We need a spirit of tolerance, not a rush to cancel from left or right

National Party leader Christopher Luxon is getting one-on-one te reo Māori lessons and says it's a gateway to a better understanding of te ao Māori.

Dane Giraud is a Feilding-based TV writer.

OPINION: Cancel culture is real. I’m on the board of the Free Speech Union, and readers, I see it all the time.

It’s been those on the left who have been accused of cancelling views they don’t like. But we’ve just seen an egregious example of cancel culture from those claiming to be on the right of the political divide.

I’m talking about the mauling National Party leader Christopher Luxon got when he chose to include te reo Māori in a tribute to highly-respected kaumatua and Ngāti Whātua activist Joe Hawke.

* Luxon says he won't be the best at te reo but he is giving it a serious try
* Christopher Luxon sidesteps te reo questions to focus on big issues
* Co-governance - a phrase that may challenge our notions of citizenship, law, even power
* One million Kiwis to speak te reo: The plan behind revitalising the Māori language

“What about their free speech”, I hear you ask? “Can’t they voice their disapproval?”

Sure. If any of those posting were to be visited by Police over their comments, I would support them on the principle that offensive comments should never be criminalised.

But this sorry incident offers a good example of how the fight for freedom of speech and other liberal values will only be successful if a true spirit of tolerance rests within the public. Without it, we have no show.

Christopher Luxon’s tribute to Joe Hawke on Facebook, in te reo and English, drew a lot of negative comments.
Chris McKeen/Stuff
Christopher Luxon’s tribute to Joe Hawke on Facebook, in te reo and English, drew a lot of negative comments.

I hadn’t considered the health of te reo Māori until I started working for a TV production company that had contracts with Māori TV back in 2006.

The funding, primarily from Te Mangai Paho, was dependent on our language strategy. I worked for many years on the rugby league reality show Ngāti NRL. We would often target the games that featured in the show as a place to fill our quota of language per episode. We all know what a try is, so when a player scored and our narrator bellowed “Piro!”, sometimes as many as 10 times over the course of a game, the word would be absorbed by viewers.

During this same period, I was on my own cultural journey. I was learning Hebrew and studying the Torah (Holy Jewish text) weekly with a native speaker. What quickly became apparent is that I wasn’t just unlocking words and how to say them, but concepts within the text that defied translation.

Dane Giraud is a TV writer whose credits include the series Find Me a Māori Bride.
Dane Giraud is a TV writer whose credits include the series Find Me a Māori Bride.

Biblical Hebrew puns quite a lot, with sentences often playfully containing dual meanings. The late Yale Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, who was able to read Hebrew fluently, made the comment that the writing style of the Torah was probably closest to Franz Kafka, author of Metamorphosis and The Trial, two darkly comic, richly ironic masterpieces. The St James translation may be a masterwork, but it captures none of this style. I started to see the culture completely afresh.

Understanding the secrets within my own language made me view my small contribution to the revitalisation of te reo Māori with a new urgency. By doing my part to save a language, I felt I was helping to create a map back to the collective mind of a culture.

Māori was actively suppressed as a language. Despite being the indigenous language of this country, it is still not being taught in schools to a level that can guarantee general proficiency. A dominant language has long drowned it out and attempts to normalise it are often frustrated by people who have no idea what a language truly represents. People such as those who targeted Luxon, who in my mind are no better than book burners.

Māori language is a treaty issue first, but it is also very much a free speech issue.

Free speech exists for no other reason than to protect minority views from the tyranny of the majority opinion. A language, which encapsulates the soul of a people, articulates a unique point of view. If a politician wants to offer a heartfelt tribute in this language, and your response is to threaten them, you are no better than the extremist who believes that their political or religious views must dominate the discourse, to the complete exclusion of others.

Again, no laws were broken here.

But I say all this to remind you that the free speech battle in Aotearoa will not be won in the courts. It will not even be won by convincing politicians that this central progressive value is of benefit to us all.

It will be won when New Zealanders en masse exhibit the tolerance that should define the populations of all democratic nations. Understanding what was lost by Māori, and supporting efforts to reclaim it, would be a good place to start.