“If I said, “Boy, I really love corn dogs!” it doesn’t mean I actually love a corn dog. Because love has nothing to do with corn dogs. But it’s just language. It’s a state of mind. You take for granted that my intention is really to express that I enjoy them a lot and I want to eat one right now. That’s what it’s meant to do. But if you have an agenda and you want to take my sentence apart, you could certainly say, “Oh, my God! You love a corn dog? What do you mean by that? Do you want to marry it? Do you want to put it inside of you?” It’s like, “That’s not what I meant and you actually know that’s not what I meant and you’re only using it because you have an agenda so that you could get attention for whatever reason you have.”
We face daily pressure to behave according to gender, race and sexual norms, so it’s ironic that we use the same progressive values that aim to challenge these norms as a new standard of conformity.
In my pretty middle class, inner-city suburban existence, progressive values are mostly a given and something we strive to prove on a daily basis, not only as a personal aspiration but also for social credibility. It usually takes little to align this social-political algorithm, just the occasional Facebook post of a Ta-Nehisi Coates article or an Instagrammed Green Party ballot selfie every election.
Equally important is to avoid accusations of the opposite: racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia or transphobia, the recriminations of which are amplified in the digital age. As a result, personal ‘brand’ purity has become a dogmatic virtue. Our social media identities increasingly resemble political agendas, where our worth and effectiveness is measured by our ability to identify and call out marginalisation and privilege in face-to-face and online feeds. We’re easily wound-up and prone to react, with the onus always on the other, readily diagnose statements with ‘White, cisgendered straight male privilege’ – the predictive text judgement of these times – and respond to skepticism with privsplained logic akin to Hare Krishna or Scientologist street-bothering screed. Our focus has shifted from concrete political, legislative and social change to battles over academic and campus experiences. So dedicated to our new approach that proven allies who oppose our blanket judgements are criticised as enemies and the context of good satirical TV comedy is misinterpreted humourlessly.
These social media scraps against moral depravity is, in my view embarrassingly similar to those of the moral right – the same talkback callers, social conservatives and religious activists whose moral panic on welfare, sex and violence on TV, sacrilegious art and the role of certain musicians in social breakdown we snidely deride. Like them, we fear morally permissive values as driving bad behaviour and seek open confrontation to judge perceived transgressions. Like many born-again evangelists, there’s a tendency to blame others for preventing utopia. While certainly a combination of class, race, gender and sexuality reflect certain overall privileges or disadvantages, privilege, to me, is like meditation or prayer – a good exercise in self-reflection and contemplation of the state of the world. Yet, diagnosing others according to broad formulas that often rely on blanket assumptions simplifies complex individual human motivations and experiences and can easily misinterpret opinions and language without context.
Actions motivated by moral zealotry are always driven by political agendas. As social media users with the ability to play the role of moral arbiters in public, too frequently we act disproportionate to the situation and context to justify our political outlook and to accumulate gravitas as legitimate commentators – including those white, straight, middle class cisgendered males who appropriate others’ experiences. In a New Yorker article on this issue, the generational gap between an English lecturer at Oberlin College in Ohio and her students was noted: “Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records. “My students want warning labels on class content, and I feel—I don’t even know how to articulate it,” she said. “Part of me feels that my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” Moral politics is ironically turning us into the very people we oppose.
Humanity chafes under moral conformity and history shows progress tending towards the blurring of gender, sexual and racial norms. Feminism, LGBTI and ethnic rights movements have made gains because they have rebelled against such conformity. Not only through protest but by developing concrete goals for bold political, legal, economic and cultural change, working with similarly-minded allies – many of whom they disagreed with on many issues – they have gradually won widespread public support.
Surely, genuine public belief in progressive ideals is more preferable, which depends on opposing moral panic of any political stripe. While real bigotry is inexcusable and should be challenged, not every perceived slight is worth a reaction nor every bigot merely the value of their transgression or their perceived privileges. Rather than replace one set of moral norms with social algorithm and forumla as another, real change must question all norms.
The seven year old me would be relishing the NZ flag debate. I was a flag nerd who owned several flag books who could draw the Bhutanese dragon flag from memory and collected all the flag stickers from Chiquita bananas for their world flag map competition. But as an adult I’m seized with ambivalent shrugs. Looking at the official longlist of 40 designs, they symbolise some uncomfortable truths about how we creatively and personally limit our imaginations as a country.
Firstly, half the designs are by seven people including five each from two people. Most of the multiple submissions are variations on the same idea. I’ve observed a common problem with many creative arts decisions in New Zealand: a predilection for a few favourite go-to people at the expense of a greater spread of diverse, original ideas. Secondly, there appears to be very few female designers involved. Perhaps flag nerdery is more the mainstay of boys like myself, but this is hardly representative for a national symbol. Thirdly, the overwhelming reliance on Kiwiana motifs – waves, koru, Southern Cross, Silver Fern, even a DOC logo stretched out like a Pierre Cardin belt buckle – lacks imagination and resorts to John Key’s ‘brand NZ’ ideal. This, I believe, reflects a deep national insecurity towards the arts and creativity where we undervalue the inspirations unique to the New Zealand experience that have found success worldwide in favour of bland variations on formulas adopted from overseas – hence why 90% of local TV and radio content is merely Mediaworks reality TV shows and their cross-promotion through Mediaworks radio synergy. It is apt that this week Jemaine Clement criticised New Zealand TV as terrible and companies of having no interest in making good comedy. Perhaps we want an idea that we think the rest of the world approve of. This could have been a unique opportunity for real designers to showcase artistic, accessible ideas rather than a public flag-sourcing exercise that has made us a bit of an international joke. Strangely, most of us are probably proud that John Oliver simply mentioned us rather than be embarrassed that we were the target of a mocking takedown in two Last Week Tonight segments on the flag debate.
That being said, there is one flag that visually and culturally stands out for me: Wākāinga/Home. Created by design agency Studio Alexander, the blue triangle symbolises the settlers, the red triangle and white shape as Maori heritage and the latter a stylised Maori meeting house, and black for strength and optimism and is shaped to resemble our mountainous landscape. This design is truly unique; the visual equivalent of a Flying Nun song on a soundtrack to an adaptation of an Eleanor Catton novel starring Jemaine. To be in the shortlisted four would give real creativity a fighting chance and anyone wanting to reclaim the debate from aesthetic choices that collectively equate to a Kiwiana knicknack shop exploding onto canvas would be well served rallying behind Wākāinga/Home. The seven year old me would have been proud to felt-tip pen sketch this flag.