showing evidence for the ‘hate’ allegation was the ridiculous claim that Speak Up for Women’s belief that “women are adult human females” constitutes transphobic hate speech.
The university administration, meanwhile, fell into a complicit silence. By then the campaign of slander had developed a momentum of its own, which over-rode the need for factual evidence. Such is the nature of a witch-hunt.
Speak Up for Women and others who defend the rights of women will recover from this blow. The same cannot be said for the university. This decision violates what the university itself proclaimed only two weeks earlier to be one of the fundamental tenets of a university – the commitment to freedom of speech and expression. The decision sends the university sliding towards the abyss.
Even saying that the university has capitulated to the mob is perhaps being too generous. For the mob is its own offspring – a cohort of students and graduates schooled in identity politics, terrified of ideas and debate, yet imbued with the supreme confidence of a self-professed liberal meritocracy. The outstanding political characteristic of this social layer is hatred and contempt towards all those who refuse to kowtow to their liberal orthodoxy, and a readiness to call down the powers of state repression and censorship upon their political opponents.
A certain fondness for snitching on their opponents to their employers and landlords, and similar efforts to deprive them of income and housing, is also often evident.
Massey University is not the first such institution to take this road in recent times. The Massey administration and all those who disseminated the baseless smears of ‘hate speech’ against Speak Up For Women leadership would do well to take note of events in Oberlin, Ohio in the United States.
Oberlin College is one of the top 20 most expensive universities in the United States, one that prides itself on being ‘progressive.’ In November 2016 three students from Oberlin College attempted to shoplift two bottles of wine from Gibson’s Bakery, a long-established family business in the town, then beat up a shop employee who pursued them. The students, who are Black, were arrested and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanour charges.
However, in the days after the arrests, Oberlin College authorities, including Vice-president Meredith Raimondo, organised protests by hundreds of Oberlin students outside the bakery and urged a boycott of the business, smearing the owners as racists with “a long history of racial profiling and discrimination,” and alleging that they “commit hate crimes against minorities.” Raimondo told the catering contractor at the College – which is by far the largest business in the small town of Oberlin – to cancel its contract with the bakery.
The local community, including its African-American residents, were repelled by the smear campaign. In fact, in the days after the protests people traveled from miles around to support the bakery with their business. Signs went up on residents’ lawns saying “Support Gibson’s”. Encouraged by this support, Gibson’s took a lawsuit against Oberlin College, claiming that the College’s false and defamatory statements had cost the business dearly and inflicted distress. Witnesses testified that there was not the slightest evidence of racial profiling or other forms of discrimination by the Bakery. It was stated that of 40 people caught shoplifting in the bakery in the past five years, six were Black.
In June this year, a jury found in favour of the Bakery, finding the College and Raimondo guilty of libelling the family, and awarded the Gibson family $US44 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Oberlin College has been thrown into crisis, with many senior staff abruptly leaving.
Even in the less-than-favourable conditions of today’s world, race-baiting and irresponsible, baseless and libellous accusations of bigotry can be costly. Massey University and the supporters of the slanders against Speak Up for Women should take heed of this ruling – but their actions to date indicate that they probably won’t.
In the discussions around these developments, one of my friends described the 6,000 people who signed the censorship petition as ‘idiots’. While I share his low opinion of those who signed, I think characterising them as ‘idiots’ obscures the truth of the matter.
Do misogynists hate women because they are idiots? No, their hatred is a reflection of, and in turn perpetuates, the profoundly oppressive social relations between men and women in capitalist society (and all earlier forms of class society). Stupidity has nothing to do with it.
But why do some women support a petition like this, against their own interests? For much the same reasons that, more than 150 years after the founding of the first independent political parties of the working class, almost all workers today give their political support to capitalist parties: It is because the misogynists, and the capitalists, are the rulers. They control the universities and schools, the news media, the social media, the police and law courts, the religious institutions, the government and all the political parties in Parliament, they own all the buildings we must hire for our meetings; even the trade unions are to a large degree integrated into their state. Through their monopoly of these institutions, and in a million other ways, the rulers frame and direct the political discourse, and suppress or marginalise all alternatives. This class dictatorship is a permanent fact of life. It only begins to break down in times of revolutionary crisis and upheaval, when the monopoly starts to slip from their grasp.
The breath-taking sweep and ferocity of this latest eruption of misogynist hatred is a measure of the depth of the crisis which this society is entering. The crisis will drag down in to its vortex many otherwise good, sensible people – especially those detached from the working class. It will oppress their ability to think rationally and scientifically; it will break them morally, and whip up their emotions into witch-hunts and reactionary political movements of all kinds. Not just individuals, but entire institutions of democratic capitalism, including universities, will be shattered and destroyed. To attribute this phenomenon to stupidity or idiocy is to miss the true significance of what is happening.
Ultimately, the political rights of women and the right of freedom of speech and expression are class questions. These rights will be defended by the class which has the greatest stake in defending them, in order to defend its own class interests – the wage workers, and the industrial workers in particular. The working class has not yet entered the fray, but it is beginning to stir from its thirty-year-long quiescence. It is among the 50,000 striking workers at General Motors, the Kentucky coal miners, the Auckland casino workers, the workers who mobilised to defend Ihumātao – and others who will enter the struggle in coming months and years – that will be found the most unshakable defenders of women’s rights and democratic freedoms.
In the meantime, Speak Up For Women plans to go ahead with its meetings in Wellington and Auckland. The Auckland meeting is also under threat: the Auckland City Council, which had contracted a venue for the meeting, switched the booking to a different, less central venue, supposedly due to security concerns, but also in response to “complaints.” Defending the two meetings against attempts by the self-appointed censors to shut them down is the front line of the battle for women’s rights in New Zealand in the next month. Readers are urged to contact Speak Up For Women for details about tickets and to donate towards costs.
An excellent essay from a seasoned Marxist thinker. I encourage everyone to read it and think about the issues involved. I can tell you, as a person who lives 30 miles down the road from Oberlin college, that the workers and farmers of Lorain County, where Oberlin is located, gave the liberal meritocracy a taste of something they were not expecting – solidarity in the face of this slanderous attack.
Excellent article James. I especially liked your characterisation of the students Massey (and, indeed, other NZ universities) are turning out. These are super-protected young people who don’t like reality and want to shut themselves off from it. They won’t be representing any challenge to capital. Meanwhile, Massey’s claim that, as a university, it is some kind of critical conscience of society is risible. They are utterly spineless, lacking in integrity and even just basic honesty. But apparently people like the Massey management require a bunch of flattering fictions about themselves in order to look at themselves in the mirror each day. How awful to choose to live like that.