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SAMIRA TAGHAVI: In defence of debate: what happens to societies when dissent is crushed?

I have a question for lawyers of my age or older: in your student days, could you have imagined your law school dean writing that an eminent legal commentator, with years of senior court experience, was an “old racist dinosaur” who should “go die quietly in the corner”?


You might, like I, remember your dean and other faculty members as having had great influence in building your talent and exemplifying skill in truly calm and deliberative debate. But about two weeks ago, Khylee Quince, the Dean of AUT Law School, posted on social media the above ‘go die’ condemnation of Gary Judd KC, after publication of Judd KC’s essay in LawNews on May 3, explaining his move to protect law students (as he sees it) from an education infused with extra-legal indoctrination. Whether you agree with Judd KC or not, no lawyer should mistake such insults for actual debate.


By way of background, the New Zealand Council of Legal Education has decreed that tikanga Māori will become a non-elective component in legal education (like torts and contract, say) from next year. Judd KC has laid a complaint to the government committee which oversees such delegated legislation. The complaint is designed to set in train a motion for the disallowance of the compulsory tikanga regulation. Thus, substantial debate amongst the legal profession is to be expected.


This piece is not to debate the subject of tikanga, but rather to prompt reflection on how we engage with different viewpoints. The Quince reaction has left me pondering on the way some lawyers and other professionals seem to have forgotten what true debate actually entails and have even lost the ability to engage in meaningful debate altogether.

 

‘Debate’ in Iran


My own respect for the value of debate was shaped in a country where there is no respect for debate, that country being the Islamic Republic of Iran.


The Iranian regime explicitly seeks the demise of its enemies. We remember the promotion of the (nearly-successful) murder of author Salman Rushdie, for example. The Iranian dictatorship shows, I would suggest, that departure from disciplined debate can drag the undisciplined into violent rhetoric, making our society a more extreme and dangerous place – intellectually and physically. Wishing death upon your opponents not infrequently also silences them, an objective of regimes and hot-headed individuals alike. So it is deeply alarming to me now to hear Establishment voices in this country mimicking the intemperate language of merciless dictatorships.

 

Words and logic


My father, a seasoned lawyer and judge, and my mentor (a Ms Sotoudeh, now a political prisoner for more than a decade), both instilled in me a profound respect for the art of argument. They taught me that true strength lies in using words and logic to engage and persuade, not to belittle or insult. My mentor’s admonition resonates often: “Your words will either attract the strong-minded and engage them, or offend the weak. But you should never be silenced because you fear how others might perceive you.”


In Iran, dissenting voices are often met with harsh punishment, like hanging, stoning and public lashing – all of which I have personally witnessed. So I learned to navigate life through a constrictive prism of fear and pessimism. Persecution for merely expressing disagreement with the status quo (resulting in my repeated arrest) made it clear that staying in Iran could be fatal. More than the threat to me, the toll each incident took upon my family was heartbreaking.


Casting an eye back, I can report from my experience in the Middle East that “go-and-die” language is (not inappositely mixing metaphors, perhaps) the unstable ledge just above the slippery slope to much worse. But that life also impelled me to get as far away from “debate control”, and the language thereof, as I could.

 

Rape threat


In coming to New Zealand, I was driven by the hope of finding a society where diverse opinions were not just tolerated, but valued. Upon arriving here, I was determined to embrace the freedom to debate in achieving better public policy. Thus my career in criminal law has frequently led me into publicly arguing about legislative proposals.


One such campaign was against the recent Labour/Green-led group-think that resulted in the Sexual Violence (Legislation) Act, which makes the conviction of innocent defendants more likely.


Despite warnings that the campaign might attract unpleasant personal consequences, I chose to speak out. And the backlash was severe, including vicious emails wishing physical harm upon me.


For instance, following the publication of one of my articles on the then-bill, I received a reprehensible message suggesting that I should not be writing articles, but instead be raped. To me, that message and its maker underlined the severity of declining decorum in proper debates. The campaign, however, also drew support from those who recognised the importance of addressing difficult issues and reinforced my belief that engaging with tough topics is crucial.


Another disturbing thing I noticed in that campaign was that the New Zealand Establishment seems, like the Iranian regime, to have come to the view that, on many issues, there is only one true opinion and that other opinions should be silenced. The silencing is done with belittlement (such as labelling opponents “racist” and “sexist”), “deplatforming” and ultimately “cancellation”.

