Helen Kelly has been an impressive president of the Council of Trade Unions, "fearless", as Labour leader Andrew Little described her in his address to the CTU conference last week when she stood down, her career cruelly cut short by terminal cancer. When someone as fearless as she is devotes part of her farewell speech to a call for more gentle public debate in this country, it deserves consideration.
Kiwis needed to be aware, she said, of attempts to belittle and deride those who dare speak out against official wisdom. "Attacks on those that speak up in this country - and we saw it with the author Eleanor Catton - are really an attack on democracy. A country where alternative voices are silenced, including by derision from the powerful, is a country that won't develop as it could."
This is not the first time we have heard this sort of appeal lately. It was a theme of the book Dirty Politics last year. Author Nicky Hager, in the book and whenever he talked about it, said critics of the present Government, especially in universities, were becoming afraid to speak out because of the abuse they were liable to receive. He was mainly concerned about websites and blogs. But concern of this kind has not been limited to blogs and discussion online. The Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA) recently upheld a complaint against broadcaster Mike Hosking for a comment on TVNZ's Seven Sharp about the waitress involved in "ponytailgate". In its ruling, the BSA put a new construction on the principle of free speech. The principle was not being served, it suggested, if free speech was used in a way that limited other's freedom of speech by making them afraid to speak out.
Unlike Helen Kelly and Nicky Hager, the BSA did not suggest that those who have a privileged voice in media would deliberately use their skills and position to discourage debate from those of a different view. But of course, both sides of any debate are hoping to persuade the other side it is wrong. An incisive argument is often described as "devastating" because it can be. To have a stated view exposed as fallacious can hurt. Eleanor Catton, for instance, made some public remarks that were at odds with the support she has received from New Zealand literary funds. It would have been hurtful for this to be pointed out but it was relevant to the debate she raised. Sadly, some of the descriptives used during that debate were unwise.
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Remember, though, what one side calls robust debate often feels like abuse to the other, sometimes justifiably. Those who engage in debate from positions of power or privilege ought to be aware of their advantages and take care to be fair. They should temper their rhetoric if it is liable to be gratuitously personally hurtful to anyone lacking similar advantages. But those who enter public debate are seldom without intellectual and verbal skills of their own and their supporters need to be fair when they accuse others of abuse. Everyone who offers a point of view for public consumption has a right to be protected from gratuitous abuse but equally they should steel themselves. Fair criticism can hurt.