Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

Photo by    Andreas Fidler    on    Unsplash

Having the flu this week I have spent too much time on social media and it’s brought up a question.

How insensitive can privilege make us?


All the debate about free speech versus hate speech and all the frothing about democracy and liberalism has depressed my fevered mind and my weakened body. I have resorted to toffee pops and lemon drinks, even though I cannot taste anything. I read the tweets and the blogs and the posts and many seemed to miss the point, that privileged people often miss. As a privileged person, I include myself on this list, the list of people who can afford to pretend that hate has no impact.

Morgan Godfery led the field on the alternative point of view and to my relief there were others like Max Harris, but nevertheless, so many people seem devoid of understanding what hating on people in public actually does. They seem to think that vile rhetoric is just some kind of fascinating debating phenomena that rational argument can neatly refute and then everyone listening to it will embrace sweet reason and democracy has been served.

So many commentators seem to miss the point that hate rhetoric is based on its effective power to call out and validate ugly emotions and that it gives justification for some awful ripple effects that have to be borne by the targeted groups.

I am not in any of those groups except by being female I am deeply familiar with misogyny and it’s dangers. A woman is murdered almost every week in this country usually by a partner or ex-partner and these men need no extra encouragement that they are entitled to beat or kill their “property.”

I believe it's also incredibly socially damaging to subject tangata whenua and migrant communities to repeated lies about who they are and their value as human beings. It is also incredibly damaging to have these myths and lies promoted to people who have a need for a scapegoat and a willingness to see others dehumanised. And that's quite a few people.

This country was built at gunpoint and has built up a narrative of denial that makes Pākehā vulnerable to the delusion that majoritarianism and “ equality” are in everyone’s best interests. This lack of imagination and empathy and support for the basic injustices of ongoing colonisation got a good airing this week, and these ugly behaviours are transparent to all but the beneficiaries of them.

White men on Twitter keep hammering me about free speech. I learned a lot about this mantra when I was in Parliament where “robust debate” could mean petty and sometimes vicious personal attacks. I learned a lot about empathy and racism in the taxi rides with African, Middle Eastern and Asian drivers.

Every one of them expressed deep appreciation to this country and would only admit they were often subject to racist abuse when I ask them directly and respectfully. Some also shared with me that sadly so few Kiwi people expressed curiosity let alone basic knowledge about their history or country of origin. It's so much easier to stereotype cultures about which you know virtually nothing.

I have also learned from tangata whenua that daily racism is fuelled when public figures attack them, making them personally vulnerable to increased abuse and risk of discrimination. The “ iwi versus kiwi” billboards were free speech, and the ignorant were manipulated to absurd paranoia about visiting the beach by politicians who were not in the firing line of the racist abuse they had legitimised.

Privilege seems to make us curiously cold and unimaginative. We do not seem to be able to imagine what it's like to be followed in shops due to our skin colour or shut out of jobs and opportunities. The dominance we enjoy is like breathing for us and we seem to think everyone else is being too sensitive if they get upset about being hated on. But as soon as that privilege is challenged in any way look out for the violent backlash.

Some have called for hate speech to be ignored since it thrives on media attention. I get that. But what do you do when a platform is opened up? I recall when Don Brash was interviewed by Kim Hill. Many people seemed to enjoy the spectacle of Kim challenging Don, but Māori feedback was predominantly far from thrilled. They said it was hurtful and disturbing to hear the racist myths and lies about themselves getting airtime.

No amount of debate actually changes the minds of the entrenched champions of white dominance.  The whole “debate the racists” notion is predicated on the myth that people change after listening to other people argue. A few people might operate like this but there is little evidence that real change comes from hearing an argument. We have a vested interest in our own beliefs and look for arguments to justify them.

We can change via experience and analysis combined. We can change when inspired by powerful stories and personal moments which expose the contradictions in our prejudices. But more importantly, privileged people have to look in the mirror and confront ourselves if we want to create societies based on human dignity and justice. What is the incentive to do this?  

History might be a place to start. The rise of fascism last century was facilitated by the naive and privileged laughing off the emerging hate speech and the organised campaigns to scapegoat Jews, radicals, disabled people, Roma. Liberals argue that we have to fear extremes on the right and the left.

Some of us fear liberal privilege as it manifests alongside the erroneous proverb, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”

Maybe not “me“ but what about everyone else?