Saturday, June 26, 2010

The right to give offence

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 23.)

It’s been an interesting few weeks for freedom of speech issues.

Former All Black Andy Haden touched off a furore with his “three darkies – no more” claim on Murray Deaker’s television show. In Washington DC, the career of a veteran journalist was brought to a sad end by her inflammatory remarks about Israel. And on the forecourt of Parliament last week, Greens co-leader Russel Norman was roughed up by Chinese security men offended by the Tibetan flag he was waving.

In all three instances, to a greater or less extent, freedom of speech was the loser, demonstrating that this most fundamental democratic right remains fragile.

Democracy depends on people being able to express their views freely even when they give offence. Our legal and constitutional traditions recognise this.

In a robust democracy, we shouldn’t be frightened by controversial opinions. Yet time and again, the voices of renegades are drowned in a howl of censorious disapproval. Inevitably, the consequence is that people are discouraged from speaking out.

Let’s take Haden first. His claim that a race quota applied in the selection of the Crusaders Super 14 rugby team seems to have been disproved, but the underlying issue went largely unexamined. Haden seemed to be suggesting that the reason the Crusaders are so successful is that they have a higher than normal ratio of Pakeha players to Polynesians.

In a rugby-mad country, this seems a proposition worth exploring. Do whites play a more winning style of rugby? That thought must have occurred to many rugby fans observing the makeup of the Crusaders (who, even if there is no race quota, are noticeably paler than other New Zealand Super 14 teams). But we tiptoed around this issue because of the uncomfortable racial implications.

It was far easier to condemn Haden as racist – often the first option of those who want to shut down legitimate discussion – and move on.

But interestingly enough, another notable former All Black has considered the same question without incurring public condemnation. In a new book, Chris Laidlaw examines differences between Pakeha and Polynesian players and suggests, among other things, that Polynesians are more likely to lose confidence when the run of play turns against them.

He goes on to say that Maori and Pacific Islanders are more instinctive (than Pakeha) in their approach to the game, “and every team at the top level needs someone who can plot and plan, adjust and adapt” – the implication being that that “someone” is more likely to be white. Laidlaw argues (and the evidence suggests he’s right) that the key to rugby dominance lies in a combination of “lightning fast, sidestepping Polynesians” and “hardened, pragmatic Pakeha tight forwards” with a dictatorial Pakeha halfback or first-five to direct play.

In effect he’s acknowledging that different races do have distinct characteristics. To the politically correct, this is a no-go zone – but perhaps Laidlaw gets away with it because he’s a former Labour MP and race relations conciliator. No one would accuse him of being racist.

Haden, on the other hand, is seen as fair game because he’s a hard-core, old-school rugby man, and it’s a well-known fact that all such people are, by definition, rednecks and bigots.

The worrying thing about the condemnation heaped on Haden is that it sends the signal, once again, that certain touchy issues such as race are off-limits; that they are not to be discussed, at least not in public. (Robust discussion carries on unabated, of course, in homes, pubs and workplaces. Short of introducing Big Brother surveillance, it can never be stamped out.)

Now to Washington DC, where the veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas was forced to resign over her statement that Israel should get the hell out of Palestine. Asked where the people of Israel should go, Thomas said they should go “home” – to “Poland or Germany”.

In just about every respect, it was a dumb thing to say. It was foolish politically, especially in a country with a powerful Jewish lobby that pounces on any statement that smacks of anti-Semitism. It was unprofessional, indicating that Thomas had allowed her personal views (she’s of Middle Eastern descent) to override journalistic detachment. Most of all, it was breathtakingly ignorant and insensitive.

Yet for all that, there was something distasteful and vindictive about the storm of opprobrium that came down on her. She’s an 89-year-old woman who appears to have had what is colloquially known as a brain explosion. But if Thomas has been sufficiently well regarded to serve as an honoured White House correspondent since the presidency of John F Kennedy, she should surely be judged by her life’s work rather than by a single outburst during an off-the-cuff video interview.

All of us make dopey statements in unguarded moments. Not many of us pay for the mistake by forfeiting our job and our life’s reputation. It seems odd that in a country with such a strong constitutional tradition of free speech – a tradition that allows a non-stop stream of political venom from high-profile commentators on Fox TV – an old woman should be so harshly punished for a single misjudgement.

And what of Russel Norman? He exercised his right to protest outside the Parliament where he sits as an elected representative, and for his trouble suffered the indignity of being jostled by representatives of a foreign state who seemed to think themselves entitled to deter dissidents with the same strong-arm tactics they use at home.

Problem is, Dr Norman (like Haden) seems to have been deliberately provocative. He made sure he got right in the faces of the Chinese delegation. In doing so, he blunted the moral force of his protest and set himself for up for a backlash that muddied the issues by setting his right to protest against our obligation to respect the dignity of an important visitor.

Yet the incident highlighted the challenges that arise when a liberal democracy such as New Zealand snuggles up to a repressive, authoritarian state.

Our eagerness to trade with China will present the New Zealand government with one of its sternest tests of character. How far will we be prepared to compromise our democratic values in order to humour our wealthy new friends?

Prime minister John Key can justify his apology to the Chinese on the basis that Dr Norman overstepped the mark, diplomatically speaking. But New Zealanders who value free speech – and that should mean all of us – will be watching this government closely for signs of submission to China.

The Chinese know all about submission. After all, they invented the word kowtow.


JC said...

With regard to the Chinese, you could just as easily argue that the reason the UN, the various international conventions and almost all nations make trade or diplomatic representatives inviolable in their persons and dignity is to ensure *their* freedom of speech.

Trade and security are the keys to the survival and growth of a nation, and you may get neither if you can't protect the person and dignity of a foreign representative.

I have no time at all for the Idiot who had every opportunity to display his freedom of speech without creating an international incident.

This country is isolated enough without going out of our way to be obnoxious to the point of spiting ourselves.


hughvane said...

In respect of Andy Haden's most recent verbal utterance about women mixing it 'socially' with star sports players, would you care to highlight the selective morality exhibited by the sanctimonious and self-righteous commentators?

You should single out the state media and every other left-leaning social commentator, including Trevor Mallard, and the spokesperson for Rape Crisis, Louise Nicholas, for special attention.

Shock, horror, disgust! Whatever happened to the right of free speech, and the wonderful privilege, in this country, of speaking one's mind. Haden's comments were perhaps indiscreet, but dead-right!

However, not one word of protest was heard about Mallard's remark that Mr McCully and the Auckland Councils "couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery" (in respect of the Party Centre on Auckland's wharf). Surely every anti-alcohol, social do-good and wowser group in the country should have risen up in protest at such intemperate language.