Tuesday, May 21

Is a shouting match the best we can do?

As Chris Hipkins visited the Otara Markets on Saturday, he faced a different reception than what I’m sure he’d anticipated. Supporters, and at least one candidate, from Freedoms New Zealand gathered to protest a range of issues that, in their minds, are associated with the Prime Minister. The chant ‘What is a Woman?’, for example, echoed for some time.

Horns bleared, a small crowd chanted, and just 15 minutes in, the Prime Minister made an early retreat. 

In response to this event, commentators have questioned whether this is simply part-and-parcel of democratic debate during a too-close-to-call election cycle, or whether these ‘ugly religious fanatic feral anti-Vaxxers’ (as Bomber Bradbury called them) show that a nastier, possibly dangerous, shift has occurred in our politics. 

It seems clear that protest is integral to our democracy. Sure, it’s a bit disruptive, and I’m certain it looks a little messy to the chardonnay-sipping, goatskin-office-decorating journalists that follow Hipkins around. It may be very working class, but gathering to challenge your opponent, through presence and words, should be a ‘given’ in an election.

Yet drowning out your opponent through blearing noise isn’t free speech:

it wasn’t at Albert Park, nor at Stop Co-Governance events, and it’s not now when the Labour leader campaigns.

Free speech means you get to have your say, but also that others get to listen- even if you don’t like the ideas they’re listening to. 

This all makes me question: is a shouting match really the best we can do? 

Unfortunately, as we can see from the examples listed above, there is a troubling commonality in the response totally different communities have to a number of the major social questions we are facing as a society. It is the attempt to silence our opponents, not through a superior argument, not through considered reason; but just through mindless noise. 

It (should) go without saying that if ‘noise’ is the best your side can muster, there are a lot of us who are going to have serious doubts. 

I fear that the use of meaningless, reasonless noise to silence opponents stems from contempt, from the ultimate disregard for their ability to improve, or know better, or eventually see reason. It’s ironic that, because of their opponent’s inability to see their ‘reason’, the protestors abandon reason themselves and resort to noise to shut others out. 

Jacob Mchangama, the historian and free speech expert, claims that ‘Free speech presupposes listening.’ The famed ‘marketplace of ideas’ only operates if we are free from monopolies within it that undercut innovation, evolution, and progress. It only works if alternatives, even despicable, patently wrong alternatives, are available. 

Whether it be TERFs, who are ‘simply so undeniably “hateful”’ that drowning them out with ‘aroha’ is the only option; or those who attend Stop Co-Governance events, who are ‘so indisputably “racist”’, that disrupting their ability to share their ideas by blasting whistles is necessary; or those who support a ‘woke’ government, who are ‘so “idiotic” they can’t even define what a woman is’; in each of these instances, I’ve been left wondering about the weakness of the argument.

Not the arguments of the hateful or racist, or idiotic, but of those whose case is clearly so weak all they could resort to was noise. 

Again, when faced with differences that are meaningful and complex, is a shouting match really the best we can do? By viewing our opponent with such contempt, we debase ourselves and absurdly adopt the very tact we initially condemned them for – a lack of reason or sense.  

Bomber Bradbury claims that those who operate in this manner ‘deserve our contempt.’ Forgive me if I’m skeptical that this is going to be a constructive approach. Contempt is arsenic to democracy and social cohesion.

There’s a lot on the line this election- there are no two ways about it. But no matter where we’re coming from, we undermine our own cause when ‘noise’ trumps our ideas.

What would a real contest of ideas look like in this election? Wouldn’t we all be better off? What’s it’s going to take for us to at least each play our small part in making that happen – to help us do better than a shouting match?