How Trump, Twitter and disabled toilets gave us a licence to be vile
Once people complained of political correctness. No more. Trump, Twitter, and disabled toilets now bring out the worst in people.
Bevan Wong was on a lunch break from his job at Devonport Naval Base this week when he idly picked up his phone. He swiped over a few posts, skimmed a story about the Asian population in New Zealand, and made a comment about it on Facebook.
Working in marine engineering for the Navy, he never expected to come under fire. He didn't know he was sailing into a barrage of vile racial abuse.
"I was reading through an online article which was about the population growth of one race and I noticed that some people were making bigoted comments, which I found quite ironic," says Wong.
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Intending it as "lighthearted banter", Wong commented: "Reading through the comments it seems to me that the tangata whenua are forgetting that pakehas did the same thing."
A young man in New Plymouth was quick to respond. "Your kids are ugly," he wrote. "U shouldn't have an opinion 'asian' please leave this once great country immediately (no one wants you here)."
The post was vile.
But New Zealand-born Wong's reaction is sad in its own way. He didn't think much of the attack, he says ruefully. He has built up a "tolerance to racism". "I've seen it all. I'm not saying racism is right nor am I saying we shouldn't do anything about it. But it's everywhere in our day to day lives."
Wong's friend, Phill Su, shared the offensive comment on the Facebook page of respected New Plymouth firm Busing Russell Chartered Accountants, with the words: "Sort your racist employee out".
And this week, a director of Busing Russell –a 100-year-old firm – told Stuff that their employee "was very young", had made a genuine apology to Wong off his own bat.
It does beg the question, though: At a time when familiarity should be breaking down the contemptuous divisions of sex and race and religion, what gives people such a licence to be vile?
Social psychologist Niki Harre says people "almost forget" the people they are attacking are real, especially online. "Unfortunately the more distant we feel, the harder it is for us to keep the feelings of the other person in mind."
Seeing others behaving in this way encourages them further, making it seem acceptable to make massive generalisations about people they have never met.
"I think it is very difficult to know the motivations of another person," says Harre.
"We are all entitled to speak out about behaviour that damages us or others, but not to attack others as if we know exactly what makes them tick – and they are 'bad'."
THE POWER OF WORDS
Remember just a few short years ago when "PC gone mad" was a seemingly constant refrain?
Some people felt outraged at perceived constraints to speaking their thoughts because it was not "politically correct" to speak bluntly about others.
This is not a joke: In 2003, the National Party's leader Don Brash appointed one of his top lieutenants, Dr Wayne Mapp, to be the official National Party spokesperson for the Eradication of Political Correctness.
"I understand you thinking it was satire," laughs Mapp today. "I think some of my colleagues in my own party thought the same. You don't expect a major political party to do something like that. My colleagues at the time were bemused and sympathetic, I think that would be the best way to put it."
Mapp had written an article on the nature of political correctness which had impressed Brash.
"I was travelling through Canada and I got his call late at night," recalls Mapp. "He said, 'I'd like you to do this role in addition to the normal roles you're doing and by the way I'm going to the press conference in 10 minutes time'. So I felt slightly put upon."
Mapp says he tried to dissect the essence of political correctness.
"In the past people used to confuse it in the New Zealand sense with Treaty settlements but it wasn't about that. It's bureaucrats with petty fogging little rules and so forth which irritated people intensely."
There are still debates over who may say what. Mapp notes the Auckland University Students' Association's recent attempt to exclude a student anti-abortion group.
"There was no real consideration that in a student body there will be a diverse view on a range of things, he explains. "I would say that would be a classic case of political correctness."
But looking back on his unusual role, Mapp sighs loudly before admitting: "It was ridiculous, really".
National lost that election by a hair's breadth, and the following year the party replaced Don Brash with someone far more moderate, the "likeable" John Key.
But Brash is still around, and perhaps growing in confidence. Under the name "Hobson's Choice", he and his backers spent large amounts on advertising during this year's election campaign, attacking Maori rights and arguing for an end to "separatism and race-based laws".
Now, Brash's incendiary rhetoric (remember his Iwi v Kiwi billboards?) may have come of age. Now, we live in a time of 140-character-assassination Twitterati, we live in terrifying President Trump-logic anything goes meme times, with social media starring as the new wild west. Some feel they now have licence to be bigoted, nasty and cruel. Online bullying is rife.
THE BLAME GAME
Is Twitter responsible? British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran publicly quit the social media site in July, saying it was "nothing but people saying mean things". He is, reportedly, "now only reading Harry Potter".
Or is US President Donald Trump to blame? From the comfort of his golf club last weekend, he lashed out at Carmen Yulin Cruz, mayor of Puerto Rico's main city, San Juan, as she battled chest-deep through flood waters to bring aid to her city's devastated families.
Puerto Rico is a US territory, and Cruz had made a plea for aid following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria two weeks ago. Now she has even taken to wearing t-shirts bearing phrases like "nasty" and "help us, we are dying" to get her point across to the POTUS. Two weeks on from Hurricane Maria, the Guardian reports that more than 90 per cent of people still have no electricity and many people are reportedly trapped by debris and facing a lack of food and water
But Trump tweeted: "Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort."
