Debates should not generate hatred and cancel culture

On the weekend, as I was preparing to write a few words about Race Relations Day and the impact of our 213+ ethnicities on New Zealand’s cultural history, I faced an outpouring of messages concerned about an upcoming film to be screened in New Zealand, the Kashmir Files.

It had been recalled for review by the Classifications Office, home of the Chief Censor.

I have talked a lot about content regulation and censorship so after considering the issue in-depth on Sunday morning I posted to my Facebook Feed. The comment thread on this post crossed a number of discussion points but I was deeply concerned about some language, both for the film’s screening and opposed, some commentators decided to direct at each other. Religious hatred, accusations of propaganda, of supporting terrorism and of misinformation were flung in both directions and all over a drama, a film that has been screened internationally now for several weeks. I found it ironic, in a discussion regarding censorship, but necessary to limit some replies that were particularly nasty choosing to incite anger and belittle rather than continue the discourse of broader opinion on this contentious issue.


I am not going to pre-suppose any decision of the Chief Censor in his decision to review his Office’s Classification of the Kashmir Files because that would be wrong. We have an incredibly high bar to ban content in New Zealand.  The role of the Chief Censor and our wider content regulation systems must not be built on actions directed by politicians of the day but from New Zealand’s morals and views on restricting or criminalising content developed carefully and constantly under deliberation and change.

Just a few days ago,  on a number of the growing trends surrounding content regulation including misinformation. I think the below excerpt is important:

Lee: …Over the past year, MPs have received many, many complaints about the censorship of opinion on digital platforms and in the media and concerns that free speech is under threat in a climate of, I guess, what you’d call cancel culture. How do you, as the chief censor, respond to this? And what work are you undertaking to balance your role as a regulator to tackle things like harmful digital content that you are talking about on one hand, and on the other hand, the freedom of expression, as outlined in the bill of rights Act?

Shanks: Absolutely, and a terrific question. Any operation in this space is a function of balance. It can’t be all about freedom of speech in a completely unmitigated and untrammelled way because we can see what sort of harm that that can lead to. Nor can it be about State censorship imposing very heavy penalties and prohibitions that actually stifle freedom of speech and expression. So it is about balance. Interestingly, that’s part of the reason why I made it very clear in talking about misinformation and conducting research in this space that I don’t see the solution to that issue being adding misinformation to a classifiable element that means it should be prohibited and therefore subject to quite heavy criminal penalties…”

It is important to remember that the initial classification of the film, the Kashmir Files, was R16 and it may stay there. The Kashmir Files have already been determined to depict “Graphic violence, offensive language & cruelty” so it is not unreasonable for the Chief Censor, having noted any further matters from the community, to consider whether the R16 labelling is correct or whether R18 or another mode of restriction or re-classification is needed, perhaps, even a lower rating. This is his prerogative and not one for politicians to meddle in before a decision is made and even then there is an appeals process to be followed.

The uncomfortable nature of cinema, of media and storytelling is that it is self-evidently emotive. No one goes to the movies or turns on the television for a boring experience. When we tune into the content we expect drama, we expect passion and, where the story may be based on real events, we should expect some originality and creativity. The world of silver screens demands this. The complex inter-web of geopolitics, the fog of war and history and the lack of certainties in many of our globe’s most dramatic events depicted in storytelling means we all when we enjoy content expressing past events, need to remember that it is just that. It is a story, a film, a novel or a TV show, not unerringly what happened.

We must be cautious in expanding censorship and limiting access to content, particularly where it challenges in provocative ways. We live in an age where ‘cancel culture’ is rife and where some see denying access as a positive rather than societal harm to the increased diversity of voices. To be blunt, just because a part of society thinks something is ‘propaganda’ or ‘harmful’ is not enough for it to be denied to adults in our liberal democracy, we can think for ourselves. In being a New Zealander we recognise values of cultural diversity and respect for one another and the community. We have our own domestic political ideas because we are our own sovereign nation and we should always be thinking of those values first when we look to the future of New Zealand’s multiculturalism.

This Race Relations Day we have to remember our cultures and communities all have sensitive topics that have significant disagreements surrounding them. Here in New Zealand, our Treaty Settlement process tries to address these issues for Maori-Crown Relations and in other countries,  try to promote unity to allow communities to move on from the trials of the past. Nothing will ever determine the full story in politics, in faith and in history, facts will always become opinion and belief and up for discussion.

The important thing in a democratic community is to debate with an open mind, to avoid name-calling and verbal violence, to avoid stroking the egos of fanatics and fear mongers and instead to sit talking together in friendship even where we comprehensively and fundamentally may disagree about the nature of the world we live in.

It is a failure of society when we ‘cancel’ others over having a conversation.

That is being a New Zealander and that is celebrating Race Relations Day.


Note: This column originally ran on Indian Newslink in March 2022