Who remembers the story of the penniless lad who stows away on a boat to the New World, packing the thrills of life into a few short days before crisis strikes and he dies in an act of heroism and love? And remember his rival, the rich, mean villain, who behaves in a cowardly, selfish way and survives because of it?

We all remember that story. And when we watch Titanic, who doesn't choose Jack? We all want to be him, or be with him. We all hope we are not the other guy – who even remembers his name? Even though Jack dies, we like to think we would do as he does.

You can think what you like about Titanic, but there's some profoundly moral storytelling going on there. Because religion isn't the only place we learn our moral codes – popular culture can be pretty good at it too.

I know, popular culture can also be good at undermining moral codes, closing our minds, victimising and excluding others, sabotaging society. But so can religion. We pick our way through them both.

Advertisement

We are the good people and the bad. We get to choose. It's not that some of us are inherently good and the rest of you are the bad guys. Each of us has the darkness and the light within, and all of our cultures, all of our belief systems, do too. Each of us gets to choose whether to nurture the darkness or the light.

Almost all of us believe we have chosen the light. But almost all of us harbour at least some of the darkness within, and we don't want to acknowledge it.

Of course we shouldn't gratuitously offend other cultures, but my jokes are just jokes. Yes I know social media brings out the worst in people, but when I hate on someone they deserve it. We definitely need to reform our gun laws, but not for my gun.

I know those people have bile in their hearts, but don't you think, on some issues, they have a point? It's the other side who are the problem, I'm just a concerned citizen trying to get at the truth.

Mourners arrive for the burial service of a victim of the mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch. Photo / AP
Mourners arrive for the burial service of a victim of the mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch. Photo / AP

When people say any of those things, there's something bad lurking beneath.

It's been a week now. We'll stop for two minutes' silence today, perhaps attend the vigil in the Domain this evening, or other vigils elsewhere, and we'll send all the aroha we can to those who must attend not just vigils but burials. Some will go to mosque, and how brave that will be.

There are also the events of our more ordinary lives. A rugby game at Eden Park tonight, an inspirational and very busy last weekend for the Auckland Arts Festival. Pasifika is cancelled but many of the stalls will be at the Saturday and Sunday markets around town. Ordinary life is important. It doesn't mean we forget – or doesn't have to. It means we are not broken.

At the opening night of an arts festival play from Northern Ireland on Wednesday, an actor came out to speak to the audience, before the lights went down. She said she wanted to convey the sympathy of cast and crew to the victims of the tragedy in Christchurch, and to all of New Zealand. They were in awe of the response we have shown. She said, on behalf of the rest of the world, that we were an inspiration to everyone.

Advertisement

It doesn't make things better but it was a good thing to hear.

She described what they had discovered about the New Zealand character. She said we had "an air of defiance and tolerance".

I've never heard it put like that before. I think it's splendid. I hope we bind with all our hearts to both. Defiance, and tolerance.

Even though Jack dies in the Titanic, we like to think we would do as he does. We all want to be the good guy.
Even though Jack dies in the Titanic, we like to think we would do as he does. We all want to be the good guy.

That play, by the way, Ulster American, is about the way nasty extremes of belief systems hide within the more acceptable versions of those systems. You know, misogyny, nationalist bigotry, religious hatred. And it's a comedy, which allows it to pack a formidable punch. On until Sunday.

Popular culture, and the human project: to wrestle with what it is to be human, so the good may bloom and the evil be contained. It's the story of Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones. It's the motive force of every television show from Shortland St to The Handmaid's Tale. It is of course the story of the Bible and the Koran and the Talmud.

Turn it out into the ordinary world now and what we've got is white supremacism.

It doesn't define us. In New Zealand, it's probably tiny. Nor does it define the much larger number of people who are worried that, one way or another, things have gone a bit too far. Too much immigration, too many #MeToo accusations, too many concessions to Māori.

Thinking those things doesn't mean you want to kill people, and debating them is important. So we have to learn how to frame those debates in ways that don't legitimise hatred.

It's not easy but there are some things that help. If you're worried "things have gone too far" but you don't want to give succour to the hatred of the extreme right, say so explicitly. Don't generalise about whole groups of people, don't use abusive language and don't stoke fear.

If you do think the world is made up of us and them, don't diminish the humanity of "them".

We all think we're not part of the problem. But what if we said to ourselves, I have to change one thing about myself, so what will it be?

Not letting racist jokes pass? Talking to more people who are not like me? Going to cultural events that are not my own? Learning someone else's language, or at least enough of it to be welcoming? Not being hateful on social media?

What if we all said, I'm going to change three things about myself?

None of it, on its own, will keep us all safe. But it will build the defiance and the tolerance. It will make it harder for terrible people to believe they are right.

Meanwhile, challenging the notion that the problem is other people, not ourselves, could start at the top.

We have an agency charged with keeping us safe from domestic terrorism. It's called the SIS and it must have known – or should have known, it makes no difference – that 73 per cent of extremist-related deaths in the United States since 2001were the result of attacks by the far right. Yet the SIS has not listed this threat once in the past 10 years of its reports to Parliament.

In all decency, shouldn't the head of the SIS, Rebecca Kitteridge, have resigned? And shouldn't the minister in charge of the SIS, Andrew Little, refrain from telling us – as he did on television on Monday – that the SIS has done nothing wrong?

He cannot possibly know that. He cannot possibly even think it is likely.