In Harm’s Way.


WHAT IS “HARM”? On how this word is defined will turn a number of critical political debates. The meaning of Freedom of Expression and the definition of Terrorism are only the most important of these pending societal conversations. “Harm”, and what it is deemed to encompass, may precipitate profound legal and cultural consequences. Define the term too widely and many of the civil liberties we take for granted as citizens of a democratic state may disappear. Clearly, what we’re talking about here is “some pretty serious shit”.

Let’s begin with the generally accepted definition of “harm”. In plain language, to harm someone is to “damage, injure or hurt” them. In a legal context, harm may be inflicted by damaging, injuring or hurting a person’s body, mind, property and/or reputation. Thus, one’s standing in the community can be harmed by slander and defamation. One can also be harmed indirectly by being forced to witness hurt and injury inflicted upon others. Intention is crucial to the definition of harm. In the absence of clear evidence that the alleged harm was inflicted intentionally, guilt is difficult to establish.

Over the next few months we are likely to see the concept of harm deployed in the name of further limiting Freedom of Expression. Our legal system already prohibits speech that is intended to – and likely to – inflict physical and/or emotional harm on persons on account of their ethnicity.

In the wake of the Christchurch Mosque Shootings, however, pressure has been building for a significant expansion of the legal meaning of harm. In addition to banning speech inciting physical violence and contempt against persons on account of their ethnicity, it is proposed to also ban criticism and/or vilification of the cultural and religious practices and beliefs of individuals, groups and “communities”. In effect the idea that a person’s reputation (and, hence, their well-being) can be harmed by untruthful words, spoken and/or written with malicious intent, is being extended to include entire ethnicities and faith communities.

If successful, this expansion of the definition of harm will make it legally hazardous to criticise too vigorously a religious faith and its adherents. These legal reforms may even extend to banning the expression of ideologies asserting the existence of an ethnic and/or cultural hierarchy in which people of colour are degraded and the “white races” exalted as supreme. Such restrictions would be justified by characterising such speech as a form of defamation: harming not only the collective reputation of the ethnic group under attack, but also inflicting serious emotional damage on the individuals targeted by such speech, and thereby materially damaging their ability to live full and happy lives.

If harm is construed in this way it will become possible for the definition of terrorism to be changed in the manner suggested by both Paul Spoonley and Paul Buchanan on this morning’s edition of RNZ’s Morning Report.

The old definition of terrorism spoke of “actual or threatened violence deployed by individuals or groups in pursuit of a specific political objective, or set of objectives”. But if harm is taken to include emotional as well as physical injury, then violence, too, can be redefined. Taking a leaf out of the family law textbooks, the concept of violence may be stretched to include the “collateral damage” inflicted upon those forced to witness the spectacle of others being hurt.

A terrorist could, thus, be any individual or group which, by seeking political changes based on the suppression of certain ethnic, religious and/or cultural communities, is guilty of inflicting emotional violence on other, supposedly non-targeted, individuals and groups. Merely by giving voice to hateful ideological precepts, it could be argued, these miscreants are applying direct political pressure to the nation’s democratic institutions – and thereby identifying themselves as terrorists.

TDB Recommends

Both Spoonley and Buchanan seemed keen for the creation of just such a regime. By freezing the assets of citizens designated as terrorists by the Prime Minister, they could be “calmed down” and brought into line. At which point, presumably, their property would be returned to them and, just like the drugged-up dissidents released from Soviet mental asylums in the 1970s, they could re-enter society as model citizens.

To a great many New Zealanders the redefinition of “harm” and “terrorism” in the manner described above will be greeted with dismay and suspicion. Extending the state’s legal powers in the ways suggested would weaken quite significantly the rights guaranteed to New Zealanders by the Bill of Rights Act 1990. Where once there had been general agreement on what could and couldn’t be said in relation to one’s fellow citizens, changes of this nature will open up deep rifts in New Zealand society. Such measures will be widely interpreted as an attempt to police people’s thoughts and beliefs by criminalising opinions with which the authors of the legislation disagree.

Far from calming people down and persuading them to come into line with the official view, laws seen as protecting specific ethnicities and cultures by limiting what other ethnicities and cultures are permitted to publicly endorse will undoubtedly embitter and inflame a dangerously large number of those so constrained. Convinced that they are being unjustly criminalised on account of their beliefs, a hard core of the targeted group will embrace the very hate-filled terrorist tactics such laws are intended to control and punish.

