By Olivia Pierson
First published on Incite Politics
As a rule, I don’t get embroiled in pointlessly negative debates on Facebook, mainly because it ends up with fending off too many smelly swine to get to any creamy pearls that may be underfoot. I share my essays to that medium and let folks come to my website if they so wish. But, I made an exception when I saw that the author of the petition to strip Sir Bob Jones of his knighthood, Renae Maihi, had publicly posted these words to gain signatories on her petition:
“This man needs to be stopped & humbled. Enough is enough. I will not have him speaking of my son as if he should be his slave. I will not have him mock the death of our young people. I will not have him get away with vile racism & still be called “Sir”. You may not believe in Knighthoods or things of the like but sometimes people need to be stripped of their honours to be sent a message…” Renae Maihi
Being a free-speech enthusiast, the freedom to offend is important to me, since without it there can be no satire, no edgy tongue-in-cheek humour, no taking the piss, or robust debate about any topic where one group of people may be subject to getting their sensitive little feelings hurt. It’s a hill I’m willing to die on.
So, I entered this muddy fray to tell Renae to pull her dopey head in. You can imagine the response on a thread populated by Facebook Maoris – it got ugly very swiftly. But, in my own mind, I wanted to illuminate any who might care to learn how the principle of free speech works, ie they can sling anything at me, no matter how unedifying, and all I can repair to is an argument formulated by my wits, without resorting to the conversation squelcher, “I’m offended and you must be stopped because of it!”
After we got through the “Olivia, shut the f#ck up you c#nt,” I asked them if the low level of polemic on the thread was a representative slice of NZ Maori? No doubt a quick dictionary search of the word ‘polemic’ caused the abuse to simmer down somewhat, leaving a space for less hostile lurkers to make their way out of the woodwork and posit arguments about Sir Bob “having a responsibility” to speak wisely, especially since he has been elevated to knighthood status. That seems to be their theme – and that he should not ever speak in a racist way on the platform given to him by NBR. (I note the word “given” as if the idea of a value exchange is totally foreign.)
Renae asked me if I’d be willing to meet her face to face for a coffee, woman to woman, to discuss the topic since she couldn’t see the point in an online discussion – which is ironic when one considers that her whole hit-back against Sir Bob has been an online crusade. I sent Renae a blog post that I wrote last year titled “We Must Speak Freely, it’s Holy Ground” and asked her to first read it and then, if she still wanted to, make contact with me through my website in a private fashion (I’m not really the meet-up-for-coffee kind since it usually means socialising with people – and outside of my job, I try to avoid that whenever possible unless I particularly adore them).
The freedom of speech issue is a sticky one – easy if you’re fluent in history and understand the magnitude of its import but, if not, modern people who refuse to think properly about it equate speech, even satirical speech, to serious intent of action, as if words and therefore actions are exactly the same thing. The lack of any kind of objectivity in thought here is utterly staggering. What truly scares me, though, is knowing that the Facebook Maoris who would sign such a petition (most of them can’t spell) hold the very same views as current university students on campus (who also can’t spell); in other words, this is now the prevailing view in our culture of both uneducated and educated young people. If a country breeds its young to not know the serious difference between digesting ideas in the realm of thought and speech and acting out ideas in the realm of physical action, it matters not if they’ve grasped the blunt point of Marxist aesthetics or the finer needlepoint of the Emperor’s new clothes – they have learned absolutely nothing so far about the human mind.
Christopher Hitchens once said: “The struggle for a free intelligence has always been a struggle between the ironic and the literal mind.”
It is no coincidence that in New Zealand today we have no satirical shows that have won funding for televisual consumption by our masses. Nobody dares to make them anymore: No McPhail & Gadsby, no Billy T James, no Spitting Images or the like. Taking the piss has become the nation’s first capital crime against humanity and, with that, New Zealanders have lost the subtlety of irony in a time span of only one generation.
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