(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz, May 29.)
Who are the real haters? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as the debate over so-called “hate speech” escalates to almost hysterical levels.
It popped into my head as I watched a TV news report about the British protester who splattered Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage with a banana and salted caramel milkshake.
Milkshakes are the current weapon of choice for angry left-wing activists who are apparently too inarticulate or too consumed with rage to express themselves by legitimate means.
In the case of Farage, he’s seen as fair game because he represents a political position that’s labelled alt-Right, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Attacks on him are therefore seen as acceptable - indeed, even honourable in the eyes of many on the Left.
It makes no difference to these people that Farage’s party has wide popular support, as has just been emphatically demonstrated in the EU elections, or that it was founded for the legitimate purpose of insisting that the British government do what the majority of voters told it do in the 2016 EU referendum. Popular support and democratic legitimacy count for nothing to militant zealots.
Of course we have our own righteous activists here in New Zealand – people so convinced of the correctness of their cause that they feel entitled to resort to oafish acts of thuggery against anyone who sees things differently.
John Key was monstered by two activists at Waitangi in 2009 – although in fairness, it should be acknowledged that they later had the decency to apologise – and the mild-mannered ACT parliamentary leader John Boscawen was humiliated by having a lamington rubbed into his hair while speaking during a by-election debate later the same year in Auckland.
Several years prior, also at Waitangi, then National Party leader Don Brash had mud hurled in his face. And of course there was the celebrated incident in which a dildo was flung in the face of cabinet minister Steven Joyce in 2016.
More recently, in Australia, a teenager was virtually hailed as a hero for breaking an egg on the head of Senator Fraser Anning. People excused it because Anning is an unusually odious politician, but make no mistake – the attack on him was an attack on the right of politicians in a democracy to take unpopular positions. It therefore became an attack on freedom of expression, which is the cornerstone of liberal democracy.
The purpose of such attacks is to intimidate and humiliate, and by implication to send a signal to others that they risk the same treatment if they dare to express ideas that the Left wishes to suppress.
It is, in other words, a form of bullying, and we should be just as intolerant of it as we are of bullying in school or the workplace.
The striking thing about these acts is that they were perpetrated by people on the Left, which is a reversal of the historical pattern. We tend to associate political violence with right-wing thugs such as the Nazi Brownshirts, but increasingly it’s the Left that indulges in disruption and displays of intimidation.
Overseas, activists on the Left have developed a sophisticated repertoire of strategies for shutting down opposing opinions. These include threatening violent demonstrations on such a scale that police either can’t guarantee public safety or demand payment of outrageous fees from meeting organisers to cover the costs of maintaining order.
Another effective technique is to blockade events that the protesters object to – a tactic employed at a mining conference in Dunedin this week. It’s a denial of other people’s rights and therefore fundamentally anti-democratic.
Oddly enough, we never see conservatives trying to prevent others from going about their lawful business. They accept that a liberal democracy accepts differences of opinion.
To return to my opening question, who are the real haters? Who are the people whose actions and statements reveal them as hard-core bigots, rigidly intolerant of different views?
I was fascinated to learn last week that two years ago, the “comedian” Guy Williams (I put that word in inverted commas because it has become a synonym for tiresome prig) took a photo of Don Brash crossing a street in Ponsonby and posted it on Twitter with a comment indicating a desire to run him over.
Obviously there was no real intent to carry out the threat, and Williams later apologised. But the mere fact that he expressed the thought, even flippantly, is telling.
It becomes even more intriguing when you learn that Williams is the boyfriend of Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, who made a melodramatic pitch for public sympathy last week – supported by Williams – after ACT leader David Seymour upset her by calling her a menace to freedom because of her demands for tougher controls on what New Zealanders are permitted to say.
It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if the names were re-arranged here, and it was Seymour who had jokingly threatened to run Ghahraman down on Ponsonby Rd. I think we can safely say the Left would have been up on its hind legs demanding that he be strung up.