It's not really freedom if you can only say things which are respectful and don't offend.
Trust me, I really tried not to write about Paul Henry this week. I even researched a column on infrastructure bonds. (They're a blimmin' crock - they're plain vanilla bonds but just sound fancy. Debt is debt, so that's that topic sorted.) And it is not as if there hasn't been enough crud expressed about the Henry incident - do I need to add a dollop more? Apparently, yes.
Just in case you've been in a hyperbaric chamber for the past few weeks - or are really not a New Zealander - TV presenter Henry resigned after a gigantic furore when he questioned whether the Governor-General, of Indian extraction, was actually a New Zealander.
When I said on my Facebook page that some young entrepreneur should be making droll Henry T-shirts and coffee mugs, it set off yet another unbecoming spat. This and many other repetitive, dumb conversations on the topic have brought me to the disheartening conclusion that the reaction to what Henry said is far more destructive than the remarks themselves.
Defamation lawyers talk about the "chilling" effect of lawsuits on freedom of speech. That means people are too scared to take risks in what they say. Henrygate is not about legal constraints, which are fairly transparent and easy to understand, but about social constraints, which aren't. I'm in the business of writing stuff that people often disagree with, so I know how hopeless it is to constantly second-guess everything you say. You cannot express yourself freely if you're petrified of being vilified.
When kids grow up in a family where they feel they can't express their true feelings it is called an invalidating environment. It makes them go quite wonky. That is us, writ large. We already self-censor what we say because everyone is in great fear of being jumped on if they say the wrong thing. It is not fun getting shunned in a country of four million people. Trust me, I know.
And this is not just political correctness I am talking about. More an over-arching intolerance of people or views which are anything but non-threatening and bland. Citizens in socialist Cuba lose their own judgment of right or wrong because they have grown up in a society where they have been taught to spout lies. A lot of them try to leave. Same here. One million New Zealand passport holders don't live in this country; presumably quite a few of them have beetled off to somewhere where mediocrity does not rule. Freedom of speech is not really freedom if it means you can only say things which are tasteful and respectful and don't offend anyone. I think New Zealand just became a much more oppressive country after the Henry incident.
What Henry said might have been ill-considered, but it was a lesser evil than every citizen having to calibrate what they say to fit in with the prevailing ethos. Oh, I know we all do this to some extent - it is part of just rubbing along with other people. But we would have been a better society if some tolerance, rather than self-righteousness, had been shown.
"The odd thing about tolerance is that it's not predicated on reciprocity. It just sets a better example," said former editor Gavin Ellis. And that's what we should have done. But as Barry Crump would say, we have turned into a bunch of poofters. Oops, now I'll be for it.