Debating issues openly, fairly

Eleanor Catton
Eleanor Catton
A war of words erupted on Wednesday over comments from author Eleanor Catton and subsequent responses.

And early in the week the executive director of the SPCA in Auckland, Bob Kerridge, was accused by several people of racism after suggesting a possible link between ethnicity and dog attacks.

He cited the clearly disproportionate number of such incidents in South Auckland.

In both cases, it seems it is difficult for us in New Zealand to have rational dispassionate discussions.

Quickly, we turn to name-calling. Too often, legitimate areas of debate are taboo.

Ms Catton, author of Man Booker prize winning novel The Luminaries, said at the Jaipur Literary Festival in India last week that after winning the prize she became uncomfortable with the way people treated her in New Zealand.

She spoke of the ''tall poppy syndrome'', saying if you received overseas success then very often the local population can take ownership of that success in a way which was strangely proprietorial.

Ms Catton had struggled with her identity as a New Zealand writer and felt uncomfortable being an ambassador for the country when it was not doing as much as it could, ''especially for the intellectual world''.

She criticised the Government as being dominated by ''neo-liberal, profit-obsessed, very shallow, very money-hungry politicians who didn't care about culture''.

Broadcaster Sean Plunket responded, saying he didn't see her as an ambassador for this country, but a traitor.

Noting she had a job [largely Government funded] teaching creative writing at the Manukau Institute of Technology and had received Government support, he also called her an ''ungrateful hua''.

Although part of Mr Plunket's outburst can simply be put down to the need to shock as part of the radio ratings game, such reactions are too common.

It is fair enough to point out Ms Catton wrote some of The Luminaries while being paid for under a writing residency supported by Creative New Zealand because this can be seen as an inconsistency in her comments about Government support for the arts. But to attack the person brutally and not the argument is unhelpful.

In any event, the Manukau job is only part-time, and receiving state funding should not preclude anyone from criticising the Government.

Mr Kerridge's basic point was blatantly ignored. Given the figures, and his 30 years' experience with the SPCA, there might well be cultural issues in dog ownership and care in South Auckland.

That matter, probably, needs more exploration and, at least, an open mind.

It is important, too, with what is on the whole an underprivileged group to take particular care with negative generalisations.

Nevertheless, Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy's description of Mr Kerridge's comments as

''wrong, and incredibly offensive'' is disappointing.

How can she be so sure?

Generalisations applied to individuals are racist, but if cultural differences are real then they can, in fact, have negative, as well as positive, outcomes.

Meanwhile, the SPCA itself felt it necessary to disown Mr Kerridge's remarks.

Ironically, Mangere MP S'ua William Sio said the comments were ''unhelpful'', and then went on to blame the high South Auckland figures on young people - ageism instead of racism?

He might, though, also be making a valid point.

Ms Catton, even if her views were unfair and unbalanced, had the right to make them.

Even if, as Prime Minister John Key suggested, she has links to the Greens, that does not take away her right to express strong views.

Others, too, have the right to disagree strongly. The issues she raises are significant, whatever your outlook.

At the same time, potentially uncomfortable matters like those raised by Mr Kerridge also warrant an airing without name-calling.

In New Zealand, we seem to have great difficulty debating what might be awkward issues.

Those who raise them are quickly jumped on.

We need to be prepared to listen to different voices, to be tolerant of a diversity of outlooks and not be tied in politically correct straitjackets.

It is unhealthy for us as a democracy and society if we cannot debate issues openly and without name-calling and abuse.

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