To Limit Another's Rights Is To Limit One's Own: Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of explaining that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us?
THE SHOCK/HORROR expressed at the Christchurch Shooter’s letter from prison is unworthy of a grown-up nation. A bold assertion, to which the cynical will undoubtedly reply: “True – but this is New Zealand we’re talking about!” Beleaguered liberals will chuckle ruefully – and move on. Because who now believes that the shock/horror “deplorables” are in any way redeemable? And, who really cares?
Such defeatism is unworthy of us. Historically, New Zealanders have shown themselves to be perfectly capable of moral clarity. It was almost sixty years ago that the New Zealand Parliament voted to abolish the death penalty. Does anyone, today, seriously dispute that this legislative reform was carried out against the strong opposition of what was almost certainly a clear majority of the electorate? No. And yet, the politicians of 1961 did not surrender to the ignorance and cruelty of the “hang-‘em-high!” majority – they rose above it.
Our Parliament did the same in 1986 when deliberating the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. Those around at the time will recall the extraordinary rally of conservative Christians who gathered on Parliament’s forecourt to pile high the boxes containing the signatures of the 800,000 New Zealanders petitioning the House of Representatives to reject the Bill. This was, easily, the largest petition in New Zealand history. Did the majority of MPs favouring reform quail before this frightening demonstration of the Christian Right’s numbers? They did not. The Bill became law.
These battles were won because in both 1961 and 1986 liberal New Zealanders still had faith in the duty of reason to over-rule ignorance and cruelty. They refused to be swayed by mere numbers. That a majority of the population believed in the state-sanctioned killing of helpless individuals, or evinced a knee-jerk antipathy to homosexual acts, proved only how dangerous it was to determine what is and is not morally defensible by counting heads.
Even at the risk of someone crying “Godwin”, it is still worth asking if, in 1935, the infamous “Nuremburg Laws” discriminating against the Jews of Germany had been put to a referendum, and endorsed, would that have excused everything that followed? Of course not.
Democracy isn’t just about honouring the will of the majority, it is also – and perhaps more importantly – about protecting the rights of the minority. Precisely because they are human rights: inherent and unalienable; they are not susceptible to the vagaries of popular opinion. To suggest otherwise, which, shamefully, appears to be the position of the NZ First Party, is to invest the majority with the power to annihilate their enemies – and democracy along with them.
The Christchurch Shooter is a human-being charged with appalling crimes. Even so, and those alleged crimes notwithstanding, the outraged majority is not entitled to turn him into a thing without rights. As a prisoner of the state, he must be accorded all the rights and privileges guaranteed to him by law. Included among these is the right to communicate with the outside world: the right to write a letter.
Does this mean that he must be permitted to write to his racist followers, instructing them to make war upon innocent human-beings? Absolutely not. Anymore than we are obliged to permit a person to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The letters of the Christchurch Shooter, by inspiring White Supremacists all around the world, have the power to inflict suffering and death on an horrific scale. As such, the prison authorities have both the right and the duty to prevent such communications being sent.
By the same token, however, those Ministers of the Crown with an interest in the trial of the Christchurch Shooter have a duty to uphold the international covenants guaranteeing the rights of prisoners to which New Zealand is signatory. Moreover, they should all possess the wit and will to patiently explain to the ignorant and the cruel why it is their duty to protect even an evildoer’s rights.
Is it too much to expect senior members of our Government to be capable of this? Surely, every politician should understand that we protect the rights of human-beings precisely because not even the most depraved act can cancel-out the fact that its perpetrator is also a human-being, a possessor of rights – one of us.
Herein lies the paradox. That the criminal’s attempted negation of our common humanity only serves to heighten its inherent and transcendent value. That is why, by honouring the Christchurch Shooter’s right to write, we are simultaneously acknowledging and honouring the humanity of the people who fell before his bullets. More importantly, by negating his negation, we are proudly proclaiming his utter moral defeat.
If New Zealand’s liberal politicians have forgotten these arguments, then, surely, it is time they relearned them.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 16 August 2019.
Chris, you argue: "These battles were won because in both 1961 and 1986 liberal New Zealanders still had faith in the duty of reason to over-rule ignorance and cruelty. They refused to be swayed by mere numbers. That a majority of the population believed in the state-sanctioned killing of helpless individuals, or evinced a knee-jerk antipathy to homosexual acts, proved only how dangerous it was to determine what is and is not morally defensible by counting heads."
Certainly correct on the Death Penalty. Virtually no polling in NZ at the time, of course (the first Political poll here was carried out for the 1960 General Election ... not a lot of people know that ... but obviously no polling on social issues) ... however we do know that those active in the Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment were well aware in the late 50s / early 60s that they were in the minority (and tailored their strategic aims with that in mind). In the UK, Gallup & Harris polls conducted during that period showed large majorities wanting retention of the death penalty (although, interestingly, one of the UK Gallup polls of the early 60s suggested by far the largest group of respondents distinguished between different types of murder & wanted it kept only for the more egregious variety).
