|Keeping It Normal: If we are going define extremism in relation to a society’s “norms”, then we will discover very quickly that we have signed-up for an extremely moveable feast!|
THERE’S SOMETHING a bit creepy about the Royal Commission’s report into the Christchurch attacks. That an agenda is at work throughout the document is incontrovertible – and it goes well beyond simply uncovering, describing and learning lessons from the actions that led to the tragedy of Friday,15 March 2019. It’s an agenda dedicated to the monitoring, management and eventual eradication of an entire way of thinking about the world. The “far-right extremist” way of thinking.
Now, I’m quite sure there a plenty of people on the Left who would say: “And what’s wrong with that?” They would point to the mountains of skulls piled up by the Far-Right over the past two centuries and demand to know why the world would not be a better place without these awful ideas and their political executors. But measuring the height of skull mountains is a mug’s game – especially when you’re on the Left. The bone-piles of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong put Adolf Hitler’s to shame!
To which many on the Left would respond by asserting that Stalin and Mao weren’t actually of the Left, they were totalitarians – a very different beast altogether. Possibly. I would argue that the argument, at its heart, is all about how tolerant you are of people whose ideas contradict your own in a fundamental way.
Even the Royal Commissioners got this: stating, in their definition of political extremism, that:
“Extremism is generally understood as a belief system underpinned by rigid and uncompromising beliefs outside the norm of a society. In the case of New Zealand this might be by rejecting democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Extremism can have different ideological underpinnings and manifest in a number of ways. Central to extremist belief systems is a desire to bring about change and overhaul the political, social or religious environment to conform to the person’s or group’s idealised vision of society.”
That unwillingness to compromise is critical. Rigidity, too, is a key aspect of the extremist personality. Certainly, it’s pretty hard to argue that Stalin, Mao and Hitler weren’t rigid and uncompromising political leaders. That said, there are elements of the Commissioners’ definition that are deeply problematic.
The most obvious of these is the phrase “outside the norm of a society”. What, precisely, do they mean by that rather extraordinary statement?
Society’s “norms” have a nasty habit of changing. In 2020, anyone advocating the incarceration of homosexuals, or their detention in a mental health facility, would be branded a homophobic extremist. A century ago, however, they would be guilty of nothing more than reiterating “the norm of a society”.
In 2020, a left-wing activist calling for the “socialisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange” would be dismissed as an eccentric ideological throwback to a bygone era. Seventy years ago, however, such a person would have been viewed as a potential threat to national security.
If we are going define extremism in relation to a society’s “norms”, then we will discover very quickly that we have signed-up for an extremely moveable feast!
To illustrate the downright sneaky character of the Commission’s definition, let’s apply it to neoliberalism’s conquest of New Zealand in the mid-1980s. The policies introduced by Labour’s “free marketeers” were indisputably outside the norms of New Zealand society. Given the “top-down” manner of its imposition, one could even argue that “Rogernomics” amounted to a rejection of democracy, the rule of law and human-rights. Certainly, the true intentions of its proponents were not communicated to the electorate in the run-up to the 1984 general election. In 1987, Labour dispensed with a manifesto altogether!
It is also indisputable that neoliberalism’s advocates and defenders evinced a rigidity of mind and an unwillingness to compromise that was entirely consistent with the Commission’s definition of extremism. Also present in the neoliberal mindset was a very strong desire to bring about change and to overhaul their country’s economic, social and political environment in comformity with the neoliberal ideology’s “idealised vision of society”.
Thirty-five years on, however, the authors of the Royal Commission’s report would have utterly discredited themselves if they had described neoliberalism as an extremist ideology. If challenged on this point, they would simply argue that neoliberalism is now accepted as “the norm of [our] society”.
And therein lies the problem.
One hundred years ago, what the Commission now describes as “far-right extremism” was the norm of New Zealand society. White supremacy was in evidence across the entire face of the planet: indeed, it underpinned, both morally and politically, the grossly exploitative economic policies of the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and American empires. New Zealand children educated in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were taught that Maori and Europeans were “brothers under the skin” – members-in-good-standing of the same Aryan race. Many of those children are still alive today. Over the course of a century they have gone from being perfectly “normal” New Zealand schoolchildren, to the hapless victims of far-right extremism.
This is the inconvenient truth the Royal Commission Report is so keen to consign to George Orwell’s “memory hole”. That the consciousness of constant historical change should encourage extreme caution when determining what is, and what is not, “extremism”. The consciousness that resists instinctively the totalitarian impulse to erase all memory of those moments in time when the current “norms” of society weren’t in the least bit normal. The impulse which seeks to eradicate all perspectives but the totalitarian’s own. An outcome that can only be successfully imposed by force and fear.
A wiser Royal Commission, rather than fetishizing the social and ideological milieu which spawned Brenton Tarrant, would have looked more closely at the historical causes of his crime. It would have recalled a New Zealand in which established working-class communities (especially Maori working-class communities) were torn to pieces by the ideology of free market fundamentalism. A country in which the social pathologies of poverty and marginalisation grew steadily worse. It would have counted the casualties.
A wiser Royal Commission would also have questioned the bi-partisan political commitment that took the bi-cultural Aotearoa which was just beginning to emerge in the 1980s, and turned it into a multicultural “Asian nation” (as Jim Bolger memorably characterised New Zealand) without the slightest attempt, on the part of either Labour or National, to secure a popular mandate for such a wrenching demographic transformation.
A wiser Royal Commission might have gone in search of the people who opened the nation’s borders – recklessly setting-up burgeoning communities of new immigrants as targets for populist wrath. The people who provided the “context” for Tarrant’s exterminationist hatred.
Ah, yes, but that sort of Royal Commission would have ended up training its sights on a very different kind of right-wing politics – wouldn’t it? A politics defended by extremists a whole lot better resourced and infinitely more powerful than a handful of bewildered ethno-nationalist malcontents.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 19 December 2020.