Buchanan would categorise such behaviour as evidence of the Right’s lack of consciousness of the consequences of their ideological convictions and utterances. He would argue that, since the taking of offence is justifiable only among those who have been offended, it is up to them – and them alone – to determine what is, and is not, offensive. That only those harmed can define what is harmful. Or, to put it more plainly, the right-wing assholes on the receiving end of these new definitions of harm and violence will just have to suck it up.

The glaring fault in this reasoning is that in attempting to rectify the Right’s lack of consciousness of the political consequences of its actions, the Left will have opened itself up to exactly the same charge – and the political consequences of its failure to be mindful of the future will be no less serious.

The only viable way out of this conundrum is to inculcate in both the Left and the Right the notion that the harms suffered by those on the receiving end of Free Speech will always be less than the harms unleashed upon the rest of society by any attempt to suppress it. The experience of suffering is part of the human condition. Nothing throughout history has given rise to more damage, injury and hurt than the attempts by idealogues of all persuasions to create a world in which nobody comes to harm.


  1. First of all the woke are in complete and utter denial about all the tactical mistakes they’ve made in the re-emergence of the ACT Party.

    If you want to move beyond ideology you’ll have to accept that we operate with in existing ideologies in order to make a new ideology where the left also emerge with better ideology than ACT.

  2. Quite frankly, I regard Meng Foon’s labelling the whole of the NZ Police “ racist” as irresponsible and dangerous, and I intend contacting Poto Williams about it. Ironically, two of the nicest boys I went to school with were Maori guys who were most certainly not racist. Only a moron would consider Coster racist.

    I have just finished reading Henry Wu’s heavy tome, “ Bitter Winds,” a memoir of a fairly apolitical young student labelled a rightist, and incarcerated in a terrible Maoist netherworld of forced labour, torture, and starvation, spanning nineteen years. This is what can happen when ideologies capture power, and most, if not all ideologues, are extremists, and many extremists of all ilk, do not necessarily hold a tenable position.

    Being “offended” is part of the human condition, and it can blight or cripple lives, and I envy persons who this has never happened to, but attempting to categorise it and legislate against it can only fracture society and I wholeheartedly agree with Chris’s dialogue here, and question the motivation of those striving to curb free speech.

    The neighbour’s property manager who swore at me and told me that I was a “ pain in the bloody arse,” didn’t do so because I am an old Caucasian woman, he did it because he is an uncouth bully. I have just advised a Chinese neighbour who lives alone, to avoid him, because if he does it to her too, then she will quite likely think that it is because she is Chinese.

    I suggest that readers of Nicky Hager’s various research on the New Zealand political scene, would agree that the disgraceful and damaging and illegal and nefarious goings-on have been motivated by the greed for power and control, both inside and outside Parliament, and that this is precisely what is happening now with this proposed foolhardy legislation. Better to put soap boxes in parks and let every man have his hour. Openly.

    • Absolutely Snow White. I am very , very afraid of this legislation. The intellectual paucity of the Labour government needs to be seriously challenged. They cannot be allowed to get away with this shit!

    • Absolutely Snow White. I am very , very afraid of this legislation. The paucity of intellect in the oLabour government needs to be seriously challenged. They cannot be allowed to get away with this shit!

  3. The principle “harm” being targeted by means of these proposals is the “harm” (according to those doing the proposing) that would inevitably follow if people were able to openly question and therefore understand and therefore reject progressive leftism and its logical conclusions. It would indeed be “harmful” to the left if people shifted to the political right, the only refuge from the perverse mainstream, corporate-endorsed, liberal consensus that predominates. They are trying to protect policy, not people.

  4. “The experience of suffering is part of the human condition. Nothing throughout history has given rise to more damage, injury and hurt than the attempts by idealogues of all persuasions to create a world in which nobody comes to harm.” And yet, some people are still Leftists seeking their illusory egalitarian utopia. In contrast, the Right’s politics are based, fundamentally, on the acceptance of human imperfection and the innate disparity among men.

  5. The question of rights is a question of class. Which class has the power has the rights. The bourgeois advanced the “Rights of Man” as the rights of their class to stand for “Man” in general to economic and political freedom from the feudal state.

