Thursday, 7 August 2008

Celebrating stupidity

Kiwis are very good at celebrating our sporting heroes, but often not so good at acknowledging those with abilities in other areas. Since I've never traveled I can't confirm it from my own experience, but NZ's anti-intellectualism is often remarked on. It's not as though we don't have smart and educated people in our country, capable of offering insightful commentary. Nonetheless, we seem to give a lot of public attention to plonkers. Allow me to illustrate my point.

#1 Garth McVicar
What are Garth's qualifications to speak on justice issues? What's his mandate? Nil and nil. Even if he offered a consistent line on victims' rights, I might be more kindly disposed to him, but Garth seems to care about 'worthy' victims only. He expressed public sympathy for the frustration of businessman Bruce Emery but none for Pihema Cameron, the child Emery stabbed to death. And I don't recall Garth being up in arms about the rape of an eighteen year old woman by English rugby players, or the public vilification of the woman which followed. Garth also calls for a return to the good old days of caning at schools because society was so harmonious then (if you can overlook a couple of world wars, etc). What research supports Garth's claims? Kiwi battlers don't need research. Garth's in it to defend ordinary, decent, hardworking kiwis. Taggers and alleged sluts need not apply.

#2 Christine Rankin
As WINZ chief executive for a time in the nineties, Christine was the poster girl of the rabid right. She was an ex-DPB recipient - a solo mum willing to sink the boot into other solo mums through draconian WINZ policies - who drew a great deal of attention to herself by wearing silly earrings and playing fast and loose with taxpayers' money. Famous for being well known, she continues to make a spectacle of herself, performing on Dancing with the Stars and fronting an organisation against child abuse while simultaneously defending a parent's 'right' to smack his/her children. And because she grew up in an abusive home, no one is willing to call her out as the waste of space that she so clearly is - in fact, she can be seen from time to time offering media commentary.

#3 Marc Ellis
Since his sports career ended, Marc Ellis has had no claim to fame whatsoever except his propensity to be an idiot in public. Describing himself as 'sweating like a rapist' is but one example. This seems to be enough for Ellis to be classified as an 'entertainer' in the weakest sense of that word. No matter how objectionable his behaviour, we let him away with it because he's funny. Except that he's not funny.

#4 Celia Lashlie
As a woman who dislikes other women, Celia Lashlie - or Backlashlie, as I prefer to call her - has found herself a niche. Her experience as a prison warden has made her an expert on all things to do with all young men at all times. Young men's problems, from bad language to fatal car accidents to criminal offending, are caused by their mothers. "It's mollycoddling, it's making his lunch, it's picking up his clothes off the floor and washing them, it's protecting him against the school rules." And as our sons cross that bridge from childhood to manhood, we need to get our caring maternal hands off them: "The hard reality for mothers is, you will delay your son's entrance into manhood if you don't move over on the bridge." Even as the Mental Health Commission urges kiwi men to talk about their feelings for the sake of their wellbeing, Celia goes around boys' schools telling boys that not talking is just what normal boys do. She believes that women's equality has gone too far, and we're now trying to take over the world. It seems that all you need to do to become an acknowledged expert is to say something that rednecks want to hear.

Why, New Zealand, why?


Anonymous said...

I am so with you on all of those. It's really the fact that anyone continues to listen to - hell, report unquestioningly - anything Garth McVicar says.

Hugh said...

So I'm unclear here. What is it that makes these people unworthy of media attention? The inconsistency of their views, the fact that their views conflict with those of other (presumably more authoritative) groups, or the fact that they have transitioned from the career that brought them media attention in the first place?

Perhaps I should phrase it differently. In your ideal world, what sorts of people would get media attention?

Personally, I'd never heard of Celia Lashie, and wasn't aware Christine Rankin still commanded media attention post-resignation.

Anna McM said...

In my ideal world, media commentators would be knowledgeable and entertainers would be entertaining.

Everyone's entitled to give an ill-informed opinion: that's what talkback is for. But when we have a national conversation about a serious issue like child abuse, for example, I don't really want someone without any credentials in the area being given the media space that could usefully be used by someone with expertise capable of contributing to an informed public debate.

And in a country populated by genuinely talented people, I don't much like to see a guy who finds rape humourous elevated to the status of potential role model.

The media make important editorial decisions which affect the ability of the public to form opinions on important issues. It's cheap, easy and socially irresponsible to have Garth McVicar mouth off about something he knows nothing about rather than have, for example, a sociologist speak about the demographic, socioeconomic and other contributors to crime.

By all means, let lobby groups have their two cents' worth: but portray them as lobby groups, not self-fashined number eight wire 'experts'.

Stephen said...

