Readers who have had the benefit of a pre-decolonised education may recognise that line from George Orwell’s 1984. It was written by the protagonist, Winston Smith, as he struggles against the demands of the Party that two plus two could equal five.
In Orwell’s now iconic literary achievement, the threat against reason was coming from above. He did not contemplate that those who sought, and succeeded, in controlling how we think and talk could come from below. And yet, here we are.
The latest victim of our new Orwellian reality was Maureen Pugh.
The Fourth Estate, rather than merely reporting her apostasy, used this information to trap Christopher Luxon. He has stated firmly that climate change is real and humans are responsible, and has little time for those who dispute this contention. Fair enough.
The media seized on Pugh’s statement to use as a “gotcha” for the National leader, and within hours she was reading a prepared statement, abasing herself before a wall of cameras and cellphones.
The media was acting as the enforcer of its own values and parameters of acceptable thought. This was not journalism.
The media is not, as Orwell imagined it, a tool of oppression used by the state. It has adopted its own set of values and ideas, and uses its power to ensure politicians do not deviate in thought and word from what they have defined as appropriate.
Newsroom even ran a serious opinion piece with the headline, Climate deniers should not be MPs. To be fair, the column wasn’t as dramatic as the headline, but the author asked the rhetorical question: “Would anyone trust an MP who was a flat earther to make the best decisions for their constituents and their country?”
This is a great question. Perhaps we can apply the same standard to economic literacy?
New Zealand is undertaking a massive commitment to reduce the amount of carbon in our economy. This will have a huge economic impact even if, given our share of global emissions, no effect on our climate. It is one of the most important issues of our time.
Pugh is looking at this and asking, is it necessary? This is a fair question, and it deserves a better response than being slapped down by her leader and told to go educate herself.
Threatening to burn as a heretic anyone who questions the prevailing wisdom is evidence of a fragility in your belief system rather than a confidence in it.
And more significantly, why does it matter that a lowly ranked MP holds unconventional views on matters outside her portfolio, unless the belief itself is an offence.
While this Punch and Judy pantomime was unfolding, there was another example of how our civil discourse continues to contract.
Tamaki MP Simon O’Connor joined his leader in making it clear he is either willing to abandon his values, or that he doesn’t have any, when he buckled in the slightest breeze of controversy. He had sponsored a group, Jesus for New Zealand, to have a function in the Parliamentary complex.
This seems to be a fairly run-of-the mill revivalist outfit and I’ve seen no evidence that it is calling for violence. Someone on Twitter was upset, a journalist asked Luxon about it and O'Connor folded like a well-laundered suit.
Some denominations of Christianity have joined those who hold unacceptable views on how carbon molecules react as unfit to inhabit the halls and amphitheatres of our parliamentary complex.
We have become in thrall to the shrill, demanding and intolerant. We are not willing to stand up for what we believe in if those beliefs upset millennials armed with nothing more than a keyboard and a sense of self-importance.
Pugh and O’Connor should have held their ground. If you represent a party that draws its inspiration from Locke, Mill and Hobbes – accepting for a moment that most of this current cohort of National MPs probably think these are items you would find in Bunnings – there is a responsibility to uphold liberal values.
You do not need to agree with Pugh, or Jesus for New Zealand, or even the unorthodox economic views of Julie Anne Genter to appreciate that there is value in allowing a diversity of perspectives to be expressed and debated.
This is especially when the cost of upholding your principles is so cheap.
We are not in Winston Smith’s dystopian world. Those seeking to control our speech, to demand we join in the Two Minutes of Hate, who seek to memory-hole bad ideas and re-write offensive children’s books do not hold real power.
They can demand we reject the evidence of our eyes, as they insist that inflation is caused by Vladimir Putin and not Adrian Orr, or that the Musket Wars never be talked about in polite society; but that is all they can do.
We do not require the courage of Winston Smith to speak our minds and when the cost is so low, why do we cower?
Our political leaders would be doing the nation a service to be more assertive in defending those whose ideas offend these keyboard tyrants; not only because the freedom to follow your conscience is a good in itself, but because there is tangible value in a diversity in views.
Something that we all believe today will, in time, be displaced in the conventional wisdom, and an idea widely reviled today will be vindicated....
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Damien Grant is an Auckland business owner, a member of the Taxpayers’ Union and a regular opinion contributor for Stuff, writing from a libertarian perspective.