AT THE SERVICE marking the second anniversary of the Christchurch Mosque Attacks, New Zealand’s Prime Minister spoke of resilience.
“Many of us will remember, or indeed have seen children being taught from a very young age to be stoic.” Jacinda Ardern declared. “That if they face the harsh words of others they should adopt a stiff upper lip. Perhaps it has been our way of teaching children resilience in the face of those who might intend to cause harm.”
She’s right, that is the way New Zealanders used to bring up their children. Subjected to hurtful speech, those on the receiving end were taught to sing: “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
The Prime Minister was not convinced.
“Of course we want our children to be resilient,” she said, “but surely no more than we want our children to be kind?
“And so we have to ask ourselves, what does it take to create a generation that is empathetic but strong. That is kind, but fair. That is knowledgeable but curious. That knows the power of words, and uses them to challenge, defend, and empower.”
Jacinda’s question was rhetorical, but it deserves an answer.
What it takes is a society comprised of something other than human-beings – angels, perhaps.
Certainly, empathy confers a kind of strength: Jacinda proved that in the way she conducted herself in the hours and days after the massacres at Al Noor and Linwood. New Zealand was unquestionably strengthened diplomatically by the raw emotional power of its Prime Minister’s empathic response.
Jacinda’s empathy ran out, however, when confronted with the enormity of Brenton Tarrant’s crime. So unequivocal was her condemnation of its perpetrator that she vowed never to speak his name. Nor has she demonstrated the slightest curiosity concerning Tarrant’s motivation. On that matter, at least, she just doesn’t want to know.
But, how can words have power: how can they “challenge, defend and empower” if they are not imbued with the knowledge born of asking “Why?”
The Prime Minister’s own words notwithstanding, there is scant evidence that anyone in this government; the state bureaucracy; or the mainstream news media; has the slightest curiosity, or in-depth knowledge, of the forces that drive individuals like Tarrant. Indeed, within 72 hours of the massacre, New Zealand’s Chief Censor had declared his manifesto “objectionable” – thereby making its mere possession an offence punishable by imprisonment.
New Zealand has not been challenged to do anything about the Christchurch Mosque Attacks except condemn them.
And, of course, they should be condemned. They were cruel and wicked and utterly devastating of the lives of scores of innocent people. But, the overwhelming horror and disgust which such wanton savagery naturally elicits is all too easily harnessed to serve the interests of political causes that are neither kind, nor fair, nor innocent. Causes that have no interest whatsoever in encouraging the free exchange of words to “challenge, defend and empower” their fellow citizens. Causes whose purpose is, rather, to condemn, attack and weaken all those who refuse to endorse their ideology wholeheartedly and without reservation. Causes determined to silence all speech that does not echo their own.
In this regard, there is cause for New Zealanders to wonder exactly where their Prime Ministers stands on how free their use of words should be. What should we make, for example, of this rather oblique passage from her memorial address?
“We all own and hold the power of words. We use them, we hear them, we respond to them. How we choose to use this most powerful of tools is our choice.”
Is it drawing too long a bow to say that there is something vaguely threatening in the construction of those sentences? Something along the lines of: “Yes, of course you have freedom of speech – just be careful how you use it.”
The sense of menace is not dispelled in the sentences which follow:
“There will be an unquestionable legacy from March 15. Much of it will be heart breaking. But it’s never too early or too late for the legacy to be a more inclusive nation, one that stands proud of our diversity, embraces it, and if called to, defends it staunchly.”
Whenever political leaders begin to declare their intention to defend staunchly the ideas for which they stand – and for which they blithely assume the rest of the nation also stands – it is time to worry.
Stripped of its rhetorical finery, Jacinda’s speech boils down to this: If hateful words are directed at vulnerable groups, then legal sticks and stones will be deployed to silence those who utter them.
Jacinda wound up her speech by implicitly inviting her followers to be ready to respond, as she vowed to be ready, when empathy proves unequal to the darkness that dwells in the human heart:
“And [at] those moments, may I never, and may we never – be at a loss for words.”
The effectiveness of those words, however, will largely be determined by the strength of the person speaking them and the resilience of the society hearing them. Jacinda’s inspired words of 15 March 2019 – “they are us” – spoke much more to her strength than to her empathy. She imposed an explanatory framework on a society that was tough enough to carry it and make it work.
New Zealanders are not angels, and they should not be expected to behave like angels. In the hours and days after Tarrant’s attack, what mattered most was the swiftness with which the Prime Minister (unlike some of her left-wing fellow-travellers) moved to reassure her fellow citizens that they were not devils. That designation belonged to the terrorist alone.
Words didn’t kill 51 innocent human-beings on 15 March 2019 – bullets did.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 16 March 2021.