You might think that when people dismiss “social justice warriors,” it is because they just don’t want their own bigotry to be challenged. You’d be wrong. It’s because social justice warriors kill the very conversations about justice they want to be seen as having. The reaction to Mike Hosking’s comments about Māori representation on the local councils is just the latest example.
The back story: There’s a current affairs TV show here in New Zealand called Seven Sharp, so named because it screens at 7pm. It’s normal on this show, as on many others, for the presenters to offer their own editorial comments on stories, discussing the issues raised with each other and provoking conversation from viewers.
On a recent instalment of Seven Sharp, there was a story about New Plymouth Mayor Andrew Judd and his advocacy of not just having Māori representation on the local council by having Māori council members, but of having mandatory Māori representation via dedicated Māori seats on the council. In fact, he is on record saying that Māori members should make up fully half of local authority members across the country. His rationale is not that this is a response to systemic racism or oppression of Māori people, but rather that he believes he is simply complying with the Treaty of Waitangi, because “The reasonable interpretation of the Treaty is that you would have fifty-fifty representation around the table.”
Speaking for myself, I think the push for Māori representation based on the reality that Māori are likely to be under-represented in governing bodies because of a variety of social factors at least makes sense. But claiming that the Treaty of Waitangi mandates that Māori occupy fifty percent of seats on such representative bodies is utterly ludicrous. It is not a reasonable interpretation of the Treaty of Waitangi and it is unjust. So while I am sympathetic to Mr Judd, his rationale is wrong and his reading of the Treaty is highly implausible.
My views aside, the issue has proved to be a divisive one in New Plymouth, and some of the resistance Mayor Judd has faced has been pretty unpleasant, including an incident where somebody literally spat at him in front of his children. Seven Sharp’s story covered Mr Judd’s efforts and the opposition he has faced over his proposal.
Show host Mike Hosking offered his own view of the situation as follows:
Sad to say I’d never personally attack him obviously but he’s completely out of touch with middle New Zealand – there’s nothing wrong with Māori representation on councils cause any Māori that wants to stand for a council is more than welcome to do so and you can sell your message and if you’re good enough you’ll get voted on.
In making these comments, Hosking was expressing his position that he opposes mandatory Māori representation, believing that all seats on a council should be obtained on a purely competitive and democratic basis with no seats reserved for Māori or representatives of any group. He disagrees with Andrew Judd.
Cue the response from people who disagree with Hosking. Some people disagreed with him. Some people explained why they believe that racism toward Maori is a real problem in New Zealand (although I suspect Mr Hosking would just point out that he never denied this). My own response would not be to pretend that he was denying the reality of racism, but rather to explain very specifically why that creates a requirement to mandate representation that might otherwise not exist. That is quite evidently the issue where Hosking doesn’t see eye to eye with his critics.
But here’s the way the reaction went: People took to social media to label Mr Hosking “racist,” and rather than engage in dialogue about why he is wrong, they have lodged formal complaints with Television New Zealand, seeking an apology. We are told that Mr Hosking should tell us that he is sorry for holding and expressing his views. When we see this happen, we are not hearing people arguing with him. Instead, we are hearing that people were offended by him. One complaint on the Seven Sharp Facebook page reads: “Deeply offended by the racism exhibited by Mike Hosking on your show tonight. If anyone is “out of touch with Middle New Zealand” (which includes many Maori like myself thank you very much!) it’s you Mike.”
By even speaking up here and saying that we have a problem with how we talk about issues like this, I run the risk of overloading some people’s thinking apparatus, sending them into “you’re a racist” mode, in spite of the fact that I actually do believe in Māori representation! Listen: If your response to views on ethnic representation is to make formal complaints, call for apologies, and call people racists, then you are what is wrong with race relations in this country. You are the reason we have so much trouble having real conversations about this. You don’t really want to talk about it, whatever you might say. You want to control people. You want to make people afraid of disagreeing with you, not because you are right, but because you will seek power over them, trying to hurt and shame them if they express a view of which you do not approve.
When a person with a public platform says something you disagree with – they don’t express hatred towards anybody, they don’t label anybody, they don’t evidently wish harm on anybody and they don’t want to knowingly disadvantage anybody, they just express a position that you think is wrong – an opportunity is created. Here is your chance to make the most of the moment, to create a conversation about the issue in question by answering what that person has said. Maybe they won’t hear you personally, but people who heard that person now have the chance to hear you and your position. When you just write that person off, belittling them as an “other,” whether it’s a “racist,” a “bigot,” “another loudmouth Maori,” a “bloody feminist,” somebody with a phobia, or anything else on the other side of the divide, and when you seek to have authority come down on their head and force a muzzling or an apology where there is no change of mind because there has been no exchange of ideas, you choose to close that window of opportunity. There could have been a conversation, and now there cannot be. Nice work. Of course, there is always an “other.” For example, there are people who do not act in the way I am describing, and there are those who do! But when you “other” somebody precisely to dismiss the very chance of talking about the issue they raised that has so troubled you, you lose my trust that you can be part of any real solution.
Some people object to people reviling the “social justice warrior.” Some of you think it’s just a way of dismissing people with real concerns, a way of overlooking issues of justice or discrimination. It’s not. I’m happy – delighted, in fact – to see people provoked to serious, transformative conversations about social justice and the issue of inequality and racial discrimination. if you know me or have spent much time reading this blog, you know how wrong you would be to pigeon-hole me as someone who does not care about those things. I’d love to see people engaging Mike Hosking on the issues Māori face that lead people to push for Māori representation in the first place. But social justice warriors (those whom we dub social justice warriors, who do not genuinely fight for social justice at all, instead behaving in the manner I am describing) ruin everything. When the opportunity for these discussions comes up, you destroy the opportunity. You who bang the drums and shout rather than engage. You who stage protests without listening and demand that people who express contrary views be banned, silenced, forced to apologise or otherwise punished. You who, instead of being willing to converse and defend your views, are “offended.”
Social justice warriors: You are the problem with the conversation about social justice.
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