The easier it is for us to dehumanise others and see them as anonymous or two-dimensional caricatures, the easier it is for us to turn them into targets of our own unexamined frustrations, writes race relations commissioner Meng Foon.
Most of us here in Aotearoa New Zealand, I think, care about our fellow human beings, and would go out of our way to help someone in need, regardless of their culture, ethnicity, skin colour or anything else.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to witness a traffic accident, or just seen a stranger slip and hurt themselves in the street, you’ll know what I mean. We go to their aid instinctively, we try to help, we rally around. In the worst of times, we can be at our best. So it makes me wonder why we can’t be like that all the time. Sadly, without an emergency or crisis to remind us of our common and shared humanity, we can turn away from one another, and allow doubt and suspicion to creep in.
You might think this pandemic, which still has our biggest city locked at level four, would be exactly the kind of thing to bring us closer together. But the “team of five million” often seems more an aspiration than a truth. Consider the abuse directed at the Sāmoan community after this latest delta outbreak, or the reported abuse of essential workers in our supermarkets and elsewhere. Go further back to the Human Rights Commission survey earlier this year, when we found Māori, Chinese and Pasifika people all reporting higher levels of racial abuse and hostility during the pandemic.
Clearly, there is still some way to go.
Of course, individually it’s easy to say we’re appalled by such things, and to stand in judgement from some imagined place of personal blamelessness. But who among us can honestly say they are blameless? And, if we look beyond the insult and the abuse itself, what do we find? I would say we find anger and frustration. It’s not necessarily anger and frustration at the person or group we’ve chosen to take it out on, but a deeper and harder to define set of emotions.
If we want to understand what makes someone lose their awareness, their respect for basic human rights, their compassion, and then unload on some unsuspecting stranger, perhaps we need first to look in the mirror. Collectively, yes, but individually too.
I’ve been into too many houses with holes in the walls not to know we have a big problem at home. Our family harm statistics are appalling, suicide rates among young people are among the highest in the world, divorce rates are alarming, bullying is rife at school and online, and poverty is deepening. Ask anyone working in social services, with disabled people, vulnerable women and children or minority groups and the Rainbow community. The picture is deeply troubling.
But you see it in myriad smaller ways too – the angry honking or finger waving on the road, the rudeness at the checkout counter, the anonymous hate swirling on social media, even the name calling in the playground. What makes people this angry? What makes the same person who would rush to help an elderly person up off the footpath see red when things don’t go quite the way they wanted?
Well, I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure there are entire libraries written in answer to those questions. But I do know that the easier it is for us to dehumanise others, to see them not as individuals with their own stories but as anonymous or two-dimensional caricatures, the easier it is for us to turn them into targets of our own unexamined frustrations.
At such times, others can come to represent in our minds the things that offend or annoy us – the thoughtless driver who cuts us off at an intersection becomes symbolic of selfishness and entitlement in general. Add ethnicity or religion to the mix and we know what can happen.
Such thoughts would have been in the Prime Minister’s mind when she spoke soon after the recent terrorist attack at an Auckland supermarket. The attack “was carried out by an individual,” she said, “not a faith, not a culture, not an ethnicity, but an individual person who is gripped by ideology that is not supported here by anyone or any community.”
Maybe we should apply these fine sentiments more broadly, as a society and individual citizens. For some of us, that will mean taking that hard look in the mirror, asking why we feel this way and what can be done about it.
It might mean seeking help, too, and there is plenty available, from Alcoholics Anonymous to the Salvation Army, great initiatives like Ngāti Whātua’s Kāhui Tū Kaha in Auckland and all kinds of support services nationwide. But the first step will always be ours alone to take, supported by real measures that tackle injustice and inequality.
It’s a time for kindness to all, including those who may have erred. The couple who travelled from Auckland to Wānaka for instance. They have publicly apologised for their actions, and face court action – which could permanently affect their lives. They do not deserve the ongoing vitriol.
Let’s focus on behaviour and conduct that warms us and makes us proud to be human, and builds a fair and decent society for everyone. That’s what Te Tiriti o Waitangi is all about and it’s what the Human Rights Commission stands for.
Let’s look at the many examples of generous and selfless behaviour all around us, and be reminded that there are more reasons to be grateful and inclusive than there are to be angry and prejudiced. When I see the great work being done by marae, churches, mosques, synagogues, city missions, community trusts, individuals and neighbours to help others in need, I feel the opposite of despair.
You might have felt it too, simply by going to get a Covid test or vaccination. The genuine sense of community and shared purpose is compelling, and many people have commented on the experience. We may not know the person next to us in line, but we know we’re all in this together.
It makes me feel resilient, supported, connected, and strong enough to face any new threats this pandemic may still throw at us. This is the side of us we need to take heart from, celebrate and foster.