Let’s think about democracy (and the defence of it) as our leaders make their Anzac Day speeches

The PM called for a commitment to peace in an Anzac Day speech at the Auckland Domain this morning, addressing the thousands who turned up.

Anzac Day reminds us of sacrifice, loss, the service of others and the need for all of us to continually honour those who served to through our acts of remembrance and our defence of peace, she said.

“But it also reminds us of a singular truth through the ages, through wars past and present – it reminds us of our shared humanity, something we have been reminded of again in the wake of the 15th of March.”

That was a reference to the 50 Muslims who were killed when a gunman opened fire inside two mosques in Christchurch that day.

Newshub’s report does not record whether Ardern mentioned the more recent atrocity in Sri Lanka and the targeting of churches on Easter Sunday, when Christians would be gathered in large numbers.  Crowded and exposed public spaces, including hotels likely to be hosting foreign tourists, were also targeted.

Point of Order could not find Ardern’s speech on the Beehive website but we did find a copy of a speech delivered in Norway by her deputy, Winston Peters.

He made no mention of Sri Lanka but did say:

“Sadly, the terrorist attack that took place in Christchurch recently means that we also share the experience of a horrific attack on our home soil.  It is no exaggeration to say that something of New Zealand’s innocence was lost that day.  We endured an utterly callous act of terrorism, perpetrated by a coward against people at prayer in their mosques. 

“We know that Norway has suffered a similar, brutal act of terrorism, with the 22 July 2011 attack.  We are deeply grateful for the messages of sympathy, support and solidarity we received from Norway, including from His Majesty King Harald V and Prime Minister Erna Solberg.” 

Peters then turned to the question of whether New Zealand’s foreign policy settings had shifted in the wake of the Christchurch attacks.

The answer is no –

“… New Zealand’s foreign policy continuity is not disturbed because its foundations are deeply rooted in our national values and experience.  The values that drive us remain strong:

  • Equality, tolerance and fairness;
  • Democracy – New Zealand is one of only nine countries with an uninterrupted sequence of democratic elections since 1854;
  • Freedom, from fear, and from want;
  • Human rights, as set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration;
  • Guardianship for our environment;

In her Anzac Day speech Ardern similarly said we should commit to shared values.

“Let us recommit to those simple values of freedom, democracy and peace.

“Just as we have never taken for granted the loss of life by those who served on our behalf, so too must we never take for granted these principles.”

This brings us to the concerns of Professor Elizabeth Rata, Director of the Knowledge in Education Research Unit in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland.

In an article headed Abandoning reason endangers our survival published by Newsroom, Rata warns that an accelerating retreat from the idea of universal knowledge will do us harm.

Knowledge was being subverted and replaced by ideological isms, she contends.  These strengthen in-groups and draw on the culture of folk knowledges to justify their claims to truth.

Modern society had found another way to understand what it is to be human. We have, in only a few hundred years, developed a new language of reason, one replacing in-group beliefs, one enabling us to communicate across historical and cultural differences, one which has made democracy possible.

Reasoned communication is the way across the divide of difference. It requires leaving the past and its animosities behind. But this is very difficult. The past gives us a sense of security and belonging. The institutions of modern society which unite us don’t have the same pulling power as the rallying cries of the isms. No wonder ethnic nationalisms, nativisms, and populisms with their ‘us not you’ and ‘our culture not yours’ are winning out. Unexamined belief is more satisfying than reason – and its easier.

For reasoned conversation to occur there needs to be agreement about reason itself, Rata says.

The premise informing all modern knowledge is that there is a reality which exists independently of us, the ‘knowers’. What’s more, we can know this reality.

Our intellectual activity is how we seek the truth of the natural and social worlds. Belief isn’t enough. But what happens when the premise of objective knowledge is rejected, when we say that the world is not independent of the person who knows it, and that we can’t use reason to understand it?

Rata is challenging the authors of an article who insist there is no independent knowledge for us to share universally, that how we know something is always tied to who we are, and who we are comes from our culture.

But without the idea of universal knowledge which is beyond culture we are doomed to talk past each other, Rata counters.

She references Sir Peter Gluckman, sho says we no longer trust in reasoned knowledge – ideas are not contested civilly, people are attacked, falsehoods multiply.

He’s right. The current era of enlightened reason may well be over unless we recognise what is happening. Reasoned conversation is needed more than ever, but when knowledge is tied to the knowing group, universal reason no longer allows us to converse across groups. By abandoning reason we are endangering our future as a species.

We are certainly abandoning what makes democracy possible. Given that the knowledge-knower belief now underpins New Zealand’s localised curriculum our retreat from the idea of universal knowledge will be accelerated. Our educational institutions are the first to fall. Others will follow.

Rata was the subject of a profile in the New Zealand Herald in 2006 after the publication of book she co-edited, Public Policy and Ethnicity, the Politics of Ethnic Boundary Making.  In this she argued that public policy, formed along racial rather than egalitarian lines, is undemocratic and that racial divisions, knitted into the culture by government funding policies, are undemocratic and dangerous.

Her defence of democracy – and concerns about what would make the New Zealand constitution undemocratic – can be found in her discussion with Hinerangi Barr, from the Constitutional Advisory Panel. She said:

New Zealand is a democracy.

There are three elements to democracy:

    1. The nation — which is the overall framework and idea we have of ourselves.
    2. The state – this is parliament, and all the institutions and systems of government.
    3. Citizens – who are the subjects of the nation-state, and hold it accountable.

These three elements are held together by the principles of universalism, equality, and freedom.

Universalism is the commitment to the belief that the human being is the political subject.

This means that a person is regarded as human before he or she is seen as a member of a race, religion or other type of social group.

Universalism is the basis of democracy because it justifies the equal status of the citizen.

Rata proceeded to argue that the political status of citizenship is different from  cultural/race identity.

This means that political status – citizenship, in other words – is part of the constitution, but race/cultural/religious identity is not.

She illustrated this by referring to religion:

Many New Zealanders have a religion. But their religious identity is not part of the political arrangements.

Your religious status is not your political status. Religion is kept out of politics.

Race and culture is like religion – it is an identity, but not a political status.

And so on….

It was instructive to revisit what she said on this politically vital topic on a day when our political leaders are earnestly restating their commitment to democracy.


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