Understanding that words can inflict harm is one of the important lessons to learn from what happened in Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh and Utøya in Norway, writes Victoria University of Wellington’s Dolores Janiewski

As a historian who grew up in a segregated southern community of the United States where the Ku Klux Klan was a menacing presence, I know about the need for the acquisition of greater knowledge of white supremacist beliefs that travel to New Zealand via the internet and social media. 

Anti-immigrant rhetoric is present in highly-charged ways in the US, Australia and United Kingdom and readily available to New Zealanders via television channels such as Fox, social media, YouTube and other digital platforms. The desire to listen to visitors such as Canadians Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern points to the existence of New Zealanders receptive to what has been described as ‘far-right, white nationalist ideology’ and is part of what has become known in the US as ‘alt-right’ or ‘reactionary populism’. Understanding that words can inflict harm is one of the important lessons to learn from what happened in Christchurch, El Paso, Pittsburgh and Utøya in Norway.

Monitoring websites is certainly important, but just as important is examining the factors that make some New Zealanders uncritical or avid consumers of white supremacist material. Multicultural education can encourage greater cross-cultural understanding. Universities need to be encouraged to recognise the importance of such disciplines as religious studies, history, anthropology and sociology that teach about the values of different cultures, ways of overcoming difference, and the importance of human rights. This requires changes to funding that prioritise STEM subjects at the cost of shrinking support for subjects that are important not only for the current crop of university students and future teachers but for all New Zealanders and new arrivals.

I base this analysis, in part, on what happened when I was teaching at the University of Idaho in the mid-1980s. The Aryan Nations, an explicitly neo-Nazi, white supremacist organisation the FBI considered a terrorist threat, had its headquarters in Hayden, Idaho. It intended to turn Idaho into a ‘white’ state following the strategy outlined in The Turner Diaries, a book advocating violence against Jews, those not of European ancestry, progressive artists and politicians. Such materials and beliefs continue to form a part of the contemporary white supremacist thought disseminated via the internet and social media. 

A human rights coalition formed to combat the Aryan Nations. Refresher courses required as part of Idaho teachers’ recertification offered multicultural education showing how to incorporate material emphasising tolerance and cultural understanding into classrooms. In 2000, an organisation that tracks the violent right, the Southern Poverty Law Center, convinced an Idaho jury to inflict a crippling financial penalty on the Aryan Nations for assaulting two people, but it continues to exist, as does the Ku Klux Klan, which uses modern media to transmit its beliefs. 

Making New Zealanders less susceptible to white supremacist, anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and other forms of hostility-provoking propaganda takes knowledge, resources and efforts by schools, universities, libraries, journalists and other forms of public outreach. Unless that is done, more violence directed at religious or racial scapegoats by angry and frustrated people is likely.

Experts who have studied the Holocaust, fascism, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and reactionary populists should be drawn upon as commentators, public educators and curriculum developers, while also incorporating psychological insights about the triggers for violence, anger and hostility. It would be useful for such people to develop a website like Life After Hate in the US to help people leave, or never join, hate groups by providing the necessary resources to teachers, librarians, journalists and other New Zealanders who need helpful guidance.

This is an edited and abridged version of Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski’s submission to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Attack on Christchurch Mosques on March 15, 2019.

Associate Professor Dolores Janiewski teaches topics in the history of the Americas, the Cold War and the 1960s at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment