Monday, March 25, 2024

Bruce Cotterill: When language is used to divide

There’s a nasty theme emerging in New Zealand politics. It’s come on gradually, particularly over the last year or so, but has become somewhat exaggerated recently, particularly in the months since the new government was sworn in.

I refer to the use of highly emotive and divisive language. We usually learn about the use of language through our own mistakes. And we now live in an age where it is easier to offend than it once was. As the saying goes, we have to “mind our p’s and q’s” more than we once did.

However, our politicians are not setting a good example. Many of them are using language designed to drive us apart.

New Zealand is not alone in the challenges we are presently facing. However, I suspect that many of us would like to see those challenges faced in a manner that is civilised and constructive. Instead, we are presently seeing more and more political narrative that is delivered with disrespect, loathing and even hatred.

It’s almost as if political parties, and those who represent them, in their quest for a soundbite, are searching for terminology that is ever increasing in its intensity as they describe their disapproval of opposing policies or politicians.

But the reality is that we are not living in a ‘dictatorship’ and neither is our government demonstrating an approach that anyone should describe as being ‘white supremist’. In fact we just had a democratic election and the majority of people voted overwhelmingly for the government we now have.

The new government has put forward some modest reforms to our cigarette smoking laws. These changes do not represent ‘genocide’, and to suggest that they do is disrespectful of those who have genuinely suffered from the intentional destruction of a people.

The government policy to review the school lunches programme is not ‘racist’ and parents advocating for a safe place for their teenage daughters to use a bathroom at school are not ‘gender bashing’.

This week we’ve seen some politicians and commentators suggesting that Winston Peters state of the nation speech referenced New Zealand’s co-governance policies alongside the holocaust. Anyone who has listened to the speech will vouch that he didn’t mention the holocaust. He did reference policies of the previous government as being consistent with what was seen in Nazi Germany, which in itself is unhelpful. But the holocaust wasn’t mentioned. And neither it should be. Holocaust has become a word that gets thrown around loosely, and every time it does we are further desensitised to the horrors it is intended to describe.

Also this week, the government has announced a change in expectations of behaviour for those living in Kainga Ora accommodation. The intention is to take stronger measures against persistent antisocial behaviour by tenants. The proposals don’t strike most of us as ‘beneficiary bashing’ but that is the label that opposition parties throw around.

Sadly, we have people living in motels and worse, cars, in this country. If the government can eliminate homelessness for just one family, I would imagine people would be grateful. A Kainga Ora tenant called talkback this week and said that “having a state house is a privilege and not a right”. Helping those who are struggling is something we Kiwi’s do well. Most people who are provided with housing are grateful and respectful of the opportunity. That is not too much to ask.

The media can play a role here too. We need to be better at talking about what is actually said, rather than someone’s opinion of what is said. This extends to members of the media who can be guilty of inflaming a situation by placing their own interpretation on a political announcement or an opposition comment.

And it seems unusual that a TV news organisation would broadcast the opposition leader’s reaction to a government announcement instead of the government announcement itself. If our goal is to inform the public, why would we do that?

If we allow our political debate to degenerate into name calling, fictitious comments and extremist language, our society will be poorer for it. Because, when our political leaders use inflammatory language over and over again, people begin to believe what is said. Those that don’t are desensitised to it, as it starts seeping in to other parts of life.

We’ve seen a couple of examples lately. The Wellington women’s rugby team anti-government haka met with quite a reaction the first time they did it a few weeks ago. The following week they did it again, to a more muted response. I don’t even know if they have done it a third time.

And when a ministerial visit to a high school results in a confrontational haka and a minister being spat at, supposedly because that minister is cancelling school lunches, which he is not, society is at risk of losing the plot.

There is no doubt that there are plenty of things that need to be said in this country. We should be thankful that people are prepared to enter the discussion. We all need to hear both sides of a story and we should be grateful that we live in a democracy that allows open debate.

But to be constructive, such debate needs to be respectful and the information delivered needs to be factual. Only then, will such discussions strengthen our democracy. Until then, the current behaviours will weaken it.

Bruce Cotterill, a five time CEO and current Company Chairman and Director with extensive experience across a range of industries including real estate, media, financial services, technology and retail. Bruce regularly blogs on - where this article was sourced


Anonymous said...

We have had Opposition MPs actually advocating violence against the current government for rolling back Co-Governance.

Anonymous said...

Exactly right, Bruce.

I skim-read Chris Hipkins’s speech that he delivered yesterday just to see whether he was proposing any significant changes to Labour’s losing policies from the last election. (My conclusion: not really).

As far as I can tell, Hipkins’s speech was accurately and evenhandedly summarised on News First (= Newshub presumably). This is strikingly at odds with the selective and biased reporting of Winston Peters’ speech: you couldn’t derive a good understanding of what Peters actually said from inaccurate gloss News First/Newshub put on it.

What I surmise is that Newshub journalists disagree with Peters’ opinions and so they distort and attack them rather than engage in an intelligent debate.

All New Zealanders lose out as a result.


Robert Arthur said...

But grossly overblown langauge is part of te ao/tikanga.By railing against it, clearly being racist There was a time when the title of "lady" would have more or less ensured moderation, but not even that is now effctive

Anonymous said...

I'm still waiting for APARTHEID to be rolled back.

Anonymous said...

And your blog started with saying . Aotearoa.isnt that a bit hypocritical