'Good' is a conversation... what NZ's weekend of division should teach us

Let's not remember the visit of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux for the division and insults. That way, they win. Let's instead remember what we have in common and keep talking

This past weekend my Twitter feed was filled with fear. And some of the anger that stems from it. Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern - thanks for coming. I got bombarded with insults from a handful of people convinced that the pair are right to insist their culture is superior and - contradictorily - in jeopardy from others. But they also reinforced a virtue that I hope we can hang onto in these argumentative times.

It started when I tweeted a comment by a colleague of mine. When the Canadian alt-right pair had their event at the Powerstation cancelled at the eleventh hour, this colleague said she wished some Auckland marae had thought to invite them to speak. A genius idea. One gesture would have undermined their argument that 'the West' is the only culture to treasure free speech these days.

Had they refused, they would have been exposed. Had they accepted, the gracious welcome of a powhiri would have been a wonderful counterpoint to their message to fear 'the other', shun diversity and try to rank people according to ethnicity and culture. And, ultimately, they both would have had their chance to speak freely, as most marae would permit. Of course, then they would have had to sit and listen to a response.

Grace, generosity and robust debate for me is always the best response to fear and division. But that's not the main point of this post. My point is, more widely, how we respond when we can't agree.

I believe strongly in free speech. It has its limits, of course, but it is not a principle that belongs to the left, right or even alt-right. In UN Declarations and our own Bill of Rights, it is something that belongs to us all.  

Reflecting on the tenor of the debate over the past few weeks, is not so much the insults and wind-ups that stick in my craw; while they cause unnecessary harm, they have always been with us. Rather, I'm concerned at the number of good people willing to put up the walls and ignore people we disagree with. I'm disheartened by all those willing to give up and accept that people can't change and that growing polarisation is inevitable.

Imagine the world today if William Wilberforce and Kate Sheppard had refused to engage with people whose views they found repugnant. If Martin Luther and Martin Luther King Jr had decided not to argue back. If Desmond Tutu and Te Whiti had seen no point in suffering the slings and arrows of their opponents because, hey, nothing's gonna change.

The twist in this debate is that the Molyneuxs, Southerns and other so-called champions of free speech only win when their shouting drowns out other voices. Voices of conciliation and peace. Because regardless of the polarisation we see today, people can change. We can learn. And, even if we still disagree on some profound issues, we can find other things to agree on and other things to respect in each other.

While I find their approach ignorant and dangerous, I can agree with Southern and Molyneux that what they call Western civilisation (a mash of multi-culturalism itself, ironically) has much to be proud of. I can agree that free speech is important. Perhaps that is something to build on, if not with them and their closed minds, then perhaos with some of those tempted by their ideas.

But we can only find common ground - and common cause - if we keep talking and listening. Sure, the alt-right is not known for the latter, but we stem its flow of divisive ideas not by averting our eyes and pretending it's not there, but by winning the argument against it.

The challenge is to remain vulnerable, even if it causes us pain. Because ultimately, in my view, there is more that unites us than divides us. All of us. Our common humanity is more important than any culture or political stance. It's when we forget that and worship these false gods, rather than treat every person as our neighbour, that we spiral into violence and oppression. 

The thing I'd like to think we can take from this debate is that we are none of us, just one thing. Bigots can be kind, the most open-minded person can be cruel, and all of us are flawed. 

While this is timely now, earlier this year I wrote some of these ideas into a chapter for a new book that has just been released last week. It's called The Big Questions: What is New Zealand's Future? (it also features chapters by Anne Salmond, Andrew Becroft, Theresa Gattung, Leonie Freeman and all sorts of people with more nous than me. You should buy it).

In my chapter I try to champion debate ... open-minded, informed and accountable debate. I argue that "debate isn't over just because you want it to be. You don't get to rest. Or condemn.

"Silence is too high a price to pay for merely being offensive. Our pain threshold has to be higher, because history teaches us that a loss of free speech and rigorous debate hurts us more in the long run." 

In the end, even the people who were so determined to insult me and my views this weekend are still my neighbours. They are part of our society, so we must find a way to move forward together. So we need to keep talking; turning our backs is a cop out.

By coincidence I just watched Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. In it, the ill-fated senator played by Holly Hunter says, "in a democracy 'good' is a conversation, not a unilateral decision". Wise words indeed.