Sunday, January 15, 2006

Deborah Coddington: Free rein for illiterate ranters

If the discussions on New Zealand political blogsites indicate the quality of political debate in this country our intelligentsia is in a parlous state.

I'd not visited the weird world of bloggers but a colleague last week told me my columns were the subject of much comment. Thinking I might be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the Prime Minister's $60,000 literary award, or the list of girls who could be Secretary-General of the UN, I clicked on various sites.

To say I was not exactly Miss Popularity is an understatement. But I was not alone. It seems anyone who writes or says something with which bloggers disagree is singled out for vicious personal abuse.

For example, MP Rodney Hide has the most active blogsite of all politicians. Some of his writings are irrelevant, but mostly he alerts readers to information about economic freedom, big government, good international articles or opinion pieces. Since Hide's the leader of the Act Party, you'd have to be pretty stupid to expect him to post something in favour of, say, Helen Clark or Jim Anderton.

However, when he made perfectly rational comments about the contents of John Minto's column in Christchurch's The Press, this is the response he got (I've tried to clean up the spelling and grammar): "Act's new slogan and campaign strategy -'a world without lefties' and 'left is dumb' and 'lefties think they're all altruistic and s**t but they're just a bunch of dicks'. Screw people thinking we're exclusive and arrogant they already do anyway, and they're the real arrogant dumbasses."

Exit Hide's blogsite and on to the other side of the political spectrum - "Just Left", which claims to be authored by one "Jordan Carter on life and Labour in Wellington".

Carter (if that is a real person) wrote a piece on political hypocrisy, specifically referring to National's promised tax cuts and Bill English's accusing Labour of borrowing to fund "election pledges". Carter makes some valid points, sticks to the issue (mostly) and throws the argument out for comment.

The first replies are sane - the sort of debate that sits comfortably around the barbecue. However, it soon descends into - literally - the sewer when a blogger calling himself "Millsy" writes: "Not everyone wants to be shoving their hands down toilets for the rest of their lives, dickwad."

Later, one "Tim Barclay", who admits his comments are "extreme" but nonetheless has kept away from personal abuse, is told by "Millsy" to "eat crap", and "you great big arrogant right-wing prick, you". That's very intelligent.

Back to the political right, then. Maybe a site hosted by a woman encourages some moderation. But not if the site of Lindsay Mitchell (Act candidate and anti-welfare campaigner) is any indication. In fact, the responses to Mitchell's musings are possibly the most abusive.

When she writes about domestic violence and gives examples and statistics of women attacking men, one responder, who identifies herself as female, verbally and unwittingly confirms Mitchell's point: "Maybe Islam is the ideal for Mitchell and her odious ilk. I have noted that Mitchell is a self-employed painter - ie someone who has in effect contributed NOTHING to the NZ economy. What right does she have to opine about the DPB? Maybe she can't get an Alpha Male who will support his kids and not beat his wife."

And what did the pundits say about me on David P Farrar's blogsite? Singling out the most colourful quotes - "anorexic drag queen in high heels", "Boring, Irritable, Testy, Catty, Hateful [spells bitch]", and my favourite - "white trash gold digger".

All of which is ephemeral and amusing - but would these people say these things if they were sitting around a table with Hide, Mitchell, Farrar or me? We don't even know who they are, because they hide behind pseudonyms like "kiwi sheila", "jesus crux" and "culma". It's harmless, but other media can't get away with publishing what is possibly defamatory - why should the internet be immune?

Newspapers and magazines rarely print letters to the editor that are personally abusive, and risk defending expensive legal action if they publish a defamatory letter. Furthermore, credible publications insist on the writer providing a name, street address and telephone number to prove that person exists.

Some lobby groups and political parties, such as Maxim and Act, try to get around this by having a network of people happy to have their names attached to letters to the editor, but the "name" must nonetheless support the sentiments in the letter. And blogging can hardly be called cyber talkback, despite the fact talkback callers can use fake names. Radio stations are ruled by defamation laws and the Broadcasting Act; programmes are on a time delay and hosts have a "dump button" to dispose of potty-mouthed or slanderous callers.

Planet blogger is a sad, pathetic sphere, and I feel genuinely sorry for the blogsite hosts who strive to supply a political service the market obviously wants.

This could be a good forum for free discussion. I imagine, however, that the genuine commentators, who use their real names and don't hurl abuse, get fed up and find a life in the real world.

Kerre Woodham: Sense in Census move

Finally, Statistics New Zealand has listened to the people of New Zealand and decided that those who wish to define their ethnicity as "Kiwi" or "New Zealander" will have their answers recorded in the main Census.

In the last Census, in 2001, almost 80,000 people ignored the official boxes and described their ethnic group as "New Zealander". Another 10,000 chose "Kiwi", and just about every one of these renegades rang talkback to complain that their choice wasn't an option. Now it is.

It will play havoc with the figures because if you're Maori or Indian or Chinese or Tongan, but you're also a Kiwi, you can tick both boxes and both ethnicities will be recorded, meaning our population will be recorded as more than it is.

But as with all statistics, they only tell part of the story, and sometimes the facts are less important than the meaning. A simplistic, tick-the-box definition of this country's smorgasbord of ethnicities hasn't been helpful in nation building.

The decision by people to call themselves "New Zealanders", and the decision to allow them to do so, may not be anthropologically accurate. But it's a step towards building a nation that's proud of its heritage and positive about its future.