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Learning to Speak About Each Other

Learning to Speak About Each Other

By Rohan Quinby – www.geocities.com/rohanq.rm

As a recent immigrant to New Zealand, I am getting used to the way things work here. Every day, I get off the bus and walk past Winston Peters’ giant sign about immigration and treaty costs. And every day, I pick up a copy of the New Zealand Herald and read how New Zealanders speak about each other.

When I first got here New Zealand was in the middle of losing the America's Cup, and the letters to the editor were full of xenophobic terror at the prospect of losing the Cup. I was surprised at the tone of the letters, and I even clipped out a few to send back home for people to see. Isn't this quaint, I thought, they seem to be very upset and that’s why the letters show such an ugly spirit.

But even though the cup went to the shores of Lake Geneva, the tone of the letters hasn’t improved. I have begun to suspect that there is more to this than a few old cranks writing in the same old cranky letters.

A couple of things have tipped me off.

During the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival I took in a workshop on issues of biculturalism in New Zealand with historian Michael King. He attacked political correctness and revisionism of any kind, slammed the Race Relations Commissioner, said that Maori were lucky to have been colonised by the British and ended with a call to have New Zealand English given the same legal protection as the Maori language. Presumably to protect it from the depredations of Asians. He was the only person who spoke.

A while later, the Court of Appeal came out with the decision that began the debate about foreshores and seabeds. I took the time to read the decision, and I was impressed with the insistence that issues of customary rights are best dealt with through a recognition of due process and in a spirit of partnership. Then I read the astonishing editorial in the New Zealand Herald that urged the government to pass what could only amount to illegal legislation in an attempt to extinguish legal claims.

When Parliament passed legislation to legalise prostitution, M.P. Ashraf Choudhary came under fire for abstaining from the vote. In the Herald a few days later, columnist Jim Hopkins whimsically compared the Muslim politician to Osama Bin Laden, wondering aloud what might have happened had the terrorist also abstained. This was during the same week that the civilised world was condemning Italian P.M. Berlusconi for comparing a German legislator to a concentration camp officer.

And on Monday of this week Herald business columnist Fran O’Sullivan, after attacking the government for "caving in to brownmail", slammed M.P. Parekura Horomia for being a bad role model because he is overweight.

Meanwhile, the hateful letters to the editor keep rolling in to The Herald. Is it any wonder?

It is very fashionable in New Zealand to dismiss anything that might be considered "politically correct". I’d like to argue that there isn’t nearly enough political correctness in this country. Where I come from, the examples that I have given above would be considered unacceptable in public discourse.

It’s not that the country where I come from doesn’t have a great deal of intolerance and prejudice. It does. But Canadian newspapers, radio and television are characterised by language of tolerance and respect for diversity that has given Canadians a way to speak about their differences without resorting to hate.

It’s time for many New Zealanders, and the New Zealand Herald, to speak about differences in a new way.

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