Time to ignore Stanton completely?

21:48, Jul 23 2013

It's a bleak Wednesday afternoon in the school holidays. Nelson identity Lewis Stanton, aka Hone Ma Heke, is negotiating the intersection of Bridge and Trafalgar streets, seated high on his cart which is pulled by the faithful Barney.

Two teenagers ride on the back of Mr Stanton's cart, giggling and hanging on to the seat, as Barney charges energetically around the corner. Onlookers wonder whether Mr Stanton will be paid for the ride. They know he isn't licensed by any authority to carry paying customers. That's no mystery - Mr Stanton has made it very clear he doesn't bow to any authority, especially the Nelson City Council's.

"Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." I was reminded of this well-known quote from Carl Jung as I read Mr Stanton's letter (Nelson Mail, July 17) where he states unequivocally: "1. I'm not leaving Nelson by force; 2. I'm not leaving Barney; and 3. I'm not paying fines."

Mr Stanton irritates and often angers many Nelsonians, but what can our responses to him tell us about ourselves? Can his alternative lifestyle, his stubborn attitude and his shabby, moth-eaten rig tell us anything useful at all?

One obvious message is that there's a limit to Nelsonians' tolerance of difference. We might see Nelson as a place that encourages diversity but, actually, we have boundaries and, for many, Mr Stanton is beyond the barbed wire.

He's too messy, too outside the square and too downright ornery to fit into any established niche in the region. There are differences in what Nelsonians will tolerate: For Nelson image consultant and stylist Judy Crowe, it was the endless months of Mr Stanton's untidy cardboard signage sit-in outside Farmers; he reached the limit of tolerance of others I've talked to when he refused to use the toilets in Marsden Valley, instead burying his waste near his camp; and city retailers hate the way he occupies two or three car parks and intimidates some of their customers.


Nelsonians like fairness. Mr Stanton breaks a whole lot of regulations and the rest of us, who abide by rules such as paying parking fees and obeying time limits or not setting up camp in public parks, don't think it's fair that he seems to get away with it. And he's blatant about it, breaking the rules openly, happy to admit that.

This sort of behaviour challenges the "establishment", to employ a term from the "hippy" language of the 60s and 70s. That the council is trying to steer the tricky line between throwing Mr Stanton out of town and keeping him reasonably corralled, yet able to express himself as appropriate in a democracy, has not reassured some Nelsonians. Mr Stanton appears to be getting away with it and this offends our sense of fairness and threatens our notion of society.

Mr Stanton isn't a useful and bracing challenge to our community values, either. Although he presents himself much as renowned New Zealand poet James K Baxter did in his later years, with scruffy hair and clothing and an alternative lifestyle, there are big differences.

Baxter was on a mission, literally, to look after Nga Mokai, the lost ones - young people who'd dropped out of society, and he had a message for New Zealanders, still relevant today, about the damaging consequences of unlimited materialism.

Mr Stanton, although supported by his mother as someone who will "fight for anybody's rights" (Nelson Mail, April 16, 2011), seems to be fighting exclusively for his own rights while completely discounting the notion that he has any responsibility to his fellow citizens.

But is a black and white notion of fairness, where everyone must be treated exactly the same, and suffer exactly the same consequences for breaches of agreed rules and regulations, a useful approach with citizens like him?

It would be interesting to see what would happen if Mr Stanton was completely ignored by the public and the authorities. In behavioural theory, ignoring undesirable behaviour usually results in the behaviour increasing for a brief period as the subject tries to get his usual "reward" (for example, a reaction or attention). Then, because there is no reward, the behaviour decreases and eventually disappears. During this period, incentives are put in place to encourage desired behaviour.

If all goes well, the behaviour is changed and the problem is solved. Consistency is key, though. The undesirable behaviour must be completely ignored and not reinforced with the slightest amount of attention, even when they increase.

I think the council should give this approach a try. In Mr Stanton's case, they'd first have to weigh up the consequences of ignoring his less desirable actions and the public's response to that strategy.

However, given Mr Stanton's intransigence, the council's apparent powerlessness and the public's already high level of irritation, there's nothing much to lose.