The culture wars are often viewed as an exclusively American phenomenon, but the reality is that they are becoming increasingly prominent in countries around the world, including New Zealand. Some may believe that they are immune to their influence, but the truth is that these battles have already entered New Zealand politics and are being enthusiastically fought by the Labour government and the political left. Instinctively, right-leaning parties in New Zealand have shied away from culture war issues, preferring instead to focus on their traditional core policies. But whether we like it or not, the game is afoot, and we are all players.
So, what exactly are the culture wars? In essence, they are political conflicts that revolve around social and cultural issues, such as gender, race, sexuality, religion, and identity. The term was coined in the United States during the 1990s to describe the heated debates that were taking place between conservatives and progressives over issues like abortion, affirmative action, and gay rights. However, the scope of culture wars has since expanded to encompass a wide range of issues, from free speech and cancel culture to critical race theory and the role of the media in shaping public opinion.
New Zealand has not been immune to these issues. In recent years, the country has seen heated debates over topics such as transgender rights, hate speech laws, and the role of colonialism in shaping New Zealand’s history. These debates have been driven largely by the Labour government and the political left, who have taken a strong stance on issues of social justice and equity. While some may view these positions as admirable, many see them as a threat to traditional values and free speech.
One of the most contentious issues in New Zealand’s culture wars has been the government's push for hate speech laws. In August 2021, the government released a draft bill that would criminalise hate speech, including speech that incites violence or discrimination on the basis of religion. While many on the left have praised the bill as a necessary measure to protect marginalised communities, others criticised it as a threat to free speech and an overreach of government power. Although the bill has since been dropped by the government, the issue of free speech continues to rage.
Over recent weeks the question of whether Tusiata Avia’s poem about Captain Cook was hate speech or art has been a heated topic of debate around the country which has generated comment from Act Party leader, David Seymour and the Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon who has received in excess of 270 letters of complaint from members of the public about the poem. The National Party has not expressed a view on the furore.
Another issue that has sparked debate is the government’s focus on transgender rights, most recently in relation to Drag Queen Story Time in libraries. The issue looks set to be thrust back into the headlines over the next few weeks given that the British women’s rights activist, Kellie-Jay Keen is scheduled to visit New Zealand at the end of the month. There have already been calls for her visa to be revoked on the basis that she poses “a significant risk and threat to public order and the public interest”.
Internationally, the role of colonisation is being debated more generally in many countries, including the United Kingdom. Indigenous rights now have far greater support in many countries and are in a state of rapid development. In contemporary New Zealand life we see these issues manifest themselves in heated discussions over co-governance, and the role and prominence of the Treaty of Waitangi in society. A current example is the on-going dispute regarding Kaipara Council and whether a traditional Maori karakia should be recited at the start of each meeting of Council.
These debates have, however, left those on the political right feeling excluded and marginalised. The National Party and the Act Party have been vocal in their opposition to the government’s policies, but they have struggled to gain traction in the face of a media and political establishment that is largely aligned with the left. This has led to accusations that the government and its supporters are trying to silence dissent and impose a narrow set of values on the country.
However, it is important to note that culture wars are not inherently bad. They can provide an opportunity for different groups to engage in meaningful dialogue and debate over important issues. They can also bring attention to marginalised communities and push for greater social justice and equity.
The problem arises when culture wars become polarised and divisive, with each side demonising the other and refusing to engage in productive dialogue. This is where New Zealand currently finds itself. The government and the political left have taken a strong stance on issues of social justice, but they have also been accused of being intolerant of dissent and imposing their views on the rest of the country. Meanwhile, those on the political right have been left feeling excluded and silenced, unable to engage in meaningful dialogue or shape the direction of the country.
So, what can be done to address this situation? Firstly, we need to recognise that culture wars are a reality in New Zealand politics and that they are not going away anytime soon. This means that all parties, regardless of their political affiliation, need to be willing to engage in constructive dialogue and debate over important issues. This also means that we need to be willing to listen to the perspectives and experiences of those who may hold different views from our own.
Secondly, we need to recognise that culture wars are not just about politics. They are about deeply held values and beliefs that shape our identities and our communities. This means that we need to approach these issues with empathy and understanding, rather than simply dismissing those who hold different views as ignorant or intolerant.
Thirdly, we need to resist the temptation to view culture wars as a zero-sum game. Just because one side wins does not mean that the other side loses. Instead, we need to recognise that there are often multiple perspectives and solutions to complex issues, and that compromise and collaboration are often necessary to achieve meaningful progress.
Finally, we need to remember that culture wars are not the only game in town. While they may dominate the headlines and social media feeds, there are many other important issues facing our country, from health, education and economic matters to criminal justice. We need to ensure that we are not so consumed by culture wars that we lose sight of these other important issues.
In conclusion, the culture wars have already entered New Zealand politics, and if international experience is anything to go by, they will only broaden and intensify. New Zealand has a proud history of progressive reforms going back to the suffragette movement but this shouldn't be a reason not to engage in good faith debate about the concerns surrounding the current culture wars. Indeed these issues are so pervasive - going to family, religion and identity - that it will not be possible to avoid their reach forever. For conservatives, that means taking a first principles approach to the debate and objectively challenging progressive alternatives to the status quo. To paraphrase Trotsky, "you may not be interested in the culture wars, but the culture wars are interested in you".
Thomas Cranmer, is a lawyer with over 25 years experience in some of the world's biggest law firms. He divides his time between the UK and NZ. He writes on Substack exploring issues facing NZ under his nom du plume, Cranmer. This article was first published at The Common Room