Brexit and The Hammerhead Sharks

By Andrew Chen

On Saturday I attended a BWB Conversations event with the author of Being Chinese: A New Zealander’s Story” Helene Wong and film-maker Roseanne Liang. Amongst discussion about what it means to be a Chinese-New Zealander, assimilation and integration of immigrants, and speaking out against microaggressions, there was one narrative that struck a chord with me. When asked about how we can build better connections between minority groups and with the majority Pakeha, Helene said that the key was for people to interact with each other and work together. Just talking to each other can be enough to humanise each other, to overcome an innate human distrust of the different, to see that we are all humans first and white or black or brown or yellow or red second.

In the wake of Brexit, this is very relevant and important. An ugly xenophobic racist streak has reared its head in recent months in the UK and US, and while it has always existed in the undercurrent, that dangerous mentality has captured enough people to achieve material change. Many commentators have said that the Remain campaign failed to strike an emotional chord with the populace, that experts were successfully characterised as elitist by the Leave campaign, that the Leave campaign were able to build a better narrative that went beyond rationality and spoke to the electorate.

Perhaps there is something to be said about how the Remain campaign actually communicated with people. Did they rely on mass media advertising and debates trying to be efficient, reaching many people at once, or did they actually go into the communities and talk in person, reaching only a few people or only one person at once? I understand that talking to small groups of people is expensive, in that political campaigning costs time and money and both of these are only available in limited quantities. But there is something about a one-hour debate on television that becomes inaccessible for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

There are lessons to be learnt from Brexit as the sentiment expressed by the Leave voters sweeps across the rest of Europe, across the United States, and even down in little old New Zealand. We’re going to see increasing interest from immigrants and refugees because we are damn lucky to be living in a pretty great country. How we deal with that speaks about who we are as a country, whether we are a country that welcomes people with open arms and gives everyone a fair go, or a country that prejudges people who look and sound different to the rest of us and puts policies in place to keep them out. We have seen from our politicians, from all sides of the spectrum, that our country may be heading down the second path.

There is a common tendency for social progressives to just shut out those who don’t agree. Everyone has a story of how they tried to call someone out on being racist or sexist or homophobic or otherwise offensive and had it backfire miserably. We learn from these experiences and argue that there are some people whose opinions cannot be changed and in the interests of our own mental welfare we should not bother to engage with them. Never read the comments is a common mantra, but that only allows the ill-informed, the misguided, and the offensive to continue perpetuating their views. We cannot keep shouting from our ivory towers, hope that the media amplify those voices, and then hope for that to equate to real change. The message has to be taken to the people, not projected at the people. It is not enough to just call them uneducated, uncultured, or impoverished and to just ignore them.

That means we have to get out of our echo chambers and go to where these other people are. We have to comment on the Herald’s posts on Facebook and the Stuff comment threads, we have to physically visit community groups and iwi, and we have to argue with our racist uncles at family dinners. That’s where “the other people” are, the ones who vote and happen to be in the majority. We have to go out of our way to say “that’s not okay” and seek to educate people. It’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort and pain, but it’s what we have to do to move away from the path we are on. It’s not something that we can just leave to the political parties or academic experts or business leaders. It’s not enough to just hope that those views will phase out over time; we need to give that change a nudge.

Helene Wong said two things in particular that resonated strongly with me. The first was a metaphor: that in our society now Pakeha are the sky and the minorities are the clouds. There are many clouds, of different shapes and sizes, but they only exist against the aerial landscape of the majority. We should strive to live in a society where we are all clouds, Pakeha included, co-operating and co-existing amongst a common sky. The second thing she said was that we have to be brave. I believe we have to speak up, and cannot just be apathetic, because apathy is what leads to the strengthening of existing power structures until they can no longer be fixed.

Kaua e mate wheke mate ururoa. Do not give up; no matter how hard the struggle is, keep fighting.

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