Home > Uncategorized > Misfired Hyperbole: Henry Resignation Not a Freedom of Speech Issue

Misfired Hyperbole: Henry Resignation Not a Freedom of Speech Issue

October 14, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Deborah Hill Cone claims in the NZ Herald that the Paul Henry resignation represents an affront to freedom of speech and speaks to a disturbing undercurrent of intolerance in NZ society. She even claims that a million Kiwis choose to live abroad because partly in response to this.

This is a pretty good example of misfired hyperbole. First up, I actually agree, in broad terms, with Hill Cone’s argument. New Zealand, for a long time, has been far too thin-skinned to allow a sufficiently robust public discourse. This is often laid at the doorstep of “political correctness” (yawn) and the Helenistas who imposed it on the country for most of the past decade. There is something to this, but it misses a critical point: New Zealand’s culture of hypersensitive umbrage-taking is a direct offshoot of the excessive and detrimental politeness hard-wired into Kiwis.

What is often derided as PC-gone-mad (yawn) is actually as much a product of painfully good manners as anything else. Even New Zealanders of the radical right-wing, anti-PC (yawn) fringe would, I bet you, apologize to when someone on the NYC subway stands on their toes.

I am not denying that there is an ideological component to New Zealand’s version of political correctness (yawn). Of course there is. The Waikato University types have a very definite political agenda to soft-cockify the nation — but, absent the right breeding conditions, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. My argument is simply that New Zealand’s endemic over-politeness provides exactly such conditions.

Hill Cone is delving into rich and productive territory but she misses the chance to say anything particularly useful.

Freedom of speech is not the issue here. No-one, not even “Dr” Brian Edwards, is saying that Henry doesn’t have the freedom, or legal right, to say pretty much whatever he likes about the Governor-General.

This doesn’t mean he can’t be forced to resign for saying it. Henry doesn’t have a constitutional right to a job for life. By conflating his resignation with broad freedom of speech arguments, Hill Cone’s post loses credibility and punch.

The real question is cultural, not legal. Is it a good thing that New Zealand society is such that Henry had no choice but to resign? Whatever we think of Henry (which is not much, in my case), Hill Cone and I agree that the answer is “no”. Since there is no shortage of good arguments in our favour, it’s a shame Hill Cone, given her platform, neglected to use any of them.

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  1. Phil Compton
    October 14, 2010 at 16:06

    (Yawn) quasi-academic dribble. (more yawns)

    • PQ
      October 14, 2010 at 16:20

      Fair enough.

  2. Lilith
    October 14, 2010 at 18:53

    We are too bloody worried about what everyone else thinks in NZ….Tragically in the Henry debate most minds who dare challenge the scarily outspoken liberals’ “HANG HIM!” view, are firmly planted on top of a red-neck. There are no other sensible people over here it seems! We see the whole episode turned into an excuse for blatant racism by cretins on Talkback. I’m no great intellectual myself, but why can I see that there is something rather unfair about this? No, it is not freedom of speech to make racist comments, but this rule should apply to all NZ’ers, regardless of ethnicity. It’s a dangerous area to venture into, mentioning that as a Pakeha you feel this way, and therein lies the problem.

  3. October 14, 2010 at 19:35

    Phil you will be not at all surprised to learn that Henry’s replacement used the comment spot after the 7.30am news to tell us at length how Australia is the Blonde of Nations – just without any flicker of personality.

  4. Peter Quin
    October 15, 2010 at 00:18

    Agree. Same argument came up with Haden episode. People confuse the legal right to express one’s views with society’s reactions to them. Muddled thinking.

  5. October 15, 2010 at 06:29

    You’re right about the politeness.

    I was covering a National Front rally once, and this NF member was waving around a giant NZ flag on a stick. As he was walking around, it accidentally hits me (just barely). He turns around and says: “Oh shit, sorry.”

    Sure, NZers are pretty polite, but it’s a wee bit contradictory too. I mean, this guy felt it was okay to dress like neo-Nazis and protest against immigrants, but when he accidentally hits an Asian New Zealander (with a NZ flag, no less!), his first reaction is to apologise.

    I covered the same rally the following year, and went to the holiday park where the NF was camped out to do an interview with their leader. We’d already talked at the rally, and we had this awkward moment where we were both trying to figure out whether we should be shaking hands or not – an Asian and the head of the NF surrounded by a hundred odd skinheads. We didn’t – but we had a really friendly conversation about the NF position on immigration and cultural purity.

    My point is that you’re right on the politeness, but politeness and political correctness are two very different things.

  6. James Gill
    October 15, 2010 at 07:05

    I actually think you might be onto something, but like Ms Hill Cone I’m not sure about your methods of exploring it.

    Call me simple but how exactly did you relate hypersensitivity to political correctness other than to mention that a PC world provides the right conditions for hypersensitivity to develop? This leads me to my other point: upon careful reading I was able to discover most of what you were attempting to say but perhaps the aim should be to write so as to have your point understood by the greatest amount of people rather than to sound as intelligent as possible (your views prove that anyway).

    Of course this is the internet and I respect your right to publish however you would like just thought i’d add my two cents. Oh and perhaps most importantly, you’re right!

    • PQ
      October 15, 2010 at 08:30

      To be honest, I wrote this on the fly. If I had more time, I would have tried to make the language clearer. It is not my best writing, I admit, but I guess I am not pretending to be everyone’s cup of tea. I was arguing the opposite of what you suggest: New Zealanders are prone to excessive politeness and this provides good breeding conditions for what people call “political correctness”. I don’t think it is a simple left-right issue, in other words. Sorry if I came across as a wanker.

  7. Shane Mac
    October 17, 2010 at 06:33

    Like this – have always been a bit theory-less on the Kiwi ability to leap from polite indifference to ballistic confrontation without any intervening filters. Having recently been reprimanded at work for an incident in a bar (well after hours, unbranded, but spotted by some else from the firm) I also have new sympathy for those howling about freedom of speech – and John Key for that matter; was gobsmacked enough not to any more strident protest than “what..? er. oh. Sorry”. Almost the perfect Kiwi response.

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