Friday, March 12, 2010

Offensive, but not unlawful

That's the verdict of the Human Rights Commission on Hone Harawira's infamous "white motherfuckers" email. While the Human Rights Act criminalises the incitement of racial disharmony, the Bill of Rights Act's affirmation of freedom of expression means the bar for prosecution is very high. Not that it was ever low - the Race Relations Act 1971 had a similar provision, and in the almost 20 years it was in force, there was just one prosecution, of neo-Nazi Colin King-Ansell over an anti-Jewish pamphlet, which resulted in a small fine. I don't think there's been a single prosecution since. While complaints are frequent, as the HRC notes in its Action Plan for Human Rights,

the offensiveness of a race-related comment is not sufficient on its own. The comment must also be a probable cause of ethnic hostility or contempt. The vast majority of comments that are complained about are unlikely to contribute to serious ethnic unrest.
While Harawira's comments deeply offended some people, it didn't meet that standard. Indeed, it seems to have had the opposite effect, attracting hostility against Harawira rather than the group criticised.

As for allegations of the HRC having a double standard, that's the same standard they apply to Nazis, the same standard they applied to Paul Holmes over his "cheeky darkie" comment (which likewise attracted a large number of complaints), and indeed the same standard they applied to the 3% of complainants who took the opportunity to make comments that were "extremely racially offensive about Hone Harawira and about Māori in general." Free speech means that only the most extreme comments are unlawful. Unless we're talking specific and immediate incitements to genocide, of the sort seen in Rwanda, the law is basically a dead letter.

But while not unlawful, the HRC are very clear that Harawira's comments were offensive, and argues that political parties should control and discipline such behaviour through codes of conduct. Which is what the Maori Party did. Ultimately, they're accountable to their voters, who will no doubt pass their judgement on Harawira at the next election.

Somehow, I think this is unlikely to satisfy the complainants. But then, this whole incident seems driven not so much by Harawira's offensiveness (and I agree, he was offensive),1 but by the rage of Pakeha rednecks upset that any Māori would express anger over the past. Their problem wasn't so much with "white motherfuckers" (which just makes him an offensive dick, and if you turned the tables it would still make him an offensive dick), but "white motherfuckers have been raping our lands and ripping us off for centuries". There are some people in this country who do not like to be reminded of the truth about our past: that our ancestors, genetic or political, stole this country by fraud and violence from its inhabitants. This fact has been exhaustively detailed in numerous Waitangi Tribunal reports, as well as in popular histories. But there are some who still refuse to accept it, who think the process of trying to right those wrongs and give some compensation for those injustices is a fraud and a scam (and not because that compensation is a tiny fraction of what was stolen), and that Māori should just shut up and accept what happened to them. And for them, anything less than a public lynching of the uppity Māori shows that the state has double standards and is racist against Pakeha. Fortunately, the HRC is comprised of better people than that.

The HRC's full report is here [DOC].

1 Emphasis added so that dickheads can't ignore it. But I'm sure they will anyway.