STEFAN MOLYNEUX AND LAUREN SOUTHERN gave New Zealanders an opportunity to test their values – most especially their tolerance. Controversialists, almost by profession, these two Canadians espouse ideas which most Kiwis find extremely jarring. We have come to accept human equality and religious tolerance as the unequivocal markers of all decent and rational societies. For a great many people it is deeply offensive to hear these concepts challenged openly.
Over the past few days Molyneux and Southern have very skilfully tested our tolerance – and we have failed. They’ve also tested our ability to re-state, re-affirm and justify our commitment to freedom of expression. We failed that test too.
But just imagine if, instead of asking the Minister of Immigration to prevent Molyneux and Southern from entering the country, the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations had invited them to debate the Islamic religion with a couple of their faith’s most accomplished scholars. In the face of the Canadians’ openly hostile reading of the Koran, the Federation could have transformed their assailants’ prejudice into a profound “teaching moment” for all New Zealanders. Rather than the caricature of Islam presented by its enemies, we could have heard the true voice of the Prophet and gained a much deeper understanding of his message.
Of course, Molyneux and Southern could have refused to debate the Federations’ representatives (perhaps fearing that in a calm, respectful, and properly moderated setting, their contribution might not have sounded all that convincing) but just think about how bad that would have made them look. They would have been exposed as not having the courage of their convictions: of having “fake views”.
Imagine, too, if the Q+A programme had set aside an entire hour for a televised debate between Molyneux and Southern, representing the Alt-Right; and two representatives of the New Zealand Left. (Annette Sykes and John Minto spring to mind!) For 60 minutes, New Zealanders could have heard debated the ideas and causes that are currently driving global politics. Alternatively, TVNZ could have set up one of its live “town-hall meetings” at which a broad cross-section of Kiwis could have asked questions of the two right-wing provocateurs.
Once again they could have refused. But, once again, that would merely have confirmed their status as rhetorical bomb-throwers – not genuine protagonists of serious ideas.
But what if they restricted their appearances to halls in which only their most fervid supporters were guaranteed entry? What would the correct response be to that situation?
According to Peace Action Auckland’s Valerie Morse, the response of those opposed to the views being expressed by Molyneux and Southern should have been to “stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in Aotearoa who are opposing these fascists. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue”.
Which is, of course, exactly the response Molyneux and Southern would have been hoping for. It has been of enormous assistance to their cause to be able to upload on to social media the hate-filled faces of their enemies. Such images of their left-wing opponents screaming and shouting and doing all within their power to shut down their meetings are pure gold to the propagandists of the Alt-Right.
Everything that Mayor Phil Goff, the Auckland Council, Ms Morse and her fellow extremists have done so far is provide Molyneux and Southern with invaluable material for their one-million-strong YouTube audience. Every attempt to suppress their freedom of expression by administrative fiat, or force, fuels the anger of their supporters and confirms the Alt-Right’s view of the Left as dangerous enemies of liberty.
What they would have been very loath to upload, however, would have been images of them being soundly defeated by Muslim scholars; or floundering before the questioning of participants in TVNZ’s town-hall meeting. Especially useless to them would have been images of a huge and dignified gathering of New Zealanders bearing witness outside the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna. Maori and Pakeha, Christian and Muslim, immigrant and native-born, gay and straight – all standing quietly with their arms linked under a forest of New Zealand flags and banners proclaiming this country’s unwavering commitment to human equality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech.
Had we been mature enough, as a free and democratic nation, to meet the challenge of Molyneux and Southern in such a fashion, the two Alt-Right Canadians would have had nothing to show their followers. But, we New Zealanders would have had something to show the world.
We could have shown a global audience a nation confident enough to debate those truths proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson to be self-evident with all comers. We could have shown a planet hard beset by the worst kind of right-wing propaganda a people capable of passing the values test set by the likes of Molyneux and Southern with flying colours.
Because, as the great English poet, John Milton, wrote in his famous pamphlet, Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”
Truth is not afraid of trigger-words. Truth does not need a safe space. Truth is not a snowflake. Truth can take the heat and most certainly should not be forced to vacate the kitchen in the face of a couple of Alt-Right provocateurs and a politically-correct Mayor.