A couple of days ago I made a grave mistake: I read the comments section at the bottom of an article on Stuff about the new Families Package, which contained a link to our Prime Minister speaking about it from her home. I know, I know, it breaks Rule Number One: never read the comments. But every so often I do, to get a sense of what others are saying outside of my own curated news sources.
Boy, what a toxic, angry load of vitriol. If New Zealanders were to be judged on these comments alone, we’d be exposed as venal, compassionless, misogynist ideologues, so brainwashed by decades of a neo-liberal economic rhetoric that blames the victims of unjust policy, inequality, structural racism and colonisation, that they fail to see how grossly offensive their attitudes are in the light of day.
It shocks me how supremely arrogant and blinkered these opinions are, and how little they understand that the lifting up of those at the bottom of our social structures benefits us all, not least by making us a fairer, safer, kinder and more ‘civilised’ society. It’s not surprising, however. The National and Act parties have spent the last nine years twisting the true function of our social democracy from policies designed to provide a ‘hand-up’ to those in need (in order to truly level the playing field), to labelling these empowering provisions as ‘hand-outs’, implying the recipients not only aren’t deserving, but also that they choose to live like this; that being poor, homeless, poorly educated, disabled, unwell, hungry, etc etc, is a life-style choice. Quite frankly, it’s disgusting.
But it’s not only disgusting, it’s worrying and scary. In a recent essay by the writer/activist Rebecca Solnit, titled ‘Not Caring is a Political Art Form: On Melania Trump and the Politics of Disconnection’ , she explores this phenomenon of hard-heartedness and looks at how there has been a concerted plan to undermine those pesky human attributes of kindness, compassion and empathy — pesky because they challenge the ugly drive to grab the power, resources and wealth for a select few.
Until I read this, I couldn’t comprehend how commentators such as Mike Hosking and Mark Richardson (and politicians such as Judith Collins, Paula Bennett and most of their National Party colleagues) could so cold-bloodedly display their lack of care for anyone less fortunate than themselves. Now, thanks to this essay, I see it in context . . . and, yes, it’s as brutal and calculated as I feared. And worse, it seems that this concerted drive to undermine our caring has, indeed, been swallowed by many in our society — those Stuff comments prove it. What this means for New Zealand as we move forwards should give us pause: if the Labour-led government’s attempts to bridge the gaps between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ are scuttled by this hard-heartedness and self-interest, we will end with such festering inequality and bigotry we may as well throw in the towel and declare ourselves a new state in Trump’s dystopian empire.
More and more, we’re starting to see the deceit, uneven-handedness and gross mismanagement practised by the previous government. Their lack of concern for the environment, for the impacts of climate change and pollution (particularly from plastics and agro-chemicals), our natural resources such as water and soil, and for the vulnerable human beings in their care, is verging on criminal. And unless we address the mindset of those who make the kind of comments on Stuff that made my hair stand on end, we’ll find ourselves in a very dangerous place.
It’s not enough to ‘tut’ over the headlines. What’s needed is for every decent person who believes we should all have a fair shot at life, supported by a society that values ALL its people, to speak up and counter the hate. As Solnit says:
‘Empathy is a narrative we tell ourselves to make other people real to us, to feel for and with them, and thereby to extend and enlarge and open ourselves. To be without empathy is to have shut down or killed off some part of yourself and your humanity, to have protected yourself from some kind of vulnerability. Silencing, or refusing to hear, breaks this social contract of recognizing another’s humanity and our connectedness.’