Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan says universities are "failing Australia" by refusing to champion free speech on campus. Discuss. Just don't discuss it in your "Queering Marxism" tute lest your wokeness be called into question.
"There's a growing sense," Tehan wrote in The Australian last weekend, "that some students… are self-censoring out of fear they'll be shouted down or condemned for expressing sincerely held views and beliefs, or for challenging widely accepted ideas."
This is one of those topics that necessitates separating the message from the tarnished messenger. A crusade for free speech on campus is another of the government's hey-look-over-there! capers.
A government-commissioned report by former High Court chief justice, now chancellor of the University of Western Australia, Robert French, found no evidence of a "systemic" crisis of free speech on Australian campuses. But as with the Ruddock report on freedom of religion, which found freedom of religion was not under threat, the French review sounds just enough cautionary notes for the government to open a new flank in the culture wars.
It's hard to talk about free speech at unis without resorting to generalisations and tropes. That said, anyone who seriously doubts leftist groupthink is stifling campus debate, especially in the humanities, has either avoided hanging around universities or come to love Big Brother.
I wasn't in the least surprised, though greatly amused, when a peer-reviewed journal last year fell for a hoax paper titled Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks, the "rape culture" a reference to dogs "humping". The editors were too politically correct for bullshit detectors.
Let's concede that for people sceptical about a world view based on powerful groups oppressing marginalised groups, there are few entry points to campus conversation. Not because the teachers skew overwhelmingly Left; it's more about tone and atmosphere. As for more overt censorship, such as "no-platforming", it's disturbing, though not new.
Back in my day at Melbourne Uni, protesters scuttled a lecture by then-foreign minister Gareth Evans, security ushering him off campus. It was a moronic stunt that spared Evans tough questioning about Australia's appeasement of Indonesia in East Timor. (He's now chancellor of Australian National University and among those urging universities to greater vigilance on free speech.)
Still, this belief that students shouldn't be confronted with ideas they find confronting has undoubtedly intensified.
Having taught in the arts faculties of several universities - an overwhelmingly joyous experience, to be clear - I have a war story or 15 about bullying posing as enlightenment. During an icebreaker at the start of semester, a student described herself thus: "I dislike men."
I understand the woman, who actually seemed a pleasant sort, was signalling her sexuality and politics; her remark wasn't intended as a personal attack on the three lovely men in the class, whose eyes I suddenly couldn't bear to meet. According to the logic of identity politics, the guys, being guys, belong to a privileged group and cannot experience "micro-aggression". Let alone macro, full-frontal aggression.
Is this where we want to be? Devoid of empathy and collegiality? Palpitating in the vaguely menacing silence that descends on a classroom after an edgy joke misfires? Determined to be "triggered" by this-or-that reading? (Especially when it's a convenient excuse for missing class or a deadline.)
"In some places," I was dying to say, on one or two occasions, "the armed militia come for you in the middle of the night because you're the wrong ethnicity, or tribe, or because you've spoken too freely, and they drag you into the street and stick a bullet in your head, and that's all the 'trigger warning' you get."
While I'm not interested in universities hosting Alt-rightists such as Milo Yiannopoulos, it's disturbing that the nation's most educated would rather throw a fit than engage with Bettina Arndt. Maybe because her debunking claims of a "rape crisis" at Sydney Uni has the intimidating ring of common sense.
The university's vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, reckons the left and right are as censorious as each other.
Actually, the experience of recent decades suggests the right is worse because they're less inhibited about using the machinery of state to silence opponents. Space doesn't permit the full list of examples, ranging from the muzzling of asylum seekers, doctors and staff in offshore detention centres to the undermining of independent commissioners.
To ministerial vetoing of $4.2 million in recommended university grants for projects that sounded perfectly sober but betrayed a left-wing sensibility. To the relentless attacks by Coalition figures on the ABC's political "bias" with accompanying threats about funding cuts or privatisation.
To the federal police media raids.
To the conservative columnists now urging the government to use funding as leverage to force academic freedom on unis and thus save western civilisation through coercion. The doublethink leaves me breathless with admiration.
Spence also says the threat to free speech is not specific to universities and reflects "the broader deterioration in civil discourse".
And that's precisely why we need universities to step up, reaffirm their philosophical mission and ensure they're places where ideas can be cooly tested on their merits. Not because a cynical and hypocritical government is turning on the pressure, but because it's the right and scholarly thing to do.