How tolerant of diversity are we? I mean, really?

tolerant of diversity

I had to go to Wellington last Tuesday afternoon.

On the way home, rather than avoid the CBD and take the most direct route onto the Hutt motorway, I decided for no particular reason to go through town.

I knew about the protest convoy that had rolled into town earlier that day but assumed it would have been all over by four in the afternoon.

Ha! More fool me.

I intended to drive up Molesworth St but found my way blocked by protest vehicles of all shapes and sizes, from massive trucks down to cars that looked as if they were rarely driven further than the nearest supermarket.

Most were bedecked with flags – New Zealand flags, tino rangatiratanga flags and others that I didn’t recognise – and slogans.

The area around Parliament was hopelessly clogged.

No one was directing traffic (I didn’t see a single cop), but an escape route opened up through the bus marshalling area at the bottom of Lambton Quay and I followed a line of cars through to Thorndon Quay and the open road.

Five days later, the protesters are still there.

More than 120 have been arrested for trespassing, and some illegally parked vehicles have been moved.

Others have been ticketed by council parking wardens, escorted by police. But despite violent clashes with the police on Thursday, more demonstrators kept arriving yesterday and it was obvious the occupants of the protest camp on the lawn in front of Parliament were in no hurry to leave.

What the hell is going on here? Wellington district police commander Superintendent Corrie Parnell described the protest as unprecedented, and I think he’s probably right.

Admittedly there have been bigger protest rallies.

I remember massive union marches to Parliament during the industrial unrest of the late 1960s and 70s – in particular, one that followed the Arbitration Court’s nil wage order in 1968.

Protests against the Vietnam War, the Security Intelligence Service and the 1981 Springbok tour also attracted thousands – far more, I would guess, than we saw on Tuesday*.

Students and unionists typically made up the bulk of the protesters.

But what happened in Wellington this week was different.

The protesters of the 60s, 70s and 80s made their point, let off steam and drifted off to the pub.

There was anger, but it was often tempered by jollity and humour, especially on those union marches. The mood this time seems darker and more febrile.

And the differences go far beyond that.

The public always knew what those protests were about. It was generally clear who organised them and what they were trying to achieve, even if their objectives were sometimes fanciful.

By way of contrast, the organisers of the so-called Freedom Convoy have kept a profile so low as to be invisible.

There seems to be no official spokesman or spokeswoman. Not until today did I learn on Stuff about the identity of at least one of the key figures.

Parnell has remarked on an “absence of leadership” that made it hard for police to deal with organisers.

Yet someone initiated and co-ordinated it.

These things don’t happen magically and spontaneously.

Who’s behind the protest, and why have they apparently been reluctant to step out from the shadows?

Public understanding of the protest, and possibly even sympathy for it, might be enhanced if someone was prepared to step forward and coherently explain their purpose.

It’s called transparency, and its absence breeds suspicion.

Ah yes, their purpose.

That’s another thing.

While the protest is nominally about the unfairness of the vaccination mandate that stops the unvaxxed from participating in society, even to the point of preventing them from earning a living, the message has been blurred by a miscellany of other grievances, not all of them related: Three Waters, Donald Trump’s supposedly stolen election and Maori sovereignty, to name just three. Plus there’s a strong element of religious fervour.

If there’s a common factor, it’s resentment and distrust of what is seen as an authoritarian government.

This hostility extends to people who are seen as agents of those in power – most notably the news media.

In fact it’s possible that the reason we haven’t heard much from the protest organisers is that reporters have been unwilling, or perhaps too frightened, to seek them out, preferring to get their information from official sources such as the police and politicians.

The result is a one-sided view that leaves us inadequately informed about the nature of the event, and the protesters more convinced than ever that the media are aligned with the government against them.

And just as the motivation for the protest hasn’t always been obvious, so too there has been a lack of clarity about the objective – a point made by John Minto, who should know a thing or two about protests.

Minto says the Freedom Convoy lacks a strategy and an objective and is therefore bound to fail.

