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The Crisis Crisis

By Alapasita Pomelile, Researcher, Maxim Institute

Reflecting on 2022, the word "crisis" comes to mind. In particular, a TV interview where our Prime Minister noted rising living costs and inflation as anything but a crisis. Quite the contrast when the housing, economic, and cost of living crises were constant media headlines. Don’t forget the crisis atmosphere we already have: school truancy crisis, health system crisis, ram-raids crisis, and even ideological crisis.

A crisis is where a situation, problem or disease has reached its worst point. For example, in Term 2 of 2022, 39.9% of students attended schools and Kura regularly. Our attendance rates are worse than other comparable countries, including Australia, even when we factor in COVID-19 disruptions.

Since the Great Depression and World Wars, cultural critiques and global interpretations with "crisis" in their titles have increased. The epidemic use of the term "crisis" at a local, national, and international level has hit crisis proportions. It has become a communication catchword. The word's metaphorical flexibility, coupled with its ability to demand action, makes it appealing. However, the danger of the word's frequent use in the public square is damaging.

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When a state of emergency is labelled a crisis, it threatens liberties and democracy. Actions like restricting freedoms, seizing and centralising power, and silencing critics are justified and undertaken. When we default to using the word “crisis” for everyday issues, it incites a tendency towards imprecision and vagueness.

The word crisis finds its roots in the ancient Greek words “krisis” and “krino,” meaning “judgement and a decision” and “to separate, distinguish, discriminate, to judge.” German historian Reinhart Koselleck describes the Greeks' use of crisis as imposing choices between binary alternatives—right or wrong, life or death, salvation or damnation. Its original use denotes a turning point, indicating the severity and urgency of a situation—a stark contrast to the term’s contemporary use.

Throughout 2022, the government used the term crisis as a catalyst for action—often minus the action. In the media, it is a catchphrase for raising the temperature on issues. When almost every public difficulty is termed a “crisis,” crisis talk becomes a gas pedal rather than a turning point. We must be careful how we use the term to preserve the word’s potency for watershed events. Avoiding the tendency to label every hardship as a crisis extends the middle ground for creating solutions.

When everything is a crisis, nothing can be. The public becomes apathetic to social issues and the problems rife in our society, and we become desensitised or numb to the seriousness of the term. As we head into an election year, it’s time to keep crisis talk in check, stick to the facts and be true to reality. Precise language and clarity are more necessary than ever as PR and communications gurus increasingly shape our political landscape. Let’s learn from the past year’s troubles and avoid careless crisis talk.

May 2023 be an election year where we pump the brakes on mishandling crises.

Maxim Institute is an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

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