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The Multiversity, Free Speech and Ali Panah

Steve Nicoll



Looking over the flood of letters sent in over the last six issues concerning Perigo, the adage that students are apathetic could be a dying tradition. Exactly why it has taken a self confessed “libertarian rationalist” to bring out more debate than in any other column this year may have something to do the ideas Alan Bloom presents in his book The Closing of the American Mind. Here Bloom argues that the rising tide of relativism in higher education paradoxically undermines critical thinking. He may be right.
Universities, in my mind, seem increasingly like Bloom’s description of places where “the point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right (but) rather not to think you are right at all.” Perigo as deliberate charlatan, flipping inflammatory ideas and prejudices between bouts, understands this. And the reactions from many of you may be symptomatic of the drifting role that universities have ended up adopting. Nowadays, the only crime in the modern student’s mind is that of intolerance to other people’s belief systems, no matter how whacky these may be. Socrates, as quoted by Plato, famously claimed that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Where would the university be without Plato and Socrates? Has it in fact, as Bloom states, become merely “a centre for the training of highly qualified specialists” – a multiversity? In today’s academic environment, the university has no obligation to point students toward quiet contemplation of the permanent questions, such as those concerning the route to follow in order to live a good life, or those about the nature of justice. “Technical education assumes that these problems are solved, generally, by an acceptance of the status quo. This is not a particularly disturbing situation for the great majority of young people who are content to make careers and do not feel called upon to reflect generally about themselves or the whole of society. But for that most interesting few who can become leaders, pathfinders and revolutionaries, this is a great source of dissatisfaction. The various specialities do not add up to a general overview, and the best students must turn elsewhere to truly educate themselves and satisfy their cravings.” Bloom argues that the university has been transformed into the ‘multiversity’, and that something vital has died at the heart of liberal democracy. Meanwhile, the bureaucratic powers that lie at the soul of Victoria, along with most universities in New Zealand, operate in a cultural environment where relativism has replaced open enquiry – even open enquiry on “scandalous” ideas such as islamo-fascism.
Some of the criticism generated by Perigo reflects this by being more concerned about whether he has the right to criticise other people’s belief systems rather than whether his ideas are correct in themselves. This demonstrates another prominent multiversity cliché: that you create your own reality, and your opinion needs no external validation. This extreme postmodernism, with its focus on the “I”, only leads to narcissism: “It’s true, because I said so.” Obviously, the whole university enterprise collapses if it is not possible to say that someone knows more than someone else, i.e. that knowledge actually exists.
Some of you reading this may be thinking that I am siding with Perigo, but publishing is different to being in agreement. The purpose of this editorial is to explain why Perigo has been selected to sit on page 28 each week. Opinion columns are meant to create debate and, by that process, inform. Perhaps someone made of university anti-matter was required to bring more debate to Salient than it has had for the entire year. As a publication with little commercial obligations, I believe Salient has a responsibility to open debate wider than mainstream media. There are, of course, limits. But consider the words of Chomsky: “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”
The value of debate concerning Perigo has lead to a new column being introduced in this and subsequent issues. Counterpoint aims to provide balance to the state of current debates. The process in which to do this is explained on page 29.
Even more important than freedom of speech is the situation facing Ali Panah (pg 16), an overstayer to whom this issue is dedicated. By the time you read this he will have been on a hunger strike for 53 days, a reaction to our government’s decision to expel him back to Iran where he faces certain death for his conversion to Christianity. If this issue does anything, I hope that it alerts you to ring Immigration Minister David Cuncliffe and tell him to care about Ali. His number is 04 470 6667 and his email is dcuncliffe@ministers.govt.nz. You could save Ali Panah.