    As Marx says the bourgeois claim their rights to be ‘universal’ to mask their class particularity.
    Since then bourgeois rights, summed up as Liberty-Equality-Fraternity, have defended the right to individual private property and the right of property owners to equal political rights expressed in bourgeois democracy aka the bourgeois state.

    Of course to make these rights ‘universal’ they have to be extended to the ownership of any commodity including one’s labour power. But this masks the fact that labour-power when bought and sold is a peculiar sort of commodity – it produces more value than its own value.

    Hence bourgeois rights are essentially those of the ruling class and only incidentally apply to the working class when workers agree to the rules of the game and sell their commodity labour-power on a daily basis as the source of surplus- value, hence profits and rents.

    When workers step outside the rules of bourgeois democracy and bargain over sharing the surplus-value, they lose their rights. Corporations become individuals, and unions transgress individual rights.

    Therefore the debate about rights today can make sense only if traced back to the class relations they defend. Otherwise the debate remains a ‘culture war’ fought on the battleground of rhetoric and discourse. Culture war masks the class struggle motivating it beneath. And rights can only be decided by class struggle.

    Workers defend bourgeois rights when they enable them to fight for their own rights. That does not extend to appealing to the bourgeois state to change its laws to somehow magically include workers as the class equals of the bourgeoisie.

    Marx claimed that the proletariat (read large as all those who labour for a living) is the only class that can truly claim to represent universal rights. Its rise to power as the ruling class means it rules for ‘humanity’ since it cannot exploit nor oppress itself.

    This also applies to workers who are women and non-white. Women will not defeat the patriarchy embedded without capitalism for 10,000 years, nor will colonised peoples become free of the history of slavery, without making the proletariat truly ‘universal’.

    That means mobilising within the proletariat to end sexism and racism to overcome the divisions that prevents it becoming the majority and replacing the bourgeoisie as the truly universal class.

    As the class of producers without having its labour expropriated by another class the proletariat returns to harmony with nature. It plans production so that the needs of all are met by common ownership and collective labour without destroying nature.

    • I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here Dave. Are you?

      “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
      1. What am I trying to say?
      2. What words will express it?
      3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
      4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
      And he will probably ask himself two more:
      1. Could I put it more shortly?
      2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
      But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
      ― George Orwell

  6. It seems to be the nature of propaganda and politics to accuse the other of what you yourself are worse at doing.


    Dirty politics was as much about censoring and silencing as anything else ,,,,,

    Nationals ‘cyber bullying’ bullshit laws were used in a attempt to silence two NZ leftwing blogs ,,,, as Martyn himself experienced here at TDB.

    Google, facebook, twitter and youtube all swing the ban hammer harder and more often at ‘left wing accounts ,,,, I myself had my facebook and twitter accounts ‘cancelled’ ,,,, for no other reason than incorporating anti-fascist terminology in my user name ,,, which seems a rather right wing pro-fascist action for them to take.

    Miffed at having my facebook and twitter cancelled I thought I’d create an account at Kiwi-blog and stir them up a bit ,,,,,, but for some reason (facebook cookies? ) I was cancelled from creating an account ,,,,, perhaps the blue chicken Farrer had my user name ‘reason’ on a blacklist from my TS banning, re my Wayne Mapp observations.

    Finally our present hate speech laws can be flouted with impunity ,,, if the right people / official enemies are the ones being targeted. I presume this will continue.

    Karl du Fresne : ” ,,,, I have to plead guilty to that second form of racism: ”antagonism towards other races”.
    To be more precise, I have to plead guilty to it in respect of one specific racial group. I refer to the people of Serbia.

    I am forced reluctantly to the conclusion that they are fundamentally a deeply unattractive people, brutal and malignant. And though it’s probably a technical breach of the Race Relations Act to admit publicly to such feelings, since it could be construed as inciting hatred and contempt for a particular racial group, I’m sure of one thing: most New Zealanders feel exactly the same,,,,,”

    I think these Serbs seem like nice people,, just like us ,,,, ЗАШТО? (WHY?) Revisiting NATO atrocities in Yugoslavia after 15 yrs

  7. These people who stick up to the Left. The Left is the organized people’s interest. Does any normal intelligent (versus my brother in law) person imagine the 1980 free-market coup around the world doesn’t justify that? D’ye still believe in ‘trickledown’?

Comments are closed.