The decision to cancel Don Brash's speaking event is 'unequivocally wrong'

2:43 pm on 11 August 2018

By Chris Gallavin*

Opinion - we need to model principles of discussion, debate, and the ability to disagree well, writes Chris Gallavin, who works at Massey University.

Chris Gallavin

Chris Gallavin Photo: supplied

Let me be clear, I do not agree with the political views on te Tiriti as expressed by Dr Don Brash. I do, however, believe the decision of Dr Jan Thomas, Vice Chancellor of Massey University, to cancel a speaking engagement of Dr Brash on our Manawatu campus this week, to be unequivocally wrong.

It is unfortunate, but the world seems to have lost the ability to disagree well. Civility in our discussions and debates over contentious issues seems to have been lost. We are increasingly polarised in our views with recourse to extreme positions in order to 'prove' or force our point. However, the answer is not to avoid difficult and, at times, confronting conversations. Rather, community leaders, and universities in particular, play a vital role in leading our communities in those discussions, as difficult as they may be, applying the principles of informed discussion, compromise, enlightenment of the points of view of others, and if all else fails, respectful disagreement.

As contradictory as it may sound, it is possible for us as a community to come together through our ability to disagree well, emphasising our commonality whilst understanding the ins and outs, and strengths and weaknesses of our points of disagreement. However, none of this can happen if we are not bold and courageous to address those issues we feel most passionate.

Here at Massey University we have a goal of being te Tiriti led. I fully support this goal, both as a journey for the University, but also as a personal journey for me as a New Zealander and as a Massey University staff member. My hero James K Baxter, a fellow Pakeha male, identified as one of his five goals for civil society, 'To learn from the Māori side of the fence'. Rather than a 'goal' however, I see this priority as a journey; one that will result in a forever evolving and ongoing discussion on what it means to be a Massey scholar, employee or stakeholder. I am also excited for what this will mean for our community and in that respect am eager for the Massey experience to lead and inform debate in our communities.

For this conversation to be an effective one, we will need to find within us the ability to have difficult conversations. At times, challenges will arise that cut to the core of the notion of partnership itself. In many ways I cannot think of a better forum for the articulation of what is important for many of us here at Massey than a talk by a person who believes that the Treaty ought not to be seen as a foundational document of contemporary relevance to New Zealand. Further, what better opportunity is there for us to model the civility, commonality or ability to disagree well that I, and everyone I know, would like to see return to public discourse.

Democracy is, at times, gritty. It is messy, emotional, rational and irrational. But our communities are resilient and robust. People protest - and that is ok. People disagree, even DPVCs and VCs - and that is also ok. They make noise, and sometimes they throw things and cause distress. What that may mean for universities is that we need to hire more security, liaise with police and our community more to ensure legitimate protest occurs in a way that is safe and sane. It also means that we need to practice what we preach and take a leadership role in modelling the principles of discussion, debate, and the ability to disagree well.

From what I can see, Dr Don Brash is not a proponent of hate speech. Is he polarising? Yes. Part of a small minority? Perhaps. Entirely illegitimate and without rational foundation for anything he says? Probably not. Massey does not dishonour its goal of becoming te Tiriti led by allowing onto campus those who disagree with our core principles. In fact, seen as an opportunity to model how we might disagree well, a skill so desperately needed in the world today, allowing space for us to talk with those who disagree illustrates incredible maturity and leadership.

*Professor Chris Gallavin is the Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University