Ideasroom

Ardern’s ‘pitch perfect’ leadership no performance

To think of Ardern’s response to Christchurch as 'pitch perfect' is potentially misleading, for its significance lies precisely in the fact that it was not a carefully calibrated political performance, writes Victoria University of Wellington's Professor Chris Marshall 

The unspeakable horror perpetrated at two Christchurch mosques on March 15, and the overwhelming response of grief and solidarity with the Muslim community expressed throughout the nation, has generated a huge amount of media coverage over recent weeks, both locally and internationally.

I have been particularly struck by the weight of commentary devoted to the extraordinary moral leadership displayed by our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern. Many have described her response as “pitch perfect” and she is being hailed around the world as a beacon of hope for a new kind of political leadership.

It is hard for New Zealanders not to feel a sense of pride in her performance - and a pride also that our small country, notwithstanding its own entrenched injustices, has spawned a female leader of such calibre, courage and compassion.

In an international arena increasingly dominated by thugs, bullies and strongmen, Ardern has provided a masterclass in what I call “compassionate justice”. Talk of a Nobel Peace prize nomination does not seem far-fetched, given that some are saying her response has probably helped forestall copycat or revenge attacks occurring elsewhere in the world.

But to think of Ardern’s response as “pitch perfect” or as a “performance” is potentially misleading. For its significance lies precisely in the fact that it was not a carefully calibrated political performance.

She herself has said that she never really thought about how she should conduct herself at the time. She followed her instincts, she listened to her heart, she was guided by empathy and by the humane values and virtues she has probably cultivated all her life.

In one interview, she batted away any suggestion that she had shown great leadership, saying instead she had simply shown humanity.

One of the more perceptive accounts of her response has come from Dr Ghassen Hage, Professor of Anthropology and Social Theory at the University of Melbourne, in a short piece entitled, You Can’t Copy Love: Why Other Politicians Fall Short of Jacinda Ardern. Although he makes no reference to restorative justice or restorative practice, Hage offers two compelling observations that are pertinent to those of us working in the restorative justice field.

First, he speaks of his admiration for the “multidimensional restorative potential” of Ardern’s style of politics. Hage describes white nationalist racism, like all ethno-nationalist racism, as a “shattering force”. It is not only physically violent, it is also psychically and spiritually violent as well.

Systemic racism is like a destructive tornado whose centripetal forces fracture communities and alienate people from sources of identity, value and belonging.

It shatters communities, ruptures relationships, and fragments and disperses identities. Racism is not only a “weapon of economic dispossession, but also a weapon of mass psychosocial destruction and communal disintegration”.

Given its splintering impact, the only remedy is “a fundamental and sustained politics of restoration that unleashes all the possible economic, practical and affective centrifugal forces to counter the corrosive effects of the disintegrative politics that has prevailed so long”.

What a powerful image this is! Systemic racism is like a destructive tornado whose centripetal forces fracture communities and alienate people from sources of identity, value and belonging. To counteract this trajectory of dissolution and dispersal, a restorative politics is needed that releases centrifugal forces of integration and connection.

This requires more than policy efforts to close the inequality gap between minority and majority communities. It also requires a more fundamental, grass roots commitment to resist all the social and ideological forces that separate and alienate and subordinate communities of difference, while nurturing efforts to build just relationships and forge affective connections between citizens.

This need to create both just relationships and empathetic connections between people is exactly what restorative practices aspire to do. Which means that any serious attempt to advance “restorative politics” on a societal scale can only benefit by drawing heavily on the democratic values and discursive practices of restorative philosophy. Restorative practices, in other words, have the potential to build the social capital needed if restorative politics is to strike at the root of systemic racism.

The second observation Hage makes about Ardern’s response is the way it exemplified a “special kind of love”, or what he calls the “difficult love” that crosses cultural boundaries and embraces multiplicity and difference. “While love on its own leads us nowhere, a restorative politics is not complete without it being permeated by a deeply felt love, a love that can cross rather than erect cultural boundaries and that can heal rather than entrench divisions. It is in this regard that Jacinda Ardern’s restorative politics is so crucial ... it provides a glimmer of hope that a politics that heals the shattering effects of white ethno-nationalist racism is possible”.

Once again, this description of a putative restorative politics echoes the nature of restorative justice on an interpersonal level. Restorative dialogue also seeks to transcend barriers of hostility and alienation, and to heal rather than entrench division. And its transformative potential lies in the fact that such a way of responding to harm and hostility manifests the inherent power of love, albeit a difficult kind of love.

Tellingly, Hage suggests that it was Ardern’s display of authentic love that makes her example so difficult for other politicians to emulate. For it is not just what Ardern did but how she did it that was crucial. The gift of support she gave to those traumatised by the massacre was imbued with the spirit in which she offered it, and without that spirit - without that sincerely felt love - her gift would not have had its restorative power.

None of this is to imply that Ardern is a saint or super human. Quite the opposite. The reason why she has had such an astonishing impact on millions of people, here and around the world, devastated by the massacre is because she responded in such a genuinely human way, a way that allowed compassion rather than political calculation to guide her actions.

As another recent commentator, Nesrine Mailk, has put it, the Prime Minister displayed “a normal human reaction, not robotic or platitudinous, not scripted or insincere”. What is so depressing about her example of “compassionate poise”, this columnist suggests, is that such a normal human response is now so unfamiliar, so rare, among political leaders. “What should be the norm is elevated to exceptional.”

While that may be true in the political sphere, it is not so true elsewhere. In fact, the capacity of ordinary people to rise above self-protection and reach out in shared humanity and understanding to others is surprisingly commonplace, as everyone working in the restorative justice field knows.

It was also powerfully demonstrated at the National Service of Remembrance on March 29 by the moving words of forgiveness and understanding of Farid Ahmed, whose wife, Husna Ahmed, was killed at Al Noor Mosque. Such displays of compassionate justice show that restorative politics is not only desirable and essential in our brutally fractious world, it is actually possible, if only we have the courage to do what Jacinda Ardern did.

This is an edited version of a commentary in the latest monthly newsletter from the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice, which you can subscribe to at restorativejustice@vuw.ac.nz.

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