1984 is the scariest book I’ve ever read. When it was published in 1949, I was far too young to read it, let alone understand it. I only read it much later. And no, we’re not yet in the tightly regimented world which Orwell envisaged but there are profoundly disturbing signs that we are moving steadily in that direction. In the last few days, three things have happened which make me profoundly nervous.
First, I was one of several recipients of an email from somebody who works in the Ministry of Education. I don’t know their name, or their gender. But this is what the email said:
“I am writing to you about the issue of compelled speech in the Ministry of Education here in New Zealand.
“I apologize that I do not give my name. I believe that if senior staff at the Ministry of Education discovered I was writing to you about this issue, my job would be at risk.
“As you know, staff at the Ministry of Education have been strongly pressured to attend "diversity training" at huge taxpayer expense (flights, accommodation and food all paid for by taxpayers in a situation where a zoom meeting would work equally well).
“Many of us do not wish to be involved in such divisive "training", and it is causing division and dissent in our workplace.
“We have also been pressured to attend Te Reo classes in working hours instead of doing our regular duties, and something called Te Arawhiti training is also now being pushed and, once again, paid for (all expenses included!) by New Zealand taxpayers.
“In the latest part of this ideological push, this week I was personally called aside by my boss and told that I *must* now use Maori language greetings and sign offs in internal emails I send. There was a threat of reprimand if I didn't do so.
“I believe my boss was afraid to not push this mandate of compelled speech. I got the strong impression that he was being pressured to pressure me, and there would be trouble if we didn't comply.
“I asked if I could leave off greetings altogether, and was told this was "not possible".
“I asked if I could leave off my own name or initials and was told that this also was not an option.
“I asked if I could simply send the email on behalf of the team I am a part of so my name would not be included. Also a no-go.
“I was told if I complained about this to higher up, our very senior management would become involved, and "I wouldn't want that".
“I view this as a threat and an infringement of my freedom of speech.
“I do not speak Maori or understand it. I am an immigrant and a speaker of English who recognises the value of communicating in a language almost all New Zealanders understand and use.
“Not only is Maori being forced upon us now, but more and more internal documents include a huge number of Maori words that neither I nor any of my team mates understand or use by our own choice. It is getting to the point that many of these internal emails and documents are unreadable and incomprehensible to non-Maori speakers or staff, especially those whose first language is not even English.
“It is alienating and confusing.
“While I have no problem with others using Maori greetings on their emails if they choose (I believe it's entirely up to them), I am not happy about being forced to use greetings in a language I do not speak and have no interest in learning, and to sign off on these emails as if the choice were my own to write Maori.
“It is not.
“I am now afraid that I will lose my job if I refuse to comply.
“I believe that this is all part of the move to divide our population and put us against one another, Kiwi against Kiwi, and to push forward with an extreme leftist agenda that would compel speech, ban "hate speech" (which is another way of saying anything the extreme left disagree with), and limit freedom in our country.
“Can this issue please be looked into and raised in Parliament? [The email was also sent to both Judith Collins and David Seymour.] If we do not push back, we risk losing the freedom that makes New Zealand a welcoming and friendly country to be proud of.”
Then over the weekend a former colleague at the Reserve Bank, John Mendzela, sent me an account of a chance conversation he had had with Sri Lankan immigrant on a flight to Christchurch. This is part of John’s account of their conversation:
“I was born in Sri Lanka and went to school there. I did very well at school. But as you probably know, we have terrible ethnic divisions there, and opportunities for Tamils like me were limited. My family decided it would be better for me to work somewhere else. I had relatives in Africa, so I went there.
“Then I made friends with a Kiwi, who said that with my maths skills I could probably find work here. So I came for a visit and to study, and then looked for a job. My Kiwi friend helped me apply for a job with a government department. They needed my skills, and everything was going really well. I got to the final interview and I thought I would get a job offer for sure! But I did something foolish and spoiled it. They said they had just one more question: ‘What did I think about biculturalism?’
“I’d never heard this term before! So I asked them, ‘What does it mean?’ They explained that it is wrong to think of everyone in New Zealand as having one national identity. Based on history, there are two different cultures – Maori and European. Those two cultures are separate, and have different history, customs and language. So surely the government should apply bi-culturalism, and treat each individual as belonging to one of those cultures. I was asked what I thought about that idea.
“That was when I was very foolish. I told them ‘I think this biculturalism would be a very bad idea. That is what we have in Sri Lanka, and so we always have prejudice and discrimination, and sometimes riots, and even a civil war killing many people. Government should not create differences between people. It would be much better to emphasise what all the citizens have in common as New Zealand citizens, to strengthen unity and to help treat everyone fairly.
“‘Oh no!’, the Maori person on the interview panel said. ‘We don’t want problems like those in Sri Lanka. We just want to emphasise the identity of our Maori people, so we can feel attached to the land of our ancestors, speak our own language, and receive government services tribally. And we want to vote separately for our own Maori representatives in Parliament.’
“Then I made things worse by telling the panel that that sounds to me like apartheid in South Africa. When I was working in Africa, everyone there knew apartheid drove people of different races further away from each other. It was wrong! We were all against it. In a democracy, everyone of all races should have equal opportunities and the same voting rights. So we were very happy when New Zealand rejected apartheid and would not play rugby with the Springboks.’
“Of course I didn’t get the job. My friend was furious with me. He explained how I must say that I support government policy on biculturalism, and not say what I truly believe. Before my next interview, I practised exactly what to say. So that time I had no problem getting the job. Since then I say only the right things, and now I am doing very well!”
And finally over the last few days we had the long-delayed announcement from the Minister of Justice about legislation to strengthen “the provisions that protect groups from speech that incites hatred”, and in particular “incitement of hatred against a group based on a shared characteristic, such as ethnicity, religion or sexuality” because that “is an attack on our values of inclusiveness and diversity”.
Now of course we don’t yet know what shape the final legislation will take, and nobody wants to defend speech which incites violence. That is now, and should remain, illegal. But inciting hatred? Where to draw the line? As the Police have discovered in the UK where a hate speech law is already in place, at the end of the day there are almost inevitably subjective judgements. Would Israel Folau be allowed to say that the Bible says that gays will go to Hell? Would somebody be allowed to say that those who advocate Female Genital Mutilation or the stoning of adulterers should not be allowed to gain permanent residence in New Zealand?
Perhaps the Government will be able to come up with a form of words which will reduce the risk of violence while protecting one of our most precious treasures, the right to speak freely. But as George Orwell himself said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”.
28 June 2021