What role do New Zealand intellectuals have in social change? What should be the role of NZ academics in public debate? These are some of the issues discussed by Sandra Coney in her interview chapter in the new publication Speaking Truth to Power: Public Intellectuals Rethink New Zealand, edited by Laurence Simmons (2007, Auckland: AUP). In particular, Coney is rather intelligently pessimistic about the anti-intellectualism in NZ society, the role of academics in public debate, the current state of gender relations, and the ability of the current Labour Government to roll back neoliberalism. [Read more below]
Sandra Coney is well known as a New Zealand feminist and women's health campaigner. She is best known for her co-authorship of 'The Unfortunate Experiment' – an expose that alleged women had been experimented on at National Women's Hospital in Auckland without their consent. Like a number of other intellectuals under the microscope in Speaking Truth to Power, Coney is a political activist, intellectual, and non-academic. She neither embraces the term intellectual – ‘For me “intellectual” has a connotation of being somewhat removed from ordinary society’ (pp.251-252) – nor the idea of universities as sites for social change. Instead Coney says she has ‘some scepticism about people in universities’ (p.252). In particular she sees many academics as primarily careerists rather than social change agents for the public good:
often I come across academics who have a huge amount of knowledge, but they don’t share it. I think there should be a commitment to share knowledge with the public at large – especially as universities are public institutions, funded by the public – and to play a more activist role (p.252).
She adds that NZ academic intellectualism would be improved by more interaction with the public, and by an attempt at ‘opinion leading’:
I don’t see how you can actually have important ideas and be separate from society… to me you have to keep a connection with people’s experiences in life in order to say something that means something and is useful. Testing your ideas against people’s actual lived experience is an important reality check, and I think there is a great deal to be learned from being in touch with issues that arise in people’s lives (p.254).
Coney is not entirely blaming academics for their lack of public intellectualism, and adds that part of the problem is that ‘the space for critique has actually got worse with the market orientation of the university, with people not speaking out and not being leaders’ (p.253). And although ‘Very rarely do you see academics in the media here’, when you do see them, ‘it’s often been from quite a right-wing perspective’ (p.254).
And aside from the universities in New Zealand, Coney blames the general anti-intellectual culture that has grown, especially with the implementation of the neoliberal project:
Much of the selfish ethos of the 1990s has become embedded in our society…. For example, people believe that only the private sector can deliver an efficient transport system, whereas the infrastructure that we take for granted – the railways, roading system, water supply and electricity network – was built up by the public sector. People have really bought the dogma that the public sector is inefficient and incompetent. Part of the legacy of these social changes is that activism is seen as old-fashioned (p.264).
This means that now, Coney believes the state of the nation is very poor, with an acute individualism that overwhelms overthing:
People seem to have a sense that they should just be concerned with their little bit, themselves, their kids’ success, their kids’ safety getting to school, their school has to be the best school and so on, and it’s very insular (p.266).
When studying at university herself, Coney undertook a BA in English and Anthropology, which she credits as providing her with the ‘tools for analysing institutions and power structures in society’ (p.255). She reflects positively on the fact that this degree was ‘an indulgent degree, because in those days you didn’t have to think “what’s my career going to be?”; you did what captured you imagination’ (p.255). Obviously now, such ‘indulgence’ is discouraged. Nonetheless, Coney is critical of some of the dominant intellectual trends within the academy:
It’s interesting that the only ideas that have been treated seriously are the post-structural ones, which I’m not very warm to, because they seem to me to be a recipe for deciding you don’t have to do anything. Whereas the other strands were about analysing political action as it happened (p.258).
The point of all this intellectual analysis for Sandra Coney is the need to actually bring about positive social change, and this social change required analysis and interaction with the public:
I developed a belief that I could act to change things, that I could be an actor in society bringing about social change. For me writing has been a way of promoting social change. I’ve always believed that if you put well-reasoned arguments before the public they will see the sense of them (p.252).
I really believe that thought and words and writing and analysis can have a big impact. I see writing as a tool to change people’s thinking and view of life (p.259).
After observing and writing about politics in New Zealand over the last few decades, Coney is not overly impressed by the role of the current Labour Government. She feels that they’re doing very little to effectively roll back neoliberalism:
The structural change that New Zealand underwent, in terms of the corporatisation of the public sector, and the widening gap between rich and poor, has become entrenched. For example, in the local government area, in which I now work, notions of cost efficiency, market competition and styles of governance are enforced through the legislative framework, even though I think we recognise that enormous harm was done through the changes of the 1990s to institutions and practices that had served us well for generations. Even new legislation continues this direction (p.264).
She is not optimistic that things are now heading in the right direction and the damage of neoliberalism can, or is, being undone:
I don’t think New Zealand is in very good shape as a nation. I think it’s been damaged by what went on in the 1980s and 1990s, and I don’t see anything currently going on to repair that damage. A lot happening now is actually building on the discredited ideas and policies of that period. I see something like the Knowledge Wave as actually still trying to take forward ideas which I consider to have been totally discredited (p.266).
When asked in her interview about the contemporary decline or perceived irrelevance of feminism, Coney unfortunately has little analysis to offer. In fact she despairs at the state of gender in 2007, and is at pains to argue that the current style of integration of women into the market isn’t exactly what she thought the women’s movement was trying to achieve in the 1960s and 1970s:
Women’s liberation was never about paid work and a career being the primary goal in life. Women have swapped motherhood with a capital “M” for the market. Women are expected to parade the trappings of “success”, have a high-powered job, to be gorgeously dressed, have a stylish home, a spunky husband, “successful” children and still have time to go and get a Brazilian wax. That was not what I fought for (p.264).
Coney is seemingly unable to explain this outcome or offer a way forward, and therefore seems to fall back into one of the more inane and backward areas of feminism – fighting against ‘sexual objectification’:
I am deeply disturbed by the influence of pornography and prostitution on women’s lives. The notion of women as sexual display and playthings for men has entered the mainstream via music videos, advertising, television, women’s magazines and so on…. So at the same time as women are becoming much more economically proficient, and gaining more freedoms, they are being dragged back by extreme models of sexual objectification (p.264).
Despite this more conservative element of feminism being asserted by Coney, she also reflects in the interview on another negative element of the women’s movement – feminist spirituality, and explains why as editor of Broadsheet she resisted it:
We’d publish most things; the only thing I resisted publishing was articles about spirituality, in which I have no interest in the slightest, and which I think was not helpful to the feminist movement. Some of the overseas journals got taken over by cultural feminism (p.260).
Despite some of these errors of the women’s movement, Coney has come out of it all with a fairly clear analysis of the problems and challenges of social change in an anti-intellectual country like New Zealand.