Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

Gordon Campbell on racism, and the Nisbet cartoons

May 31st, 2013

Interesting how quickly the debate on Al Nisbet’s cartoons has shifted from the actual content – and the implications if, as claimed, Nisbet has said aloud what many other New Zealanders privately think – to the far more comfortable grounds of free speech. Yet once we have stoutly defended Nisbet’s legal right to depict minorities in this fashion, and the related legal right of the newspapers concerned to print them as an evidently valid (to them) expression of opinion, should that really be the end of the matter?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines racism “as the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race.” One can quibble about the “all members” bit – but the Nisbet cartoons, as the newly minted Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy has pointed out, did single out the Maori and Pacific Island community as possessing certain negative social traits, by dint of their brown skins. (There were no fat, lazy, welfare bludging, happily irresponsible white people in those drawings.)

If cartoons with a narrative that rely on negative racial stereotyping are now to be seen as legitimate opinion, this would be interesting new territory for the mainstream media to be entering. Yet for all the brave talk about free speech and for all the invocations of Voltaire, one suspects that such opinion will continue to be selectively filtered by the editorial gatekeepers. Thankfully, it is unlikely (for instance) that we will be seeing cartoons about the main beneficiaries of the asset sales in which Prime Minister John Key’s Jewish heritage is invoked in terms of the hooknosed, money grasping tropes of classic anti-Semitism. Will Chinese foreign investors be depicted in future in the Press as opium smoking, ching chong Fu Manchus? Possible, but increasingly unlikely. Our commitment to Voltaire is likely to remain highly selective. And to me, that is the interesting aspect of the decision to run Nisbet’s cartoons – in some mainstream editorial offices at least, the racial profiling of some negative traits of the poor is now seen as valid opinion.

But hold on…some people might say in response that narratives that rely on negative racial stereotyping have always been with us – e.g. the drunken Irish, the skinflint Scots, the feckless Italians. Well, the difference is that no one these days is enacting social policy towards the Irish, the Scots or the Italians on the basis of those racial stereotypes – even though 150 years ago in the case of the Irish, they certainly were, and vicious cartoons about the drunken promiscuous Irish were used as weapons in the social disputes that wracked the society of the time. Today, social welfare policies that disproportionately affect Maori and Pacific commnunities are being enacted. If we would believe the Nisbet cartoons (and those who allegedly share the views depicted) those rascally brown-skinned bludgers are largely the agents of their own misfortune.

Arguably, this is the zone where free speech and our Voltairean impulses bump up against crying “Fire” in a crowded theatre. Meaning: free speech is not, never has been and will not in future be treated by the media gatekeepers as an absolute. The boundaries are ones that society – for reasons good and bad – have always policed. The current situation in New Zealand is that income inequality in New Zealand is on the increase, bringing a lot of social ills in its wake. Is it now a legitimate opinion that the situation of the poor and vulnerable has been written in their genes? Until now, that point of view has been limited to Sunday newspaper columnists, talkback radio and fringe neo-Nazi groups. The Nisbet cartoons, in that sense, seem to constitute an example of racism’s mission creep.

BTW, no-one is talking about making such views illegal – but it is also legitimate to denounce the cartoons in question as pathetic and despicable. As a society, we have some obligation to resist any incidence of racism’s mission creep. Such protest is not against free speech. It is against racism – and against those who promote it as valid “opinion” and disseminate it. If that pressure leads to a greater editorial sensitivity and to self-censorship when it comes to the stereotyping of Maori and Pacific Islanders – in line with the existing media sensitivity to depictions of anti-Semitism and to anti-Asian stereotypes – then it’s hard to see how that could be a bad thing.


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    1. 21 Responses to “Gordon Campbell on racism, and the Nisbet cartoons”

    2. By Furrball on May 31, 2013 | Reply


      Not offended, not outraged… as an expat of many years, just deeply ashamed and depressed that the country of my birth would find the trafficking of this form of propaganda even remotely acceptable.

      Sorry, but seen from London, it makes the country and many of those involved in the ensuing discussion look like a bunch of slack-jawed hayseeds.

    3. By Phil Stevens on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      Bravo, Gordon. I wholeheartedly agree that we have an enormous problem now that the discourse has been handily shifted by the “well, it’s true, innit?” and “stop being so bloody PC” crowd.

      Xenophobic tendencies are at the root of so many of humanity’s most intractable conflicts: Palestine, Kashmir, Kosovo, Rwanda, and countless others stand in blood-soaked testimony to our basest and most primitive capabilities. And they all started, at some point in time and at some level, with an essentialisation of someone as Other, from which marginalisation, prejudice, hostility and ultimately violence were birthed. Along the way, portrayals of the marginalised people as inferior are the loom upon which the fabric of hate is woven.

