Misfired Hyperbole: Henry Resignation Not a Freedom of Speech Issue
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.