Speak your mind

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 30 August 2019

Before last Wednesday, I had no idea I was “brave”. Until I was told so by a delegate who had heard me speak at a large infrastructure conference.

Receiving positive feedback is always flattering. Apparently, it was refreshing to hear someone speak one’s mind. It was unusual for a speaker not to hold back. And it was novel to be around the “brave”. Nonetheless, I was irritated and somewhat shocked by the distinction awarded to me.

Frankly, I was hardly daring, valiant or heroic in my speech.

Yes, I criticised both our major parties for their stubborn centralism. I disagreed with the Local Government Minister, who had spoken before me. I also snuck in an unrelated criticism of the Reserve Bank for good measure.

Still, I had said nothing illegal or slanderous, called no one names, or solicited a revolution.

It was simply the kind of speech one expects to hear in an open, democratic society. Yet judging by the audience feedback, it was not just unusual but “brave”.

It made me wonder, “How free are we to say what we think?”

In a formalistic way, we are free. No instructions were given to me before my speech (other than to stick to time). No police lurked in the auditorium on standby. No media were barred. New Zealand is not North Korea.

However, veiled restrictions can silently coerce citizens not to speak their mind – and ultimately devalue a formal freedom of speech.

US psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whom we hosted recently, says people often pretend to agree with the established mindset even if they resent it deep down: “Whoever has cultural power in an institution can use it to intimidate others into submission”.

Such cultural power exists. And it stifles free and frank discourse on, let us say, energy, migration or international relations if one’s view diverges from what is considered acceptable in polite society.

But then, my comments were not even on sensitive matters.

So is the suppression of straight-talk a general problem in New Zealand? Are we just too nice to put our disagreements on display? Or is it a result of our smallish two-degrees-of-separation society?

Whatever it is, we need less nice and more candour.

It is pointless holding conferences where delegates censor their own presentations without being told to.

Which is why I pledge to henceforth make a more conscious and wise use of my “brave” new moniker and freedom of speech.

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