Universities of the closed mind
A series of leaked emails reveal the depths of prejudice and groupthink at Australia’s universities. In late May, Macquarie University academics were invited to a presentation by an Israeli. The first to respond, to the entire Faculty of Arts, was John Hunter, holder of the ‘Fellowship for Indigenous Researchers’. Hunter declared he would not attend because of ‘the Human Rights abuses currently occurring in Gaza’. Hunter was joined by other academics who proudly announced their support for the Boycott Divestment Sanctions against Israel, asserting Israel’s responsibility for ‘gross human rights abuses’.
Avi Shavit was invited to speak at Macquarie University about cybersecurity. He has 25 years of experience in the field, including in the military, software industry, investment banking, entrepreneurship, and consulting for the Israeli government and the European Commission. Shavit’s experience was irrelevant to Macquarie academics who put his religious and national background foremost in their mind.
The boycott of Shavit is bigotry, pure and simple. It is judging someone based on their nationality and religion, not as an individual. Shavit, who identifies as left-wing, was speaking about a technology issue, cybersecurity, not about Israel or Gaza.
The treatment of Shavit is just another case of the closed minds at Australia’s universities. The Ramsay Centre was rejected by ANU because students and academics complained its premises are too conservative. Professor Peter Ridd was sacked by James Cook University after criticising science about the Great Barrier Reef by his colleagues.
Australian universities are ostracising individuals and rejecting ideas that do not fit the dominant progressive monoculture. This weakens the entire academic process – how can you claim to be a ‘university’ when you are no longer open to debate in the pursuit of truth?
The rejection of Shavit shows how groupthink develops in practice. Across the emails multiple academics announced their joining of the boycott, signalling their virtuous behaviour, and then congratulating each other for the self-righteous non-attendance. ‘Thank you John, Jeanette and other (sic) for raising this. I will not attend the talk and will sign the pledge,’ a later reply-all email stated.
One of the boycott supporters was Noah Bassil, the Associate Dean of Higher Degree Research in the Faculty of Arts. Bassil is the gateway to people’s future. He is supposed to be the impartial decider of what research projects get funded and which PhD students are accepted. And yet he has shown clear bias that raises red flags. What if an Israeli or Zionist Jew proposes a research project? Are they less likely to get funding because of their background or their views?
Bassil’s rapid willingness to boycott a speaker, despite his administrative position, shows the depths of the problems that our universities face. It is not simply that a majority of academics are of the Left – this has been the case for a long time. The lack of conservative, classical liberal, or libertarian voices has reached crisis levels. Less than 10 per cent of US academics are conservative, and there is no reason to think it’s any different here. The monoculture has reached such heights that an administrator is willing to boycott a speaker without any shame, second thoughts, or repercussions.
A Macquarie academic told me how the collective naming and shaming has a chilling effect on free intellectual inquiry. ‘Could you imagine merely being interested in Cyber Security and having your career destroyed because you turned up in a room to listen to a man speak?’ the academic says. ‘He’s not even necessarily endorsing any recent actions by the Israeli government, for fuck’s sake. He’s just a man trying to do his job.’ The academic said that the display ‘made me think twice about attending’.
The boycott was not completely unanimous. Gil Davis, a senior lecturer in ancient Greek history, courageously declared his opposition. ‘I don’t agree that this call for a boycott is showing ethical leadership at all. I think it is self-indulgent moral posturing which diminishes our University’s reputation. I plan to attend,’ Davis wrote.
In a moment of breath-taking self-aggrandisement, the first boycotter, John Hunter, claimed to be following in the footsteps of William Cooper. Cooper was an Aboriginal political activist who delivered a petition to the Nazi German Consulate in Melbourne in 1938 as the Jewish people’s darkest hour approached. Cooper objected to the Kristallnacht, the violent anti-Jewish pogroms in Germany and Austria that foreshadowed the Holocaust. Cooper’s demonstration is the only known private protest against Kristallnacht. Last week the Australian Electoral Commission announced a new seat in Victoria in Cooper’s name.
Davis responded to Hunter by saying that the Jewish community celebrates Cooper, and that ‘it is almost certain that [Cooper] would not have had a bar of any boycott of Jews or the Jewish State, and would have immediately spotted the ugly demonisation underpinning it.’
The unthinking dismissal of a speaker without hearing their views exposes a culture of intolerance emerging at our universities. As a law faculty academic pointed out, ‘Whatever their personal or ideological views, this has nothing at all to do with the subject on which Mr Shavit is speaking. How can one oppose what one does not know? How can you argue against his views if you have not heard them?’ She signed off: ‘Yours in freedom of thought’.
The essence of prejudice is pre-judgement. Prejudice is not bothering to make the effort to engage with a person or their ideas because you have made a lazy ideological judgement. University academics are free to associate and not associate, to attend and not attend whatever lectures for whatever reasons. Nevertheless, the Shavit case shows how closed minded our academics have become; it shows their willingness to put their bigoted ideological tropes before a debate of ideas.
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