Rachel Smalley: Sir Peter Gluckman eloquently articulates where we are all going so wrong

Rachel Smalley: Sir Peter Gluckman eloquently articulates where we are all going so wrong

Opinion: The role the media and politicians play in social cohesion has always been important, but perhaps never more so than right now. 

Words matter. They really do. 

What fuelled my frustration at the weekend amid the trans-rally, and one of the reasons I have elevated this issue in my programme, is because I watched the Greens engage with us through social and mainstream media, and their collective method of communication can only be described as one of social antagonism. 

There is no other term for it. It was socially reckless. 

Neither Chris Hipkins nor Christopher Luxon operates in this way. Both are de-escalators. Both have the life skills and experience to read the room and understand the role they play in taking the public with them, and supporting social cohesion. 

How we communicate and educate ourselves, how we access information and form an opinion can rely, in part, on the way politicians speak with us, and how the media shapes and curates what they say and the news agenda. 

Yesterday, I heard an interview with Sir Peter Gluckman, a former Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister. A highly respected man and someone who, in this interview on Newshub, so beautifully articulated what I haven't been able to over the last few days.

It's probably the most important five minutes of audio you can listen to about how we have found ourselves where we are today as a society - polarised, angry, divided and intolerant. 

Below is a transcript of Sir Peter Gluckman on TV Three's AM explaining how we got here, and who needs to lead us back towards social tolerance. 

"It's deep across all the Western democracies, across all the democracies that we're seeing polarised societies, not coping well with rapid change and change is very, very rapid," said Sir Peter.

"We've seen the weaponization of narrative, particularly through social media. And these things polarise people, and make people scared, which in turn reinforces the ability for people to be more polarised.

"We're also dealing with the fact that politics, as we've just been talking about in relation to disasters, has become short-term and superficial and focussed on identity rather than on ideology or ideas. And we would rather, I think as a society, have a contestation of ideas than a contestation of personality. But we can't have a contestation of ideas if we no longer allow for people who don't necessarily agree with each other to have constructive dialogue and find a way through what are difficult matters.

"And we see epithets like racist and other ‘ists’ being thrown around in ways that are not appropriate. And there are racists, but many people who are accused of being racist just happen to have a different idea to other people and to the people who are throwing the accusations at them. We need to get better. We need to find ways to have constructive, non-emotive or less emotive conversations on matters where society needs to come together and have a consensus.

AM co-host Ryan Bridge asked Sir Peter how such a vision could realistically be accomplished.

"How do we do that?" Asked Bridge.

"When you have things like Twitter which restrict the number of characters you can use and maybe forces people to become more extreme in their views?"

Sir Peter responded to say society needs to turn away from extremist ideals on both the left and right.

"That's precisely the problem," said Sir Peter.

"That's why organisations like yours need to encourage sensible discourse and not give hype and exaggeration to people at the extremes. We need to see our politics return and our discourse return to the centre. Otherwise, we will fragment and we'll look like other countries that we do not want to emulate in that regard, who have large protests on the street or where politics can quite cheekily say black is white and one and one equals three.

AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green asked Sir peter his thoughts on how the Posie parker protest was handled on all fronts.

"When you talk about commentary on the extremes, and I'm thinking particularly about what we've seen at the weekend with Posy Parker and the strength of feeling on both sides there, how do you think that was handled or how could it have been handled better so where it didn't come to the scenes that we saw at the weekend?," asked Chan-Green.

Sir Peter responded to say we need to understand each other's needs on a deeper level.

"People are scared by rapid change," said Sir Peter. 

"Quite clearly, human rights are critical and we need to explain, and the whole of society needs to understand that every human has rights that need to be respected, and that includes the rights to express one's own identity and gender. It also expresses the rights to be concerned about the roles of people in society.

"And that needs to be a discussion whereby people understand that people who are transgender or who have issues with their gender identity need to be able to work that through and find their place in society as fully integrated members of society. That's a discussion about rights. We don't do that in that schools. Most people do not know what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights means.

"We don't hold our politicians to account to talk about these issues. We don't encourage discussion on issues of rights. And so when we don't do that, we fall into the trap of extreme contestation... Liberal democracy has two components. One component is trust between citizens and the institutions that govern them, and accountability around that through elections, a strong opposition and a strong proper fourth estate.

"But the other dimension is social trust, which means that people of different opinions find ways to have discourse and agreement, or find ways to accept that fair decisions have been made, which take into account the interests of the minority as well as that of the majority."

That was Sir Peter Gluckman, on the importance of listening, on creating space for each other, and for politicians and the media to understand the crucial role they play in supporting and enabling social cohesion.