Stuck in anger

February 23, 2016

After our first son, Tom, died I found myself getting angry over all sorts of things that normally wouldn’t have worried me.

It was only at a Women in Agriculture day, entitled beyond aspirin for feelings that are a pain in the neck that I worked out why.

I didn’t blame anyone for Tom’s death. He had a degenerative brain disorder and we had both had the best possible care from the start of my pregnancy.

But what I learned that day made me realise that although I didn’t blame anyone and it was no-one’s fault, I was still very angry that the son we’d loved had died.

The facilitator taught us to name, claim and tame our feelings. Once I’d named the anger and claimed it – worked out what I was feeling, why and the effect it was having on me – I was able to tame it and pull myself away from it.

I was reminded of this while reading about the man who allegedly chucked the muck at Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee:

The man who allegedly tipped a chocolate and flour mixture over Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee lost his son in the February 2011 earthquake.

John Howland arrived at the Christchurch District Court on Tuesday on what would have been the 20th birthday of his son, Jayden Andrews-Howland.

He said he attacked Brownlee “to prove a point”. . . 

“The Government, they’re heartless.” Howland said.

“They don’t listen to people. They don’t care about us, don’t care about nobody.”

Howland said he had been planning the move on Brownlee “for a few years” and hoped his actions would make the Government “get their s… together and sort this blimmin city out and all the people that are suffering. It’s just bulls…. I’ve just had enough”. . . .

The only point he’s proved is that he’s stuck in anger.

Attacking the Minister at any time would be wrong. To do it after yesterday’s memorial service to quake victims was also insensitive and lacked respect for the others who were at the service to commemorate their own losses.

This is the third time a government minister has had something thrown at them by angry people in the last couple of weeks.

The first was the dildo that Steven Joyce copped at Waitangi, to which he responded in good humour.

The second was the glitter-bombing of Prime Minister John Key at the Big Gay Out.

And the muck chucked yesterday completes the shabby trifecta.

In an editorial, published before yesterday’s muck-chuck, the Listener opines:

Josie Butler wasn’t exactly breaking new ground when she hurled a rubber dildo at Cabinet minister Steven Joyce on Waitangi Day. Her choice of missile may have been novel, but the nature of the act was ­wearisomely familiar.

Elements of the protest movement clearly regard physical assaults on politicians as a legitimate tactic. Don Brash, then leader of the National Party, was struck hard in the face with a clod at Waitangi in 2004. More recently, brothers John and ­Wikitana Popata assaulted Prime Minister John Key at Te Tii Marae in 2009 – an act that their uncle, Hone Harawira, then a Maori Party MP, gave every ­impression of excusing.

It doesn’t need to be Waitangi Day for the angry and dis­affected to justify hands-on attacks. Act MP John Boscawen was speaking in a debate during the Mt Roskill by-election campaign in 2009 when a rival candidate, campaigning on a “People Before Profit” ticket, smeared a lamington on his head. And when broadcaster Paul Henry tried to enter Auckland’s SkyCity Casino for a charity lunch – unconnected with politics – in May 2015, he was jostled, menaced, abused and spat on by a screaming mob purporting to be concerned about child poverty. . . 

Butler’s dildo attack prompted a commendably droll response from Joyce, who tweeted that someone should send a video to British comedian John Oliver – noted for his lampooning of New Zealand as a weird place – and “get it over with”. Sure enough, Oliver devoted more than four minutes of his HBO show Last Week Tonight to the item. But amid all the chortling, he made a serious point: “If you threw something at a politician in this country, you’d be dead before the dildo hit the ground.” That, at least, is a point of difference about which New ­Zealanders can be proud.

Levity aside, there’s another serious issue here. Physical attacks – whether with a dildo, a lump of earth, a lamington or a gob of spit – are not part of the repertoire of legitimate protest. They are an intrusion on the rights of others. They are also a sad admission that gestures of inarticulate rage are too often preferred over the skills of reasoned debate.

It matters not whether any serious harm is done in such incidents. In a civilised, liberal democracy, people engaging in politics are entitled to expect that basic rights, such as freedom of speech and movement, will be respected. It’s legitimate to ask what would have happened had the Waitangi attack been aimed at Jacinda Ardern, say – if she had been hit in the face by a big rubber teat thrown by a skinhead protesting about refugee immigration.

Some might consider it not to be funny if a woman gets hit. Yet a female journalist was in fact struck on the breast by Butler’s dildo after it bounced off Joyce.

There is no question that throwing a missile hard enough to hit two people constitutes assault, though Butler appears to have escaped prosecution. So what happens now if young people are punished for throwing rubber missiles at teachers or students with whom they disagree? Are they not entitled to cry “hypocrisy”?

The reality is that Brash, Key and Joyce were entitled to go to Waitangi to celebrate our national day without risk of assault. Similarly, Boscawen was entitled to take part in a political debate without being subjected to the humiliation of having a lamington planted on his head. The boundaries of reasonable protest will always be blurred but ­physical intimidation is never acceptable. It constitutes an assault on democracy itself.

It’s also counterproductive, since it conflicts with most New Zealanders’ views about how public life should be conducted. This may not bother hard-core protesters but it is a problem for the wider left, because as long as ideological zealots continue to parade their angry intolerance, the mainstream left will be tarnished by association. . . 

There is a place for righteous anger but there was nothing righteous about these protests.

The first two were political, the third partly political and partly what appears to be unresolved grief.

Regardless of the motivation, throwing toys, glitter bombing and chucking muck are not legitimate forms of protest.

Freedom of expression brings with it the responsibility to express it without infringing other people’s rights.

In New Zealand we have remarkably unfettered access to our Members of Parliament.

People who let their anger overcome them as these three protesters did, do nothing for their cause, potentially endanger their targets and innocent bystanders, and threaten the accessibility the rest of us have to politicians.

 

 

 

 


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