Mischief afoot in Middlemarch



EDITORIAL: Be at peace, Middlemarch. In a fundamentally healthy community, the poison pen isn't mightier than much.

The sour squirtings of a malicious anonymous writer drew comment in a locally published police column and now locals are feeling assailed by the attentions of national news media picking up on the story.

But this spasm of nasty correspondence is hardly a distinctive characteristic of their town, let alone a defining one. Many's the community, large and small, where an isolated individual or two can behave shamefully like this.

The story resonates less because it's so unusual than for the opposite reason. It's regrettably representative. A discomforting part of slice-of-life New Zealand. Not a large part, we'd like to think. But neither is it something we should resolutely ignore.

READ MORE: In search of the poison pen

Certainly the police were right to alert the community to the problematic behaviour in their midst.

It's a valid protection for there to be a collective awareness of gossipmongering, which tends to thrive in the shadows but shrivel in the sunlight.

There comes a point where silence isn't a discreet reaction but an abrogation of collective responsibility. It can leave future victims isolated in their distress.

Far better they be aware they have drawn the attention of a malicious meddler whose activities have already been met with the rejection, even the revulsion, of the wider community. This, in turn, must be expressed by, and controlled by, officialdom rather than vigilanteeism.

The bottom-line content, if not the tone, of one of the three letters was arguably defensible. It was a tip about a person driving while disqualified. Anonymous finger-pointing in such cases isn't inherently shameful. In fact the police Crimestoppers, 0800 555 111 phone line is set up to receive anonymous calls in the knowledge that it can help prevent harm.

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But the two other letters, also written in the same hand, were sent to local women and regarded the state of their marriages.The combination of official reaction and community distaste strongly suggests that these are the moistened-lipped writings of someone adopting censorious tone while shamefully taking salacious, or at least self-righteous, pleasure from doing so.

We know some people would say we've just described the journalistic reaction to this story.

They'd see this as another entry for that capacious file of problems that would go away if the news media would just do everybody the service of ignoring it, at least to the extent of keeping each community's less uplifting news out of sight of every other community.

Afraid not. We need to be more honest with ourselves, about ourselves, while still keeping a sense of perspective. Which in this case means acknowledging the extent to which the members of our communities, given half a chance, will reliably rally to support each other.



 - Stuff


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