Defacing Billboard Of Jacinda Ardern With Dead Possum: What Does It Say About Us?
In the lead up to the September elections the defacing of candidate billboards is likely to occur. Nothing, however, prepared me for what happened to this billboard.
Still less was I prepared for some people’s comments on social media who thought it was hilarious. There are so many things wrong with this.
It does make you wonder how low some New Zealanders have sunk. What does it say about us as a society that we have people among us who think this is funny? And just where has this vile thread of toxic misogyny, coupled with animal cruelty emerged from? Which swamp of hatred, dispossession, alienation, unhappiness would foster this kind of behaviour?
We get some idea from the comments sections wherever this image pops up . On twitter #nosocialists said “buy this person a beer”. And Klonekiller (whose twitter profile is an ‘I do not consent’ replied with, “this is absolutely awesome! This years sign tampering is gonna be epic”.
Those who think Jacinda Ardern is a ‘socialist’ with social control in mind, wielding her powers through the guise of Covid-19 restrictions need to get some clues.
But that is not really the issue. No matter what side of the political divide you are on, this kind of sign tampering is hardly epic. Instead it is one of the lowest forms of ‘humour’ and willfully ignores the disrespect toward both animals and political candidates.
The cruelty and hatred against political candidates, whatever the party affiliation, is a sign of polarization in the community and disrespect for the democratic political process. In this particular case it is also about disrespect for animals.
Possums may be considered ‘pests’ in the context of New Zealand, but they are also sentient animals. Any intelligent and compassionate human being would understand that posing an animal’s dead body is gruesome and disrespectful.
Unfortunately we have a history of doing this to possums in New Zealand through rural school possum hunts , where dead possums may be thrown in a ‘toss the poss’ competition and dressed-up for best dressed possum competition. Gratuitous violence against possums is both rewarded and normalized through these competitions. People become familiar with the narrative of the possum as an enemy and cannot then see that a possum might be a victim of extreme violence.
An academic paper in 2015 entitled ‘Framing Possums: War, sport and patriotism in depictions of brushtail possums in New Zealand print media’ found that New Zealand has a long history of demonizing these marsupials, and subjecting them to acts of violence. They also point out the link that is often made between patriotism and hating possums.
The use of this possum, unceremoniously strung up with his bottom on the face of our Prime Minister, is a continuation of this theme of violence and hate. It goes one step further as a political statement, given that there is a link between patriotism and hating possums. As a cultural statement the message is ultimately one of rejection of our prime minster Jacinda Ardern, conjuring up patriotic symbols of hatred toward ‘the other’.
It is notable that Jacinda Ardern makes it clear in her political narrative that she values compassion, and yet this act is so clearly devoid of compassion on so many levels.
Billboard vandalism is a form of electoral violence that threatens the democratic principles of society. Freedom to have a view is one thing, but using it to cause promote sexist, racist and violent ideas is quite another.
Take for example, these billboards:
The use of Nazi imagery on these billboards in Papamoa are not the only ones of their kind. The New Conservative Party billboards have also been defaced with Nazi imagery. They are offensive to everyone who has had any education on the Holocaust. They are particularly harrowing for Holocaust survivors and refugees who still live in New Zealand. They are devastating for the Jewish community in New Zealand. Whatever your views are on Jacinda Ardern, this is patently not ok. The use of the Nazi swastika is so misplaced on these billboards as to be ludicrously ignorant.
We don’t want the political campaign process in New Zealand to be reduced to a polarized mudslinging match using violent imagery in its many forms. Instead we should be encouraging intelligent and respectful public dialogue on party policies, value systems and what this means for us as a society.
That is why it is so significant that schools in New Zealand teach the social sciences well. Students need to explore the democratic process that liberal democracies have struggled to attain. The democratic process is definitely flawed, but it is heads above autocratic societies with high levels of corruption who control their ‘citizens’ through direct use of violence and/or threats of violence.
Intelligent citizens who are able to engage with political processes in meaningful ways, explore underpinning values and debate issues don’t just ‘happen’. They are a result of an opportunity to explore these social issues and develop critical thinking skills. We need a robust education system with a strong focus on values and social science education.
Which brings me full circle back to the possum billboard. If rural schools in New Zealand are teaching students to find ‘humour’ in disrespecting animal corpses thought possum hunts, are we really so surprised to find one slapped across the face of our prime minster?