With the fatigue of breathing politics for an entire election year and social media’s never ending obsession with the role of political parties, I’ve felt minimally encouraged to blog about events – whether the details of a rather lackluster Labour Party leadership election or continued fallout from Dirty Politics. But it would be remiss of me to not comment on a pet peeve of mine: our obsession with individuals as the root of all evil, raised recently in the call for boycotts and cancelled subscriptions for the Sunday Star Times because they appointed Judith Collins as a columnist.
The outrage culminating in a call for a Sunday Star Times boycott is the most trivial and naïve display of misplaced priorities because it reduces an entire newspaper’s ethics down to one hiring decision. Overall, her newspaper columns is the equivalent of care home for the politically fallen as opposed to breakfast shows where rising politicians such as Jacinda Ardern and Jami-Lee Ross shine, so this column is inconsequential. But let’s put that aside. Our overwrought approach to voices we don’t like in the public sphere represents something deeply misguided about how to achieve a fairer society from many of us on the left. The annoyance I feel is similar to last year with the successful commercial boycott against Radio Live for John Tamihere’s on-air expressions towards teenage sexual assault. To clarify, ethically Collins is a garbage person made of snakes but pressing her removal from the media sphere won’t make one iota of difference to ending Dirty Politics, nor did the removal of Tamihere contribute anything to changing institutional and legal inaction over sexual assault in the wake of Roastbusters, or has the mere existence of Bob Jones‘ column seen a surge in physical violence against reporters.
Many of us on the left place too much value in our perpetual outrage, usually at the same targets: controversial quotes from a conservative politician/ homophobic celebrity/ racist public transport users – all of whom do as we would expect them to do yet still act with shock. Our obsessiveness only really achieves unity in both revulsion at the target of evil and pride in our own choices and beliefs. It’s a perpetual game of political whack-a-mole: points scoring for smacking down every head, but this never ends. Collins’ fate resembles that of similar media contemporaries. The downfall of Paul Holmes begat the rise of Paul Henry, the fall of Paul Henry saw the triumph of Mike Hosking. The only exception is the reborn Paul Henry, who rose again from the ashes of a low-rated Queensland breakfast show. Their fates within media are not tied to ethics but commercial imperatives. But where media figures can be born again, politicians generally can’t be. If anything, there is a greater audience share who subscribes to Collins, Tamihere, or Hosking than we’d like to admit and theirs or similar voices will remain because of profit and public demand. Bringing them down won’t destroy public beliefs and their voices will be channeled through their replacement bete noire.
Anger towards injustice is good only insofar as it’s channelled into actual change. The outcome of the Roastbusters case was terrible, so let’s channel it into advocacy towards concrete legislative, institutional (police) and judicial reforms, as well as public education. Dirty Politics revealed some terrible things about loose networks of political and sympathetic media operators, so greater transparency and accountability is needed from all political parties and allies. Judith Collins is more a garbage person swimming unashamedly doing freestyle laps in a river of garbage that sometimes flows right into the heart of our political system.