It certainly appears that New Zealand is facing a number of concurrent, and often interconnected crises. Worrying signs are evident, and worsening, in education, the economy, the health sector, race relations, crime, media, governance, adherence to (and respect for) due process, freedom of speech, parenting, and so on. The speed at which this is happening has taken most by surprise. The dominos seem to be falling in all directions, and with astonishing speed.
A crisis can be aptly defined as a point of difficulty, danger or decision. This is a relatively good definition, because it contains within it a sort of escalating hierarchy of imperatives (or calls to action). If we apply this definition the word “crisis” seems a helpful description of where we are at, or at least where we might be heading. And maybe the word danger is not as hyperbolic as some might suggest.
We can point to specific litmus events as evidence that something is going terribly wrong. Race-based surgical waiting lists, proposed (draconian) changes to resource management, co-governance, the revolving door on cabinet, nepotism, persistent incursions into free speech, the shocking state of our education system, critical race and gender theory in schools, social dislocation, the growing influence of gangs, escalating crime, ram raids, an obsession with climate change and wealth redistribution (with the latter freighted with a fair amount of resentment), and a pervading sense of disillusionment, as well as anger. We might even add the ubiquitous potholes to the list. This state of things could not have been foreseen five years ago.
We also know intuitively that things are not right when the words of politicians, the pronouncements of academics, and the incantations of media, do not match what people in the street are experiencing. No matter what they are saying, we know what we see, hear, and experience, and we remember that it was not always like this. In the mists of this unfolding madness, it isn’t easy to put your finger on what exactly is happening, why it is happening, how and where it started, and what might be done to halt the decline. But we know that things are not right. And while New Zealand has been governed by probably the most incompetent and dishonest government in living memory, these crises have been a long time coming.
Root causes can be elusive, sometimes because they conflict with a strongly held opinion, or a prevailing narrative, so we deny them, and sheet causality elsewhere. Oftentimes we look in the wrong places, simply because we have lost our confidence in common sense, and inherited knowledge and wisdom. We can be incredulous that, while effects look complex, tangled, and difficult to define, causes can be right under our noses.
With this in mind, I believe that a compelling case can be put that the ultimate crisis in New Zealand, and in the contemporary West more generally, is a crisis of virtue, and, in particular, a crisis of genuine (not contrived or superficial) responsibility. There is a very real sense in which an increasing number of people no longer have a sense of responsibility, or duty, toward anything outside of, or beyond, themselves and their immediate sphere of interest.
Not too many generations ago it was a given that employees, as a general rule, knew they were responsible for the quality and output of their work, for the good name of the company for which they worked, for an honest days work. And equally employers for the well-being of their employees.
Not too many generations ago parents generally believed they were responsible for the children they brought into the world, for teaching them to respect others, to abide by rules, and to aim for something noble.
It was not too many generations ago that mowing the elderly neighbour’s lawn, for no reward, was more virtuous than taking a day off school to wave placards, or to look up from a device to give someone else a seat on a bus.
Not too many generations ago journalists felt a duty to report both sides of a story, to present information rather than their opinions, and politicians felt a sense of responsibility for those who elected them, which even overrode their personal ambition and blind loyalty to ideology or party.
Not too long ago most people accepted their responsibility to respect those from different backgrounds or with different opinions, even if they vehemently disagreed with them, they had a right to call things how they saw them.
Not too long ago there was virtue in telling the truth.
That is not to say things were perfect, that virtue was universally and consistently applied in all, or even most, cases, such things are always a work in progress. But it is simply to say that it was there as a yardstick and as a counterbalance to the overt assertion of rights alone. It persisted as an ideal, an abstraction of what good citizenship meant. While the wisdom of earlier generations is often viewed with condescension, as contaminated with racism and privilege, compared with the tribalism of today it bears the trappings of a more civilised and enlightened age.
