Bryce Edwards: How intolerant is New Zealand?

Bryce Edwards: How intolerant is New Zealand?

The Christchurch terrorist attacks have led to an important debate over the degree to which New Zealand society is characterised by intolerance and discrimination. Severe racism, Islamophobia, and general xenophobia appear to be the driving forces that led to the killing of 50 Muslims in Christchurch three weeks ago. It’s important to examine whether there any connections between this extreme intolerance and wider prejudice in New Zealand society.

There have been many personal testimonies of discrimination, and analysis, highlighting religious and racial intolerance in New Zealand. But a debate needs more than anecdotes and assertions. Rigorous evidence and analysis is also required. In this regard, Simon Chapple of Victoria University of Wellington has just released some useful analysis of survey evidence about New Zealand attitudes and experiences of discrimination.

Chapple is a veteran social science researcher, and now heads the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies in Wellington. In a summary titled “How discriminatory and intolerant are New Zealanders?”, (not yet online), he explores a range of survey evidence about people’s experience of discrimination and how much tolerance New Zealanders have for others. Chapple concludes that, although discrimination exists, particularly towards ethnic and migrant communities, its occurrence can be seen as relatively small.

Looking at details from the most recent Statistics New Zealand General Social Survey, Chapple finds that levels of people reporting discrimination are relatively low, and don’t differ markedly between different ethnic groups: “Of New Zealand Europeans, 85.4 percent report no discrimination. Rates for Pacific (80.1 percent), Maori (74.4 percent) and Asian New Zealanders (73.4 percent) are lower, but still very high.”

Overall, “most New Zealanders – 83.1 percent – report no discrimination”. But what about different types of migrants? Chapple says: “there is little difference in reported discrimination between New Zealand-born people (83.5 percent report no discrimination) and long-term migrants (83.7 percent). However, while a large majority of recent migrants (74.3 percent) also report no discrimination, the figure was smaller.”

Looking at how comfortable people say they are about living amongst people with religions or ethnicities that differ from their own, the survey is also instructive: “In terms of acceptance of religious and ethnic diversity, the vast majority of New Zealanders indicate they are comfortable or very comfortable with a neighbour with a different religion (87.4 percent), and a neighbour from a different ethnic group (88.7 percent).”

Furthermore, the survey evidence suggests that there “is no notable difference in the tolerance expressed towards religious and ethnic groups as neighbours by migrant status, main ethnic category, or region.” Also, looking at the results for people living near where the Christchurch terrorist attacks took place, Chapple concludes, “Canterbury on this evidence is not a local hot-bed of discrimination and intolerance.”

Chapple then draws attention to the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, which is run out of the University of Auckland, and is specifically interested in attitudes to Muslims, Asians and Arabs. In this, respondents are asked to indicate their feelings towards people from this group on a 1-to-7 scale, in which 1 means “no anger”, 4 means “neutral”, and 7 is “anger”. The mean average results, according to Chapple, are: Muslims 2.93; Arabs 2.85; and Asians 2.55.

Obviously, there will be different interpretation of all this data. But according to Chapple, it clearly backs up Jacinda Ardern’s post-Christchurch message of inclusion: “This is not us”.

One of her most famous statements was: “We were not a target because we are a safe harbour for those who hate. We were not chosen for this act of violence because we condone racism, because we are an enclave for extremism. We were chosen for the very fact that we are none of these things.”

However, some have strongly objected to Ardern’s “This is not us” formulation, and proposed the exact opposite: “This IS us”. This was best illustrated by cartoonist Toby Morris in a very powerful comic strip – see: This is us. The cartoon concludes with a reply, seemingly directed at the prime minister for underplaying racism and separating New Zealanders from the killer: “But when we don’t say anything, we let a vile seed grow. This bullshit idea of US and THEM. But that’s wrong. There’s only us. All of us. This is us.”

For an even stronger reaction to Ardern’s “This is not us” statement, see Sahar Ghumkhor’s The hypocrisy of New Zealand’s ‘this is not us’ claim, which is published on the Al Jazeera news website. She says, “As a Muslim who grew up in New Zealand, this statement didn’t sit well with me”, and the statement itself reflects a ‘narcissistic self-view’ that actually arises out of racism itself.

