Thursday, 13 February 2020

Defining Issues

Courtroom Drama: There is no off-switch in a courtroom. Neither is it possible to turn the page in disgust. Ill-formed and ill-defended opinions will be exposed ruthlessly and unapologetically. As Shakespeare put it: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” Sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

UNFOLDING, IN A WELLINGTON COURTROOM, is a drama which speaks directly to the defining issues of our time. What is racism? How central is racial discrimination to the moral deficiencies of our society? What is Hate Speech? More importantly, what is the relationship between Hate Speech and Free Speech? And, lastly, what sanctions – if any – should be imposed upon those whose opinions give widespread offence?

It is, of course, forbidden to comment upon the rights and wrongs of a trial in progress. My apologies, then, to all those anticipating a right royal roasting of either the plaintiff, or the defendant, or both, in the matter of Sir Robert Jones versus Renae Maihi.

What can be observed of defamation cases in general, however, is that it is possible to be too protective of one’s good name. A court of law is a fearsome and dangerous place for those unaccustomed to having their ideas and opinions publicly scrutinised and dissected by persons whose ability to marshal and present contrary evidence has been honed by years of legal training and experience. There is no off-switch in a courtroom. Neither is it possible to turn the page in disgust. Ill-formed and ill-defended opinions will be exposed ruthlessly and unapologetically. As Shakespeare put it: “Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.” Sometimes the best course of action is to take no action at all.

Let us then turn, then, to the broader issues at play in that Wellington courtroom: Racism, Hate Speech, Free Speech, and the most effective response to willful offensiveness.

Increasingly, in this country, as in other countries dominated by Europeans, racism is being viewed as the fundamental driver of social, economic and political injustice. Fifty years ago this was not the case. For most of the Twentieth Century, unequal class relations were deemed to be the primary cause of injustice. With the demise of actually existing socialism, however, and the global triumph of neoliberal capitalism, class inequality has become, to paraphrase Lord Alfred Douglas: the lack of love that dare not speak its name.

The neoliberal ruling-class, with considerable political finesse, has tapped into the energy once devoted to uplifting the working-class (within whose ranks are many, many people of colour) and diverted it into identifying and demanding atonement for the sins of slavery and colonisation committed by the ancestors of contemporary Europeans. The process of elevating racism to the status of the West’s original and abiding sin was greatly assisted by the inspirational examples of Martin Luther King’s non-violent campaign for African-American civil rights, and the African National Congress’s four-decades-long struggle against Apartheid. The impact of these historical struggles on the indigenous victims of European colonialism was direct and enduring.

The development of Maori nationalism in New Zealand offers an excellent example of the process. As the neoliberal experiment gathered momentum in Aotearoa, the formerly close ties between Maori, the traditional left and the trade unions were broken. By the early 1990s, what Dr Elizabeth Rata has dubbed “neo-tribal capitalism” was rapidly transforming Maori nationalism into a vital political adjunct to the all-conquering neoliberal project. The nightmare of working-class Maori and Pakeha making common cause against what was fast becoming a strategically bi-cultural ruling-class faded away, to be replaced by the new and rapidly expanding Maori middle-class’s scorn for the irredeemably racist redneckery of the Pakeha proletariat.

In this context, any unabashed expression of white ethnic chauvinism is almost always construed by Pakeha intellectuals as an unforgivable affront to the state’s steadily evolving anti-racist and decolonisation projects. For those Maori deeply embedded in these processes, however, such reiterations of white supremacist ideology are a godsend. Every such outburst reinforces the anti-racist and decolonisation critique and highlights the baked-in character of the colonisers’ prejudices.

Why then condemn such racially charged outbursts as “Hate Speech” and seek to punish its purveyors? Surely, by constantly exposing their racism, white supremacists provide ongoing and invaluable confirmation of the colonisers’ moral deficiencies? This may well be true, but it’s also irrelevant. The decolonisation process can only be advanced in an environment of hair-trigger outrage and demonstrable indigenous distress. Racism must, therefore, be confronted and condemned whenever and wherever it raises its ugly head, and the offending and offensive racists held accountable for the harm they have inflicted.

