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Dunne Speaks: What Has Happened To Tolerance?

An unpleasant aspect of our current national character has come to light in recent times. When it comes right down to it, no matter what our pretences to the contrary, tolerance for a different point of view, or approach to things, is not a commodity in great supply at present, right across the political spectrum. Of course, there are moral absolutes like upholding universal equality and freedom from discrimination to which most of us adhere, but whereas previously we accepted other diverse views as either a person’s prerogative, or a harmless quirk, we now seem far less willing to do so.

In part, this is due to the pandemic and the monolithic, support the “team of five million” approach we have been constantly exhorted to follow over the last year or so. By definition, anyone who is not part of nor wholly embraces what the team is about has been sidelined as uncooperative, divisive or any other negative epithet one cares to use. Think about how those academics and medical experts, let alone other community leaders, who have raised questions from time to time about our pandemic response have been dismissed and sneered at for daring to question the prevailing orthodoxy, as an example.

But it goes far deeper than the pandemic, even though it has been fuelled by that. Public discourse generally has become far less tolerant, and our national capacity to absorb and assess different ideas and thoughts has significantly reduced. Increasingly, there now seems to be a prevailing “right” view, with no willingness to accept any alternative, or that the truth is far more likely to lie between the extremes.

Here are some examples. The housing crisis we have today is generally held to be the fault of the baby boomers, who, at the same time, are considered to have no legitimate experience, or even right to be involved when it comes to resolving it. Their life’s work, saving in times of prolonged high inflation and the 20% mortgage rates of the 1980s, to provide decent housing for their families, not only is seen as the cause of today’s problem, but counts for nothing when it comes to its resolution. And any complaints from them are greeted with insults increasingly far worse and strident than the “OK, boomer” retort uttered in Parliament last year.

The current hate speech debate is another case in point. A legitimate concern about the impact of inciteful, racially or gender-oriented attacks on vulnerable people risks becoming an all-out assault on the right to express political views, however innocently, that may deviate from the newly established norm. And those who express concern about this possibility are derided as out of touch, and part of the problem.

However, this new intolerance is not restricted solely to the left wing of politics. Our political right is just as culpable, even though the topics it focuses on are different. But, like the left, the right is seeking to sharpen attention around particular issues that it can then use to convey a wider message to society about what it thinks overall.

For example, in recent weeks the National Party has vigorously criticised the Human Rights Commissioner for going to a meeting with gang leaders and proffering a $200 koha, and the Prime Minister for committing around $2.5 million to a gang run methamphetamine addiction rehabilitation programme. National claims both moves show the government is soft on the gangs (a refrain every Opposition has uttered at some time during the life of every government of the last fifty years). It now wants the Auditor-General to investigate the legitimacy of both these items.

The claim about the Human Rights Commissioner is frivolous and unlikely to go anywhere with the Auditor-General. There may be more substance to the claim about the methamphetamine addiction rehabilitation programme, although it would depend on the nature of any contract or other formal arrangement the government has with the gang agency carrying out the programme. In any case, the programme is not new – it was established by the previous National-led government during its last term of office.

Not to be outdone by National’s moves and realising for itself the potency of using the gangs as a political prop, the ACT Party has now proposed its own strategy for dealing with the gangs. Casting aside its previous fundamental commitment to upholding personal liberty and freedom, ACT is now proposing gang injunction orders under which the Police could seek Court approval to prohibit a gang member from being in certain places or associating with certain people, and restricting their expenditure on alcohol, gambling and tobacco, if they were on a benefit. Beneficiaries who were gang members would be able to spend their benefits on food and clothing only.

For both, the basic message is no different. Like the left, both National and ACT are using particular circumstances to promote a view that not only is their rigid view uncompromisingly the correct one, but that, correspondingly, everyone who does not wholeheartedly agree with them is not worth paying any attention to.

In what seems to be a rapidly diminishing minority, I am one of those who stands between these extremes. For me, there are no inherently right or wrong answers on all of the great questions vexing contemporary society. Rather, there are only questions and challenges to be pursued. I instinctively rebel against those who present things as absolute and demand unquestioning support in response. Belief in an evidence-based approach to issues, which I support, does not mean uncritical acceptance of that evidence, but rather the opportunity to ask more questions and pose more challenges.

In the difficult times we have today, people are craving certainty to overcome their fear and anxiety. So, it is understandable that acceptance of broad, overall solutions in an uncritical way has wide appeal. But we cannot allow that to override our tolerance for the expression of different views the way we are at present.

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