No problem with anything else here but:

return to the good old days of caning at schools because society was so harmonious then (if you can overlook a couple of world wars, etc)

I fail to see the connection between war and caning. Surely domestic violence, rape legal if within a marriage etc...?

Anna McM said...

The connection is not that caning causes world wars or vice versa, but that the gold old days of a perfect society that Garth wants us to return to were not that great. The world actually wasn't that perfect at all, so to put your rose-tinted glasses on and try to go back to yesteryear (whether by reintroducing caning or whatever) might not be such a flash idea.

It reminds me of that Alas Smith and Jones sketch that went something like, 'I heard an old guy complaining, "Why can't things be like they used to?", so I ripped up his pension book and shoved his grandson up a chimney'.

Stephen said...

I see what you mean Anna, and I agree, but mentioning war in the same sentence as caning is still utterly ridiculous.


Hugh said...

Anna, It seems you really have two separate objections here.

One is to people being presented as role models when they're not suitable. I'm not sure that the mere fact that Ellis is on the idiot box means he is being held up as a role model. You've mentioned his 'sweating like a rapist' comment which I imagine for you would actually outweigh any entertainment value on his part. It would definitely be hard to say 'well yes, Ellis is an unrepentant rape-minimiser, but he's so entertaining', particularly if you do feel his appearance on TV makes him a role model.

The other is people being presented as authoritative when they're not. You've said that you'd rather see a sociologist talking about the effects of crime than somebody like Garth McVicar who is at best an enthusiastic amateur. Would you rather see a sociologist - likely to be a middle-aged, affluent white heterosexual male - talking about crime than a single mother, or a women's refuge manager, or an abuse survivor?

What it really comes down to is that both 'knowledgeable' and even moreso 'entertaining' are subjective. Almost everybody has gaps in their knowledge and we're often pre-disposed to see those gaps among people we disagree with.

Personally I think it would be impossible to disqualify people like McVicar and Rankin without also disqualifying other non-academic commentators whose voices I do want to hear. It may be jarring to hear McVicar spouting his particular brand of paleoconservatism, but I think the solution is to challenge his arguments, not the fact that he's speaking.

The ex-expat said...

I'm slightly disappointed Bob Mccroskie didn't make the list.

Also Ken Orr for abortion, Gordan Copeland any time he opens his mouth.

Anna McM said...

I made it as a flippant comment initially, but know I actually want to defend it. I think that if you're advocating policies supposed to return us to a pacific past, you should consider whether or not that past was actually pacific. 'The good old days' is a rhetorical tactic often used by people without other evidence to back up their arguments.

You might remember that scene from Bowling from Columbine where the guy stands in front of a missile in the armaments factory, saying something to the effect that he had no idea where the school shooters could have got the idea that violence is OK?

The emphasis which any culture gives to violence as a solution, whether at a micro or macro level, is actually a pretty important determinant of social attitudes.

Anna McM said...

Hugh, there is but one issue: I don't like people saying dumb things on my telly, and I'm not sure why as a nation we like people who say dumb things on the telly.

I don't mind hearing from a solo mother on an issue pertaining to solo mothers. She would speak with the authority which comes from experience. I'd also be happy to listen to an academic on the topic, so long as the calibre of the academic's research was OK. Both sorts of authority have their limits, of course. I've given birth, but I wouldn't say I'm an expert on the subject and it certainly doesn't make me an obstetrician.

I don't think that who is or isn't knowledgeable is a particularly subjective thing, and it's very clear to me whose comments are conducive to informed public debate and whose aren't.

Garth McVicar brings neither sort of authority to his musings. Nor does he have the authority of someone elected to represent the views of any particular sector. The guy says the first thing that pops into his head, and while he does it, and the opportunity cost is hearing from people affected by crime and people who have researched crime. After hearing his comments, I actually feel less informed than beforehand.

Marc Ellis also says dumb things on the telly. The fact that he is frequently on TV suggests that he has some sort of validity within our culture. Whether or not you think he's entertaining, it is simply not OK to make ignorant comments about rape. When you give someone a repeated spot on the telly, you give them an amount of cultural authority - it's not like one of those 5 second man-on-the-street interview who's going to win the Bledisloe Cup public opinion soundbyte thingees. By perpetuating the idea that sexual violence isn't that serious, he too is contributing to a less well-informed general population and undoing the work done by those who actually care about such matters.

Oh for the good old days.

George said...

I try to turn the TV off, not read the paper, and surround myself with generally sane and intelligent voices (which isn't to say I always agree), and only engage with the media when I'm following a story or active in a campaign on a public issue. I've only been half successful, but where I have, the extraction from the mediaplex has been to the benefit of my quality of life, and allowed me to focus on more of the things that matter.

Anna McM said...

Then it's flattering to have you as a reader of THM, George! :-)