I’m a member of a liberal Jewish community. I grew up in South Auckland and have always sat on the Left – so my appreciation of Karl Marx is unlikely to be shared by National MP Simon O’Connor or Family First director Bob McCoskrie. But I am nevertheless seriously concerned about the censorship we have recently seen of their views. 

When Christopher Luxon said, ‘One way or another, that post was coming down,’ in reference to the above post made by Simon O’Connor in the wake of the Roe v. Wade ruling, I got worried. Not because I agree with O’Connor. I don’t. But on account of the small but vocal minority of New Zealanders who refuse to tolerate any disagreement.  

What’s so ironic is the people O’Connor was allegedly ‘distressing’ refer to themselves as pro-choice. And yet the backlash – including immense pressure on Luxon – suggests this choice doesn’t extend to the views people can hold on the topic.

It is worth remembering that plenty of New Zealanders would have shared O’Connor’s sentiments that day even though I (and maybe you) don’t. But they’ve now been told that their representatives will no longer be allowed to give voice to their concerns and that their own voices are considered beyond the pale. We often hear ‘thought leaders’ talk of a need to include more people in the democratic process. But the censorship we’re seeing risks alienating people from this very process which could have terrible consequences for us as a nation downstream. Obviously, Christopher Luxon can run his party any way he sees fit. I just hope his eyes are open to the potential costs to our ‘cohesion’, to use a popular term. 

The silencing of O’Connor was almost a repeat of what we saw a few weeks ago when activists refused to accept that Bethlehem College could define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Solution? Shut down their speech. Even though thousands upon thousands of Kiwis have signed our public letter to support their right to speak, many still want to make it impossible for a more traditionalist perspective of marriage to be expressed.

I fully understand the offense archaic views can cause. But the contract we all enter into living together in a liberal and democratic society is that we will often disagree – profoundly – on moral and other issuesThis shouldn’t be news to anybody. We still have to be able to live together peacefully. Free speech makes this possible. 

Interfaith gathering

If you are going to go after foundational Christian positions, why not just be done with it and call for the banning of the Bible? I am not always a fan of the representations of Jews in Christian theology, but my solution is to explain why and offer a counterview. Why? Because I want to bring people along with me not to throw up walls and supercharge resentment and more polarisation by silencing others (In fact, we created interfaith groups expressly to foster better understanding). Put simply: I understand the concept of tolerance. I think you probably do too, but it’s a message many are missing in our country. 

Advocacy considered unbalanced if they’re ideas we don’t like 

This theme continues: I was also concerned about the Supreme Court’s ruling against conservative values advocacy group ‘Family First’ – which feels like a politically motivated decision. One of the opinions was that their research lacked the balance required to further an educative purpose”. Does the NZ Drug Foundation balance its views by promoting all the counterarguments? This strikes me as a ruling that demands closer attention. 

The silencing of traditional perspectives points to an irony in contemporary censorship. Our government wants to include religion as a protected characteristic in their proposed new hate speech laws yet the censorship we’ve seen against religious MPs and schools has been unashamedly discriminatory. But of course, censorship itself is a form of discrimination. It quite literally is a process in which the powerful decide who can and can’t have full participatory rights in society. 

Defending free speech has nothing to do with agreeing with the speech 

Our haters will say that this email proves that I must surely sympathize with both O’Connor and McCoskrie. But that shows an embarrassing ignorance of the principle of free speech. And we all know if these same haters saw their views suppressed, they would be the first to cry crisis. We all have subtle differences on the Council as to what is the core motivation for our advocacy so let me share with you mine: It is in my interest as a member of a minority group that we have better cohesion. But we do not aid cohesion by silencing groups we disagree with. If anything, this is the recipe for polarisation, cynicism towards power and potential unrest. A degree of maturity is needed here by leaders and New Zealanders alike. We must return and hold fast to a culture of tolerance. 

Remember that when you defend any voice – even the voices of those you may be bitterly opposed to — you are defending your own. We support free speech because any opinion that is silenced sets a precedent that may eventually endanger the expression of our views. Our values. 

Censoring a symbol is not victory you think it is

Another example of counter-productive activism this week comes from a new outfit named Humanity Matters NZ which is running a petition to ban displaying swastikas in NZ. This petition is clearly inspired by a similar ban in the state of Victoria. And appears just as nonsensical.

Free speech quote

As you’d probably imagine, my being a Jew and all, the image of the swastika hardly gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling. And you certainly don’t have to be Jewish to be made uncomfortable by the symbol. Many Kiwis have relatives who bravely died defeating the scourge of the Third Reich. But the idea that a ban on this symbol will benefit society in any material way is just dim-witted.

Define display? Is the intent here to dismantle our war memorials and museums or will we make an exception in that case? Will history books that feature the symbol now need to be purged? What about films with actors playing Nazis? Will Hindu’s be prevented from using it in their ancient practices? Shielding society from this symbol would be impossible without numerous carve-outs, which would in turn make a mockery of any ban. And we have seen how far-Right groups quickly adapt to censorious laws with the Quinelle, for example: playing whack-a-mole with symbolism does nothing to counter the underlying hate. It only gives publicity for the haters. 

On the petition’s website Humanity Matters NZ write “By banning this symbol, we send a clear message that symbols like the swastika have no place in our society.” But it does have a place in our society – as a historic symbol that represented a very real existential threat to us. According to the Humanity Matters NZ website the groups mission is to “provide curriculum-based materials for educators and students on human rights and case studies on genocides around the world.” But this group is proving they are completely happy to bury history while potentially creating a new allure to the symbol for dissenting groups in the process. 

This petition is so ill-conceived it’s almost laughable. Almost. Steps like this are actually very serious. 

Humanity Matters NZ

This pro-censorship group has already had the endorsement of Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon. That’s right – the same Meng Foon who is prohibited (by Human Rights Commission’s Chief Commissioner Paul Hunt) from meeting with the Free Speech Union to discuss his media release and positions. The message here is clear – if your group is pro-censorship and happy to endorse the undermining of New Zealander’s fundamental human rights, we will happily meet with you and will gift you our public stamp of approval. 

Groups like the HRC think they can make support for a central progressive value such as free speech go away by stacking the deck with compliant groups and pretending the Free Speech Union doesn’t exist. We have news for them – we are herewe are clocking up wins and we have a passionate supporter base many comparable organisations can only dream of.

Be assured that we will continue to stand against groups promoting censorship and will always call out those in power cynically trying to legitimise our would-be oppressors. In the meantime, let’s embody the change we want to see- are we tolerating those we disagree with and standing for their free speech, or do we only like free speech when it agrees with us? 

Dialogue and debate have a funny way of revealing truth and error- if we will only let them.  

Dane GiraudDane Giraud
Free Speech Union