One of New Zealand’s “Satanic Seven” describes efforts to create a free speech policy at the University of Auckland

July 20, 2023 • 9:30 am

Kendall Clements is a biologist at New Zealand’s Auckland University who works on the evolution of fish. He was also a signer of the “Listener Letter,” in which seven Auckland Uni professors (two now deceased), published an article in a popular magazine arguing that  mātauranga Māori (MM), or Māori “ways of knowing”, while of educational value, was not coequal to modern science. As the Wikipedia article describes,

In response to a 2021 report from a Government NCEA working group which proposed changes to the Māori school curriculum to ensure mātauranga Māori’s parity with Western epistemologies, seven University of Auckland senior academics Kendall ClementsGarth CooperMichael CorballisDoug ElliffeRobert NolaElizabeth Rata, and John Werry penned a letter that was published in the 31 July issue of the New Zealand Listener expressing disagreement with two of the report’s assertions:

  • That science has been used to support the domination of Eurocentric views including colonialism and the suppression of Māori knowledge.
  • The notion that science is a Western European invention and itself evidence of domination over Māori and other indigenous peoples.

The authors argued that science was universal to humanity with origins in ancient EgyptMesopotamiaancient Greece, and India. They also noted the Muslim world‘s significant contributions to mathematics, astronomy, and physics; which later passed onto Europe and North America. The authors also asserted that science was neutral rather than a tool of colonialism, highlighting its contributions to tackling global issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss, and environmental degradation.

All seven contributors were deluged with considerable opprobrium, and two, members of the Royal Society of New Zealand, were investigated (and cleared), but the rest remain demonized, and, in general, academic discussion, of this issue in particular, was stifled. Academics in New Zealand who agree with the sentiments of the Listener letter generally stay silent, fearing for their jobs.  A survey earlier this year revealed that only 31% of professors surveyed at five of New Zealand’s eight universities agreed that they were free to state controversial or unpopular opinions. One other note:

University of Auckland vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater said the letter “caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni” and that “the institution had respect for mātauranga Māori as a valuable knowledge system, and that it was not at odds with Western empirical science and did not need to compete.”

Freshwater, in thrall to indigenous knowledge, later backed off a bit, but she then promised a free discussion in which MM would be debated vis-à vis its parity with modern science, saying this:

In the first quarter of 2022 we will be holding a symposium in which the different viewpoints on this issue can be discussed and debated calmly, constructively and respectfully. I envisage a high-quality intellectual discourse with representation from all viewpoints: mātauranga Māori, science, the humanities, Pacific knowledge systems and others.

Do I need to add that that debate never took place? Freshwater was making promises she knew she wouldn’t keep.

Some Auckland University professors then decided that their school needed a written policy about free speech and academic freedom, and are formulating one now (in fact they’ve already formulated a nine-point document, but right now are only voting on whether they need such a policy.) My prediction is that despite overwhelming support for such a policyh (see below), it will either never get adopted or will be heavily watered down with prohibitions on speech that’s considered “offensive.” Some of that pushback to free speech by other Auckland Uni academics is described in the podcast below.

In this 40-minute podcast by New Zealand’s Free Speech Union, Kendall Clements, talks about his experience after signing the Listener letter and the attempts to develop a free speech document with his colleagues in the University Senate.

Discussion of MM, its relation to modern science, and the reaction to the Listener letter, starts at 13:10. Note that Clements does note empirical aspects of MM that can be considered as “empirical knowledge,” i.e., part of science, but also notes MM claims that aren’t scientifically credible.

At 25:30 Clements describes the arguments made by some of his opponents against freedom of expression. (One is that free speech could cause “harm” or damage relationships.) Do note that most of this debate is about speech relevant to the “ways of knowing” of the Māori, not other political issues like which political party is the most worthy. But Clements thinks that the free speech problems are due largely to the “culture wars” and social media as opposed to MM itself. These have caused “echo chambers” or “epistemic bubbles” at Auckland that create that attitude, “If you don’t agree with me, you’re a racist.” He argues that this doesn’t come directly from MM or its advocates, but is a general feature of the tribalism involved in the culture wars, a tribalism similar to what’s going on in America. (One could conclude that it just happens that New Zealand tribalism just happens to involve Māori issues, and the culture wars everywhere are about power.)

