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Dr Kevin Donnelly: Cancel culture’s war on tolerance

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One of the primary functions of universities and bodies is to promote academic freedom and open and robust intellectual inquiry, not ideological cant and groupthink. PHOTO: Unsplash
One of the primary functions of universities and bodies is to promote academic freedom and open and robust intellectual inquiry, not ideological cant and groupthink. PHOTO: Unsplash

In his Easter message His Grace Archbishop Fisher argued, “In many ways contemporary societies are deeply divided. Our politics are often polarised and social media vicious, the language is extreme, and it’s all or nothing.”

That the tenor of public debate has been debased is beyond doubt, as proven by the number of personal and vitriolic attacks against those daring to argue “no” to the referendum incorporating the Indigenous Voice in the nation’s constitution.

The Aboriginal activist Noel Pearson, for example, describes the leader of the opposition Peter Dutton as an “undertaker” and the Liberal Party as committing a “Judas betrayal” for arguing against the referendum.

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Even more insulting and offensive is Pearson suggesting the Liberal Party’s Julian Leeser, in arguing against giving the Voice the power to influence both parliament and the executive government, wants to force Indigenous Australians to be tattooed or made to wear a badge on their clothing.

Given Leeser is Jewish and the horrific events that occurred in Hitler’s Germany, such an attack is deeply offensive, uncivilised and beyond the pale. While not as extreme, the leader of the Greens Party Adam Bandt also confuses abuse with reasoned debate.

Bandt condemns the Liberal Party as a “small racist rump sliding into irrelevance” as well as accusing the party of wanting to ignite a “race-based cultural war”. The abuse and personal attacks surrounding the Voice referendum debate are far from isolated examples.

As argued by the American feminist Camille Paglia, in the West we are now living in a time when intolerance masquerades as tolerance and where rationality, reason and impartial debate have long since been replaced by ad hominem attacks and emotive rhetoric.

Archbishop Fisher argues the same when he states, “There seems to be no room for debate, for listening, persuading, and being persuaded, for the good kind of compromise … The language of tolerance and live-and-let-live has been replaced by totalising ideologies and loyalty groups.”

Proven by the recent example of the University of Tasmania’s Jane Franklin Hall cancelling the annual colloquium organised by the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies, it’s not just individuals who are vulnerable.

When promoting the colloquium tilted “Wokery—A Wake-Up Call For The West?” the Centre’s Director, David Daintree, as evidence of the irrational times we are living in cited the way school children are taught “that girls can be boys, that boys can be girls and that grown-ups should be punished for denying it.”

A woman reacts as people protest against legalising abortion outside the National Congress building in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The country legalised abortion on 30 December 2020. Photo: CNS, Martin Villar, Reuters

In justifying cancelling the colloquium the principal of the Jane Franklin Hall, Joanna Rosewell, argued, “We work with a diverse number of students including those from the transgender community. Our first goal at Jane is and must be supporting the wellbeing of our students.”

With very few exceptions, sexuality is binary beyond a doubt, and God given. Such is the prevailing climate of intolerance and cultural-left group think that any who fail to conform to the prevailing transgender orthodoxy face retribution. Victoria’s Liberal MP Moira Deeming and the author JK Rowling are two notable examples.

Ignored by those cancelling free and open debate is that one of the primary functions of universities and bodies like the Christopher Dawson Centre is to promote academic freedom and open and robust intellectual inquiry. Since the time of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates the ideal is one of pursuing truth based on rationality and reason instead of ideological cant and group think.

What distinguishes a civilised society from one that is uncivilised is a commitment to what TS Eliot describes as the “preservation of learning, for the pursuit of truth, and in so far as men are capable of it, the attainment of wisdom.”

Central to this process is the ability to weigh and judge often conflicting arguments and points of view based on what most closely approximates the truth of things. As argued by the American academic Israel Scheffler, to do otherwise is to deny the central importance of academic freedom.

Scheffler argues universities, by their very nature, must be “conceived as instruments of insight and criticism, standing apart from current social conceptions and serving autonomous ideals of inquiry and truth.”

For the principal of the Jane Franklin Hall to argue, when justifying cancelling the colloquium, “Our first goal at Jane is and must be supporting the wellbeing of our students” displays an appalling ignorance of what a tertiary education should involve.

Prioritising students’ feelings above supporting academic freedom and free and open disagreement and debate also illustrates how we now live in a time when personal feelings and emotions reign supreme.

A time when trigger warnings prevail, identity politics and victimhood are all-encompassing and irrational cancel culture has reached epidemic proportions.

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