'What unites us is stronger than what divides us' - Race Relations Commissioner

9:02 pm on 15 December 2021

By Meng Foon*.

Opinion - We are all human, no matter our opinions. There's a well-known but crude phrase about opinions and how everyone has them and that truth is glaringly apparent at this particular point in our history.

New Zealand's new Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon

Race Relations Commissioner, Meng Foon Photo: supplied

Fundamentally we all recognise that people have a right to freedom of opinion and expression but Covid-19 has brought division across many communities as people have wrestled with the issues associated with dealing with a pandemic. As the summer weather heats up, there is a risk that the temperature of our conversations follow suit.

This is apparent in the increase in complaints to the Human Rights Commission recently, many of which include derogatory and damaging sentiments about others. It's apparent in the recent threats meted out to vaccinators; vile abuse towards local fast-food staff for enforcing the vaccine certificate system; and it's also seen in the demonising of those who haven't been vaccinated.

These tense interactions are on the increase across Aotearoa, both in person and online, with anger and hostility heightened. Whether the aggression is between strangers, colleagues or whānau, the rhetoric is dividing us. People are now not just separated by physical or geographical borders but by views and opinions.

Through all of this back and forth, it's worth considering the perspectives of others. On one level, we need to have our facts straight. There is a pandemic and we all want our families, friends and communities to stay as safe as possible. However, that person who unwittingly spreads Covid misinformation, that person who hasn't been vaccinated, that person who is protesting in the streets, is as much a human as the person pushing for their whānau to get jabbed.

There are always reasons we believe what we believe. We know that there's a higher level of mistrust of authority amongst communities who have been historically marginalised or who have been pushed to the perimeters of society. The pandemic has also added to the routine pressures of life that everyone goes through. Family pressures, work pressures, financial pressures, have all been exacerbated by Covid-19. This plays out in different ways for everyone but fear and uncertainty can lead people to search out information that supports their world view, leaving some vulnerable to misinformation. I'm not saying misinformation and fallacy is okay but we must have some understanding and respond in a way that reflects empathy.

As we head into the holiday season, the likelihood of social occasions and family events increases and for some, this can mean difficult conversations around contentious topics. It can be tough when people you love hold different views to you, especially if some of those views are grounded in falsehoods, but there is a point where relationships and connection should take precedent over opinion.

What unites us is stronger than what divides us. There are currently many debates around the pandemic, government measures and human rights. Whatever side of these conversations you are on, always put people first. People will make up their own minds and it is their right to express those views but let's try and find the common ground that we all coinhabit. We can share a vision for a country that's free of discrimination. No matter your vaccination status, political stance or ethnicity - you deserve to be treated with dignity.

This month Human Rights Day was marked with the celebrations framed around Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This says "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights". We should keep this in mind and continue to build cohesive and inclusive principles into our society in Aotearoa.

It's okay to be passionate about our beliefs and opinions but it's when we place a higher value on our thoughts over others' that there can be problems. It's perhaps ironic that a pandemic that has brought frustration and anger to the fore, can only be smoothly traversed once we unite. There have been many platitudes and clichés thrown out about kindness, love and respect - it's now time to put them into action.

* Meng Foon is the Race Relations Commissioner

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