2017 rewind: The immigration “debate”

Boy, this issue never goes away. Wait, am I talking about toxic immigration narratives, or mainstream media pundit-dudes making prats of themselves?

Originally published 8 October 2017

There were a few drafts of this post, as I struggled with how to address Duncan Garner’s blatantly, deliberately, openly, provocatively racist column (no one makes that much effort saying how not-racist they are if they aren’t about to be super-racist). Deconstruct line-by-line? Parody (unnecessary given this excellent piece)? Flowchart showing all this has happened before and all of it will happen again (everything’s better with a Battlestar Galactica reference)?

I settled on a bingo board.

Because I am tired. I am so very tired of this little dance we go on, every single time a Pākehā dude (usually) opens his mouth to complain about “floods” or “waves” of immigrants or wants to start off “an important conversation” about immigration by observing that the queue at KMart made him feel like he was in South East Asia. I am tired of the disingenuous defenders insisting that we stop talking about the actual words the grown man who works in a communication-based job actually wrote. I am tired of the expectation to buy into the charade that he just doesn’t understand the basic implications of his words, to soothe the troubled brows of people who think being called racist is the literal worst thing that can happen to a living being.

I am tired of having to explain incredibly basic concepts like “referring to groups of people in animalistic terms is dehumanizing” or “criticising racist rhetoric does not mean I believe in a fully open borders policy and what the hell are you smoking to suggest that I am, you obvious deflection tactic?”

I am tired of the constant threat: actually I’m one of the good ones and if you alienate me I might not support good things any more.

And I am afraid. Haven’t we seen this happen already? Don’t we know what direction normalising this kind of rhetoric, and shutting down of criticism of it, takes us in? Haven’t we all watched what’s happening in the United States and retweeted Sarah Kendzior enough to read the signs? Didn’t we just learn that pandering to the “less-bad” agitators – saying “oh sure Milo’s transphobic but at least he’s not an actual Nazi” – is part of the problem?

Weren’t we all guilty of laughing at Trump’s buffoonery and assuming he was harmless, and just coincidentally aren’t we all waiting to see which way Winston Peters will go, gosh isn’t it funny how he mocked that journalist for being Australian?

And I’m rolling my eyes at myself right now because come on, Stephanie, this is just one silly Duncan Garner column, it’s not an impending seachange in NZ politics towards the openly white-supremacist authoritarianism of Trump and Breitbart, be reasonable.

But being reasonable and giving people an endless supply of second changes or infinite benefit of the doubt is how people like me – people who aren’t directly threatened by this rhetoric – end up saying “I woke up one day and realised I was living in a dystopia” – while those who faced genuine harm from all those “poor choices of words” or “unintended implications” are screaming we told you so, why didn’t you listen?

This is how hatred and hate-filled politics becomes normal: not because there are people deliberately pushing a racist agenda, but because a much wider group of people ignore it, or reinforce it by parroting its tropes without thinking about it. And when they’re called out, they’re outraged, because they’re not racist and how dare you say so you basement-dwelling loser, and their indignation is another piece of the puzzle, because now the conversation is about whether those stupid social justice types on Twitter are just too sensitive to have mature conversations about serious issues facing our nation.

And I’m tired. But I had to say something. Because you can never see where it all started to go wrong until it’s too late.

4 Replies to “2017 rewind: The immigration “debate””

  1. NZ and Australia are some of the most desirable places in the world to live (which sometimes isn’t saying a lot, but having worked in many places in the world it’s generally true.) Open borders and uncontrolled immigration would see a virtually unlimited demand, NZ’s population would quickly soar into the 10’s of millions. If you think this is a good thing, please feel free to make your case.

    While we frequently discuss immigration from the perspective of the new arrivals (and rightly so), all too often we silence the impact on the existing community. Whatever label you attach to it, historically the lesson we have learned is that large numbers of new immigrants displace existing communities, physically, economically, politically and most importantly, spiritually …. this almost always has a very bad impact on those displaced. Often for generations. NZ has it’s own indigenous example to ponder.

    Nor is it reasonable to neglect the culture of all these new people. Again history clearly shows the more different the old and new peoples are, the greater the impact. You only have to look across the Tasman to colonial Australia to see how a relative handful of Europeans utterly disrupted an ancient Aboriginal society that has almost no ability to understand and adapt to the new arrivals. The differences were so stark, so fundamental that to this day they still struggle with the consequences.

    But there are no hard boundaries, no binary on/offs here. The first neighborhood ethnic takeaway bar is a welcome treat; when the entire shopping centre offers nothing but, the result is not so welcome. But exactly where was the tipping point? No-one can explain, it’s something we sense, something that niggles in the crawl-spaces of our subconscious. One day it was OK, the next it wasn’t and we don’t have easy words or explanations for it.

    So when local NZ’ers start to feel uncomfortable about the numbers of Indian and Asian immigrants, this is something felt deeply rather than articulated rationally.

    Duncan Garner standing in a supermarket was not saying bad things about SE Asian culture. Like most people he would travel there, embrace the differences, love the food, the people and the vibrant diversity … but equally might want to value and protect his OWN culture, his OWN heritage and quite legitimately ask “where is MY place to stand?” Where is MY home, and MY community that I feel I can belong to?

    We are of course all immigrants; the whole of human history boils down to two primal narratives; a youth goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. And in the modern world there are almost no boundaries, no limits to the variations possible on these. We truly live in a global culture, and the younger you are the more this is true.

    But this global culture thrives on it’s diversity, on the differences between peoples and the places they live. Nor are cultures are not static things, they borrow and improvise from elsewhere all the time, but emphatically this is not the same as all of us converging on one “coffee coloured global homogeneity”. For this reason it is still fair to ask “what do I want NZ to look like?” Is it going to be dominated by a Polynesian, European or Asian culture, or is it going to have the space and time necessary to organically evolve it’s own unique blend?

    Nor should we avoid asking the question “how many people do we want in NZ”? A large part of who I am lies deep within the spacious wildernesses of our mountains and forests. We are a comparatively open and free country and I value this highly. I am truly saddened at the prospect of NZ becoming intensely populated in every nook and cranny as is Asia. Is this so very wrong of me?

    This I suggest is the anxiety at the heart of the ‘immigration debate”, we can tolerate, even embrace change we feel in control of, but quite the opposite when we sense we’ve lost control and the pace is being forced upon us.

  2. Thanks for the comment, RL, but unfortunately my eyes glazed over as soon as you raised the “but we can’t just have open borders” strawman. It’s dishonest and disingenuous, and thus not worth engaging with.

  3. The point is simple; of course no-one is openly arguing for ‘open borders’, but the unavoidable implication then is an immigration policy that places limits on a potentially unlimited demand. (That’s scarcely a straw-man, it’s a statement of the obvious, and I have to assume you agree with this logic. If not then I’m happy to hear your perspective.)

    And this means we cannot avoid discussing how we want to construct those limits; what purposes are we trying to serve and what ethical principles come into play.

    1. This post isn’t about setting immigration policy. It’s about the language, tropes and racism which are constantly disguised as “a conversation about immigration policy”.

      It is completely possible to avoid racist and dehumanizing bullshit when we discuss immigration, so it’s highly suspicious how we *never* discuss immigration *without* falling into racist and dehumanizing bullshit.

      The largest groups of immigrants coming to New Zealand are white and English-speaking. They are invisible in these conversations which you and others cry “we can’t avoid”.

      Which can only lead to the conclusion that “hard conversations about sensible immigration policy” are a pretence for indulging in racist rhetoric.

      Someone should write a post about that. Or maybe she already did.

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