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Solution to Bigotry is more Free Speech

February 22, 2012 – 8:31 pm38 Comments

We're surprised that this bully used the correct form of "You're"

By Larry Stillman

In an article I wrote in Galus Australis (November 2010), I said that “Hate speech is often characterized as ‘words that wound’, words that are deliberately intended to cause severe discomfort, stigmatization, a feeling of being sullied, and humiliation in the face of others.”  I also said that “Whether in the case of Jews slandering each other, others slandering Jews, or others slandering others (indigenous Australians, gays), what are the limits to free and particularly hateful speech in today’s environment when language and symbols are in endless play in different contexts?”

Now we have an episode that affects the reputation of the Jewish community because of who has said it (the son of Zelman Cowen), a highly educated Orthodox Jew with a Chabad background and a very modest association with Monash University.

Four years ago, The Age reported that Cowen spoke on behalf of a coalition of conservative Christians, Muslims and Jews saying that government “is indulging in social engineering in giving lesbians and single women access to fertility treatment, giving lesbian partners legal recognition as parents and allowing surrogate mothers.”

In the past week, more intolerant comments have come to light from an article Cowen has published about the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria program to prevent bullying of gay children in schools. Cowen has launched into a jeremiad against what he sees as modern secularism, liberal religion, and materialism resulting in the promotion of homosexuality.

According to those with much greater theoretical and practical insight into these matters, he is dead wrong on many counts, and I accept their counsel after having read his tendentious argument.

His opinions have been widely reported in the gay and lesbian media, as well as in MX daily (the freebie on trains), with a front page story.

I understand that thankfully, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) has distanced itself completely from his remarks.  The problems of the Jewish Orthodox community with diverse sexuality can probably be better dealt with by those with more expertise in sexuality, bullying, religious prejudice, and institutionalized child abuse in Orthodox communities. This is something that Cowen should have addressed in his remarks if he was serious about morality.

But what has particularly angered gays and lesbians is the use by Shimon Cowen of his association with Monash University to provide credibility for his screed.  The byline to his article states that “Rabbi Dr Shimon Cowen is Founding Director of The Institute for Judaism and Civilization, and is an Associate in the School of Philosophical, Historical and International studies at Monash University.”

Such is the concern over Cowen’s viewpoint that the Vice Chancellor of Monash University, Ed Byrne, when alerted, quickly distanced Monash from Cowen’s comments, while asserting the principle of academic freedom.  The Star Observer (a gay and lesbian newspaper) also reported a statement by Monash that “Dr Shimon Cowen is not employed at Monash. He holds an adjunct/honorary role (unpaid) in his field of research expertise – Jewish philosophy and theology – which is why he is listed in the staff directory”.

I have also raised the issue with the National Tertiary Education Union, and while the matter still has to be considered at a committee level, I know that the leadership would be appalled by Cowen’s stance, but at the same time, would also stand up for the principle of free speech.

As well as this, a group of academics in the Education faculty at Monash have condemned his views. I also understand that some academics want all ties between Cowen and Monash cut.

Monash University (and other universities) has a very large number of people in what are known as adjunct (what used to be called honorary) positions. These are provided to people on the basis of their qualifications or academic status, on the recommendation of faculties, as a means of providing them with some access to university resources (often the library), rather than the bowl of porridge or beer as was customary in medieval times. At one time, he had an adjunct association with the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilization. I understand that he no longer has that association with the Centre, but he does have adjunct status attached to the Faculty of Arts.  I don’t know when this expires.

I have searched the Monash Research Profile directory to see the status of his research but as far as I can see, there is nothing, unless I am mistaken. Perhaps his work, such as the article that has caused controversy, has not been reported to Monash.   This lack of productivity may be taken into account when his appointment comes up for renewal.

Thus, it appears, as an act of generosity, Cowen, like many other people, has been given a leg-up to his professional career (though the website of his Institute has almost no content). Perhaps he has now overplayed his cards by publishing this dreadful article along with his Monash association. What can be done?

The terms and conditions of being an adjunct at Monash also include reference to Equal Opportunity and Human Rights legislation.   I suspect that any case brought against him would fail because he would claim that he was engaged in academic argument in good faith. Moreover, some people use their academic association to impress those who naively think that their views are officially ‘endorsed’.  Modesty is often absent in academia.

This is painful news for gays and lesbians, and others outraged by his comments. However, as far as I am concerned, the principle at stake is much the same as dealing with hate speech coming out of people like Frederick Tobin of the anti-Semitic Adelaide Institute, or for that matter, the right of SBS to broadcast the political drama, The Promise.   In the same way, while I think that Students for Palestine and some in the BDS movement a menace, I  have to defend their right to free speech, as I do to Joe Gutnick’s politics in Hebron with which I strongly disagree.   In a desire to censor or pull the rug on disturbing opinion, we can endanger everyone’s freedom of expression; because the problem is that it is very, very hard to draw the line correctly.

Thus, it is all too easy to turn people like Shimon Cowen into a martyr, particularly as he would become a pin-up boy of the conservative forces in this country who are engaged in a culture war against what they view as evil modernity.  It would also strengthen the forces of intolerance in the Orthodox community.

We also have to defend Cowen’s right to free speech, because next time “they could come after you.”  The Senate Inquiry of a couple of years ago into alleged leftist bias in higher education showed how little the principle of free speech is understood by those who see a left conspiracy in every lecturer’s class.  The danger is that those accusations of one sort or other could all too easy result in suppression of free speech and thought.  We should not forget until very recently, Australia and its States were renowned for their censorship zeal.

The solution to Cowen’s bigotry is more free speech, and at the same time a vigorous challenge to his views in a way that will educate the public, including the religious community.  He is welcome to defend his pompous assertions, but he will have to deal with people who are educationists, not specialists in Jewish philosophy and theology, as is Cowen. Peer review would be very cruel if he submitted his work to a respected educational journal, or even a moderate rabbinical school in the US or Israel.

And then, there may be Orthodox and more liberal Jews locally who are prepared to challenge him on religious grounds.  Cowen has clearly gone out of his area of expertise, covering his prejudices with a academic ‘gloss’ and that is his real weakness.

Show his ideas up for what they are –prejudiced rubbish, but don’t blame Monash University for supporting the principle of free speech by someone with a very modest, and possibly tenuous link to it.

Larry Stillman was a Committee member of Liberty Victoria for a number of years. He is on the Executive of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society, and is also a Senior Research Fellow at Monash in the Faculty of IT and with the Monash Oxfam Partnership.    However, these views are absolutely his alone.

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