      Apparently this is the cancerous condition that Nisbet’s apologists seem to think is OK: that the expression of a frankly retrograde worldview via a ham-fisted rendition of crude visual stereotypes reinforces a set of tropes, grants them legitimacy, and further cements the opinions of a segment of society which already demonstrates a disturbing lack of reflexivity and critical thinking.

      Now those of us who speak forcefully against this sort of thing are subject to attempted marginalisation ourselves through protests that we’re being “PC” or attempting to stifle or censor free speech. Since when is correctly labeling racism for what it is an act of political correctness? It’s just honesty.

      It has been refreshing — in a cathartic sense — to see and hear some of Nisbet’s defenders say that they really do believe that all Maori and Pacific Islander parents hew to the gross stereotypes of the cartoons and that they don’t want to be bothered with evidence or facts.

      So we can justifiably and with a clear conscience say that these people are indeed racist and that they are truly a shame to our society, and that it is their views that must change if we are to improve the situation. So, too, must the editors bear considerable blame for not simply saying that the work was not up to the standards of a responsible press in the 21st century, and refusing to publish it.

    4. By ScoopEditor on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      Cartoons stereotyping the Irish aren’t really justifiable even if they don’t do much demonstrable harm or uphold structural oppression. They’re not exactly a pressing concern, but they’re still wrongheaded.

    5. By Ruth DeSouza on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      Dear Gordon
      Ever so grateful for your voice. Thank you.

    6. By Grant Buist on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      I sent Nisbet’s Marlborough Express cartoon to a friend in Kentucky (who knows a thing or two about racism) for his impression. His reply:

      “That’s pretty crass. And perpetuates the ridiculous stereotype, which we see here a lot, that people on welfare are dirty moochers/sponges/cadges. The right-wing in the US has convinced itself (and unfortunately much of the country) that people who receive government assistance are all gaming the system. I find that idea not only offensive, but statistically improbable.”

    7. By Mandy Jane on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      There was a blonde girl in one of the cartoons. Maybe that gives it a statistical validity that justifies the depiction?

    8. By Tamati Olsen on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      Kia ora Gordon,
      Very good piece Gordon. Kia kaha ki te kōrero i ngā tika o te ao! Be strong and continue to have the strength and courage to speak the truth!

    9. By Frank Macskasy on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      “Mandy Jane on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      There was a blonde girl in one of the cartoons. Maybe that gives it a statistical validity that justifies the depiction?”

      There are blondes in cartoons where KKK are abusing black Americans.

      You point being…?

    10. By Deano on May 31, 2013 | Reply

      The term ‘pc’ or ‘politially correct’ is a diliberat weapon to shut up good people saying sensible stuff without having to say anything yo back it up.

      It was part of the National Party PR strategy to get Don Brash as Prime Minister. You can read about why this term was used and how it was created in Nicky Hager’s book ‘the Hollow Men’. Unfortunately it was consumed within our language as a way to silence people and shut down important issues and intelligent debate.

    11. By Norman on Jun 1, 2013 | Reply

      What this issue has shown is the left’s block-headed approach to racial issues. Instead of whining about the political incorrectness of the Nisbet cartoons, the Left should have used this excellent opportunity to shift the agenda back to socio-economics and the Government’s attack on social welfare.

      The cartoons in question portray an increasingly mainstream Right wing myth. Excessive drinking, smoking and low end gambling have always been the opium of the European working classes and have absolutely nothing to do with traditional Polynesian culture. The determining factor is not race or culture but class.

      The apparent invisibility of poor pakeha in representations such as these allows their more well to do cousins a xenophobic view of poverty; Maori have had opportunity/reparations yet still end up dominating the poverty statistics. The Pakeha in the cartoons, I believe, are complementary, they signify ‘multi-cultralism’ and are only there as a defense against outright prejudice. Notice they do not smoke, are not overweight and do not mention pokies.

      When poor pakeha are represented in the media they are simply a part of pop culture to be celebrated; could brown-skinned criminals have been as relatable as the family on ‘Outrageous Fortune’ ?

      Why suggest lowering the threshold on the definition of racism, when this sort of red-neck perspective provides real opportunity for debate?

      It is shameful the way this government is allowed to set the agenda with their simple-minded beneficary bashing.

      Mr Flavell was right, racism does need to named when it rears its ugly head.

      But that’s not enough, it also needs to be analysed, deconstructed and used to promote a more enlightened view of humanity.

    12. By tekaituhi on Jun 1, 2013 | Reply

      Gordon you have wrapped this issue in a body of ethical and political accountability, great job, keep up the good work. I loved this part – “As a society, we have some obligation to resist any incidence of racism’s mission creep. Such protest is not against free speech. It is against racism – and against those who promote it as valid “opinion” and disseminate it. If that pressure leads to a greater editorial sensitivity and to self-censorship when it comes to the stereotyping of Maori and Pacific Islanders – in line with the existing media sensitivity to depictions of anti-Semitism and to anti-Asian stereotypes – then it’s hard to see how that could be a bad thing.”