Ghumkhor argues that the terrorist was neither an aberration nor an exception from New Zealand life, but instead “an integral part of the collective ‘we’ in New Zealand”. To suggest otherwise “is plain denialism and a cowardly flight into the white liberal sanctuary of the ‘third way’ from the discomfort of reality.”

She says Ardern’s words “signal that the majority is refusing and rejecting shame, the experience of which is key in the pursuit of restorative justice.” Instead, the reality is that “rampant Islamophobia in the political scene has been amplified by equally racist media which have systematically portrayed Muslims as inherently violent and ‘backward’ and Islam as an ideology justifying violence and the subjugation of women.”

A more mainstream version of this was also put forward by historian Anne Salmond: “After this terrible tragedy, let’s be honest, for once. White supremacy is a part of us, a dark power in the land. In its soft version, it looks bland and reasonable. Eminent New Zealanders assure their fellows that Māori were ‘lucky’ to be colonised by Europeans, that te reo Māori is worthless, that tikanga Māori have nothing to teach us” – see: Racist underbelly seethes just beneath surface.

Salmond elaborates on the extent of the problem, as she sees it: “After Māori, the indigenous people of this country, this sense of white superiority spills out over ‘other’ groups – Pasifika, Asian people, and now Muslims in Christchurch. Many of these people have been sworn at, punched and jostled, treated as aliens who have no place among us. Contempt breeds contempt, and hatred can breed hatred. Sometimes they strike back, as you would expect — although more often than not, at those close at hand.”

The argument is made by a number of commentators that racism and Islamophobia has been “normalised” in New Zealand in recent years, and this has in some way enabled the terrorist to carry out the atrocities in Christchurch.

For example, according to former Race Relations Conciliator, Susan Devoy, even those people who disagreed with her own controversial campaign around how to celebrate Christmas are complicit: “If you were one of those commentators: do not write an op-ed today crying about how shocking yesterday’s murders were. Because you helped make it happen. You helped normalise hatred in our country. You helped those murderers feel that they were representing the thoughts of ordinary New Zealanders” – see: Hatred lives in New Zealand.

Monica Carrer has put forward her problem with Ardern’s statement: “The danger, however, is to dismiss the fact that we do have a problem with race, and it is deeply entrenched in our society. We cannot simply hope that it was just the act of a mad bunch of people, and that once they are caught it will all be OK. We need to do something about this, we need to address the uncomfortable everyday reality of racism. Not just the open racism that ends up in violence, but also all those invisible everyday acts that silently hurt every single day” – see: We need to address everyday reality of racism to shut down acts of terror.

Some of the strongest recent statements about the extent of racism, have come from Green Party MPs. Co-leader Marama Davidson spoke at a vigil in Auckland in the week following the killings, where a number of those attending walked out, complaining the event was more focused on racism than mourning – see Michael Neilson’s Christchurch vigil or political rally? Why some people walked out of Auckland Domain event.

According to this report, “official speakers strongly challenged the rallying cry that last week’s atrocity that killed 50 Muslim worshippers and injured dozens more was ‘not us’. Muslim and tāngata whenua speakers covered experiences of everyday racism and violence they face, and spoke to New Zealand’s white settler history and colonial violence.”

Critics of the event said that the anti-racism campaigning and general politicisation was “too soon”, which led Marama Davidson to argue it was actually “too late” to be having these conversations. Furthermore: “A lot of people wanted to separate what happened in Christchurch from politics, but if we have any hope of truly honouring those who passed we need to listen to our Muslim, Māori, Pacific and migrant communities, all saying this is not just about a violent shooter, but about everyday racism.”

Finally, for some other recent evidence about tolerance and racial attitudes, Lincoln Tan reported last month on a survey, the Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples from a Te Ao Māori Perspective – see: Māori feel positive about Asians, but not if they’re immigrating – study. Here’s the main findings: “Māori feel a strong cultural connection with Asia and eight in 10 have positive feelings about Asians, a new study has found. But just three in 10 welcomed Asian immigration – with 38 per cent viewing it as negative and 32 per cent neutral.”