Our aversion to extreme-right dogma is giving rise to an alarming intolerance

by Bill Ralston / 11 August, 2018

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Curtailing free speech is not the answer.

Wandering through the local office of MSD (or WINZ or whatever it is called these days), as I weaved my way through a welcoming phalanx of security guards, I took in a huge expanse of tidy but largely empty desks and computer screens across the vast room. There were relatively few social workers on site, just enough to take care of the few folk waiting to do something about their benefit or pension.

Perhaps MSD knows something we don’t and has the extra infrastructure laid on for a cataclysmic depression that is just around the corner. Hence the desks and computers waiting for a battalion of fresh social workers to handle the coming legions of the destitute.

I was there because I face a significant birthday and, bearing in mind the perilous state of the media industry, figured it would be wise to accept the extra money the government was offering, even if I had to put up with being called a “senior”. The few younger people who waited to see a staff member looked genuinely in need of some support, and I reflected on the fact that we were a lucky country to have polite and respectful folk caring for those in need.

That view, of course, would be complete anathema to two troublesome Canadians who came for an extremely short but boisterous stay. You will recall Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, visiting evangelists for the politically extreme right wing. No? How soon we forget.

What struck me about the brouhaha over their abortive visit was not their half-witted views on race, diversity and whatever else but the sheer intolerance of some folk in this country for people who hold views divergent to their own.

There is a plethora of laws in this country constraining what can be said in public and, if the pair had crossed the line into inciting hatred or violence, they could have been arrested and charged. It seems most of their opponents, such as the one who claimed on Twitter to have phoned a bomb threat to the venue they were scheduled to speak at, simply did not like what they had to say and wanted to stop them saying it. It is a mood that follows on from the “punch a Nazi” movement on social media, although the definition of what constitutes a Nazi to be punched apparently relies on the alleged Nazi saying or doing something you violently disagree with. Curiously, the punch-a-Nazi crowd sounds a little fascist in nature.

Anyway, Southern and Molyneux thankfully departed, frustrated in their intent, whatever that was, in a flurry of angry social media posts.

Of more concern was an incident that followed. Don Brash, former National Party and Act Party leader, once governor of the Reserve Bank, organiser of Hobson’s Pledge and more recently a supporter of the Canadian pair’s right to express their views, was invited to speak by the Massey University politics club.

Moves began to stop him speaking, with one activist writing ungrammatically to the vice chancellor, wanting to know what steps would be taken “to ensure the safety of those attending. Remember in the light of their type of ‘Free Speech’ does not come Free of Consequences [sic].” The vice chancellor capitulated and banned Brash on security grounds.

Universities, supposed to encourage the free flow of ideas and debate, should be one place where there are no consequences for indulging in free speech. Tolerance, it seems, is a forgotten virtue.

This article was first published in the August 18, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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