After Christchurch: rethinking progressive approaches to diversity and extremism

After the attack in Christchurch on the 15th March, Josie Pagani, Founder of Progress New Zealand, looks at how progressives can change their approach to diversity and extremism.

In New Zealand we take pride in being far away from where bad stuff happens. We can be smug about our fortune. History and whatever blood-soaked man-made crisis is playing out on the world stage happens somewhere else.

Then on Friday, 15th March that suddenly, violently, changed when a gunman shot 50 New Zealanders in Christchurch.

We’re a small country of fewer than 5 million people. I knew people in the mosque that day. A work colleague’s sister was killed. My friend is a paediatric surgeon. I texted him at the end of the day. He was taking a break from surgery. He wouldn’t finish until midnight.

We learnt that Muslims have been in New Zealand since the 1800s.

Our office is above Wellington’s CBD Mosque, and like New Zealanders all over the country we left flowers and handed out chalk for people to write messages of support on the pavements. People on their way to work on the first Monday after the attack stopped spontaneously and formed a vigil outside our office. They wanted to make Muslim New Zealanders heading to prayer feel safe. They wanted to be on guard. Some of us went up in the lift to the place of prayer. It was my first time in a mosque. An MP, a couple of taxi drivers, a few lawyers and a barista stood around listening to the Imam explain what happens at lunchtime prayers.

It was a nation needing to show compassion.

Calls to prayer were not only played in the New Zealand parliament one week on, they were played live in hip bars. Lunchtime drinkers put their chardonnays down and sat in silence. Some of the women put head scarves on.

As the bloody reality started to settle around us the government moved quickly to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. It set up a Royal Commission. Something very bad just happened. Why here?

The explanation for violent nationalism in New Zealand is less obvious than elsewhere. We are a remote island nation. Few refugees even try to reach our islands and far fewer get in. While there have been cynical attempts to politicise our high levels of immigration, no far-right party has emerged to weaponise the issue.

The most reliably anti-immigration party, New Zealand First, governs with Labour. The most politically noticeable examples of nationalism in recent years came from the left: A campaign against the TPP, and the Labour party's attempt to demonstrate the contribution of Chinese immigration to housing shortages by compiling a list of people with 'Chinese-sounding' names.

Some on the left who were comfortable with nationalism when it came from the political left have pivoted. They now seek to argue that violent extremism is brewed in a public debate made toxic by right-wing talk show hosts, criticism of the burqa or vocal scepticism about the doctrines of Islam.

It's not a fully convincing argument.

In the past I would not have hesitated to make the case for freedom of speech and the art of persuasion through argument and debate. The best way to deal with bad arguments is to make good ones. Banning hate speech makes people afraid to disagree, and by silencing people who merely make mistakes you miss the opportunity to change their minds.

We can now see a limit to this principle more clearly from New Zealand. You don't have the right to incite violence - shout ‘fire’ in a cinema just because you can - and you don't have the right to impose restrictions on others on account of their identity.

So you do not have the right to tell one group of cinema goers (Jews for example) to sit in their own seats away from you. You do have a right to disagree with the teachings of Islam. And, because people will sometimes express themselves clumsily or even offensively, the law should lean away from restricting expression.

The obnoxious Australian Senator Fraser Anning blamed Muslim immigration for the attack. It's far better to deal with cretinous hate speech like his at the ballot box than by throwing an egg at him or regulating what he may say.

But there has to be accountability when a violent and threatening line in speech is crossed. Liability applies not only to the terrorists but to the platforms who enable the spread of their hatred.

Tech companies that pay virtually no tax in New Zealand argue they were powerless to stop the live streaming of mass murder. They refuse even to disclose how many times the content was shared and repeated. They won't proactively eject or remove access for people who shared obscene content. Not good enough.

The same tech companies are able to take down unlawfully shared songs because they would be sued to obliteration by copyright owners.

Extremist content in social media should be regulated by dampening its ability to go viral. The right to expression is not the same as a right of unmediated access to the world.

You may have a right to free speech. You don’t have a right to a global megaphone.

The political left exists in part as a response to the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism, to solve the problems that the market will not solve on its own. We have to respond judiciously. Developed countries, perhaps working through the OECD, need to set some minimum standards. And then we need to make sure that those who breach basic standards of decency don’t get access to the world’s banks. Block their capital and they’ll find a way to block the offensive content.

As with blood diamonds, we don't need every country to sign up to new standards. If progressives in enough developed countries lead the way, a civilised outcome is possible.

We should act to stop the grotesque spectacle of further murderous extremism and the viral spread of hate that they seek.

After March 15th, it’s harder for us in New Zealand to show-off that we’re a tolerant and diverse people. Turns out we didn’t know much about our Muslim neighbours. Our version of ‘diversity’ has been passive, easy. We tolerate each other but don’t know each other.

Integration - not assimilation - is tougher, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We will have to work out what values we share, which ones we don’t, and how we can live together, not just next door.

That’s a bit kumbaya. And it’s a problem politics alone can’t solve.

For some Muslim women who have fought for the right not to wear a hijab for example, it was confronting to see our Prime Minister wear one as a sign of compassion. This is a legitimate debate. It doesn't distract from Jacinda Ardern’s impressive display of empathy that moved so many.

To move forward, we must reject a culture of avoiding difficult conversations. Diversity means more than just polite acknowledgments as we pass each other in the street.



About the author

Josie Pagani is the founder of Progress New Zealand. She is the director for the NGO umbrella group, The Council for International Development, and is a former advisor and candidate for the New Zealand Labour Party. 



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