Is New Zealand "racist as f***", as observed by the 2017 New Zealander of the Year, de facto international cultural ambassador and money-spinning Māori moviemaker Taika Waititi?

How do we judge? "As f***" is such a subjective measure of anything. For myself, I'd say New Zealand is probably not as racist as f***, but definitely as racist as bloody buggery.

Others might describe New Zealand as being as racist as heck. We could argue about that indefinitely. Which is the beauty of the system.

Because within certain limits and some tempting exceptions - "blasphemous libel", anybody? - we can say what we like. Most importantly, our right to an honestly held opinion is preserved, and "as f***" is clearly opinion.

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Truth, quite rightly, is a defence against a charge of defamation.

Although, if you wanted confirmation Waititi's remark was based on large dollops of truth, you only needed to glance at social media comment threads which brought out racist views of an intensity that "as f***" came nowhere near to describing.

However, notwithstanding what the law allows, there is a chill creeping over the notion of free speech.

It springs from a widespread fear of offending people and is rooted in a genuine desire not to hurt others.

But it risks curbing free speech for all the wrong reasons.

Once people start censoring their own thoughts and utterances, we are all the poorer.

It's important to know what the racists and haters out there think. Driven underground, pernicious ideas can flourish like poisonous weeds, free from the harsh light of criticism such as Waititi's.

It's for this reason, for instance, that demands for Sir Bob Jones to lose his knighthood missed the point. It's why calls for the sacking of Israel Folau, following his casual observation that gay people will burn in the flames of Hell for eternity, were ludicrous.

A far better remedy is to use the power of free speech to mock his medieval view of the divine plan for gays.

Words have great power. You can't underestimate the harm Folau's remarks may have done to a gay teen struggling with sexuality or the boost Waititi's comment may have given to a Māori youth who is constantly getting the message their race means they are a loser who is going to end up in jail.

Certainly, freely expressed speech is often hard to listen to, let alone tolerate. Especially when, as so often seems to be the case, it's practised by people who don't think the same as we do.

But in the free market of ideas, sense, truth and decency will prevail - although only if the enemy can be heard and speech is also free.

When "f***" appeared a few paragraphs above we were adhering to a longstanding practice that aims to protect delicate sensibilities from the harsh reality of the full word. But times and standards and tolerances evolve.

There was a time when "Damn you, sir" was printed as "D - you, sir". It was a long time ago. Yet everyone who read "D - " then or "f***" now knew what it meant.

And two years ago, an Australian judge ruled the word was no longer offensive. So, do we really need to keep leaving out the "uck" in media?

It's time for everyone to stop saying: "We think of ourselves as a clean green country."

Realistically, I'm not so sure most of us do think of the country as clean and green. Because it's not, and increasing numbers of us don't think it.

Instead, let's relegate that motto from the status of truism to that of long-term goal, and let's make New Zealand green again.