The Standard of Discourse at Australian Universities

In 1935, Philip Hall, a gold-medallist mathematician, developed the ‘marriage theorem’, a problem-question that sees single men match made with single women.

A well-known theorem, its name has been commonplace for the past eight decades…

…that is, until recently.

The University of New South Wales and one of its mathematics lecturers decided that the name used to refer to the formula was offensive. The suggestion that a man would be exclusively interested in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex is now considered so vile that to even entertain the idea promotes a bigotry that sees a never-ending cycle of discrimination towards the LGBTI+ community.

There are worrying signs that this incident is a sign of a bigger problem of a growing anti-intellectualism. Universities in this country have a long tradition of championing free thought and rigorous debate.

What is emerging in our places of learning now is a cosseted, frigid political correctness that seeks to stamp out opposing views.

Consider recent rallies regarding the same-sex marriage postal vote at the University of Sydney. The Catholic Society, a group who has been facing mounting pressure since 2016 when it decided it would only let practicing Catholics sit on its executive, decided to gather for an ‘It’s okay to vote No’ demonstration.

Although it’s difficult to refute the offensive nature of the rally, and even more difficult to see the benefit in holding such a divisive demonstration, the society has, and should have, the right to speak openly about its beliefs.

As expected, counter-protests ensued. The university’s Queer Collective proved to have the loudest voice that day, with 60 students drowning out the Catholic Society’s mere 15 with unintelligible chants of: ‘We will not be tolerant of this intolerance.’

How productive!

Does the Queer Collective have a right, or even obligation to speak out against the demonstration? Absolutely. But is using a mega-phone to tell the Catholics to ‘f*** off’ the right way to do it? No, not at all.

Herein lies the problem: when you coddle certain perspectives, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, you deny an opportunity for individuals to practise objectiveness.

As reported, the University of Sydney has had pro-marriage equality stalls for weeks, and posters have been placed around the campus promoting the cause. For a No voter, this allows for a reassessment of values, and creates understanding of their opposition.

Although I have no doubt that a portion of No voters do hold homophobic views, it’s incredibly lazy to label the entire movement with such a harsh adjective. In the same vein, (ignoring the cognitive dissonance) chanting ‘we will not be tolerant of intolerance’ demonstrates a lack of objective analysis of why the Catholic Society holds a traditionalist view on marriage.

Further, in 2016, the Institute of Public Affairs conducted a Free Speech on Campus Audit. The findings are no surprise. According to the survey, 79 percent of Australian universities suffocate intellectual dialogue and debate, with 33 of 42 universities (including Macquarie University) achieving the lowest possible ranking, finding itself in the ‘red zone’.

Australia’s political landscape is becoming increasingly divided. If you are unwilling to discuss, you are creating conditions for ignorance. If you resort to name calling and verbal abuse, you will not persuade, but rather isolate. This benefits nobody.

Universities should be the forum for an open discussion, where minds are challenged by other minds through logic and reason.

One thought on “The Standard of Discourse at Australian Universities

  1. Dear Mr Bisset,

    Lovely article. I agree that both sides of this gay marriage debate are entitled, as Australian citizens, to their own opinions and form of protest/counter-protest. While I also believe that Australian citizens should be free from discrimination, as our gay brothers and sisters are currently experiencing thanks to the Marriage Act, that’s a discussion for another day.

    I would disagree with your introductory point regarding the ‘marriage theorem’ and its use in the educational vernacular of universities around Australia. I’d argue that the changing definition of marriage around the world (and soon, hopefully, Australia) has made theories and practices such as those described by the ‘marriage theorem’ to no longer be correct when trying to assess the practices of soon-to-be-married couples. If a ‘marriage theorem’ can only be applied to male-female relationships in a world where male-male and female-female relationships and marriage exist, how can we accurately call it a name that suggests it’s authoritative on the topic of marriage? A theorem that only assesses the behavior of one-third an assessable population is no theorem. At least, it should not be considered one by a higher-education institution.

    As well, the use statistics sourced by a clearly conservative thinktank such as the IPA doesn’t make much of an argument. I’m sure that you and your fellow writers would not consider a think tank with prominent ties to the Labor Party and left-wing, progressive politics to be a good source of information. I would suggest The Aspen Institute.

    I enjoyed your piece and hope you are more tolerant to dissenting opinions than your colleague, Ed McCann.

    Kind Regards,
    Barry McFarts


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