It is a privilege and a pleasure to read the erudite columnist Gina Barreca – the American humourist, academic and distinguished professor of English literature. Her writings just percolate that most elusive of all human conditions -common sense – which is far removed from being, well, common. She writes of the essential role of newspapers upholding the freedoms and traditions of a free press with special reference to cartoons, especially of a political nature. The brilliance of a particularly insightful cartoon can help defuse a smoldering issue or the rage of the righteous.
This past decade has seen, as never before in peace time, a continuous attempt to sanitize the media on whom we rely to offer freedom of speech, if this essential element in a democracy is to mean anything. That is why the opinion pages of a newspaper are so important to those who “only stand and wait”. The Australian PM Scott Morrison calls such people the “quiet Australians.” Here in NZ, the clatter and the cry of the few demand futile declarations of a “Climate Emergency” which shows just how simple it is to cry wolf and be heard - if you are against something – anything.
To mock or to satirize those aspects of NZ culture, protected by self-proclaimed defenders of the newly energized left, is almost a life - threatening condition especially over where NZs default position (constitutionally) is heading. Political parties and their representatives still seem to be fair game but for how long as politically correct tentacles intrude into mature debate on important issues that must only be debated in open forums. Genetic modification, abortion, euthanasia, fresh water, Treaty of Waitangi relevance - all are polarizing with little or no respect shown for alternative points of view. Very little debate has occurred over allowing non-elected Maori to councils for fear of being branded racist. It’s a condition called terminal immaturity.
So why is it that we are still “allowed” to tell jokes about Irish intelligence and the English arrogance - not to mention the Scots’ alleged meanness. Could it be that these countries and their people are mature and comfortable enough in their own skin that they can laugh at them-selves? Indeed, they appear to enjoy nothing more than the self-indulgent opportunity to lampoon the foibles they are so famous for. Dad’s Army, Faulty Towers and Blackadder are but three examples of exquisite ridiculing of the English by the English who seem to possess in abundance, that rare commodity of being able to laugh at themselves. Contrast that with one of NZs finest comedians, the late Billy T James who was vilified by many within Maoridom for James’s ability to recognize humour was more about culture than race. Is the stereotyping of some Maori any different from portrayal of some Australians as beer swilling okkers? All farmers these days are portrayed as rapers and pillagers of the environment to the point where little defense is offered, for to do so, results in a torrent of personal abuse in the media. It is a legitimate question to ask whether the media are now too inclined to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive (to misuse the words of a song).
The risk of giving offence to a minority negates the proud traditions of a free press to “publish and be damned”. Here in Otago, reporting the anti-everything brigade dominates the positive and the productive to such an extent that there is a real fear factor of repercussions from speaking your mind or discriminating against the virtue signalers. We all however discriminate in virtually everything we do, from shopping, to choice of friends, to what TV channel we watch, to our value system.
In a recent decision in the High Court in the UK, three judges stated that the holding and expressing of an opinion is not discrimination against those with an alternative point of view.
A very former MP once received a particularly descriptive email outlining his considerable faults and failings, comparing him to everyone from the Genghis Khan in a foul mood - to being the cause of every disaster – natural or otherwise, as well as confirming a spot in hell which the devil himself had reserved for him. The response by return email was - “so….. other than these very minor criticisms - you clearly feel I’m doing a good job. Thankyou”. He emailed back saying – “well I laughed out loud at your response”. We went on to have a good discussion; so yes, Gina Barreca is entirely correct when she wrote “humour is created and appreciated when people are free”.
Gerry Eckhoff is a former MP and councillor on the Otago Regional Council.