A protest where voices united, but agendas diverged

Freedoms and Rights Coalition protest at Parliament

EDITORIAL: The diversity of the protesters who gathered in their thousands on Tuesday should send strong warnings, both within and outside their own ranks.

It might be seen as a strength of the protest that it drew such a conspicuous range of participants from the militant and puff-chested to the mild and concerned.

There was real unity to their cry of freedom. But behind that clarion call, more than one agenda was at play, at least one of which we ought to respect, and one we need to resist as contemptible and dangerous.

Many of the protesters were decent but troubled, resistant to freshly mandated constraints on their lives, even their very bodies. They wanted to be heard and sought to focus attention on their arguments.

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Some of the protesters in Wellington on Tuesday.
Some of the protesters in Wellington on Tuesday.

The lockdowns, the border restrictions, the distinctions being drawn between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated, these are massive social interventions that must be justified persuasively, not just defended emphatically and repeatedly from on high.

So we are not, even now, past the stage where we need to debate the view that public safety is a human right that right here, right now, must be protected at the expense of unimpeded travel, access to non-essential services and even security of employment.

And we need to accept scrutiny of the assurance that these measures are protective not punitive. That there’s no intention to gratuitously keep those who are resolutely unvaccinated sufficiently isolated, inert and miserable that they’ll eventually be ground down to the point they trudge off and do as they’re told.

But amid honestly held divergent views, darker agendas do exist. While the demonstrations were still under way, a report from The Disinformation Project - research conducted through the University of Auckland - reached an alarming finding that Covid-19 and vaccination are being used as a Trojan horse to infuse far-right ideologies into our society.

The platform of choice for this spread has been Telegram, which has no oversight of, or policies about, misinformation and the more-deliberate disinformation.

Telegram has enjoyed a spectacular surge in both the popularity and intensity of posts since the Delta lockdown. The upshot, among the consumers of this messaging, has gone beyond what the researchers identify as a critical and near-frictionless shift from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine resistance, helped along by cherry-picked medicinal and scientific data.

That would be bad enough. But now that they have people’s attention, it’s also proving an umbilical cord to QAnon-level conspiracy theory, repackaged international content from the United States and Australia, framing our own state as tyrannical, treacherous and forsaking national and international law.

The past 12 weeks has shown increasingly violent language and the targeting of groups including Maori, Pasifika, migrants and ethnic minorities, women, the LGBTQI+ community and professional groups including MPs, journalists, health officials, academics and community leaders.

Again, the diversity of the protesters should restrain us from making cavalier assumptions about what they all want, and how prepared to listen they all are.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the protesters are not representative of the vast majority of Aotearoa.

Not representative of a majority, but, as she said in a different context, they are us.

When we talk to them, we are talking among ourselves. Sometimes it’s an ethical discussion based on agreed facts. Sometimes it’s nothing of the sort.

Either way, destinies are going to intertwine. Those who predict we will separate into a two-tier society are wrong. It’ll still be one society, a small one at that. The question is how healthy it will be. In which case, much depends on the integrity with which we disagree.