Free speech matters, in any language

An ODT column on the use of te reo in the media has put a lot of noses out of joint. Offensive as it is to some, let's learn from recent history and figure out how to discuss intolerance rather than simply yelling back

It's a load of old tosh, of course. Tēnā rūkahu tēnā. At least in my opinion. The column run in the Otago Daily Times by Dave Witherow complaining about the use of te reo in modern media – RNZ in particular – is "contemptuous" and a grovelling act of "obsequiousness" has stirred strong reaction on social and mainstream media, with it being condemned as quite the most racist column many can remember seeing for some time.

It is to my mind an insulting and narrow-minded piece of writing that seems to reveal little understanding of New Zealand history and culture and even less faith in New Zealanders' ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, culturally speaking.

But some reaction to the column has given me cause for concern as well. Most folk I've seen have just been pissed off; fair enough. I've no problem with people meeting outrageous opinions with outrage, or insult with anger.

But when criticism becomes an attack of civil debate and free speech, well, I come and sit down at my computer. Because it worries me, and worry makes me want to write.

On social media threads I've seen the wish to "bombard" him and accusations of hate speech. For me, that's attacking intolerance with intolerance, which is going too far.

I try to teach my primary school children to meet meanness with decency; kindness where possible, a firm stand when necessary. It's almost cliche to say it, but tolerance doesn't just mean making room for the opinions you agree with. Free speech means you don't have the right to not be insulted. The good bit about diversity is making room for people of all sorts of different opinions, not just the ones you approve of.

Yes, there are lines to be drawn and we can all peacefully disagree about where that may be, I hope. But for me, being grumpy about the use of te reo is a long way from inciting violence or hatred against a certain group. Even the foul, distasteful jokes about Maori "ancestors, the whole tribal boiling of them".

I don't think you make New Zealand a better country by humiliating or hounding someone. You certainly don't increase ethnic tolerance by calling the columnist an "Irish wanker". Beware hounding, it can soon turn into martyrdom. (The column is tonight ranked as the most popular item on the site; my guess is by quite some margin).

Let's step back to see the time in which we live. The world has gone through more rapid social change in the past century, many think, than at any time in human history. Some are more comfortable with that than others. 

You only have to look at recent history to see that shouting down intolerance or the fear of change only builds resentment, a sense of victimhood and perverse outcomes. Western societies have become much more tolerant of minorities in recent decades, but let's not assume that everyone is on the same page. Look at the impact of Don Brash's hideous Orewa speech and Donald Trump's successful and hate-fulled campaign for the presidency.

The way to avoid those volcanic eruptions of intolerance is incrementalism and compassion. And to win the argument, rather than just yell back. 

So, Mr Witherow, there is no zero sum game when it comes to language and culture. The growth of one often propels another. 

Maori is, of course, one of New Zealand's official languages. To speak something less than one percent of the words spoken on New Zealand's national public service radio station in the country's indigenous language is hardly "groveling" at "the holy altar of te reo", is it? Increasing for a few percent for one week out of 52 is hardly a sign of disrespect to English, is it?

Don't the 150,000-odd te reo speakers in New Zealand deserve to hear at least a skerrick of their language on their national radio station? Especially as this is the only country in the world the language is spoken. And especially given the percentage of New Zealanders speaking it is falling. 

Yes, Mr Witherow, there's iwi radio and Maori Television, but do we demand parts of our culture remain ghettoised? Must Diwali only be for Indian-New Zealanders? Can only Tongan-New Zealanders talk about or support their league team? Should sport only be heard on sports radio? Classical music only ever be played on RNZ Concert?

I think we're a better country if we share each other's interests. Language is a window into a culture. And, let's be clear. If we're going to make room for any minority voices, then surely the tangata whenua must come first. 

You say "English is our daily language". It is for you and me, and what a beautiful language it is. But it isn't for other New Zealanders, many of whom speak English as a second language. Yes, English binds us. But why shouldn't Maori as well, in days to come? Again, it is indigenous here and nowhere else. Further, let's not forget, te reo was the "daily language" in this country until 150-odd years ago. Things come and things go.

The criticism of RNZ (where I work) makes sense in that it is leading the way in use of te reo in mainstream media. But it makes little sense to criticise it, when reflecting "New Zealand's cultural identity, including Māori language and culture" is part of the station’s charter, required by law.

You say “no-one campaigned for these impositions”. I think you mean no-one you know. Undoubtedly many did. 

One of the most wrong-headed notes in the column suggests that the desire to include te reo amongst the language used on air is the sign of a “separatist” agenda. Logic suggests the opposite. To exclude those New Zealand’s native tongue is surely more alienating. Your assertion presumably comes from the belief that this is the thin end of the wedge. To an extent, it surely is. The goal is more Maori spoken, a more bi-lingual nation. And you know what? Bi-lingualism often leads to multilingualism, which is good for business and prosperity. Use of their own language also tends to boost a sense of identity and purpose in young people. Which helps.

Mr Witherow, I’m pleased to hear you think respect cuts both ways. Though I’m unclear how the interjection of some te reo shows you or your culture disrespect, I agree with the sentiment. For many pakeha, redressing the damage done to Maori culture and the Maori economy by colonisation is part of that respect. Where you see kow-towing (another word stemming from the damage British colonialism did in prior centuries), some of us see justice. 

You’re entitled to disagree, but perhaps you can make room for those who disagree with you? At least, not accuse them of being “spineless”, “grovelling, “hapless” and other name-calling? Oh, hang on, you actually call for that in your own column, when you write “respect, to mean anything, should involve a willingness to consider points of view other than one's own”. Perhaps you could practice what you preach?

Unfortunately, the column that started on a specific concern about te reo, rambles into general upset about a lack of Maori respect for Pakeha concessions and the sense that you don’t like Maori getting back too much. At least not without saying thank you, or showing “recognition”.

I agree that recognition needs to go both ways in our race relations. Perhaps it should involve a recognition that Maori lost their country, wealth and way of life to an often dishonest settler government. Sure, it can also involve a recognition that Pakeha are involved – slowly – in one of the better examples of post-colonial power-sharing. But when we’ve given back an estimated two percent of what we took, well, let’s not fall into the trap of false equivalency, shall we?

Given that we are figuring out how to share one of the loveliest countries on earth, is it really so much to at least protect the taonga of te reo? If in 150 years New Zealanders are mostly speaking another language, wouldn’t you want to think that English and all the stories it told about this land would be preserved and even nurtured?

I think New Zealand has room for more than one language. But I also think it has room for more than one opinion on that and many other issues. The only way to ensure the country remains ka pai for our tamariki is to settle our differences with reason and debate, not bigotry and insult. Let’s continue the mahi of korero, rather than building fences in newspaper columns or on social media.

Because free speech matters, in any language.