In the end, the Auckland Uni Senate’s anonymous vote to create a policy for freedom of expression and academic freedom was 80% positive and 16% negative. (In contrast, only 49% of the faculty surveyed, and 38% of the academic staff, felt able to respectfully voice their views without fear of negative impact.) As Clements says, “There’s clearly a freedom of expression problem at the University of Auckland.”

The upshot: the overwhelming majority of Auckland’s faculty senate voted that they need a policy of free speech and academic freedom. But will they get one? Given the opposition of the higher-ups (the Provost, for example, thinks the University should be able to make official statements on political issues), I’m not optimistic. But can you imagine New Zealand’s premier university lacking any policy on freedom of expression or institutional neutrality?

Click below to hear the podcast. Here’s the site’s summary:

Free speech across our universities is under fire- but many academics are also working to address this. After 3 years, a working group established at the University of Auckland to consider how to preserve academic freedom and free speech has reported back, making a bold stand in a hostile environment. Free Speech Union member and UoA Professor, Kendall Clements, sits down with Jonathan to give an insider’s view to why free speech is under fire, and what needs to be done about it.


28 thoughts on “One of New Zealand’s “Satanic Seven” describes efforts to create a free speech policy at the University of Auckland

  1. “One is that free speech could cause “harm” or damage relationships.” Why is it that these things are only viewed one way? Saying something could be unlikable, but the harm of its opposite, preventing people speaking, is never considered.

    By the way, does anyone know where “other ways of knowing” comes from?

    1. I saw an article some 2 or 3 years ago referring to the following and described as “ other ways of knowing” however, I cannot confirm that the 13 Band Mikmaq Nation of Nova Scotia use this as well as “Two-Eyed Seeing” This is not quite the same as described in NZ.

      Two-Eyed Seeing is a basis in viewing the world through both Western and Indigenous knowledges and worldviews. Two-Eyed Seeing was introduced by Mi’kmaq Elders, Albert and Murdena Marshall from Eskasoni First Nation, alongside Cape Breton University (CBU) professor, Cheryl Bartlett. Albert Marshall describes Two-Eyed Seeing as an approach to viewing the world “from one eye with the strengths of Indigenous ways of knowing, and to see from the other eye with the strengths of Western ways of knowing, and to use both of these eyes together”. Two-Eyed Seeing was originally brought forward as a tactic to encourage Mi’kmaq university students to pursue an education in science. Since its implementation, the use of Two-Eyed Seeing has been integrated into various institutions’ strategic plans

      1. …and accomplishes what, exactly? Or are we not allowed to ask questions like that?

        A metaphor should at least make sense internally, and of course can’t substitute for argument. People already have two-eyed seeing. It’s called binocular vision. Both eyes must focus on the same object for the brain to fuse the two images make sense of what it sees. To actually have one eye regulated by a superstitious, gnostic brain and the other by a scientific brain is simply to degrade the image by introducing noise and clutter from superstition and unverifiable “knowledge.”

        It’s not just harmless bafflegab. Indigenous fishermen claim that they have Treaty rights—they don’t, actually—to harvest lobsters commercially out of season, including the taking of egg-laden females, a lucrative delicacy among some foreign customers. (Nova Scotia lobsters are sold all over the world.). They claim their ability to see into the ocean with their indigenous eye will protect lobster stocks, a fishery they had no knowledge of before Contact brought seaworthy boats— better than scientific efforts from Fisheries and Oceans, who issues the licenses, defines the season, and sets catch limits. And if out-of-season fishing does harm stocks, say the unlicensed native fishers, the settler fishermen should be chased off the water, not them.

        1. I do not disagree with anything you say. My personal views relating to so called “first nations” are for me only and as such I do not express them publicly. I am well aware that any comment made in this regard is dangerous territory.
          I was merely stating where I first saw the term “other ways of knowing” not that I agree with the statement.
          It has been said here, “ the only other ways of knowing, are not knowing”

  2. Free speech is fine, as long as it is “kind”.

    ^^^ I’m criticizing the “kindness” delusion. Perhaps it is not yet in New Zealand.

      1. The basic cultural background to the ‘Listener 7’ imbroglio is not just the paucity of intellectually independent AND rational ‘free speech’ in Keyaurastan New Zealand. The root cause lies in the fact the nation has historically had such a small population, that it [ and possibly Iceland, Andorra ] are the ONLY ‘Western’ nations which lack a functional intelligentsia across the political and cultural spectrum. Yes, the nation has universities, but the intelligentsia was and is largely lacking. An Iraqi friend who now lives in Auckland notes wryly how even Baghdad under Saddam Hussein had such an intelligentsia, but when he migrated to Auckland he saw nothing much at all, not even in literary circles. This book describes the nation-of-negligible-intelligentsia and how this has stunted the arts. The title uses ‘small’ as a pun — a small population, and ‘small’ in terms of thought.

