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Posted by Philip on 6 February 2016, 11:16 am in , , , , , ,

Dildos, Mickey Mouse, rent-a-protest and that flag

It's been a troubling week with the signing of the TPPA and the Prime Minister flip-flopping over his attendance at Te Tii Marae at Waitangi. These events weren't troubling in themselves, but his reactions were. John Key called the kawa (protocol) of the marae "Mickey Mouse" and TPPA protestors "rent-a-protest".

Josie Butler, an anti-TPP protester, threw a dildo at Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce, shouting "that's for raping our sovereignty". And then Key was seen wearing a lapel badge of the most popular alternative flag at a formal event.

On their own, each of these incidences could seem trivial, even humorous. But together, these responses and actions, particularly of our country's leader, show a disturbing display of arrogance and lack of respect.

I don't put much stock in flags myself but, on the face of it, it seems disrespectful for the PM to wear a badge that doesn't reflect our official emblem at a public event (if you care about that stuff). Calling indigenous protocol "Mickey Mouse", when in fact it's complex and organic, is just insulting.

When 20,000 people care enough about an act of democracy, such as signing a trade agreement, to turn out to protest, dismissing them as "rent-a-protest" is belittling and demeaning. It's not the kind of affirmation of the wishes and concerns of the people you would expect from a western democratic leader. In my opinion, the lack of transparency and consultation in the process of negotiations was more problematic than the Agreement itself.

And then there's the dildo incident — already immortalised as #dildogate — which seems to show that, when our leaders model disrespect, disrespect follows.

It leads me to wonder, is Aotearoa a civil society? In general, this can be defined as:

"the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society" (Collins English Dictionary). Especially in the discussions among thinkers of Eastern and Central Europe, civil society is seen also as a concept of civic values. (Wikipedia)

Freedom of speech was critiqued recently by The Daily Review's Helen Razer. She concluded, "We don’t hope to advance the cause of freedom by controlling its expression...we must not delude ourselves that our revulsion for certain kinds of speech is freedom."

John Key could learn a lot from thinking about this. Diminishing the importance of protestors is acting on his revulsion of or, at least, disagreement with our opinions and our right to express them. Democracies and civil societies need, as a civic value, to respect people's freedom to express their opinions. Minimising or silencing opinions that do not concur with the political leadership or even the majority is a form of control and coercion. It's certainly not a way to acknowledge diversity.

For this country to maintain a modicum of civility, we need our leaders — political, business, educational and others — to embrace disagreement as a conversation within a relationship. The art of conversation includes openness, listening, empathy, questioning, sharing information, negotiation and compromise. It requires a commitment to engagement.

In return, we might agree to think twice before we lob dildos at them.

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