THE ACTING CHIEF CENSOR’S decision to ban the “manifesto” of the latest hate criminal doubles-down on his predecessor’s error. Putting to one side the universal tendency of all forbidden things to stimulate popular interest purely on account of being banned, keeping the deranged, hate-filled ravings of Brenton Tarrant – and now Payton Gendron – out of New Zealanders’ hands has once again robbed us of the opportunity to gain some understanding of the tortured and fantastical world these individuals inhabit.
Since the ideas of these mass killers are extremely dangerous, and potentially fatal, it is surely in the interest of society to be provided with the means of recognising them when encountered. When a family member or friend starts spouting forth the sort of racist ideas that motivated Tarrant and Gendron, that is presumably a strong indication that all is not well. But, with the ideas of both men kept out of the reach of the public, how are those closest to potential offenders supposed to know what they’re looking for?
From a very early age New Zealanders are warned to give small black spiders with a red blotch on their abdomens a wide berth. The Katipo, we are told, is venomous: and while its bite may not kill you, it can make you very unwell. That said, isn’t Mr Rupert Ablett-Hampson’s decision to suppress absolutely Gendron’s manifesto a bit like a parent telling his child that, yes, New Zealand does have a venomous spider, but, no, he is not going to give her any information about what it looks like and where it is most likely to be found?
Ablett-Hampson’s news release justifies his decision to declare Gendron’s manifesto “objectionable” – thereby making it a serious offence to possess and/or disseminate its content – by referencing the harm it could do if accessed by the wrong sort of person:
We understand most people in Aotearoa reading such publications would not be supportive of these hateful messages but these kind of publications are not intended for most people. We have seen how they can impact individuals who are on the pathway to violence.
It is, however, extremely doubtful if declaring such documents “objectionable” will have the effect Ablett-Hampson intends. Those disposed to the arguments of white supremacy, for example, need only search for the topic on YouTube to activate the algorithms that will supply them with a great deal more information than is good for anyone’s mental digestion.
Moreover, if our white supremacist is persistent he will soon be in a position to move well beyond the material available on YouTube. There are places on the web where the red meat of murderous racism is served up blood raw and dripping. In these infernal regions of the Internet, the Acting Chief Censor’s writ simply does not run.
Another place the Acting Chief Censor’s writ does not run (at least, I hope it doesn’t!) is the past. History, sadly, is one long chronicle of human cruelty and suffering. The acts of injustice committed by our ancestors cannot be undone by the simple expedient of declaring them “objectionable”.
One could try, I suppose, but it would mean banning all material relating to the Knights Templar (who inspired the Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik) and the Ottoman Conquest of South-East Europe (which played an important part in the formation of Brenton Tarrant’s worldview). All literature and films relating to the Ku Klux Klan (To Kill A Mockingbird, Mississippi Burning) would have to be proscribed, along with all histories of the Third Reich, and, of course, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A similar fate would, presumably, lie in store for the writings of the eugenicists and “scientific racists” of the early Twentieth Century. The thoughts of H.G. Wells, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, Winston Churchill – all would have to be declared objectionable.
The list of things one could be sent to jail for possessing and disseminating grows long!
And then there are the everyday conversations and personal rantings of ordinary New Zealand citizens. A fair proportion of these are bound to contain all manner of objectionable ideas and claims. Racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and Islamophobia are to be found everywhere. Misinformation and disinformation are not restricted to social media, they constitute the daily subject matter of our national discourse. It is still possible to sit on a bus and hear the person seated in front of you regale his companion with the long discredited myth that the Māori, upon arriving in these islands, encountered the culturally less sophisticated Moriori people, and exterminated them.
Objectionable? Of course it is. But what is the best way to finally put this white supremacist myth to rest? By jailing everyone who repeats it? – A solution which would require all of us to become government spies ready and willing to dob in our neighbours, relations, friends, lovers? Or, for New Zealand society to use its considerable educational and media resources to set forth clearly the anthropological and historical evidence revealing what actually happened – thereby equipping our children to move beyond the myth and embrace the truth?
Would there still be some, diehard racists all of them, who still peddled the Moriori myth? Yes, there would. The point, however, is that when we heard them spout their racism we would be well placed to assess whether or not we were listening to nothing more alarming than a bore in a bar, or, to an individual “on the pathway to violence”.
Hate speech is jarring, distressing, and potentially indicative of murderous intent. After the Christchurch Mosque Attacks it was completely understandable that many of us made the leap from the terrible events of 15 March 2019, to the terrible idea that another such event might be prevented by banning the expression of objectionable ideas – on pain of imprisonment.
But, the actions of the Acting Chief Censor notwithstanding, we cannot incarcerate our way to virtue, we can only arm our fellow citizens with a reasonable description of vice. So that, when they encounter it in the street, the pub, on the bus, or at a dodgy Coastal Otago gun-club, they will recognise it and contact the appropriate authorities – who will do something about it.
Like the blood red blotch of the Katipo, the manifestoes of mass killers must be allowed to acquaint us with the offensive smell and the bitter taste of ideological poison.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 May 2022.