On Eleanor Catton and expectations of ambassadors
The furore over Eleanor Catton’s comments has been silly. Here’s a genuine attempt to make it less silly.
My original draft of this post was a rant about how ridiculous the Catton–Plunket debate’s been, with responses to all the frustratingly stupid things everyone—both sides, in both mainstream and social media—has been saying. Then I realised that won’t help much, so I decided to focus on what I’d rather see discussed instead.
Boil the partisanship out of this fallout (yes, I know, I have short patience for partisans) and you have two very interesting and tightly related questions:
- How should people made “ambassadors” of New Zealand by virtue of their achievements represent us overseas?
- In what circumstances is it okay for high-profile people, other than politicians, to opine on New Zealand politics?
Being a good ambassador
It’s easiest to start with what we shouldn’t expect. I don’t expect our unofficial ambassadors to be unreservedly praising. The most obvious practical reason is that listeners get rightly sceptical when someone talks as if their country were perfect. Every country has flaws; those who speak not of them are hiding something.
But there are better reasons to be frank than just avoiding cynicism. Firstly, putting New Zealand on the map isn’t just about singing praises, it’s about building connections with our overseas friends. This is easier when you can compare and contrast the challenges that your countries face. Not everything is, or needs to be, directly comparable—for countless reasons many of India’s challenges are on different axes to ours. But you build mutual respect better when you’re open about what they are.
Secondly, it is—I like to think—a reflection of New Zealand that people can speak openly about their government and culture. Our opinions aren’t uniform and it’s just as well that others are exposed to that fact. To the extent that this freedom is one of the things we’re admired for, we should act like it’s true everywhere—not just on domestic land.
Are there limits? Certainly, I expect accounts of fact to be accurate. That is, opinions should be qualified as such if it isn’t obvious from the context. But anyone who says their country is “dominated by neo-liberal, very shallow” politicians is obviously expressing an opinion. Here, it’s worth drawing a distinction: if being successful makes one an ambassador, it’s for our country, not our government. It’s reasonable to disagree with Ms Catton, but the fact of her expression should be of no more concern than if she had said it at home.
So we’ve established that our informal ambassadors shouldn’t just be fountains of incessant praise. Next question: should they say anything at all?
Opining on politics
Perhaps unwittingly, people have been implying some weird criteria for when it is acceptable to opine publicly. Sean Plunket seemed to think that anyone supported by taxpayers should avoid “bagging” the country. Several have lamented the association of politics with, well, specialties that aren’t politics. Many, particularly on the left, have leapt to Ms Catton’s defence by pointing out that she’s “correct”, “telling it like it is”, or words to that effect.
This is all very silly. The silencing effect of counting everyone whose paychecks come from taxpayers, even more if you count private companies with government contracts, would be breathtaking. Politics should be a topic for everyone, not just politicians. And it doesn’t matter whether Ms Catton is “correct”. We don’t abridge the right to speak just because someone is incorrect.
The better answer is simpler: it is always acceptable to talk about politics. Good democratic systems require the free exchange of perspectives on political issues. Governments improve because they are criticised; the best ideas are known only when not muted. There is nothing about being a successful writer (or an “intellectual”) that makes one different.
A handful of people, like David Farrar, adopt a more nuanced approach: of course Ms Catton should express her views, but it was poor form to do so before an international audience. Perhaps, indeed, it is not the most productive forum. It would be bizarre if she had inserted those comments into a speech, say, intended to inspire budding creative writers.
It’s a shame, then, that mainstream New Zealand media neglected to report the context of her remarks. My best efforts fail to find an original transcript, but we do know that it was in an interview. Ms Catton told the Guardian that it “had been formatted to edit out the questions, […] ‘rather like a disgruntled ranting person to whom a new thought keeps occurring’.” If she got asked a question on the topic, it’s sensible to give an answer—and not to shy away from doing so.
All this is to say that Ms Catton was not only within her rights to speak candidly about New Zealand: it was her imperative to do so. And it’s of no relevance that she was wrong, right, or (more likely in my view) a mixture of the two. One of our country’s most basic characteristics, and one too easily taken for granted, is that we thrive on a robust exchange of opinions. It would be a disservice to hide that trait from the rest of the world.