Dusty Roads

A Kiwi living in the new Zimbabwe

When losing means you won

September 2, 2017

Sometimes victory can look a lot like defeat. This week the New Zealand pro-life movement had perhaps one of its most important victories in years, but I doubt they realised it, because it looked a lot like defeat.

It came in the form of the Pro Life Club’s disaffiliation from the Auckland University Students’ Association. Not only was the club disaffiliated, but clubs with “a similar ideology” are banned from joining the association in future. That rather broad, loose wording, which might include any number of clubs, is yet to come under the steady eye of the law, so the game is not over yet.

But at this stage it is looking remarkably like the underdog came out on top, and for several reasons.

The least important is that there are over 40,000 students at Auckland University. How many of them belong to the Auckland University Students’ Association I could not find out. But only 2,700 turned out for the vote. If that is the entirety of the AUSA membership, it doesn’t say much for the Association. If it is only a small portion of the AUSA, it doesn’t say much for the members.

About 1600 turned out to vote in favour of disaffiliation, and about 1000 turned out to vote against. What happened to the other 100, heaven knows. The journalist certainly didn’t, otherwise he would have told us.

All-in-all though, the numbers surprised me. They really aren’t that bad for a club that is meant to represent ideas long-since regarded as ridiculous.

But the bigger picture is the more important one. Because, of course, the Students for Choice have finally shown that they are, in fact, not.

They are the Students Against Choice. That is because they are against those who disagree with them. And if you are against those who disagree with you, you absolutely must be against choice. After all, we only have choice when we have two or more options that really, truly differ from one another. We have a very poor choice in foods if all that lies on our plates are apples. Throw on an orange and we’ve got something different. We have got real, honest choice.

That’s the horrible thing about being pro-choice (in the truest sense of the word). It means being  ‘”pro” your opponent. It means fighting for his or her rights as much as you fight for your own.

Doing in your opponent is simply not an option. It is, in fact, the underarm bowl of (in this case) student politics.

And underarm bowls don’t go down well with Joe Public. We are a tolerant nation, you see. We abide by the motto “live and let live”. Minority groups can scrap among themselves over who is right and who is wrong, but at the end of the day, what we all really want is a fair fight.

The moment one little group starts picking off the competition, they start looking mighty mean. They start looking scary, even. Worse, the victim starts looking harmless, and rather deserving of our pity and support.

That’s why the Pro Life Club, which exited dejectedly from the field this week, ought rather to be celebrating.

In the eyes of Average Joe, they have just become the victims of an underarm bowl. Even better, their opponents are the perpetrators, and are starting to look rather mean-spirited and narrow-minded in spite of their name.

And in this debate, winning over the public is far more important than winning an affiliation vote.

There is one final reason, though, why the Pro Life Club ought to celebrate: Your opponent only sends an underarm bowl your way when they really, truly believe you have a good shot at winning the game.

Like I said, sometimes defeat is a victory.

This article was originally published on Stuff.co.nz




Letting speech blossom

April 11, 2017

News broke this week that a bunch of prominent New Zealanders were standing up for free speech.

Their open letter comes after comments made by the Human Rights Commissioner, Dame Susan Devoy. She suggested hate speech laws needed toughening up, as did the Police Commissioner.

Perhaps she’s thinking Canada sets a good model. They decided to make it an offence to communicate any material “that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.” That law only lasted 15 years before it had to be chucked out because, in the words of one MP, “a small number of people [are] determining what Canadians can and can’t say.”

Despite the warning, Canada still considers hate speech a crime for which you could be thrown in prison for two years.

Over in the United States there is a pretty big debate about “fighting words”, which we call hate speech, but they still defend it – just. Even Westoro Baptist Church still has the right to hold horrible signs at the funerals of soldiers, or at gay pride parades, so long as they are not actually encouraging others to kill or harm.

The United States does, however, have a problem with Universities producing “speech codes” that, time and again, have been thrown out by its Supreme Court for breaching the right to free speech. So even if the laws of a country keep our right to speech safe, its institutions might not.

That, along with what is happening in Canada, teaches us something very important about hate speech laws, and free speech too.

You see, we all agree that inciting people to murder, or genocide, or defaming someone ought to be illegal because they pose imminent danger to a specific person or group of people. That is why there are laws against these things in New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

Hate speech is different. It is based on offense, and that, as Canada shows us, is a very subjective, and difficult to control without harming free speech.

This is because there isn’t a sentence on earth you could utter that wouldn’t offend someone. I could look into my husband’s eyes at the park and tell him I love him, and a passerby might feel offended at my public statement of affection.

In other words, when you try to apply these laws, all sorts of people get swept up in them who were simply trying to express or argue a point of view. In the end you find the laws are just being used by different groups in society to try to control each other.

That is why creating laws around hate speech is dangerous. Where do they stop if they are based on offense caused, rather than actual and imminent harm? They don’t, which is why Canada’s hate speech laws might soon include a clause making it illegal to promote “hatred towards a gender identity or expression,” rather than, as previously, to incite genocide.

That’s a concern, of course, because it means pointing out things like the alarmingly high suicide rate amongst those who choose to transition genders, and suggesting we ought to do a lot more research before funding transgender operations, might constitute hate speech. At the very least, such a law will make academics and citizens very nervous when it comes to talking about such findings. That leaves us with a society in which a truth that could save lives being suppressed.

That, if nothing else, should convince us that free speech is worth protecting – even if we do have to put up with the odd horrible person saying awful things.

And as the prominent Kiwis say, free speech needs protecting in our laws as much as it does in our institutions if we are to keep fear and intolerance at bay.

This article was first published on Stuff.co.nz