Whose freedom?


I don’t normally agree with Paula Bennett – in fact it’s almost become second nature for me to disagree with her – but I have to say she’s on the right track with this anti-Wicked Camper campaign. While discussions around freedom of speech can often see people getting tied up in knots, in Bennett’s typically unequivocal fashion she is on a mission to find a way of legislating against the misogynistic branding that defines Wicked Campers.

In New Zealand, according to the Bill of Rights (1990), “everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form”. There are of course censors for film and published material, but in general we can say what we like. For a publication to be banned it has to have performed an “injury to public good”; apparently “it’s a pretty high threshold”. And Wicked Campers are certainly testing this threshold hiring out camper vans decorated with “humorous” slogans that often take as their targets social minorities: women, those who aren’t white, or vulnerable sexual abuse victims.

The notion of freedom of expression can be polarising. Free speech is often cast as the antithesis of political correctness. A look over the comments sections on the Stuff and Herald on line sites in relation to this debate shows people have mixed feelings. While there is general concern over the tone of the slogans, this is also matched by a fear that if we begin to legislate against them it results in the curtailing of political freedom. Yet as a someone argued on twitter yesterday “when was the last time you ever heard anyone invoke their ‘right to free speech’ that wasn’t for something sexist, racist or homophobic?”

Maybe we need to think about whose freedom we are protecting with this high threshold? In any society there is a dominant discourse – a way of speaking or writing about a given topic that reflects the ideologies of those who have the most power in that society. It comes as no surprise that Wicked Camper’s founder is a white male. As I wrote last week words matter. If we accept that words dehumanising and demeaning to women are funny, we normalise misogyny. In doing so we legitimise and reinforce women’s lesser status in New Zealand society. Sexist discourse works to shape and create meaning that becomes how we define our social world. Representations of women that emphasise sex as their only attribute contribute to discrimination and violence. The objectification of women leads to us being seen as less competent than men. It is also related to increased incidents of sexual pressure and coercion in heterosexual relationships. Although according to Wicked Campers we’re supposed to find that funny as well.

John Webb the founder of Wicked Campers wrote; “anybody who is familiar with our brand would probably know that we are strong proponents of free speech and pushing the limits of humour”. John Lehmann, who wrote to Paula Bennett that; “a bit of sexual violence never hurt anyone” defended himself by saying “it was a joke, just a wind up”. Apparently we all just need to get a sense of humour.

Except I don’t find any of that funny. I don’t find jokes about rape, or sexual abuse amusing. I don’t think that jokes implying I’m only as interesting as my breasts are worth laughing at. I don’t see jokes about being drowned by my husband as clever. Concern about limiting freedom of speech completely overlooks the freedoms of those who are the subject of these jokes. Such concern seems to indicate that the rights of those who want to gleefully attack marginalised groups should take precedence over the rights of these people to a life free from discrimination and violence. Challenging such discourse is not about shutting down free speech, its about discouraging speech that limits the life chances of others.

So you go Paula Bennett – legislate away. And seriously John Webb and John Lehmann if the only way you can be funny is to take the piss out of the powerless then you’re the ones without a sense of humour.


Nb. While this blog is outside of what I usually write about, I got so used to commenting on anything that Paula Bennett said when she was Minister for Social Development that I couldn’t help myself.

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