Thursday, April 12, 2012

My final input re: Paul Holmes

The saga re: Paul Holmes' inflammatory Waitangi Day column is ongoing, but coming to a head. The editor of the Weekend Herald, David Hastings, responded to my complaint to the Press Council (after two complaints to his paper), and I was given an opportunity to respond. What I wrote is below. The Press Council will judge the case on the 7th of May. If they uphold the complaint, they'll forcing the Herald to retract the piece and apologise, but, more importantly, signalling that this type of thing isn't on. The damage has been done now, but if the Council intervenes here an important precedent will be set.

I am sad to say that Mr Hasting’s response to my complaint is shallow and inattentive. His main line of response is that I am taking Paul Holmes’s words out of context. His claim that when in context Holmes’s claims aren’t inflammatory is simply a bare assertion. In contrast, in the original complaint I discussed at length why the context does not make Holmes’s claims any better, and in fact makes it worse. Mr Hastings has simply ignored this. Nor could he make a convincing reply. The most striking element here is the fact that Holmes doesn't make a single claim about the protestors in particular, and a large number of claims about Māori without qualification.

There is the one time he mentions the "loony Maori fringe" (it is worth noting that it isn't obvious whether this is meant to be a fringe of Māori society, or that Māori are supposed to be a loony fringe of New Zealand as a whole—many of those who commented on the piece took the latter, discriminatory reading). But the three times Holmes says something about what the protest consists in, his characterisation aims at Māoridom as a whole: firstly, when describing the protest it is "irrational Maori ghastliness with spitting, smugness, self-righteousness and the usual neurotic Maori politics" (note the lack of qualification); secondly, when describing what they should instead be concentrating on is the litany of social ills that affect Māori (pointedly, making no mention of the content of the actual protest); thirdly, when describing the desired effects of the protest he introduces it with "if Maori want..." (again, without qualification). At no point does Holmes say how the protesters are to be seen as a single, distinct part of Māoridom, whereas he frequently suggests that the protest represents Māori without qualification.

Mr Hastings has challenged my reading of the third point listed above. He says that Holmes is "saying that if mainstream Maori support the extremists the day will be dominated by the antics and agendas of the extremists that he finds so abhorrent." But this is simply a nonsense reading. Holmes says nothing here about the relationship between the protesters and Māori as a whole. There is only the mention of "Maori", not of the influence of one section of Māori on another. There are simply no grounds for concluding what Mr Hastings does, and his reading must be dismissed.

The above is just one of the occasions where Mr Hastings accuses me of making unjustified inferences. I have no doubt he employed this strategy against the other complaints as well. But this retort is entirely mistaken. There are two features of inferences in natural language to consider here: the logical and pragmatic features. On both of these aspects, Mr Hastings's readings are nonsense.

Logically, an inference like 'if X, Y' or 'Y, because X' (note the different positions of X and Y) provides sufficient conditions: the truth of the antecedent X is supposed to make the consequent Y inevitably true. Holmes, in the above-mentioned example, says that if Māori want Waitangi Day for themselves, we should let them defraud Pākehā. I conclude from this that Holmes is saying that Māori want to defraud Pākehā. That is incontrovertible: Māori wanting to protest as they did is sufficient for us letting Māori get what they want and defraud Pākehā, Holmes asserts, which entails that Holmes believes that protests like these are sufficient to prove that Māori want to defraud Pākehā. And that is the substance of my complaint: Holmes is asserting (amongst other things) that Māori are out to cheat Pākehā. Holmes is thereby driving a wedge between Māori and Pākehā, and the Press Council is correspondingly entitled and required to step in.

This same logical structure is behind what I have called a subtler bigotry, that Holmes has different standards for what is acceptable for Māori as opposed to Pākeha. Mr Hastings seems to have missed the point of this. For reasons of space I won't repeat what I've said earlier, where I describe how Holmes is engaging in abusive mud-raking by tarring the protesters with the social ills of Māori, a standard he fails to consistently apply regarding the personal failings of individual Anzacs and the existence of Anzac atrocities (and we cannot impugn Holmes with the unseemly innocence required to deny their existence). I'm not saying we shouldn't support Anzac Day either: I'm saying that Holmes should show the same grace to Māori as he does his family members and their comrades in arms. His failure to do so indicates a discriminatory standard. I provide this analysis as an indication of the context within which Holmes is writing, and that context supports my reading, rather than Mr Hastings's.

The other feature of inferences, pragmatic, is something which linguists and philosophers call 'conversational implicature'. In short, we need to assume that people are being helpful with what they divulge in order to make sense of what they tell us (see  ). Very little of natural language use meets the standards of explicit and precise statement that formal logic requires, and we plug the gaps by making use of certain co-operative standards. I don't wish to labour this point with a summary of how conversational implicature works. The long and short of it is this: the only way we can make sense of the fact that Holmes repeatedly talks about features of Māori as a whole when describing what is objectionable about the protests, is that he believes that their being Māori is the pertinent fact. He doesn't even give any indication about the content of the protest—that too seems to be irrelevant in his eyes. No other explanation is provided, so, by the co-operative standards, Holmes must be saying that this is the relevant explanation, and enough of one. This is borne out by Holmes moving on to different, unrelated, topics, after the "No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them" paragraph: he has said his piece. And all that Holmes has talked about is his disgust at what is supposed to be an attempt by Māori to disregard their real problems and exploit Pākehā. The fact that he never troubles himself with separating the protesters in substance from Māori as a whole, or even what the protest was about, must be read as him asserting that there isn't anything pertinent to say there. Otherwise we render Holmes's column into contentless bleating. In contrast, there is an easy reading available which makes sense of the piece, where Holmes is casting Māori against Pākehā. There is a large audience of people who understood him as such. We are driven by the standards of language use to do the same.

The Mr Hastings spends the majority of his response to my complaint in reminding the Press Council about the freedom afforded the press to print even offensive items. He also lists a variety of pieces his paper has published on the issue. All of this is idle talk, however. The freedom to publish controversial items is not unqualified, and there are occasions where the Council can, must, and does intervene. Representing a variety of opinions is not an unqualified good, not if the breadth of opinion is enlarged to include the inflammatory and the racist. These are unfortunately viewpoints which find a ready audience, but we have a responsibility not to spur on divisions among New Zealanders. I am deeply worried by the fact that Mr Hastings and the Herald are entirely unreserved and unrepentant in their endorsement of Paul Holmes’s piece, which included (and this is not contested!) claims that the protest against John Key was driven by a conspiracy to extort money from Pākehā and calling Māori a race of child-abusers. A line has been crossed—the only possible effect, if Holmes is taken seriously at all, is a deepening divide between Māori and Pākehā on the basis of his ill-considered comments. Since the Herald does not seem to have the good judgement to recognise this as a matter calling for moderation, we have to depend on the Press Council to intervene.

Yours sincerely,
Marinus Ferreira

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