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OPINIONMediaNovember 24, 2017

We’ve found it: the worst column of 2017

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With 2017 coming to a close, one brave fisherman has thrown his hat in the Worst Opinions ring with a rant against te reo and those who dare speak it. Madeleine Chapman responds.

You might be thinking that the Spinoff publishing responses to bad columns is getting old. But so are these columnists and that hasn’t stopped them from spitting bile at regular intervals. So here we are, once again giving attention to a terrible piece of writing in the hopes that it’ll serve as a last goodbye to a generation of old men standing on their media platforms, yelling at clouds.

Allow me to introduce Mr Dave Witherow, a fisherman slash writer from Dunedin. Witherow has made a late surge in the race for Worst Opinion Column of 2017 – snatching the lead from Duncan Garner and this impressive effort – with a piece in Otago Daily Times titled “Haere mai? Everything is far from ka pai!” This otherwise mediocre headline having as many Māori words as English words becomes very ironic when you realise that his whole rant is about how everyone needs to stop forcing him to read and hear te reo.

The piece itself is a svelte 751 words, but when factoring in time to gasp, laugh, and suffer an existential crisis, I place its reading time at 42 minutes. The thrust of Witherow’s argument is that to speak te reo on Radio New Zealand (as some of the presenters do when beginning and ending their segments) is to spit in the face of all that is holy. And all that is holy, according to Witherow, is the late, great English language. RIP. Cause of death: Guyon Espiner saying “kia ora” on the wireless.

“Maori Language Week, now a permanent annual fixture, is one of those occasions when our determination to give no offence blossoms into the urge to grovel. This year was the best yet, with media apologists the length and breadth of the land prostrating themselves before the holy altar of te reo. Radio New Zealand took the prize, in a seven-day fiesta of cringing servility that, were Billy T. James still with us, would have provided him with material forever.”

How’s that for an opening paragraph. Thank goodness Billy T. James has good friends to carry on his apparent legacy of mocking those who practice te reo.

“RNZ has been ahead of the pack in obsequiousness. Everything indigenous is sacrosanct, and even formerly redoubtable interviewers now shrink from the slightest demur when boring bigots drone on about the mana of all things native.”

Full disclosure: I had to google the definition of “obsequiousness”. Then a second later I had to google “sacrosanct”, and then “redoubtable”. After all that I had to google the entire sentence because it still made no sense whatsoever. Perhaps Witherow, who clearly writes with a thesaurus close at hand, is simply upset that his thesaurus doesn’t have any Māori words in it.

Dave Witherow holding his wet fish of an opinion

“A couple of Maori snowflakes were banging on about the terrible grief they were suffering from the mispronunciation of their names.”

However you read that sentence in your head, go back and pronounce it “Moooowri snowflakes” as it was intended. The mispronunciation of names is a divisive topic. Divisive in that some people want their names pronounced correctly and other people want to not be called on out on their bigotry. Witherow was born in Ireland. If I can get my head around a name like Saoirse being pronounced “sir-shuh”, surely ol’ Dave can handle Kahurangi being pronounced pretty much exactly how it’s written. But oh no, instead he laments a time when “booting was a possibility” in getting “these sad sacks” out of the RNZ studio.

“Radio New Zealand – the New Zealand equivalent of the BBC – is supposed to be free of political meddling. Yet now it has been hijacked, and its hapless staff obliged to dispense their daily dose of te reo. There were just a few words to begin with. Then longer sentences which have kept on growing..”

I hate to think how Witherow reacts when he hears a baby say just a few words to begin with, then longer sentences. Funny how language works. When we demanded that RNZ explain these new obligations, they responded with a cheerful “Morena, I think the columnist is referring to the encouragement we are giving RNZ staff to use Te Reo, one of our national languages, as a natural part of their work. Bread and butter stuff for the national broadcaster.” Asked and answered.

“The uncertain fate of the Maori tongue is hardly our most urgent problem,” Witherow cries, before presenting a long list of very real social issues. The argument presented here is that every time Guyon Espiner greets his listeners in te reo, he takes away resources that would otherwise be used to end homelessness, youth suicide, and child poverty.

“We must respect the native culture, they will ooze. We must respect te reo. And so we should. But respect should cut both ways.”

This sentence made me laugh in the same way you laugh when you drop a full plate of food on the ground. The sound of laughter is there, but why are there tears in your eyes?

“We are lectured much about respect – especially by the grovelling classes. But respect, to mean anything, should involve a willingness to consider points of view other than one’s own, and maybe a recognition that, throughout the history of these islands, no race or culture has held a monopoly on virtue.”

In the words of the great philosopher DJ Khaled, “congratulations, you played yourself.”

“This myopic strategy can have no happy outcome. Without respect there will eventually be no goodwill, and contempt in the end will yield contempt in return.”

Translation: if you Maoris don’t respect authority, we’re not going to give you any more nice things, for example, your language.

Just a reminder that this is a real column that was published by a real publication in this unholiest of years, 2017. It’s funny to a point, but it also serves as a wake up call that these people still exist in our country. And while we can’t respond to every person who has ever said something racist or sexist or homophobic, we can at least call them out when they do it on a public platform.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Dave Witherow is the Spinoff’s runaway winner of Worst Opinion Column of 2017.

Keep going!