SocietyBrought to you by

Summer Reissue: The Day That Susan Devoy Tried to Ban

Tis the season to be frothing at the mouth over beat-up stories about the PC brigade wanting to throw children’s Christmas stockings into a pit of fire.

Beat-ups about do-gooders wanting to “ban Christmas” have become a mainstay of the leadup to the festive season the world over. This year in New Zealand, the target is Susan Devoy, the Race Relations Commissioner, who caused outrage – outrage, I tell you! – by failing to condemn the Auckland Regional Migrant Services’ long-standing preference for the words “happy holidays” and “season’s greetings” over “Christmas”.

(ARMS does warrant some condemnation, chiefly because they have apparently not entertained the possibility of going with Festivus or Chrismukkah, two alternatives offered by the great American television series Seinfeld and The OC. But if they want to use their own generic terms, so what?)

Duncan Garner was incandescent at this “trumped-up office pandering to political correctness”, this “crusade against Christmas“.

Studentenwerk Berlin, a student organization at the city's technical university (Technische Universitaet Berlin), sends out between 400 and 500 students and alumni dressed as Santas every year to visit company parties in December and families on Christmas Eve. The students, who must complete the workshop, participate as a way to make a little money to help fund their studies.

News reaches Father Christmas that Susan Devoy wants to have him destroyed. Photo: Adam Berry/Getty

Devoy had “dropped another clanger”, he said in his Dom Post column on Saturday. “What a howler it was, throwing her (insignificant) weight behind Auckland Regional Migrants Services’ plan to ditch the word Christmas and refer instead to ‘happy holidays’ and ‘season’s greetings’.”

Garner was one of a number of fuming chimneys outraged – outraged, I tell you! – in print, on radio and online. Herald columnist Brian Rudman found Devoy guilty of “hoary old silliness” in seeking to “drop the word Christmas from our summer vocabulary”.

Conservative blogger Brendan McNeill wondered what “Devoy and ISIS leader Al Baghdadi share in common”, alighting on “an apparent desire to remove all traces of Christianity from their dominion. Al Baghdadi through decapitation, Susan Devoy by decree.”

On another rightwing blog, one commenter suggested that in a fair world Devoy would be tried for treason.

And yet what did Devoy actually, you know, say? She said nothing in the original report to discourage the use of “Christmas” and confirmed it was not banned at the Commission. She is quoted as saying: “New Zealanders don’t like being told what to do and we are mature enough to decide how to celebrate our special days in our own ways.”

Which hardly seems all that controversial a thing to say in a secular country. Kerre Woodham had it about right in calling Devoy’s comments “anodyne”.

And what, as Rachel Smalley has wondered, was Devoy supposed to have said? That calling it Christmas lunch is obligatory for everyone? How about, “All New Zealanders must celebrate Christmas and must paint CHRISTMAS on their windows and their faces or Santa will not visit and they will be condemned to HELL.” Something like that?

As if it wasn’t clear enough, Devoy explained in a piece published in the Herald two days before Garner’s column, “I have no plans to ban Christmas, not that I could, and it is not part of my job to tell anyone how to celebrate Christmas. I’ve never said we or anyone else should ban Christmas and I never would. What I did say is it’s up to everyday New Zealanders to decide how to observe Christmas. Kiwis hate being told what to do. I wouldn’t welcome anyone telling me what to do on December 25.” She concluded by saying – gasp! – “Merry Christmas and let there be peace on earth.”

But that wasn’t stopping Garner. “Apparently Devoy, the service’s patron, wants to save the majority of Kiwis (who are not Christian) from feeling excluded at this time of year. Good grief,” he wrote.

Garner again: “It’s hard not to form the impression that Dame Susan doesn’t have enough to keep her busy”. Ergo: “It’s time to ditch her role and the entire office she heads.”

You’d think, listening to Rudman, Garner and the rest that Devoy had been travelling the rooftops of the country demanding Christmas be banned. She didn’t call for any such ban, plainly, and she was hardly consuming a heap of time – she was simply responding to a question from a journalist with an uncontroversial answer.

If she’s had to expend an excess of time on the whole circus, it’s only because she’s been misrepresented in the diatribes of dissenters and felt obliged to respond.

There are arguments to be made about political correctness in New Zealand and the worth of the race relations commissioner. But is it too much to ask to start the argument with facts and quotes, that sort of thing? Because that figurine on the top of your Christmas tree looks to me like a strawman.


The Spinoff Media is brought to you by MBM – an independent media agency for a digital age.

The Spinoff has turned off comments. If you want to have your say on a story, please head to our Facebook or Twitter – or send a letter to the editor (we publish a selection weekly): info@thespinoff.co.nz. Thanks!