        Keyaurastan New Zealand doesn’t have true intellectual stars since it is the academic equivalent of a brown dwarf : insufficient thoughtful critical mass to ignite anything much that shines. The lack of an intelligentsia meant there was little or no effective pushback against the ideologues, and against the failed-intellectuals [ UoA academics Siouxsie Wiles and Sean Hendy ] who started a PETITION against their fellow academics.

        Google Sinsonke Msimang’s article in ‘My white friends trivialise racism by calling everything racist. How do I tell them to stop?’ This is what Wiles and Hendy did : they are Whites with no personal experience of racism against them, who ‘label everything racist’ because they want to be seen as ‘allies’ in the ‘decolonising cause’. The irony is that one of the pilloried ‘Listener 7’ is a Maori medical doctor who actually has personally helped many Maori students.

        1. I know very little about New Zealand. You bring up the variable population size to explain the science denial in NZ. I just checked some population figures from Europe (using Wikipedia):

          Croatia 3.9 million
          New Zealand 5.3 million
          Denmark 5.5 million
          Finland 5.6 million
          Norway 5.9 million

          So I’m skeptical of the relevance of population size. Because the population is small that should mean both the absolute number of advocates for ruining science and the absolute number of their opponents should be small. (No need to tell me that the mentioned European nations don’t have an indigenous population equivalent to the Maoris.)

          1. Ni Hao Peter,
            point taken. The population size example was about intelligentsia incubation. Maybe I should have put a Galapagos analogy. The combination of small size PLUS geographic isolation until the era of cheap air travel and the internet meant greatly reduced frequent two-way interchanges of people. European nations have been connected by rail since the late 19th century. Euro history is replete with writers, flaneurs, political dissidents etc moving from one centre to another as needs dictated. Much the same applied in the USA, where those in the mid-West etc in the late 19th-early 20th C could take a trip to the intellectual centres — NYC, Boston, Chicago etc. If you look at the late Robert Hughes bio [ the art critic], despite living in Australia he movingly writes of how his motorbike trip to Italy and France as a young man fired his ambition to be a writer/ communicator, notwithstanding his early book on Australian art.

            Ramesh 2% Denisovan : oh for those stir-the-pot memories of the Altai & Tianshan mountains cave hearth society of 50000- 100000 BP…

          2. I think of Croatia and the Scandinavian and Baltic countries as each part of a broader contiguous mix of similar ethnicities and languages that are spread across a larger area and with a much deeper temporal history of intellectual and artistic achievement than is represented by each of those small countries. Not so New Zealand. Or Canada, where ~all of our best artists and intellectuals are born here but find their success in the USA.

        2. Ramesh, I’d disagree on the lack of true intellectual stars here. NZ has a few, but they don’t get local recognition compared to people like New Zealander of the Year Rangi Matamua. I’m thinking, for example, of Roy Kerr, a legend in the field of general relativity, who discovered the solution to Einstein’s field equations describing rotating black holes, and yet didn’t even make the finals of this year’s New Zealander of the Year. Or Arthur Prior, the eminent yet forgotten in NZ logician, whose paper “The runabout inference ticket” is the most amusing yet enlightening paper on logic I have read.

          1. Hi Andrew,
            I was using the term ‘intelligentsia’, which is somewhat different to discrete intellectual heavyweights. As for Roy Kerr, he wasn’t a public intellectual in terms of wide-ranging effective public commentary, compared to ( as an almost random example) my ex-supervisor at the Wellcome Institute / University of London, medical historian Roy Porter, or neurologist and theatre/opera director Jonathan Miller, or neurologist Oliver Sacks.
            The only public intellectual I can think of, offhand, in the NZ uni system with some semi-effective outside reach is University Auckland’s Jane Kelsey.
            For all Keyaurastan New Zealanders who read this, do pitch in with some other examples…. if you can. For a non-western example of a functioning intelligentsia, google ‘Bengali Renaissance’. Nothing remotely like the calibre of this in NZ history. Or the artistic circle/activist circle around Peruvian writer Vargas Llosa before he went into politics.
            For current mid-level international-reach intellectuals, consider US economics blogger Noah Smith, who writes on substack as ‘Noahopinion’, or Dr Coyne of this blog site, or Chinese commentator Dan J Wang ( now apparently at Columbia ) — see website
            New Zealanders should check out Dan Wang’s site and ponder his annual ‘letter’, with its wide ranging and eccentric musings on Chinese history and economics that spill out into western culture, architecture etc — and consider why nobody in NZ can produce an equivalent ‘letter from Keyaurastan New Zealand’. Such is the contemporary failure of free expression in the NZ university system.

