Terror in Chch

Time for Kiwis to take a look in the mirror

We might like to think the actions of one person may appear as an extreme aberration, but the sentiments and beliefs that underlie such wanton violence sadly are not, writes Jay Marlowe

Thirty-seven minutes was all it took to challenge the understandings we have of ourselves and as a country. What follows will require great introspection, and more importantly, concerted action to address some of the root causes that allowed such senseless violence to occur.   

I have argued that New Zealand often approaches minority groups from a ‘culture of indifference’. This means that the concerns and experiences of people not from the majority often struggle to be heard. 

We simply do not have the scale of numbers that generate the alarming societal moral panics we see in the United States, Australia and across Europe. However, a culture of indifference can support subtle and powerful forms of racism through offhand comments, casual jokes and micro-aggressions. 

A colleague once told me, “With the tyranny of language comes the mindset of generations.” And on March 15 at 1.40pm, we were soberly reminded that mindsets can have devastating consequences.  

Surrounded by the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean with no land-based borders, we are insulated from crises elsewhere. Our unique and isolated geographic location illustrates how we have been able to witness what is happening ‘there’ with a limited focus on ‘here’. 

While the statement ‘this is not us’ that has come out of this terror event is well-intentioned, it requires pause and critical reflection. We might like to think, the actions of one person (or a small group) may appear as an extreme aberration but the sentiments and beliefs that underlie such wanton violence sadly are not. And social media is giving such individuals instant access to a like-minded global audience.

Turning the mirror on ourselves and society is an uncomfortable experience. It will reflect aspects of New Zealand’s past and present that are confronting, and at times, painful. While such exercises are hard, they are also good. 

The use of social media in this way is in sharp contrast to our expectations in the early days when we celebrated its advent as a tool that would democratise information and open debate. However, our Facebook ‘friends’ are friends largely because they share common interests (and let’s remind ourselves that 1.5 million videos of the Christchurch attack were deleted from the platform within 24 hours of the event. That was 1.5 million shares of a common interest.) Likewise, the Instagram hashtags we follow reflect ideas and practices that we esteem; the Twitter handles and WhatsApp groups we subscribe to and participate in often only bring people like ‘us’ together. 

But this isolation from the views of others means we miss necessary debate that can help address entrenched positions on social, political and environmental issues. Rather than supporting dialogue, it all too often means that we receive just one dominant view. 

We live in a moment, perhaps even a new normal, of alternative facts, fake news and unmoderated content which makes it difficult to establish who to trust and gives us a wariness of alternative points of view. Such contexts foment extremist ideas and actions.      

Social media is not something inherently bad. In its most simple form it is a communication tool. It connects families across distance, illuminates forms of oppression and gives voice to the marginalised. Conversely, the dark net of the supremacists use it to spread hate and organise. We need to find more effective means to disrupt these echo chambers that normalise the oppression of, and violence against, difference.  

Like many, I am at a loss for words that this senselessness has come to New Zealand. It is difficult to find clarity in the overwhelming loss. What role do we have at this critical moment – in the immediate, short- and long-term? It is clear that we must shift our focus from the actions of one person or a small group to consider the structures that allow oppression and inequality to thrive. 

This will require examination of the Government at its various levels to understand how marginalisation is effectively structured through social policies. And of ourselves, we also need an honest analysis of the conversations (or lack of) that occur in our households, our schools, the pub, and the other everyday spaces that shape our daily lives.

Turning the mirror on ourselves and society is an uncomfortable experience. It will reflect aspects of New Zealand’s past and present that are confronting, and at times, painful. While such exercises are hard, they are also good. 

Our nation has come together in ways that seemed implausible a week ago. There are numerous vigils, fundraising campaigns, rallies, volunteer opportunities, talks and events that will bring cross sections of society together. There are welcome calls from the Government to strengthen our gun legislation and find better responses to online platforms that promote violence. Organisations, community groups, families and individuals across the country are finding various ways to do their bit. Countries around the world have voiced that our crisis is theirs.    

Christchurch is, of course, no stranger to catastrophe. My work with refugee background communities following the Canterbury earthquakes highlighted how support was forthcoming in the days and weeks following the major events of 2011. However, much of this goodwill dissipated over the coming years as the wider society went back to their previous networks and daily lives.

A central challenge in responding to the shootings then is not what we do in the immediate wake of this tragedy. It is how we ensure that we embrace opportunities for people to belong and participate in society well after the intense and heated emotions of March 15 become less acute. 

This tragedy can be used to create solidarity and demand change. We must seize this important moment to ensure that societal goodwill and political momentum are not diminished or impeded.

May we all find light on the path ahead.

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