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.

Comments (20)

by Dennis Frank on August 07, 2018
Dennis Frank

Yes, a good appraisal of the situation.  Too bad you didn't also acknowledge that the hysteria was generated by leftists.  Demonising the opposition is primitive behaviour because it polarises society and makes our culture toxic.

However not all leftists are guilty.  I saw plenty of them defending free speech.  I wanted to see evidence that the leftists claiming the Canadians were using hate speech were right, but our media failed that credibility test.  The Sunday show, promoted as an interview, mainly featured opponents emoting at the camera.  It was an abysmal display of bigotry.  I wondered if the decade I spent trying to improve our state broadcaster was a waste of time.  The journo who did the miniscule interview was so biased she couldn't even ask the pertinent questions to expose whatever racist views they hypothetically have.  Nor did anyone else, so we're none the wiser.

by Lee Churchman on August 07, 2018
Lee Churchman

I'm disheartened by all those willing to give up and accept that people can't change and that growing polarisation is inevitable.

But what if it is? Over 60 million people voted for an unqualified, incurious, blustering, racist reality-TV villain. That's the elephant in the room (pardon the awful joke).

It's long been known that liberal democracy won't work unless the vast majority of people put country over party. We don't appear to live in that world any more and there's no reason to think things will return to 'normal'. 

This all sounds eerily like aristocrats in 1914-18 wondering when the masses are going to come to their senses and let the great and the good resume ruling. Perhaps it would be more profitable to start thinking what realistic alternative forms of governance are possible. 

by Penny Bright on August 07, 2018
Penny Bright

If you don’t agree with the views of Don Brash (on any matter) - CHALLENGE them!
Ask hard questions inside the meeting.
Leaflet.
Make a fuss!
But this playing the ‘security’ / ‘safety’ card - IMO to get people ‘uninvited’ from meetings sets a dangerous precedent.
Who’s next?

 

by Rich on August 07, 2018
Rich

"weekend of division"

Have you, like, counted the people on your twitter feed. I reckon you'd get everyone who's even heard of these people, let alone has a strong view on them, into the Powerstation. The NZ hardcore right are maybe 300 people, most of who are permanently sitting on their toilet, blogging.

 

by Lee Churchman on August 09, 2018
Lee Churchman

If you don’t agree with the views of Don Brash (on any matter) - CHALLENGE them! Ask hard questions inside the meeting.

In a post-truth world this no longer works anywhere near as reliably as it once did. Our customary rules governing speech have been rendered largely useless by changes in the media environment.

by Tim Watkin on August 09, 2018
Tim Watkin

Lee, I think if history teaches us anything it's that nothing is forever. A Trump phase will pass. So what do we do then? Are we positioned for reconciliation or will we become victim to the next charlatan to come along?

Just because we don't live 'in that world anymore' at the moment, doesn't mean that we won't again. Sure, there may be a whole new wave coming, but even so we will need to be able to cross the aisle and work with people we disagree with, regardless.

by Tim Watkin on August 09, 2018
Tim Watkin

Rich. Maybe. I admit I'm reflecting a debate as reflected on my TV, social media and community. Of course many people will have better things to do!

by Lee Churchman on August 10, 2018
Lee Churchman

I think if history teaches us anything it's that nothing is forever. A Trump phase will pass. So what do we do then? Are we positioned for reconciliation or will we become victim to the next charlatan to come along?

This is true, but it may include liberal democracy as well. I don't really think it's him to blame. The US has been building up to this for years. Part of it may be due to the argument that mass communication between citizens enabled democracy as long as it was filtered through narrow channels (the traditional media) which forced dialogue and compromise. The internet appears to have destroyed that filtering for the foreseeable future. 

There are other reasons, including the US political system giving too much power to intransigent minorities. The good news is that New Zealand likely won't see this, and 30 years hence we might be erecting statues in honor of Jim Bolger, of all people. His insistence on the electoral referendum perhaps turned out better than anyone could have anticipated.

MMP makes us more flexible. In the past, the seemingly immovable 45% of (mostly older people) who support National would have been able to ride roughshod over everyone else. Now they pretty much have to compromise, which has saved us the kind of political grief seen in Australia, the US, and the UK. National's one attempt at Trump-like politics, under Brash, still came up short. 

We will need to be able to cross the aisle and work with people we disagree with, regardless.

I think that's still possible in New Zealand. No need to include Brash or ACT though. They are basically a political irrelevance, as they should be. 

I can't, however, see how anyone could work with the Republicans. They now demand nothing less than complete submission, even when in the minority—and it's working for them. We're lucky that our parliamentary system and MMP effectively stops that from happening here. 

by Dennis Frank on August 10, 2018
Dennis Frank

I agree with Lee that MMP makes Aotearoa politically flexible.  Our current govt of two plus one half-in/half-out is an excellent model, working well so far.