            1. I agree. For much of our NZ history, whilst stultifying this was a factor in the common-sense practical, anti-elitist tradition though talented individuals left NZ quickly to find peer minds.
              Of recent decades we’ve lost the practicality and reap only the dismerits of mediocrity from coast to coast

  3. At least there is some formal pushback. The 80% number means that there are allies. Having allies may help to encourage some brave soul(s) to come out publicly in favor of free speech and to build some momentum. It’s a small opening but Auckland is the largest university, so it’s a start.

    Otherwise, it’s business as usual: education circling the drain.

    1. If they all came out at once it would be effective. But it’s hard to trust that if you take a first step the others will follow. Like soldiers in a trench ordered to charge.

    1. It goes back a ways, but from I have the New Zealand Royal Society launched an investigation of the two remaining members of the RS for both harming indegenous people and mischaracterizing science. They soon dropped the investigation after considerable protest.

  4. ” (One could conclude that it just happens that New Zealand tribalism just happens to involve Māori issues, and the culture wars everywhere are about power.) ” Exactly! And
    everywhere also means every time. For a previous example in that galaxy far away, Zhores Medvedev reported as follows. “…the ‘creators’ of the new biology, throwing off all restraint, distributed among themselves responsible posts and took over key positions in ministries, academies, institutes, and universities, and on editorial boards and executive boards…” The devoted proponents of DEI and of Other Ways of Knowing are busy again acting out this old, familiar Way of Knowing.

  5. Freshwater is troubled waters. A Nottingham nurse into “transformative earning”, oops, “transformative Learning”. Still, no Dawn, Robin Hood you’re not. I guess $775,000 is not really earnings, but learnings (maybe I’m just jealous, earning way less than half of that?)
    “Transformative learning is the expansion of consciousness through the transformation of basic worldview and specific capacities of the self; transformative learning is facilitated through consciously directed processes such as appreciatively accessing and receiving the symbolic contents of the unconscious and critically analyzing underlying premises.” (Elias 1997).
    I guess even Jung is a bulwark of sanity compared to that. But it explains her somewhat lucrative POMO ideas about MM.
    [I know I’m targeting the (wo)man, not the ball, but the MM ball has already been exhaustively deflated on this site and elsewhere.]

  6. This may be an unoriginal observation, but isn’t this just an ethnic nationalist project exploiting “white” guilt and the current zeitgeist?

  7. If an NZ academic delivers a paper at an international conference in, say, Singapore or Seoul, will they credit matauranga Maori for some or all of their findings? If they don’t, will they get in trouble?

  8. “the Provost, for example, thinks the University should be able to make official statements on political issues”
    As with many management types they should consider the statutory definition of a University – the notion that the senior management of the body corporate equates to, and can speak on the behalf of the group identified in (2) merely demonstrates their arrogance.

    From the University of Auckland Act 1961 s 3

    (1) For the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination and maintenance thereof by teaching and research there shall be a University to be called the University of Auckland.

    (2) The University shall consist of the Council, the professors emeriti, the professors, lecturers, junior lecturers, Registrar, and librarian of the University for the time being in office, the graduates and undergraduates of the University, the graduates of the University of New Zealand whose names are for the time being on the register of the Court of Convocation of the University of Auckland, and such other persons and classes of persons as the Council may from time to time determine.

    (3) The University shall be a body corporate ….

  9. Science is not a Western European invention. It predates the rise of Western Europe by many centuries at least. However, modern science probably is a Western European invention. After all, who discovered the electron, proton, or the neutron? Who found the structure of DNA? Who gets credit for the periodic chart? That said, while Europeans may have invented modern science, they don’t own it (nor do Americans or anyone else). Modern science is ‘owned’ and applies to all mankind. The laws of physics are the same everywhere.

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