That might be an overstatement, but it’s certainly true that the public is unlikely to get behind a protest if they don’t know what its purpose is.

This brings us back to the lack of a spokesman or spokeswoman to clearly articulate the protesters’ grievance(s) and objective(s).

Presumably, we can assume that if nothing else, the protesters at the very least want to attract wider public support – but there again, they blew it.

New Zealanders generally support the right to protest and may even take the view that the grounds of Parliament are a symbolically powerful place to do it, regardless of Trevor Mallard’s preciousness.

But tolerance of the right to protest soon runs out when the protesters obstruct other New Zealanders from going about their lawful business, and it runs out even more quickly when protesters abuse people for exercising their freedom of choice by wearing a mask, or when they lose their temper with café and shop workers who refuse to serve them because laws over which they have no control say they can’t.

That’s no way to build public goodwill.

There’s a massive PR problem, right there.

The majority of the protesters may be polite and non-aggressive – in fact, I’m sure they are; but if a minority exhibits arrogance, irrational anger and provocative behaviour verging on hysteria, that becomes the defining characteristic of the event.

As I was writing this, an acquaintance who supports the protest sent me a link to a 50-minute video in which he wandered among the crowd interviewing people, apparently at random.

It’s easy to dismiss the protesters as nutters, conspiracy theorists and people with an anger management problem, all of which is almost certainly true of a few; but many of the interviewees struck me as calm, articulate, intelligent and motivated by valid, deeply felt beliefs.

The thought occurred to me that if the mainstream media had taken the trouble to do what the video-maker had done, the public would have a far more accurate picture of this otherwise perplexing event.

Sure, there was some wildly emotive rhetoric and hyperbole.

One man referred to his grandfather who fought in the Second World War – allusions to New Zealand soldiers risking their lives for freedom seem almost obligatory in this context – and said “We’re fighting World War Three”.

He was worried about the Pfizer vaccine making girls sterile.

Another protester referred to MPs as “pieces of sh..” and one expressed contempt for the “gutless ….ing police” (exactly what he expected them to do wasn’t clear.)

But others talked about losing their jobs, having to take their kids out of school, being excluded from family gatherings and being denied access to community facilities such as libraries and swimming pools. Some of it made painful listening.

These people feel mainstream society has made them outcasts as a result of decisions sincerely made according to their conscience.

We may disapprove of their beliefs, but at least we can try to understand and not reflexively condemn them as pariahs.

Our attitude to the protesters may be seen as a test of our true tolerance of diversity.

Incidentally, the video I refer to was removed from YouTube hours after being posted.

The video-maker was suspended for 10 days, ostensibly for violating community standards, and put on notice that he risked being banned permanently.

And we wonder why people like the Freedom Convoy protesters get paranoid about the suppression of minority views …

The novelist Lloyd Jones has no such problems getting published.

In an open letter printed in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper, he expressed a coldly elitist disdain for the protesters – a rabble, he called them – and implied they were no longer New Zealanders.

“Prime Minister Ardern says you are part of New Zealand,” Jones wrote.

“I beg to differ. You are of New Zealand, but longer part of it.”

“How dare they?” was the tone of Jones’ polemic. It was a chilling demonstration of the ease with which people who think of themselves as liberals can morph into excuse-makers for authoritarianism and enforcers of approved orthodoxy.

This is how the marginalisation, and ultimately the persecution of outsiders, begins.

We’re surely better than that.

  • Karl du Fresne has been in journalism for more than 50 years. He is now a freelance journalist and blogger living in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.
  • First published by Karl du Fresne. Republished with permission.

*Paradoxically, probably the biggest protest march of all was the “Kiwis Care” march of 1981, when 22-year-old sales rep Tania Harris led 50,000 people down Queen St. I say “paradoxically” because it was more in the nature of an anti-protest protest, motivated by public anger over militant unionism. It dwarfed a union march down the same street the previous day, when bystanders booed and hissed at the 4000 marchers.

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