Let's learn how to have a proper, mature discussion

SHARYN BLACK
Last updated 09:52 25/02/2013

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OPINION: It's some months now since I told an acquaintance that if you put your head up in politics, people move to cut it off. That holds! My New Zealand-born conclusions about New Zealanders' social interaction are not that complimentary.

Since initiating the Civics Education Group, I have experienced and observed a gamut of reactions that give me cause to reflect on the social maturity of New Zealanders. I do this after working alongside Italians and Turks, and three years in South Korea and China.

I associate occasionally with Nelson's Asian community. That is a group with skills in social exchange. They nudge conversation along and maintain an exchange of comment that makes those involved feel empowered. The best "feelgood", after all, is an in-depth, flowing conversation.

My first observation in Nelson was that even the nicest people practise blocking techniques. A statement is met with an immediate snapped alternative to disprove the opinion offered, not the rebuttal that would allow exploration of the idea.

This creates a series of undeveloped varied statements, leaving one with a sense of dissatisfaction that nothing was said, and certainly not by the self.

I put this forward as a practice that affects the socialisation of our children and relationships with our partners. The word "reticent" has long been applied to us, and Mulgan's book Man Alone used as an example of our menfolk.

What seems to be new is the refusal of views that could only be seen as comment on society, because they might be confrontational. Spiritualism is now introduced with promotional celebration.

Note the One Billion Rising about violence against women, with police and a single agency organisers. Gone are the days of cynical humour, bald fact, curiosity and satire. Scepticism, a teaching of Buddhism, is still in vogue but comes with a public relations veneer. We have all become elusive.

Nelsonians practise a lockout technique. They shun, and say people's efforts are only those of an individual, and therefore negligible.

Another practice is the outright refusal to enter discourse. This is the cagey group. It might expose one's real views or be the result of not feeling knowledgeable, or it's too confrontational to air an opposing position.

How do we hold personal opinions while working in government, business or general society? We don't know how. It's not something that is taught. The Civics Education teaching kit of the Electoral Commission should cover that.

There are others who are just outright socially dominant bullies. All conversation has to be conducted according to that one person's notion of how to converse.

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One examplar is refused as not being representative. How will they feel when 300-odd interviews represent a 40,000-strong constituency? That could be the outcome for our democratic right in the Nelson City Council's Framing Our Future Towards 2060 document. Submit online this month!

We also withdraw from people with ideas, oomph and physical exuberance. Are they frightening or bipolar? At the same time, we regard people who are subdued or placid as weak, ignored when opinions and skills are sought, and organised into the more menial tasks.

This method is applied to listeners, and especially those who openly express a few personal flaws.

I observed Nelson communities and worked out group manoeuvres for seven years before I decided to put my head up with Civics Education.

New Zealanders do not empower people. We take rights from each other rather than giving people their rights. I consider this one reason why we have what is now being described as the disengagement of people from politics, and the shift to managerially controlled political "spiritualism".

As an English teacher in China, I witnessed skilled teachers eliciting argument between students until a satisfactory agreement was reached. The whole class learned that a reasoned argument and its public airing were normal behaviour.

We avoid anything approaching this. What I'd regard as normal social critique is cringed from. Yet people leave conversations dissatisfied, and stay dissatisfied in their relationships for most of their lives, because they feel their views are not ever aired.

The issues go underground. Strategies and manipulations are worked on by small core groups such as influential families and bureaucratic committees. We are now strategists, not public negotiators.

Our reticence and inability to have conversations of equal exchange and depth is even indicated in the Constitutional Advisory Panel's paper New Zealand's Constitution. The conversation so far (go to http://www.cap.govt.nz/ page 48): "Developing a written constitution could amplify existing differences of opinion . . . and require us to confront issues on which there may be not existing consensus."

Let's hope we are all interested, exuberant, curious, open-minded, have considered opinions, and give each other empowerment when the constitutional advisory panel hosted by the Civics Education Action Group and Community Law comes to Nelson. All those who wish to enter the discourse, please phone 03 548 4461.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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