I don't agree that Brash is irrelevant.  He exemplifies our sense of fairness, and has catalysed the free speech controversy initiated by rabid leftist opposition to the two Canadians (http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com/2018/08/how-new-zealand-left-transforme...) into a focus on the right of the right to be heard expressing their opinions in public venues. 

Only some leftists seek to suppress those opinions, but Brash has exposed their closet-stalinist tendencies.  Instead of listening to the opposing view with an open mind, we saw them trying to shout Brash down, demonstrating that their minds are closed.  Leftist bigotry.  Brash has therefore proven he is still potent politically.  Kiwis have a strong sense that anyone deserves a fair go here.  He's flushing out those who reject that view, for all to see on mass media.

by Chris Morris on August 10, 2018
Chris Morris

Dennis, I disagree with a lot of what you write but fully agree with your comments

If Leftists knew the full history behind their justification quote (and often getting it wrong) " "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic." , they might think again. It was used to imprison an antiwar activist who wrote a very mild pamphlet.  https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/11/its-time-to-stop-us...

One thing people need to seriously think about is repressive laws enacted to support their viewpoint (like "hate speech" proposals and thugs' veto), will inevitably be used against them when the tide turns. 

 

by Lee Churchman on August 11, 2018
Lee Churchman

The fact is that nobody has violated Brash's free speech rights. Freedom of expression is generally understood as a negative right. It's not a right to be provided with a platform nor is it a right to have others listen to you or refrain from heckling you. 

A comparison: 40-50 years ago it was socially acceptable for adult men to express sexual desire for 16-year-old high school girls. There are many well-known songs written about it, such as the blues standard "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl".Society has changed since, such predatory behaviour is no longer tolerated, and the songs now sound more like borderline paedophilia than anything else.

Nobody is prevented from covering or performing creepy songs about seducing high school girls if they really want to, but you're quite likely to get booed and called a paedophile if you do. Brash is in a similar situation. Society has changed and his views are seen as unpopular and bigoted. If you think it's OK to boo people who sing creepy songs, then why can't people boo opinions they think are bigoted? 

 

 

 

by Chris Morris on August 11, 2018
Chris Morris

Lee

That is a disengenuous set of statements you made.

Don's rights were violated. He was invited by the politics society to talk about his time as National party leader. The VC stopped him coming. His speech notes showed he wasn't going to talk about anything that the VC said he was. Her actions, possibly illegal, http://www.stephenfranks.co.nz/massey-university-breaks-the-law/ means that others will do the same thing as a precedent.   The protesters in Auckland  were not heckling - they weren't booing. They were totally disruptive and started their abuse before he had spoken. They had loudspeakers as well so it wasn't just catcalls or asides. The fact that the hecklers got booed then drowned out by the audience showed how unpopular their actions were. 

Your song examples are just you trying to link Don to pedophilia- bad form. He might be old fashioned and his views not flavour of the month, but there are large numbers of New Zealanders that would agree with what he said.  And an even larger number believe he has the right to be heard. 

Turning around the situation, would you accept say a rugby team turning up at a Helen Clark talk about her time at the UN and using hailers to drown her out before she spoke? Or the Auckland VC banning her from talking at a lecture theatre because of a perceived threat of violence?

 

 

by Charlie on August 11, 2018
Charlie

"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." 

I need that in needlepoint on my wall Tim. Well said!

A small correction: Stefan and Lauren aren't 'Alt Right'. They explained that several times, yet our utterly useless NZ media kept using that description.

Overall, they tested New Zealand and we were found to be weak. Just as you imply, the art of debate is not well practised here. No surprise: Academia has spent the last couple of decades deliberately shutting down debate because many of their sacred cows won't stand close scrutiny. 

The funniest aspect of this whole affair was watching Paddy Gower destroyed with the power of logic. If he's the best that NZ media can produce, just imagine what the rest are like!  :-)

 

by Lee Churchman on August 11, 2018
Lee Churchman

Don's rights were violated. He was invited by the politics society to talk about his time as National party leader. The VC stopped him coming.

As she has the perfect right to do. So did the University of Auckland when it prevented Hone Harawira from speaking. We may disagree with her decision or think she could have done better, but it is her right as Vice-Chancellor to refuse people a platform. It is like someone marrying for money—we may think it is morally deficient, but it is their right to do so. You would think that conservatives, who are usually so quick to defend the sanctity of property rights, would understand this.

Freedom of expression is generally a negative in rem moral right, not a right to a platform. Neither Don Brash, nor you, nor me has the absolute right to be given space to speak at a university. I find it odd that this argument is suddenly terrible and wrong when it is used to remove a platform from a conservative speaker. 