      Kia kaha Gordon

    13. By Melly on Jun 1, 2013 | Reply

      It always astounds me when I read the racist diatribe either written and or drawn by an ignorant Pakeha. How dare we as a country allow racist and negative cartoons to be lauded as funny and ‘true’ in our newspapers. When something is racist, it is racist and it should be called out. Why do some Pakeha believe it’s okay to be racist against people who have more melanin in their skin?

    14. By clairbear on Jun 1, 2013 | Reply

      “(There were no fat, lazy, welfare bludging, happily irresponsible white people in those drawings.)”

      You are quite correct – however there were two gormless looking skinny lazy, welfare bludging, happily irresponsible white people obviously without enough intelligence to open their mouths.

      There are of course many cartoons depicting Prime Minister John Key’s hooked nosed Jewish heritage.

      In fact on June 16th, 2010 Tom Scott was in a similar position as Nisbet, a cartoonist defending his depiction of John Key in exactly the manor you describe.

    15. By tony simpson on Jun 1, 2013 | Reply

      Most people seem to have missed the point that the blond ‘girl’ in the cartoon and the bloke bringing up the rear are both elderly pakeha. Presumably the cartoonist is trying to get across the message that old age pensioners are also free loading bludgers. This cartoon is not anti Maori or Pacifica – it’s anti welfare state

    16. By bm on Jun 2, 2013 | Reply

      In my view, the cartoons have crossed the line between provocative and offensive. That was my gut reaction when I viewed the one in The Press, and despite reading Ric Steven’s justification for that organ publishing it,he hasn’t convinced me otherwise.

      To add another tack to the discussion, the ‘bludgers’, (of whatever race Nisbet intended) are depicted indulging in the vices of alcohol, cigarettes and Lotto.The state in fact exacts hefty taxes on booze and fags, and owns the NZ Lotteries Commission, (another form of tax). I don’t know – a case of what goes around comes around? The state taking with one hand and giving (parsimoniously) with another? Pity such an irony was lost on Nisbet – what with the Sky City convention centre deal so fresh.

    17. By jackp on Jun 4, 2013 | Reply

      A poll was taken in one of the newspapers as to those who were or were not offended by the cartoon. Over 12000 said no, 3000 said yes. Looks like the above comments are from those within the 3000 ranks. I have talked to people who actually go to the homes of the poor and more often than not their one complaint is as they walk up to the door, they see lots of liquor bottles in the rubbish.
      To hear about children going to school hungry bothers me. Will there ever be a followup on these children to find out what the heck is going on with the parents bringing them up? This is our future. 260,000 hungry kids is disgusting and I am angry at those parents. I never hear anything about them. Only a knee reaction from Parliament which will never help the situation. Feeding the children will only have a temporary affect and the real problem will never be taken care of.

    18. By Kat on Jun 4, 2013 | Reply

      “Feeding the children will only have a temporary affect and the real problem will never be taken care of”

      Very true, Jackp, the ‘real problem’ is lack of dignified work. There should be no unemployment in this country. There should be no need for benefits. No child should go hungry.

      But, full employment is obviously outside the capabilities and machinations of the private sector. So what part of the thin air this winter do the jobs materialise from, say in Northland?

    19. By OneTrack on Jun 4, 2013 | Reply

      In other words, you don’t believe in freedom of speech at all, just your “freedom” to only hear messages that you approve of. Why don’t you just say so clearly instead of trying to cover it up with rubbish about not “offending” any one.

    20. By jackp on Jun 5, 2013 | Reply

      Kate, what I am hearing from you is the reason for children going hungry is because of the lack of jobs. Has anyone ever followed the lives of those children?? These kids are pawns in a political arena. Key campaigned on it if you recall. He wanted to reduce the underclass but has done nothing about it. I have read no specifics as to why those kids are hungry. Jobs? Parents priorities? Usually if I don’t know what the cause is I don’t throw money at it.. This is serious, very serious but the Greens, Labour, Mana, and National don’t seem to want to tackle the problem. All I hear is talk.

    21. By Kat on Jun 5, 2013 | Reply

      Jackp, the problem won’t be cured overnight. However a good start would be to reduce the dependence on welfare. Having a meaningful job, working honestly for a fair reward and being able to pay the bills and put food on the table for ones family used to be a fundamental ethos in this country.

      Some time ago the Ministry of Works was deemed to be encroaching on the market place, inhibiting private contractors and was unceremoniously scrapped in a destructive act of right wing ideology.

      I believe the identified socioeconomic ills that accompanies systemic unemployment can only be addressed by direct govt intervention in the workplace. Key and his cronies never had any intention of doing that.

      Perhaps David Shearer does have a plan.

    22. By jackp on Jun 13, 2013 | Reply

      Kat, you might be on to something.

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