Information and ideas are the oxygen and food of democracy. We need information on which to make judgments about who we want to govern us and how well they’re doing it. And we need ideas to promote debate about public policy and governance. Without these, democracy can’t function.
It follows that we should be open to ideas and debate. That’s the essence, surely, of a liberal democracy. It’s recognised both by common law – which sanctions the expression of ideas even when the majority considers them deeply offensive – and by statute law, which (in New Zealand’s case) guarantees the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and opinion of any kind and in any form”. And why wouldn’t it? Without the right to exchange and debate ideas, society would risk stagnation.
Against this background, there’s something disturbing about the way ACT MP David Garrett was howled down for his suggestion that parents with a record of serious child abuse should be offered money to undergo sterilisation.
Garrett put forward the idea on Kiwiblog and seemed to be making it up on the spot. It certainly didn’t emerge as a fully formed policy proposal, still less one that involved any element of compulsion. “If – say – $5000 was paid to the likes of both parents of the Kahui twins if they chose to be sterilised, this would address many … concerns,” Garrett wrote. “Nothing compulsory, just an option.”
The “ifs” demonstrate the tentative nature of the suggestion. Yet Garrett’s idea, once in the hands of the media, quickly morphed into a black-hearted manifesto reminiscent of the vilest excesses of Nazism. On One News that night, the item was illustrated with archival footage of a Nuremberg-style Nazi rally. (One News can do this safe in the knowledge that no one will protest, since no one expects any better of the state broadcaster.)
Critics of Garrett’s idea seemed incapable of seeing past the spurious association with eugenics, with all its connotations of enforced selective breeding. His explicit disavowal of any form of compulsion was quickly and conveniently forgotten. Given that New Zealand’s child abuse record is a source of continuing national shame, you’d think we’d be eager to debate all and any possible solutions. But no; the reflexive hissing and booing stifled virtually all prospect of Garrett’s suggestion being soberly and dispassionately assessed. Even his own party leader took fright and ran for cover.
I am not a fan of David Garrett and I don’t have a view on the merits of his sterilisation idea, but I do believe it merited a public conversation that went beyond kneejerk allusions to Hitler. It worries me that in one of the world’s most liberal democracies, which New Zealand undoubtedly is, debate can be shut down simply because an idea offends prevailing political sensibilities. It worries me even more when elements in the news media, which should be fostering and facilitating debate, appear to be complicit in stifling it.
There is a fine line between legitimately criticising an idea and creating such an intimidatory firestorm that people in future will be forced to think very carefully before daring to express a view that might be controversial, provocative or unpopular. My own feeling is that we crossed that line last week, or at least came perilously close to it. When we snuff out debate about ideas, we are no better than the Muslim fanatics who declare death sentences on Danish cartoonists for daring to draw images of the great prophet.