Public Knowledge: The Future of Democracy – WORD Christchurch Spring Festival 2020

Democracy, conspiracy theories, and the need for an appropriate - and safe - public discourse. All this, and much, much more were discussed at this very informative event.

Sacha McMeeking - Head of Māori and Indigenous Studies at the University of Canterbury - and Golriz Ghahraman - Sitting Member of Parliament for the Green Party - were informed and engaged speakers while Sally Blundell coordinated the conversation well. The three of them were here to discuss some of the ideas as outlined in the book that they all contributed to, Public Knowledge.

Public Knowledge

Sacha spoke first to the question of what she thinks the roadblocks to change are. She spoke about it being easy to blame algorithms that operate on social media that often create online bubbles as people get information that reinforces what they already believe. She did, however, go on to say this is not truly the case. She stated that “for action we need motivation” and that the most important way through which we engage with misinformation online is through stories and narratives that create “social reinforcement”. The idea behind this being that it ensures that there is a personal element to the story that will create empathy. According to Sacha, narratives that facilitate empathy could be created that break the chain of misinformation.

Following this, Sally Blundell asked Golriz a question in regards to hate speech and freedom of speech. In response to this, Golriz introduced herself with a personal narrative. She was nine years old when she first came to New Zealand as her family claimed asylum from political persecution in Iran. Then she outlined the abuse she received when her Green Party candidacy was announced - this was before she even became a member of parliament. From this, she said that abuse continued and even intensified briefly in the aftermath of the March 15th terrorists attacks in Christchurch. Ultimately, a deeply personal narrative laid bare.

Know your Place

Golriz outlined her experiences with hate speech as a launching off point for this conversation. Here, she stated very clearly in plain terms that “hate speech is not free speech” and that hate speech is a process that serves to marginalise minority and disempowered communities. In effect, hate speech is a fundamental part of the process of marginalisation. Hate speech is a breach of fundamental human rights.

“Fundamental Human Rights exist, they attach to us all as humans”

The issue here, rather than being a question of whether they exist or not, was merely a question of access. Different people have different needs and requirements in order to fully access the human rights that they inherently have. The goal then, is to make sure that everyone can get what they need to access their rights. An example of this is wheelchair ramps so people who are wheelchair bound are able to access public places.

The conversation then went onto the topic of collective vs individual rights. Golriz said that the current legislation protects individuals from violence but not groups. By this, what is meant is that threats of violence that are targeted directly at specific individuals can be deemed as threatening, but statements that appear to threaten religious or ethnic groups, for example, as a whole are not. From this, the conversation shifted into walking the fine line between opinion and harm and how to mitigate this in online spaces.

During the questions, someone asked about the current role of unions in the 21st century context in relation to collective and individual rights. The point that was highlighted here is the weakening of labour laws that allow unions to engage in political activity in the workplace. Golriz answered saying that she believed unions were important for a “just transition” into a more environmental and social friendly future. She stated that in order for them to play an important role in this transition, there was a need to strengthen them to ensure they could act effectively.

ll and all, it was an interesting session which engaged with heavy subjects from personal narratives to group harm. McMeeking, Ghahraman, and Blundell spoke well and were easy to understand and follow as they engaged with difficult subjects. Sacha McMeeking and Golriz Ghahraman were well-spoken and engaged in the topics discussed.

WORD Christchurch