The music example is just one of many that would do the same job. Brash's attitude towards race and his history of race baiting are no longer tolerated in polite society. If he didn't want to be booed, he should have thought twice before using racism as a wedge issue. In addition, he's not an expert on these issues and is mostly talking out his backside. The media just like him because he creates conflict that they can use to increase viewing figures.

Turning around the situation, would you accept say a rugby team turning up at a Helen Clark talk about her time at the UN and using hailers to drown her out before she spoke?

In general, most event hosts allow this (although they don't have to). Protesters get to attend public events  shout a bit or hold up notices before being asked to shut up under threat of removal. When they won't shut up or stop being disruptive, security will remove them (and have the right to do so). I don't personally have anything against protests like this—they are a normal feature of modern society. 

Or the Auckland VC banning her from talking at a lecture theatre because of a perceived threat of violence?

They already did that for Hone Harawira. I personally think a credible bomb threat is a reasonable grounds for calling off a public event.

by Chris Morris on August 11, 2018
Chris Morris

Lee

You may have better sources than me but the only report I can find makes no mention of the Vice Chancellor banning Hone from speaking - he did speak at the University marae rather than the law school. 

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/4996046/Harawira-lecture-axed-b...

by Charlie on August 11, 2018
Charlie

Lee, I completely disagree with you regarding Don Brash.

If anything he's the non-racist and it's our current apartheid legislation that is the problem. It's not just Brash saying this - even the royal commission for electoral reform in 1986  said the Maori seats were well past their sell-by dates. It just seems NZ can't move on.

 

by Dennis Frank on August 11, 2018
Dennis Frank

I've noticed a lot of commentators confusing racism with closet-racism.  The former is a consciously-held opinion, objectified via expression (but not here since I was a young man & I'm just turning 69).  The latter operates tacitly.  Since it lurks in the sub-conscious of some, it can be detectable by others via pattern-recognition & the decoding of emotional stances & language-use, but it isn't in the awareness of the people exhibiting it.  Moral condemnation of those people is therefore unethical.

Blaming Brash for being racist may seem appropriate if you think his views are.  I watched carefully when the media coverage of the Orewa speech flushed out such claims.  I saw no evidence produced.  The claims were false.

Likewise this time around.  Another bunch of hysterical leftists trying to con us.  Too lazy to look up the dictionary or google racism to find out the real meaning of the term.  Just using it to demonise the guy.  They're the ones using hate speech.

This time I watched more carefully, to see if the closet-racist label could fairly be applied.  Evidence from all the reportage & blog accounts I saw - zilch.  I understand that grievance-driven folk target people like him because they don't like being controlled by the wealthy & powerful, but that's not a valid excuse for wrong-doing.

by Lee Churchman on August 13, 2018
Lee Churchman

@Chris

OK. I'm not sure that has much material effect on the argument, though. It says the faculty of law stopped the talk, as they have the right to do. 

@Charlie

If anything he's the non-racist and it's our current apartheid legislation that is the problem. It's not just Brash saying this - even the royal commission for electoral reform in 1986  said the Maori seats were well past their sell-by dates. It just seems NZ can't move on.

This seems to me a legitimate topic of conversation at a New Zealand university, and it is. When I taught at university I remember it and associated issues being discussed many times. I can't say I have a firm opinion on it. That seems to me a separate issue from whether Don Brash and/or Hobson's Pledge are the people you would ideally want to talk about it in a university setting. I can also see why many Māori academics and students dislike the idea of the university providing him a platform. I don't know him personally, but Brash's leadership of the National Party were a significant low point in NZ politics and race relations. We've had other poor electoral campaigns, but few involving such explicit race baiting. If he'd never done that, I think his invitation would never have been rescinded. 
by Fentex on August 15, 2018
Fentex

Ana Lenard knew she was doing something wrong when she blocked Brash, and I know that because she said so; when she admitted her claim it was because of security concerns was a lie and her motivation was wanting to prevent him expressing his views because she had decided he was a racist.

She lied to create an excuse because she knew others would not accept her decision to block his presence for her dislike of his character.

This is not an issue of censoring speech - she did not know what he would say, she did not act to prevent promulgation of specific speech.

Ana Lenard stopped Brash attending because she doesn't like him.

Even if one were to hold the opinion that Brash is an old racist git of a cynical mien who tried to import U.S decisive race politics into New Zealand a while ago that isn't something he's made a grifting career of exploiting rubes like many who bring up issues of free speech - he doesn't routinely make speeches that concentrate on racist memes, and there was no reason to think he would at Massey.

Ana Lenard, I think, irresponsibly executed a decison based on personal animosity towards Brash. and I thik that calls into quesation her fitness for her  position.

by Fentex on August 15, 2018
Fentex

Oops, I think I made a nasty mistake above, writing Ana Lenard where I meant Jan Thomas (the VC of Massey) several times.

I don't know why I did that, some kind of glitch and I apologise for the error (and would really like someone to correct it for me...)

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