When he did visit Puerto Rico, the puzzling president drew further ire by stopping at a church and tossing paper towels at the crowd in their time of need, as if he was "shooting baskets".
Cruz described it as a "terrible and abominable view of him ... throwing provisions at people. It does not embody the spirit of the American nation."
Arguably, Trump's ill-considered behaviour legitimises others' vile behaviour online. That's according to associate professor Sharon Harvey, head of the School of Language and Culture at Auckland University of Technology (AUT).
Harvey points out that this is the first time in history that ordinary people have been able to communicate in an unmediated fashion through written communication to potentially wide audiences.
"Language is powerful. Written language that is communicated widely is so powerful," says Harvey. "When you think about Trump's tweets, what is powerful about that is he is putting into words things, so people can then think, 'it's ok to say that because this person in power has said that'. For a certain population of course, they feel reviled by it. For others, they will pick that up message and recirculate that."
It's all too easy, she says, to press "retweet" without considering the effects of what you are sharing.
"We all have access to social media but some people don't think about that power of the written word.You may feel less responsibility to the people you are addressing your comments to."
Harvey, whose area of expertise is language and intercultural communication particularly in the education system, says that, essentially, we need to work on our empathy. "Maybe more needs to be done to help people put themselves in other's shoes before they make their vile comments."
SNOWFLAKES AND WHALE OIL
Cue right-wing blogger, Cameron Slater, who used his Whale Oil blog in 2014 to describe a victim of a fatal car crash in Greymouth as "feral".
"Some feral tried to evade the police," Slater blogged. "They wound up dead by smacking into some innocent homeowner's house."
He received death threats and his daughter was also threatened, but Slater says that if he could crawl back in time he wouldn't change a word.
"Absolutely. I haven't apologised for a single thing," he says. "If Helen Clark didn't apologise for calling West Coasters feral why should I? It's only a bloody word, it doesn't warrant death threats. All that proved was that they are feral."
After his mum died, he adds, people messaged him saying "good job, I hope you're next".
"I've had people say they're going to gang rape my daughter, come around and kill me ... It is OK to attack Cam Slater because he's an a.....e but if you attack these other snowflakes they get all upset and they want to prosecute you."
Slater, whose hacked private communications formed the basis for Nicky Hager's book Dirty Politics and who is currently facing three defamation charges – "including one I can't talk about" – argues that if New Zealand has a problem it's with our "pathetic, cry baby attitude".
"I think we are more PC now than we were 20 years ago," he says. "There are all these snowflakes out there that are affected by words online. When I was brought up I was taught 'sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you'. I fail to see why that ceases to be relevant?"
As a child, Slater confides that he dealt with schoolyard bullies by "sitting them on their ass". He feels that there are special groups in society who "you are not allowed to offend" because they "get all hurty and cry".
Not even death threats from "gutless weasels" have encouraged Slater to tone down his comments. "Back in the day before the internet there was a whole lot of people who used to get drunk at the pub and rant and rave at the floor as they were going comatose. Instead of scribbling with crayons and cutting letters out and glueing them in to pages, these people now have Facebook on their phones."
"Most people will act responsibly with this freedom and use it for benevolent purposes,"
That's the view of AUT law professor Warren Brookbanks. "But unfortunately, there will always be a minority who will abuse the freedom that unrestrained internet access allows and use it for malicious purposes."
He says people's vile behaviour, online and off, is a "matter of great concern".
Moreover, he believes the "widespread rejection of religious values", the glue that held previous societies together, is a contributing factor to increasing vile behaviour towards each other.
"We have entered what could be described as a period of moral anarchy, or moral atomism, whereby everyone is his or her own moral legislator. This is particularly evident in the vile comments people make online, which are often couched in a highly moralistic tone and in very morally, self-righteous terms. The implicit message seems to be 'I am the moral arbiter of your conduct. You should listen to what I say'."
The polarised reactions to scandals involving the Waikato Chiefs rugby team abusing a stripper, and All Black Aaron Smith, caught trying to lie his way out of a tryst in a public toilet, are perhaps examples of this moral certainty.
On the one side, anger at the rugby players' treatment of women. On the other, vitriolic attacks on the women involved. Take this post to the Sunday Star-Times: "None of this stupid woman's claims were true.she wanted money and lied. All this hype about rape mentality is in the heads of the perverts who want to promote this filth. I would suggest you all apologise to each and every one of the Chief players."
In the 12 months to October 2016, 22 cases were prosecuted under the Harmful Digital Communications Act.
Netsafe technology director Sean Lyons says that the majority of these prosecutions have been for cases of the non-consensual sharing of intimate images, also known as "revenge porn".
And an amendment to the Crimes Act means it is now a crime to incite another person to commit suicide, "regardless of whether they attempt to take their life".
But it's not an offence to abuse someone racially and tell them to "leave this once great country immediately, no one wants you here".
The only controls on that kind of behaviour are the horrified reaction of the author's friends, family – and employer.
It's true, Wong did receive a message of apology from the author of the racist attack.
It read, in part: "Instead of being mean, I should have replied with a civilised reply, and we could have discussed our varying opinions as two men."
Wong was then Facebook-blocked by the culprit.
"You know," says Wong, "the first thing I did when he sent me that apology?
"I shared it on my Facebook for a laugh."
- Sunday Star Times