It is, accordingly, entirely unsurprising that the liberal-democrats’ passionate defence of the citizen’s right to freedom of expression is viewed as a serious obstacle to the success of the anti-racist and decolonisation projects. At the core of the free speech argument is the proposition that every citizen is obliged to uphold the right of every other citizen – even those whose views fundamentally contradict their own most cherished beliefs – to express their opinions freely and without the fear of any retribution beyond their opponents’ vigorous refutation.

The problems begin when the vigorous refutation of offensive speech is no longer considered sufficient. When the paucity of intellect and the absence of evidence so obvious in the arguments put forward by the racially prejudiced cease to be the best reason for fair-minded people to reject not only the content of those arguments, but also the morally dubious claims of the people making them. When the citizenry, in their confusing and contradictory entirety, are deemed inadequate to the task of determining the proper shape of their society and its future. When the responsibilities of government are entrusted exclusively to those powerful enough to determine which opinions are “correct”. And when those who deviate from such opinions are subjected to the full rigors of the law. At that point, it is possible to give these problems a name.

Totalitarianism.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 13 February 2020.

13 comments:

Odysseus said...

A very well argued column Chris. Identity politics also play a major role in the witch hunt to find offense where it was never offered nor intended. The ever-narrowing parameters for public debate in this country, for example on climate change, and the government's announced intention to bring in new "hate speech" laws are steps on the pathway towards a totalitarian state. How can the tide be turned?

petes new write said...

Bob Jones has always been a nasty piece of over-privileged work. He thinks as he has always thought, his money gives him the right to abuse people in his arrogant disregarding manner. Remember his assault of a television reporter on the 6pm news many years ago. The reporter, bloody nose and all, annoyed Jones because he jones was didn't want to answer the question. Jones did a bit of university boxing, but noticeably he never got stroppy with a real boxer.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"The problems begin when the vigorous refutation of offensive speech is no longer considered sufficient. When the paucity of intellect and the absence of evidence so obvious in the arguments put forward by the racially prejudiced cease to be the best reason for fair-minded people to reject not only the content of those arguments, but also the morally dubious claims of the people making them. "

The problems began when the press suddenly decided that there were two sides to every story, and they must tell both of them. The problems began when the press decided to get rid of most of experienced reporters and leave reporting in the hands of naifs who don't know how to pin those morally dubious people down. (Whatever you say about the various right wing extremists who were employed by national radio, they usually put the hard questions to right-wing politicians as well as left)
The problems began when people started to feel that someone's unsupported and plagiarised opinion is just as good as someone who studied a particular subject for 15 or 20 years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMvMb90hem8

And the problems began with the Internet which means – I think it was Terry Pratchett who said something like – "A lie can go around the world before the truth to get its trousers on in the morning".
The problems also often come from the top where authoritarian and usually right-wing governments in democracies attempt to suppress freedom of the press by bullying and boycotting reporters.
The problems began when people started to prefer to listen to those who told them what they wanted to hear, rather than the truth.
And to be honest I can't see a great deal that people are doing, particularly the press, to overcome these problems.

Anonymous said...

@petes new write: Rod Vaughan deserved everything he got, after abusing Bob Jones "in his arrogant disregarding manner". Bob & anyone else has a fundamental right to go about their daily business & relaxation without unwarranted intrusion & disruption from strangers.

"...identifying and demanding atonement for the sins of slavery and colonisation committed by the ancestors of contemporary Europeans." Complete silence on the sins of slavery & colonisation, cannibalism etc by the ancestors of contemporary Maori however. Yes, they do have a lot to thank the Europeans for.

Barry said...

Ive noticed that the old excuse of 'Racism' and the associated 'Discrimination' excuse is loosing its umph. In both NZ and USA the Black Americans (in US) and the Maori (in NZ) have blamed racism. But its obvious that the other large ethic groups such as Asian or Chinese or Mexican etc dont have such bad socio econimic statistics or crime stats or health etc, etc. Yet these groups are the subject of plenty of racism.

