We need to understand hate to defeat it, not ignore it

When something wicked this way comes, what do you do? I hope in time we can make space for study and understanding. Let's find the courage to look at where the hate came from and counter it with facts and truth as well as compassion.

One of the most powerful of the many powerful stories coming out of Christchurch in the past week, is that of 71 year-old Haji-Daoud Nabi, who greeted the gunman at the door of the mosque with a warm, "Hello brother...". Nabi was the first to die.

But that spirit of brotherhood  - that we are all each other's brothers and sisters - should guide us as we learn from this horror.

In a couple of conversations in the past few days I've had reason to recall a night spent with a friend at a farmhouse not far from Philadelphia. I was staying with a friend who works for the Washington Post and who is part of a team developed  in the wake of the Trump election to look harder at life and issues outside the DC Beltway.

In the wake of Trump's shock election, one of the things most media organisations had to confront was what they had missed. They had not anticipated how Trump would strike a chord with so many or understood the power of the issues he chose to champion.

It was a watershed moment for US journalism and my friend and I talked late into the night about the stories she had been doing, why people believed what they did and how otherwise ordinary, decent folk could embrace a demagogue such as Trump. 

We talked about fear. Fear of change. Fear of loss. Fear of the unfamiliar. 

As she talked about all the people she had been speaking to in many parts of America - away from the big cities - she said they were anxious about the change being preached to them (typically by people much better placed to adapt to it). These typically white, working class Americans felt they never had much in the first place and phrases like 'white privilege' jarred. So they kicked back. They resisted change and the loss of power. Seen through the lens of race or gender, that was often an ugly display of prejudice. 

What stays with me most from that conversation was the point that these people aren't wrong in their understanding of what's going on. Their world is changing. People who are different from them - who have often been more powerless than them - are gaining power. They are being asked to give up something.

The world they know, where people like them - often white, working class conservative Christians - had the run of things, is changing. While they themselves were still often struggling, their 'tribe' had prospered with the backing of the establishment; they had been raised to think that with hark work and decency, they too would get their chance.

Now, while they are still waiting for their chance, they are being told to stand aside and forsake their 'privilege'. While those minority groups fighting for that change might rightly roll their eyes and point to how slow the change has been and the prejudice they still face, change is happening and has been for a while.

For most of us this is a joyous thing, something to be championed and celebrated. A sharing of opportunity and a breaking down of walls. Ultimately it makes the world a better place, not just for the minorities, but for the majority as well. Why? Because a world of justice and opportunity for the many, is always a better place.

But while we are working hard for that justice, it's worth remembering that it comes at a price. A just and necessary price perhaps, but a price all the same. It's easy to look at the Trumps of this world and plenty of other powerful white men and say 'your time has come'.

But they are not the only ones being effected by the social changes of the past few generations. When we say certain genders, ethnicities and so on typically endure more hardship than white/Pakeha men, we are stating simple fact. But the problem with averages and generalisations is that - like driftnet fishing - they're a catch-all.

A lot of people of the dominant ethnicities, sexualities and genders don't actually experience the privilege allotted to people who look and live like them. Or, at least, they don't feel very privileged. 

Talk to a white, male miner in West Virginia and sure, he has lived a life without the injustices and institutional prejudice visited upon a black or gay man in the same job, same state, same house even. But that does not mean he may feel very privileged. He may point out that just a generation or two ago his ancestors were the downtrodden. The running water, shoes, education and even opportunities to participate in a democracy that he and his children enjoy now, feel barely won. And now he's being asked to give up what he might see as 'security' for concepts such as diversity and equality? It's not easy.

Of course that's no excuse for prejudice. These changes are welcome and I'm certainly not laying even an ounce of blame on those who have fought to share power and opportunity. 

But it's interesting to try to put yourself in another's shoes and understand why they embrace what seems so demonstrably unjust and, well, stupid. Even evil. That is what compassion is; an attempt to understand the other.

If you live in New Zealand, you'll understand why I added 'evil'. And you'll probably understand where I'm headed with this.

Brenton Tarrant, who killed 50 people last Friday, described himself as an ordinary working class guy. The document he left behind was full of the sort of prejudice born of someone who doesn't want the world to change. He likes power where it is and doesn't want to share.

It's supposition at this stage and experts may yet come up with wiser insights. But it seems to me that his fear of a loss of privilege drove him to see a whole 'European civilisation' under threat. His fear of change made him pick up weapons and mow down people in prayer, children included. 

That's why I think we have to be careful how we discuss and report this man's evil deeds. We'll all get it wrong at times, but I'm wary of those who want to ignore his actions and leave them to the darkness. Just as love can only overcome evil, only understanding and transparency can overcome ignorance and dark deeds. 

I don't want to cause the victim's families more pain and I don't want to excuse or amplify Tarrant's warped ideas. This man's actions deserve scorn, disgust and the most extreme punishment our society is willing to impose.

Jacinda Ardern says he should give him nothing. Fair enough. But we should take from him the opportunity to change. We're already doing that with the love and care towards strangers that we are seeing all over the country in the past week. Long may it live.

But I hope we also take the oppounrtity to respond like the Post did to Trump's election. By investigating and reporting. Of course an election and a massacre are very different, but I hope we see a renewed effort to expose, to challenge and also to understand those who might be struggling with the social changes of recent times. While thankfully Tarrant is the only fool in New Zealand willing to take up arms - as many have said in recent days - he is not the only one to have dallied in such ideas or dipped their toes in the shallows of prejudice.

So once the anger fades, let's not go into denial or silence; talk about it, wrestle with it, fight the ignorance that spawned it with understanding and facts. Let's have the courage to try to figure out the appeal of such deluded nonsense and hate. And let's discuss how we break down privilege and prejudice without alienating people along the way.