This weekend saw a showdown between two tribes of contemporary gender politics: those in favour of progressing transgender rights versus women wishing to defend their spaces. It’s a debate with huge passion, outrage and consequences.
The figure at the centre of the clash was the British “trans-exclusionary radical feminist” Posie Parker, aka Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, who attempted to hold a “Let Women Speak” rally at Albert Park in Auckland on Saturday. She was forced offstage by a counter-rally for trans rights and has fled back to the UK.
Saturday’s clash of cultures is a sign of where politics is heading in New Zealand – towards a fully-fledged culture war. This is something normally more associated with American politics – but also increasingly in places like the UK.
The Ugly opportunism of culture wars
There was an element of pantomime on both sides over the last week. Posie Parker thrives on controversy. She might be complaining now about her treatment in New Zealand, but by holding her rally in a public place like Albert Park she was provoking opposition and stoking tensions, hoping to become something of a martyr.
She won. She made global news, fuelling publicity in the UK and US markets where she carries out her main fundraising. She will now be even better equipped to push her particularly toxic form of gender politics.
Likewise, those opposing Parker were rather opportunistic in arguing that she is a fascist and that her beliefs were such a danger to the public that she had to be banned from the country.
They must have known they were giving the previously-unknown visitor huge amounts of free publicity and therefore helping get her views out to a wider audience. As broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan argued yesterday, “Parker’s opponents made sure that she was in the news most of the week”, and “They helped her spread her message. They played right into her hands.”
The Greens represent one side of the polarised divide. MP Golriz Ghahraman tweeted on her way to the rally: “So ready to fight Nazis”. Co-leader and Government Minister Marama Davidson put out a video to say that she was “so proud” of the protesters. And obviously wearing her hat of Minister for Prevention of Family and Sexual Violence she used the event to declare that “I know who causes violence in the world, and it’s white cis men”.
Will culture wars dominate the 2023 general election?
The New Zealand Herald’s Fran O’Sullivan wrote on Saturday that “The ‘culture wars’ are set to be a defining issue in the 2023 election”. And she bemoans the Posie Parker tour dominating politics in a week in which the Treasury and the Reserve Bank confirmed “that New Zealand will tip into a technical recession this year”.
According to O’Sullivan, the “rainbow community leaders went into overdrive” producing “an illustration of how quickly a cultural issue can consume public discourse.”
The implication is that the public is going into an election campaign in which there will be less debate and focus on addressing the cost of living crisis. And last week the Government released a major evaluation of their latest progress in eliminating child poverty – which tragically showed that no real progress had been made. This vital issue was completely overshadowed by the Posie Parker visit, providing a warning of what type of issues might dominate the public sphere in the lead-up to the general election.
Who benefits from a heightened focus on cultural issues?
The two parliamentary parties stoking the culture wars are Act and the Greens. Those parties will gain a much higher profile if cultural issues keep rising to the fore. The Greens will pick up middle class supporters whose main focus is on social justice issues, while Act might be able to pick up more anti-woke working class supporters in provincial New Zealand.
Squeezed in the middle are the major parties of Labour and National, who are desperate to stay out of it all, aware that middle New Zealand is less enamoured by such debates and concerns. Labour, especially under new leader Chris Hipkins is trying to shuck off the woke association the party developed under Jacinda Ardern. Likewise, Christopher Luxon is trying to get rid of the reactionary image National sometimes had under Judith Collins.
On the outside is New Zealand First, with Winston Peters trying to get into the culture wars game. He’s positioned himself, along with Act, as being opposed to the woke elite’s focus on what he calls social engineering. Peters gave his State of the Nation speech on Friday in which he claimed: “There is a full-scale attack being waged on New Zealanders’ culture, identity and sense of belonging.” He complained that nowadays “there’s an awful tribalism in New Zealand politics”.
Peters pushed all the buttons on the culture war issues – claiming that the education system was the victim of “virtue signalling tinkerers”, and that government departments were more focused on relabelling themselves with Māori names than actually doing the mahi. Co-governance was also targeted as an elite agenda that would take away the “one person, one vote” Western tradition of democracy.
What are culture wars anyway?
There’s a whole new terminology that needs unpacking and defining in the new landscape of culture wars. We have been through versions associated with the “progressive” side of this debate such as political correctness, cancel culture, identity politics, and now “woke” politics. To what extent these terms are useful continues to be debated. Perhaps the better term for the milieu of more middle class progressive demands is “social justice politics”.
Much of it is associated with leftwing politics but, in reality, the left is divided over culture wars. The “cultural left” side tends to be connected with more elite, educated, and middle class activists. The more traditional, or working class orientated “old left”, is still focused on economic inequality and improving the lot of those economically disadvantaged as a whole, with a focus on universalism and civil rights.
Even the term “culture war” needs some unpacking. New Zealand lawyer Thomas Cranmer provides the following useful definition: “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.”
Problems of an escalating culture war
According to Act Party deputy leader Brooke Van Velden, New Zealand risks becoming “a divided society where cancel culture spirals out of control.” Similarly, in the weekend James Shaw pointed to the Posie Parker controversy, and said “Her arrival is the kind of risk that metastasises into broader political violence.” He told Newsroom that “There’s a real possibility we will see some form of political violence this year and someone will be injured, or worse.”
Democracy might also be harmed if the culture wars dominate this year’s election. An ugly fight over transgender politics, co-governance, or race relations would be one that alienates many voters, and reduces participation in politics. Some of the public will turn away in disgust, confusion, or fear about culture wars. The intolerance and outrage that often occurs in these debates can make ordinary voters feel unwelcome taking part in discussion and debate, or even in voting.
This doesn’t mean that the issues at the heart of culture wars are unimportant or should be suppressed. For example, there are vitally important issues and reforms that need to be progressed in terms of gender and transgender rights.
This is also a point made well by Thomas Cranmer: “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.”
However, he points out that culture war debates often lack genuine, good-faith engagement: “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.”
Solutions to culture wars: Critical thinking and open debate
The main problem in culture wars arise when there is no room for nuanced discussion, openness or a willingness to learn from others and opponents. Overall, there is a need for healthier debate and engagement in New Zealand politics.
This is something political columnist Janet Wilson wrote about in the weekend, arguing that we have a declining culture of critical thinking and open-mindedness: “That growing inability to think critically enables what Illinois University Ilana Redstone calls The Certainty Trap, that sense of self-righteousness that comes with having brutally judged, then condemned and dismissed, someone with whom we disagree. And when it comes to political debate, Redstone says The Certainty Trap holds us back and puts up walls.”
We need to develop our skills, Wilson says, “that includes being open-minded, having a respect for evidence and reason, being able to consider other viewpoints and perspectives, not being stuck in one position, as well as clarity and precision of thought.”
Similarly, Thomas Cranmer argues that we will deal better with culture war issues when we foster a culture of humility and tolerance: “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.”
Leftwing activist and blogger Martyn Bradbury attended Saturday’s rally and counter-rally and was appalled by both sides. He says: “Right now the entire community need to actually step back and consider how the militant cancel culture element of the debate has alienated everyone else and created the environment where Posie Parker can thrive.”
New Zealand is facing huge problems which require critical thinking and debate. We won’t be well served if such political debate and the upcoming election are highjacked by the hate and tribal opportunism we saw over the weekend.