So the Afro Americans are starting to blame "the result of Slavery" and the Maori are blaming "the result of colonisation". In time this too will fall away as its realised that every culture or group or nation has at some time been the subject of slavery or being colonised - yet it seems the only two groups that are affected are Maori and Afro Americans. Why even the Maori had slavery, and its often mentioned in the bible.

John Hurley said...

I made the mistake of criticising Jacindiepoos on RNZ Twitter. On receiving a flock of squawking crows i checked the lead progenitor. It lead to a post on Christchurch's (dreaded) whiteness problem. "It still seems very white" said one middle aged white lady who (it turns out) is high up in the Mental Health Foundation. I wrote to them requesting clarification given that diversity and social cohesion are inversely related. I hope she recovers?

Mike Grimshaw said...

One issue of the defence of free speech is that it tends to be often the free speech of those who have structural, economic, gender and/or class power to say what they think is 'free opinion'. when those who are denigrated by such expressions protest, they are too easily dismissed as wanting 'identity politics'. But what is actually wanted is a recognition that such 'free speech' actually has political , cultural and social impact - that dismisses concerns of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class- and the on-going effects of colonization.

Yes class has been increasingly sidelined- but class does need to understand that class + gender; class + ethnicity, class + sexuality does have different experiences and outcomes; similarly class should not be an excuse to express views that diminish others or promote intolerance.

In other words two options arise. The world has become more complicated and politically correct or actually society has become more nuanced and sophisticated and perceptive.

kiwidave said...

You obviously have some strong feelings about Bob Jones and his shortcomings Pete. Would you think it reasonable to be told you can't express them.
When we have laws where someone stating that 'women don't have penises" is arrested and charged with "hate speech, vilified and sacked from their jobs; where truth is no defence, it's obvious things have gone too far.
Frightening? This is the model for Andrew Little's speech crime laws.

John Hurley said...

Bob Jones expressed support for Asian immigration. He was "kicking the tyres of some new buildings". Could explain support from race relations officer?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Got a friend who was at school with Jones. He sent me this.
https://www.msn.com/en-nz/news/national/bob-jones-is-not-just-a-racist-hes-also-a-coward/ar-BBZYKxQ?ocid=spartandhp
I think he concurs. :)

Anonymous said...

Yes. Look whose funding it.

Identity Politics is useful like abstract expressionism was.

sumsuch said...

Just commenting on your 'below photo' words -- yep, don't know correct description despite studying journalism. And don't care to research, even worse.

All the back knowledge of our culture we didn't consider ourselves clothed without. No Latin and Greek in my day but we needed to know … back, and round. Hence your true 400 years prior Shakespearean summary ( perhaps not surprising with his ideal comments, Shakespeare was apparently a mean man in private). There's really nothing to say about that pre-2000 understanding of how to do reality.

sumsuch said...

I supported Bob Jones's freedom of speech on TDB, trying to figure the thing out.

Think, with his suing habit, his realer character might come out after his death, like Barry Crump. Such a larger-than-life in our day, he seems a little crumpled now. He was hormonally extra-charged, a condition even, so understandable in old age that might fall away and with his intellectual interests he might regret a great deal. Mebbe my $2000 loss, while he got away with his fortune from the fall of RJI in the early 90s, while writing a column about how small shareholders always get it in the neck. Every time this brilliant talker appeared on radio for the next ten years after my loss I turned him off. My reserved, unstimulating, high ethical lawyer uncle knew him down to his boots before most of my knowledge of Bobber with a 'harrumph'. Those knights of the 4th Labour Govt. My teachers knew them as well.

I agree with free speech here but still think 1984 amounts to a war on Maori, and that case should be forwarded politically as much as possible. Sue Bradford in her memoir said we decided in 1984 not to carry along everyone with us anymore, and I'm not sure how much that ever included Maori.