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The Human Rights Commission have decided to actually do their job

Lawrence Smith | Stuff
Dane Giraud applauds the Human Rights Commission for doing their job and questions why engaging with challenging people is taboo when it can be the best way to resolve tension.
Dane Giraud
Contributing Writer
February 25th, 2022

OPINION: The Human Rights Commission has fallen offside with some of its allies over a decision to engage with protesters that some have characterised as racist. I have been frequently critical of some of the approaches of Human Rights Commission, but, as a Jew who is wide awake to the antisemitic tropes that have appeared at the protest, I applaud Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt for reaching out.

As our friend in the tweet above wanted to remind Paul Hunt, his office promoted a hashtag that seemed to suggest such meetings should be off the table. I grant this is a catchy, highly sharable phrase. But what exactly does it mean to give nothing to racism as a strategy? I suppose the idea is that if we all shunned any racist conduct, even low-level racism such as jokes, it would eventually be starved of oxygen and would simply die off. But most of us don’t tolerate racism now and the spread of racially tinged conspiracy theories only seems to have ramped up since this campaign began. 

In fact, my worry is isolating and denying a voice to those we view as beyond the pale is more likely to drive racism and drive racists towards each other. We know that alienation can lead to extremism, so society slamming the door shut on these figures seems incredibly counterintuitive. 

Take the case of Lee Williams, the chap in Christchurch who was undoubtedly producing racist online content in response to the Māori party and ‘He Puapua’. Activists mobilized against him, and he lost his job, relationship, and ended up leaving the country. Many would consider this a good result. But if I honestly thought an individual posed an existential threat to my community, the last thing I would do is push his back up against a wall. If he, or someone like him, was to have snapped it is unlikely he would’ve paid any of the white middle-class activists driving this campaign a visit. They can afford to play with fire. We can’t. 

I came across a tweet at the beginning of the year in which Lee, now back in the UK, appeared to have had a change of heart about Muslims. How did this come about? He worked alongside some and found they were alright guys. This should surprise no one. When you work alongside someone, talk with them, laugh with them, it becomes harder to hold onto your prejudices. 

My friend, Imam Mustenser Qamar of Wellington’s Ahmadiyya community, offers us somewhat of a template with this community work. He and others travel the country making themselves available to speak to any non-Muslim who may have questions and acknowledges that sometimes the reception he gets is hostile. But after a coffee and chat, even the more disgruntled people leave the Imam with a handshake and smile.

Engagement works. 

So why do so many today seem so opposed to it? 

That’s a good question for which I don’t have a definitive answer. It seems ideological, and at times even pathological. There are some who sincerely seem to think words and ideas are pathogens that can infect people and even environments. When feminist group ‘Speak Up For Women’ were barred from a public building by Auckland City Council in 2021, a manager told them that a reason for the cancellation was because staff would forever feel uncomfortable in the room they had shared their ideas in. This is deranged and makes me wonder how far away we are from woke exorcisms! 

I also wonder if the ‘never-engage’ rubbish is born of some people’s relative inexperience of genuine multicultural neighbourhoods. Yes, there were tensions growing up in a place like South Auckland, but there was also a hell of a lot of engagement because we lived and worked together so had to work our differences out. We also had to collectively manage some real unsavoury types (gangs mainly) and most of the time chose goodwill. Treat these people with dignity and 9 out of 10 times you’d get trust and respect in return. 

This isn’t to say results are guaranteed. Not every bigot will benefit from engagement. A Louis Farrakhan isn’t about to change his mind. But we’re talking evil in that case, not ignorance which is going to be the far more common cause. Engagement has a way better chance of working here than a mob attack or expulsion. 

Refusing to engage with antisemites isn’t keeping my Jewish community safer. What a person afflicted by racism, or any sort of bigotry desperately needs is the opportunity to meet the person behind the religion, the ethnicity, the sexual orientation. They need to look us in the eye and see their brother, sister, mother, father. They need to laugh at one of our jokes and discover that we listen to the same band. So, I applaud Paul Hunt for agreeing to meet with protesters and would encourage him to facilitate many such discussions in future, ideally with representatives from some of the targets of racism at the table.

Dane Giraud is a South Auckland-raised TV and comedy writer and member of New Zealand's Jewish community.