27 August 2018

What skills do we need to learn to deal with views we just don’t like?

Where does the boundary between hate speech and freedom of speech exist, and who gets to draw it?

To take offence is a choice of the listener, and the choice to listen openly has influence, far greater than the speaker can ever have if used cleverly.

Conversely shutting down hate speech can be a dangerous strategy as history shows. The Weimar Republic had laws banning hate speech in Germany, jailing hundreds of Nazi’s and banning Hitler from speaking. Didn’t work. In fact, it actively made things worse.

I believe hate speech per se, is not the most important issue here. What I believe is more important, is our ability to get up close, listen intently to the message, and then respond with better ideas, expressed competently.

New Zealand recently had a visit from a couple of people who have a definite view of the world, which I found uncomfortable, but also fascinating. It intrigues me how people can form such clear, strong views of the world.

Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux are a couple of outspoken alt right Canadians, which is even more baffling, as Canada is a country that is highly multicultural, and moderate in most things. My sister Jude lived there for 27 years before her untimely death, and had a deep affection for Canada and its people. On my visits to Toronto, to see her, I came to believe we had more in common with Canadians than with our neighbours, the Australians.

Southern and Molyneux I had never heard of before, and their views were new to me as well.

I did agree with the call by the Auckland Mayor, to not allow them to use council facilities. But nonetheless, I would have gone to one of their events if able, just to get an understanding of where the hell they are coming from. It was a pity, but understandable, that they were unable to find a venue that would host them, but I wondered why they did not speak at an open forum in public – maybe on the street, if they were so keen to have their views heard. The good old fashioned soap box. Or was it just about selling tickets?

New Zealand is incredibly moderate in terms of political ideology with the difference between National and Labour parties being minor, compared to those of many other democracies. So, to have more radical views expressed in Aotearoa was an opportunity to stretch our ability to debate views like this.

We are all biased. I am biased. You are biased.. Everyone is biased. But that doesn’t mean you or I are right. One of my favourite quotes is from Bob Dylan ‘Certainty represents ignorance’. It strikes me that the followers of this online alt – right movement have an astounding level of certainty in their ideology. Certainty is comforting for people who desperately want to understand the world.

Something else that intrigues me is that when people argue with passion, their ability to process evidence from both sides of an argument seems to diminish. I think this is because they are so invested in their own views, which they have taken a while to put together and they desperately want them to be right. And yet scientists have discovered, just how flawed human perception of reality is. The more we learn about the brain and the universe, the clearer it becomes that humans create their own reality.

My parents for instance initially thought Dame Whina Cooper was a troublesome Maori woman, when she first came to their attention. That view changed over time, thankfully.

This is my message. We need to develop the skill to listen to people we don’t agree with, and stay focussed on understanding their point of view, before we express our own biased view. Listening intently does not mean we agree, but empathy can lead to a much richer dialogue, rather than just making each other wrong. I know I do this when I’m tired. It’s so much easier to take the moral high ground than listening to a point of view you don’t like.

The skills we need to deal with views we don’t like is the subject of a book by Dr Brené Brown. In her book ‘Braving the Wilderness’ she gives us four practices that require us to be vulnerable and learn how to be with people with a different view of the world from our own.

Here are the four practices:

  • People are hard to hate close-up. Move in.
  • Speak truth to bullshit. Be civil.
  • Hold hands. With strangers.
  • Strong back, soft front, wild heart.

The best local piece I have read on the subject is from Moana Jackson: https://e-tangata.co.nz/comment-and-analysis/moana-jackson-rethinking-free-speech/

Aotearoa has some big issues to confront, now, and in the near future, and it is imperative that we have the ability to debate topics such as environmental, euthanasia, immigration, poverty, race relations, inequality and a whole lot more. Are we ready for these topics? Do we have the skills?

Ian Harvey (Harv)


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