PAUL HUNT, our British-born Chief Human Rights Commissioner, missed his calling. He would have made a much better Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishops are expected to use terms like Good and Evil, Right and Wrong. They subscribe to a faith in which the moral conduct of its adherents determines where they spend eternity: in Heaven, or in Hell.
Chief Human Rights Commissioners, however, are supposed to uphold the secular character of the New Zealand state. As public servants, they are not entitled to talk like Archbishops. They may tell us what is lawful and unlawful. They may even reiterate the purposes of the Act of Parliament which created their office. But they have no mandate whatsoever to instruct New Zealanders on what is “Right” and what is “Wrong”.
It is the arrogation of precisely this sort of moral authority, and the determination to instruct New Zealanders in right conduct, that makes the recent opinion piece by Mr Hunt, published in the NZ Herald of 31 August 2021, so objectionable. That, and the answers he gives to the questions he asks himself about “hate speech”.
“What’s the most effective way of stopping – or at least moderating – hate speech?” Mr Hunt self-inquires. The answer? “A fair, equitable, inclusive, diverse, plural, open, multicultural society which, in Aotearoa New Zealand, is grounded on Te Tiriti o Waitangi.”
It is difficult to imagine a sentence more loaded with concepts more likely to spark lively, not to say bitter controversy. The nature of fairness, and its first cousin, equity, has taxed humanity’s best minds of more than two millennia. What are the boundaries of inclusiveness? How much diversity is a society obliged to tolerate? Does multiculturalism tend towards unity or division? Does pluralism? How far does a society open itself before it simply collapses? Is the Treaty of Waitangi New Zealand’s “founding document”, or an historical artifact now dangerously overloaded with obligations nowhere iterated in the document itself?
Mr Hunt’s solution for hate speech – a New Zealand Utopia in which all of these controversial concepts have been debated and resolved to the satisfaction of all its citizens – is self-evidently unsatisfactory. Clearly, such an utopian state-of-affairs could only have arisen in circumstances of untrammeled freedom of expression. Only in an intellectual climate peculiarly favourable to the discussion of contentious and even painful propositions could such an astonishing level of consensus have possibly been achieved. And yet, reading the rest of Mr Hunt’s essay, it becomes increasingly clear that any form of speech which alarms, excludes, distresses, and/or “denies dignity”, is “vile” and must be prohibited by law.
Mr Hunt is very keen on establishing the “boundaries” at which the robust discussion of ideas must cease. “If you are powerful and privileged,” he writes, “it is easy to dismiss the idea of boundaries indicating what is acceptable. But if you are a member of a disadvantaged group […] boundaries matter.”
It is here, of course, that Mr Hunt, for all his fine talk of “a respectful model for relations between individuals and communities” comes unstuck. By his own admission, the proposed hate speech legislation will have, as one of its principal aims, the limitation of the ability of the “powerful and privileged” to defend their interests.
But, who are the powerful and the privileged? Mr Hunt is extremely careful not to identify those upon whom these tendentious labels should be pinned. We can, however, answer the question by a simple process of elimination. Mr Hunt identifies the “disadvantaged groups” – i.e. those without power and privilege – as: tangata whenua, ethnic minorities, faith communities, sexual minorities, women, and disabled people.
Who is missing from this list? Well, men, obviously. That is to say, men who are not brown, gay, transgendered and/or disabled. Which just leaves white men. This is the group Mr Hunt is enjoining to be “respectful, self-aware, and empathetic” as the hate speech debate heats up.
Also missing from Mr Hunt’s list of disadvantaged groups are the poor and the exploited. Which is strange, because down through the ages it is the poor and the exploited who have felt the lash of power and privilege most keenly. What’s more, the key which unlocked the shackles fastened upon them by the powerful was always and everywhere – Free Speech.
Then again, as all Archbishops know: “The poor are always with us.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 3 September 2021.