 

Protecting debate


Critics have, of course, labelled The Law Association’s LawNews publication of Judd KC’s piece (and the piece itself) as “racist” and “anti-Māori”.


This reaction is particularly concerning when it comes from within the legal profession – one that fundamentally should uphold robust debate and the thoughtful exchange of ideas.


I take great pride, however, in being part of an association that steadfastly avoids censoring views, respecting instead well-reasoned argument and allowing individuals to express their perspectives in a rational and courteous manner. This platform of open discourse is something I cherish.


In this context, the response from The Māori Law Society merits recognition for its reasoned and respectful tone. Such a response provides a commendable example of how to engage with contrary viewpoints. As highlighted by the reaction to Judd KC’s recent article in LawNews, there is a palpable need for platforms that facilitate thoughtful discourse. It is imperative for those who disagree with Judd KC’s opinions to see this as an opportunity to contribute constructively. I urge anyone who felt “offended” by his arguments to respond with a well-reasoned rebuttal for publication. This approach not only showcases the critical skill of persuasive discourse that is essential for any lawyer, but also reinforces the principle that differing views should be approached with logic and civility, rather than disdain or derogation.

 

Future lawyers


Khylee Quince’s belittlement of Judd KC raises important questions about the lessons we impart to the next generation of lawyers. Are we equipping them to confront and counter challenging viewpoints effectively? Or are we teaching them to resort to personal attacks?


Law school moots are designed to prepare future legal minds for exactly this type of engagement. Yet, the prevalent response to opposing views appears increasingly to be one of shutting down dialogue and hastily assigning belittlements of the “racist” or “sexist” flavour. As an aside, I would note that Quince seems unencumbered by any insight as to irony, engaging as she does in “ageism”, at least in regard to “old dinosaurs”.


I volunteer from time to time as a mentor to law students. So I remind myself often that the role of educators and mentors is to instil values of respect, critical thinking and persuasive argument in our future lawyers. It is our duty to prepare them for a professional life filled with diverse opinions, encouraging them to address disagreements with intellectual rigour and personal integrity. This approach is integral to maintaining a robust legal community.


It is crucial that we do not encourage the next generation to resort to cruelty or dismissiveness. Engaging in reasoned debate when faced with differing opinions is essential. By fostering an environment where respectful dialogue is the norm, we prepare them better for a world where facing confronting perspectives is inevitable.


Embracing this approach not only enriches our understanding but also ensures we contribute positively to their development. I tell students, “always remember; you don’t win a debate by suppressing discussion – you win it with a better argument”. Alas, Dean Khylee Quince apparently also needs this reminder.

 

Samira Taghavi is a barrister and practice manager at Active Legal Solutions and a member of The Law Association’s council and Criminal Law committee


This article appeared at Thoughts from the North, the substack of Gary Judd KC

3,726 views137 comments

137 Comments


Brilliant writing Samira; thanks for making the effort. As for K Quince, she should be sacked for making such a stupid, unintelligent statement about a respected senior lawyer. I consider Judd is a lucid, articulate and dedicated New Zealander who deserves more attention than Ms Quince will ever gain.

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Just about my favourite topic right now. We humans have a terrible history of persecuting people who go against or even question the accepted "truth" - Socrates, Galileo and countless others.

Why can't we ask questions about the scared cows and taboo topics without being shouted down? Always - because there are things those who either wrote or profit from the accepted version of history are scared to have to come into the light.

Everything should be debatable.

Ancient civilisations

Virology / vaccines

The Holocaust - actually all of WW2, especially the lead up.

Climate

etc etc etc

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Replying to

Undoubtedly Boris . Well said !!

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Ok.

This will land me in a pickle on bbh. I couldn't care less.

And I'll wear it and take all critique on the chin.

This awful and demonstrate attack on people in the public eye cuts both ways.

Golriz garraman.

Ok.

She absolutely, without doubt, without question made a,complete pigs ear of her political career, she said things as part Jewish I find insulting and hurtful....yes.

But that is NO REASON to personally assault her, or her beliefs,,and indeed her family or religion. That is sacrosanct and precious to her. And believe you me you go at her all day long but you leave that shit out of why she's been given the bums rush.

And I find tha…


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Replying to

Likewise !

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It is amazing that that ranting law school dean hasn't been censured in any sense. I don't think many people in prestigious positions of authority would be able to get away with such statements,

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janz
janz
Jun 27
Replying to

There is one minority group that seems to be given an automatic pass to make the kind of statements you refer to.

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That is a very well reasoned and written piece. I am impressed.

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