In contemporary New Zealand, responsibility to duty, and to others, is not celebrated as openly as it once was, while assertion of rights is everywhere evident. We have institutions designed specifically to teach and safeguard rights (as opposed to responsibilities). From the family, through our educational institutions, young people (and not so young people) are armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of their rights. Rights to disregard rules that do not suit, to question and challenge without end, to subordinate all considerations to personal ambition, to dismiss the wisdom of those who have gone before, and to enjoy, without reflection or gratitude, the fruits of other's labours.
To aid in this process myriad organisations exist to ensure, often selectively, whose rights need to be prioritised, and even encoded into legislation. The Human Rights Commission, the Race Relations Office, the Waitangi Tribunal, Ministries of Women’s and Pacific Affairs, Rainbow organisations, Workers Rights organisations etc etc. I am not saying that these organisations do not add value, although some clearly do not, I am saying that an undue emphasis on rights, devoid of responsibility, of personal effort, and sometimes of truth, have contributed to our rapid deterioration, and that of the West generally.
By contrast, few organisations exist today to promote the concept of responsibility.
In schools, teachers cannot interview students on serious matters without their parent being present, cannot search a student’s bag, restrain or isolate a violent student, or even insist that a dress code be upheld. In many schools, it is now a sin to genuinely celebrate excellence and hard work, for fear of its impact on those less excellent or hard-working. Student advocacy makes their rights paramount in every situation, despite the message that this sends.
Fairly recently New Zealanders were advised by poverty action advocates that everyone has a right to a house, not a right to an income that would make a house a possibility, but a right to a house, period. Several generations have been taught they have a right to things that others have worked for because of the actions or inactions of others, sometimes many generations ago. The welfare state, the treaty industry, and fiscal policy have created a dependent underclass with no hope but to lean upon the state. And it suits the state to keep things this way because this is where it gets its power. It is the state now that determines what is right, what views may be expressed, what its citizenry might think, and the price that should be paid for not playing the game.
But It can, and should, be argued that rights and responsibilities are flip sides of the same coin, they are derivative of each other, dependent on each other, and have meaning only in respect of each other. Person B’s rights are person A’s responsibility, and person A’s rights are person B’s responsibility. This is a two-way street. But to too many people, rights are their business, and responsibilities are the business of somebody else. An endless tidal wave of rights has deafened countless New Zealanders to their responsibility to put shoulder to the wheel, and to assist others in doing the same. It is far easier to take than it is to give. And to take until there is nothing of value left to give.
Postmodern relativism and cultural Marxism are undermining the virtue that is the foundation of all thriving societies. The former through dismissal of the collective wisdom of generations, and the latter through the constant denigration of those who build up, in favour of those who break down. The former for its arrogance, the latter for its vengeance. The French Revolution failed because it exalted rights without responsibility. The American Revolution succeeded because the founding fathers knew that the rights enshrined in the new republic would be sustained only when buttressed by a sense of duty (responsibility) to community and republic. In so doing they created, in spite of obvious imperfections, the most extraordinary and influential republic in the history of the world.
It is much easier to understate than to overstate the predicament we face. We know intuitively that New Zealand is at a turning point.
While it is comforting to know that cultural Marxism carries the seeds of its own destruction, because eventually it runs out of enemies, and then turns in on itself, what will be lost in the process, and how much of that will be regained, and at what price?
There will be readers who will consider this an overstatement of the risks ahead. I would say not. New Zealanders do not value sufficiently what they have had, because they do not realise how much it cost, how quickly it can be lost, and how bad the alternatives are.
Nietzche, Jung, Orwell and Huxley foresaw a time when people would no longer worship the paradigms, and institutions of old, but the state instead. They would no longer be guided by a conscience”, undergirded with a sense of duty and responsibility to others, but would be mirror images of the state, a state more than keen to take from them the burden of speech and thought, and replace it with ä country in which “peace is war, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.
Perhaps in microcosm, in the machinations of our present cabinet, we can see what we are all destined to become, as happy citizens living in the “kinder” New Zealand that we were promised nearly six years ago!
Caleb Anderson, a graduate history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal.