Interesting how quickly the debate on Al Nisbet’s cartoons has shifted from the actual content – and the implications if, as claimed, Nisbet has said aloud what many other New Zealanders privately think – to the far more comfortable grounds of free speech. Yet once we have stoutly defended Nisbet’s legal right to depict minorities in this fashion, and the related legal right of the newspapers concerned to print them as an evidently valid (to them) expression of opinion, should that really be the end of the matter?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism “as the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.” One can quibble about the “all members” bit – but the Nisbet cartoons, as the newly minted Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy has pointed out, did single out the Maori and Pacific Island community as possessing certain negative social traits, by dint of their brown skins. (There were no fat, lazy, welfare bludging, happily irresponsible white people in those drawings.)
If cartoons with a narrative that rely on negative racial stereotyping are now to be seen as legitimate opinion, this would be interesting new territory for the mainstream media to be entering. Yet for all the brave talk about free speech and for all the invocations of Voltaire, one suspects that such opinion will continue to be selectively filtered by the editorial gatekeepers. Thankfully, it is unlikely (for instance) that we will be seeing cartoons about the main beneficiaries of the asset sales in which Prime Minister John Key’s Jewish heritage is invoked in terms of the hooknosed, money grasping tropes of classic anti-Semitism. Will Chinese foreign investors be depicted in future in the Press as opium smoking, ching chong Fu Manchus? Possible, but increasingly unlikely. Our commitment to Voltaire is likely to remain highly selective. And to me, that is the interesting aspect of the decision to run Nisbet’s cartoons – in some mainstream editorial offices at least, the racial profiling of some negative traits of the poor is now seen as valid opinion.
But hold on…some people might say in response that narratives that rely on negative racial stereotyping have always been with us – e.g. the drunken Irish, the skinflint Scots, the feckless Italians. Well, the difference is that no one these days is enacting social policy towards the Irish, the Scots or the Italians on the basis of those racial stereotypes – even though 150 years ago in the case of the Irish, they certainly were, and vicious cartoons about the drunken promiscuous Irish were used as weapons in the social disputes that wracked the society of the time. Today, social welfare policies that disproportionately affect Maori and Pacific commnunities are being enacted. If we would believe the Nisbet cartoons (and those who allegedly share the views depicted) those rascally brown-skinned bludgers are largely the agents of their own misfortune.
Arguably, this is the zone where free speech and our Voltairean impulses bump up against crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre. Meaning: free speech is not, never has been and will not in future be treated by the media gatekeepers as an absolute. The boundaries are ones that society – for reasons good and bad – have always policed. The current situation in New Zealand is that income inequality in New Zealand is on the increase, bringing a lot of social ills in its wake. Is it now a legitimate opinion that the situation of the poor and vulnerable has been written in their genes? Until now, that point of view has been limited to Sunday newspaper columnists, talkback radio and fringe neo-Nazi groups. The Nisbet cartoons, in that sense, seem to constitute an example of racism’s mission creep.
BTW, no-one is talking about making such views illegal – but it is also legitimate to denounce the cartoons in question as pathetic and despicable. As a society, we have some obligation to resist any incidence of racism’s mission creep. Such protest is not against free speech. It is against racism – and against those who promote it as valid “opinion” and disseminate it. If that pressure leads to a greater editorial sensitivity and to self-censorship when it comes to the stereotyping of Maori and Pacific Islanders – in line with the existing media sensitivity to depictions of anti-Semitism and to anti-Asian stereotypes – then it’s hard to see how that could be a bad thing.