The latest waves of protest are more visceral, less focused, and more intolerant but we still need to redefine the rules of social engagement in a way that brings respect, reason and debate, rather than abusive slogans and haranguing, back to public discourse

Opinion: Truth is never absolute. We should be inherently wary of those who proclaim a particular viewpoint – political, religious, or otherwise – with a ferocity that tolerates no possibility of an alternative view, let alone that it may contain some points of validity.

Unfortunately, we live in circumstances where not only has truth become absolute, but also where virtually any actions in defence of that new absolute are considered acceptable. In nearly every aspect of today’s society, reason and considered debate are giving way to uncompromising absolutes, with little room for the traditional middle ground between them.

The more open, free and diverse society our forebears imagined at the end of World War II and their struggle against tyranny, oppression and xenophobic bigotry was perhaps an overly optimistic dream that could never have been achieved in its entirety. But now it has been supplanted by a fresh set of intolerances just as pernicious as those they fought against. There is a new vehemence abroad that accepts no good in any contrary view and no acceptable justification in any stand or action taken to promote that view. Because the particular view being expressed is considered to be wrong, all those who hold or even dally with it are mercilessly scorned and vigorously condemned.

In a genuinely free and open society, the principle historically attributed to Voltaire that “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it” has been widely acknowledged as a cornerstone of the right to freedom of individual thought and speech. It has been generally accepted, though, that this right occurs within the confines of the rule of law.

Within that boundary there has long been a tolerance of acts of civil disobedience in support of a cause, so long as those acts do not become violent, infringe on property rights, or disrupt beyond inconvenience the normal functioning of society. In New Zealand, the most dramatic example of this was the Springbok Tour protests in 1981.

Acts such as the occupation of Hamilton’s Rugby Park to prevent the game between Waikato and the Springboks, or the large protest marches wheeling their way through cities to tie up police resources were classic acts of civil disobedience. They were in stark contrast to other, more violent, aspects of the protests – such as the beating up of demonstrators in the so-called Battle of Molesworth Street outside Parliament, or the small plane flour-bombing Eden Park during the final test match – which were less tolerated by the public. These events took place in a country split down the middle on the tour issue.

However, the occupation at Parliament by anti-vaccination mandate and assorted extremist protest groups shows the new international brand of intolerance has now made its way to New Zealand. It is different in so many ways from the more traditional forms of protest we have been used to. Protests previously have been about a single coherent cause – opposition to the Springbok tour, for example – or a specific principle, such as support for nuclear disarmament. But the latest waves of protest are more visceral, less specifically focused, and more intolerant.

The US Capitol Building attack last year when forces loosely aligned to President Trump and the dubious values and fanciful conspiracies he espoused felt emboldened to invade the building in the genuine belief they could overturn the legitimate presidential election result shook many people’s belief in the solidity of our western democratic framework. Sadly, also, it empowered others already feeling disenfranchised, for whatever reason, to believe they could do likewise in pursuit of their causes, however extreme or out of touch with the mainstream they may be. Destabilising society, and the way it functions, became an attractive end in itself.

Hence the Wellington protest. While initially focused on opposition to the vaccination mandate, it appears to have become a magnet for many disparate groups feeling out of sorts with one aspect or another of government policy regarding Covid-19, united only by the common feeling that they are not being listened to. And given the high level of vaccination rates and acceptance of the vaccine mandate across the country, it has become easy for the protestors to feel even more alienated than normal, and, unfortunately, much easier for the rest of the community to dismiss their protest as outlandish, extreme and unacceptable.

The outrage at the level of disruption of life in central Wellington is understandable, as is the level of frustration that neither the police nor the civic and parliamentary authorities seemed at all prepared to handle the invasion.

However, the same level of extremism and intolerance the protestors have demonstrated is now being shown in response to them. The reaction of Speaker Trevor Mallard in first ordering water sprinklers to be turned on to dowse the protestors (presumably in ignorance of Wellington’s summer water sprinkler ban) followed by a night-time barrage of loud and garish music, has bordered on the puerile. Sadly, all his actions have done is bring his position, the third highest office in the land, into disrepute, not for the first time during his tenure.

Almost as intolerant was the reaction of the Deputy Prime Minister and local MP, no doubt feeling the anger of his constituents whose lives and jobs are being disrupted. Grant Robertson’s observation that people lose the right to protest when “they threaten, harass and disrupt people and a whole city” was foolish and no less extreme than many of the protest actions he was complaining about. His and the Speaker’s actions probably did more to strengthen the protestors’ resolve than to squash and quell it.

The bigger picture, beyond this protest, and beyond Covid-19, is far more disturbing. Something is seriously wrong when protestors can see threatening to execute politicians and journalists because they disagree with them as legitimate. Equally, when political leaders can justify not being willing to engage in any form of dialogue with the protestors simply because they do not like the views they are expressing smacks of high-handed intolerance. It suggests our capacity for rational discourse and reasoned debate about a controversial issue has broken down completely. More worryingly, the vehemence of expression on both sides of the argument makes it difficult to see how differences of this type can ever be resolved constructively while such polarised positions and mistrust endure.

Nearly 60 years ago in his speech accepting the Republican party’s nomination to run for President, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater defiantly and anarchically declared, “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice. Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It was a rhetorical line that sent a chill down the spine of middle America and contributed significantly to the landslide victory of President Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 election. Moreover, it dogged Goldwater for the rest of his life as some sort of trigger-happy extremist, never to be trusted anywhere near America’s nuclear buttons.

While chanted far more inelegantly and incoherently, the rantings of the mobs – from the Capitol last year, to our own Parliament grounds today – are in the same league as Goldwater’s comments. They disturb people the same way, fuelling more frustration and antagonism, and potentially signalling greater social upheaval to come. Like it or not, this new extremism is a wake-up call to civil society.

Ignoring the protestors, dismissing their calls, no matter how batty or ill-informed, or hurling insults at their level, did not make them go away, as events over the past week in Wellington show.

Having tasted attention and notoriety this way, the mob will not be easily dissuaded from similar action the next time an issue that riles them arises. We need to redefine the rules of social engagement in such circumstances, in a way that brings respect, reason and debate, rather than abusive slogans and haranguing, back to the forefront of public discourse. However unacceptable or offensive they may consider the views of the protestors, political leaders cannot remain haughtily detached, hiding behind civil authorities such as the police.

At its heart good leadership is about engagement – hearing from and listening to the disparate views of the community at large and then acting in a considered way in response. Good leadership is not simply telling people what to do and expecting unquestioning compliance. It also means having the courage to acknowledge the diversity of public opinion and its right to be expressed.

Personally distasteful it may feel, our political leaders across the spectrum need to initiate some form of dialogue with protest leaders to ease tensions and limit future recurrences. Otherwise, like Covid-19 itself, the new intolerance now emerging will, to our collective detriment, quickly become endemic.

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