Meanwhile, here in NZ, even as late as the 1990s, some Polls were still suggesting a majority wanted its reintroduction (eg Feb 1992 One Network News Heylen Poll). And (if memory serves me right) a series of both Heylen & National Research Bureau Polls had found the same in the 70s & 80s (although, I think, not consistently across the board, ie the occasional poll found majority against).
You're mistaken, however, on public opinion surrounding Homosexual Law Reform. The earliest poll on the issue was conducted by Heylen in 1970(but restricted to respondents in the Greater Auckland Region)and found Aucklanders split right down the middle 50 / 50.
The first nationwide poll on the issue (NRB 1973) found that even at this stage in the early 70s a clear majority (59%) supported Homosexual Law Reform, a 1980 NRB poll also recorded majority support, and four Heylen Polls conducted between April 1985 and April 1986 saw Law Reform support increase from 57% to 64%. And I think in the final one ... for the first time ... there was majority support in every single age group.
I doubt that the death penalty is immoral. Perhaps you are confusing mores and morals? That's what I gathered from Jonathan Haidt - morals are rules for the well being of society and that's all there is to it?
Homosexuality was a won decision helped largely by science (I remember reading about that in Time Magazine.
We may have a common humanity but we are still competing (starting when sperm compete to get to the egg).
Western elites broke a covenant when they decided that demographics should be controlled from the top down rather than at a pace o.k with a centrist majority. This is positive liberalism and it is why we are having a crack down on free speech. They are trying to normalise the unnatural state of humanity - we are just a species of primate (after all).
I think you are right about the letter but I also think Tarrant should have made sure he wasn't taken alive because it is unjust that someone who kills so may should live.
Your argument Chris is fully supported by centre left and right. As a classical liberal view it is a pillar of our open society. Those people who argue the opposite do not really understand the clear humane value of a parliamentary democracy. Referenda, where the majority get to vent their collective feelings and/or their considered and reasoned view, still have their place but should never be described as binding. As in our constitution they are not and cannot be. Parliament is sovereign and so can ignore them. In turn we can throw the elected out at the next election. That is the best system as it puts the responsibility for important changes in the law on parliamentarians, which is the job we give them.
So, much as I'd like to strangle Tarrant slowly to a Wagner tune, I should definitely not be allowed to. Nor should his victims or the State. Ever.
The problem with Brenton Tarrant's prison letter to "Alan" seems to be that it is legally unobjectionable. It could not be banned even through the farcical unlawful "fast-track" process which the Chief Censor used to illegally ban the "manifesto". So "the letter" has to be banned without any pretense of legality or due process.
I suggest that it is because the letter, like the manifesto, reveals that Tarrant's ideology directly derives from the ideology of the 5 Eyes alliance. That is the embarrassing truth which the colonial regime, and its media apparatus, is struggling to conceal from the New Zealand public.
This is not a case of the political elite failing to take a clear stand against the ignorance, intolerance and obscurantism of the mob. It is the exact opposite.
As a people we want to know how and why Brenton Tarrant was able to massacre 51 of our number, and to grievously harm scores more in the Al Nor massacres.
The regime is determined, so far as it can, to conceal the truth from us. That is what lies behind the bans, the media protocols, the closed inquiries, the secret trials and the refusal to name names.
It is not the people that we must stand against. It is the regime.
"As a classical liberal view it is a pillar of our open society. "
Well, almost fell off my chair laughing at that one.
Trump is suppressing scientific research that shows global warming is a thing.
A Canadian cartoonist was fired for creating a cartoon about Trump.
Art Spiegalman has been censored by Marvel comics because their CEO was a fan of Trump.
Rashida Tlaib has been refused entry into Palestine by the Israeli government because she supports BDS – as is her right, just as it is the right of every person to spend their money however they want.
Liberty "University" is censoring the journalism students' newspaper.
Textbooks are being censored all over the USA by right wing Christian groups.
I don't see too much work of the left here Charles. Mind you, you're still probably obsessing over that boofhead football player who was fired for bringing the game into disrepute or something right? That wasn't the work of communists either if I remember rightly.
Hey, I just remembered Folau's equally boofhead brother or cousin or something was fired by a Catholic school for saying that all Catholics are going to hell. Hilarious! The Catholic Church is right-wing enough for you right? So you going to get all upset about that too?
I think the end of capital punishment here came because the last man hung was hung with vulgar haste and the politicians new he was completely innocent . His wife died because they water supply at the farm worker's cottage they lived in was being contaminated by runoff from a sheep dip full of arsenic. She drank the water all day in tea etc whereas he drank from other sources most of the day where he was working. They convicted him of slowly poisoning his wife without motive.
If the public had been told what the politicians knew then they would have voted to end capital punishment too. One major reason the public are not competent to vote in a binding referendum is that they are never allowed to know the truth about politically uncomfortable matters like this. It is deemed more important for security that we have faith in the infallibility of the justice system than that we know the truth. I'm quite sure that most of the high profile cases of murder where the accused consistently protests his/her innocence , they are innocent.
D J S
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