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Penny Jamieson:

Race for the moral
low ground


There is an office in Dunedin,  somewhere on the railway side of the Octagon,  that has a photocopier that is always breaking down.

It is a very busy office,  not unassociated with the law.   The people who are working there are constantly dealing with people who are anxious and under considerable stress.   The stress that their clients are experiencing rubs off onto them very easily,  and also,  it would seem,  onto their photocopier.

So these wound-up workers rush to the photocopier with their must-do job and the lights are all on but the inside workings are stuck.   So the cry goes up:  Who used it last?   Who is to blame?   And the office changes direction to find the culprit.   There is quick,  angry attack,  soon countered by quick,  angry defence.   And,  when the culprit is found and reduced to tears by the social shame,  the photocopier is still jammed.   A lot of time and emotional energy have been wasted,  uselessly focused on finding a scapegoat and inflicting maximum discomfort.   And before the end of the day the "woefull" machine has broken down again.

How much easier it would be to run a session to teach all the staff how to fix the jammed machine.


There is a country in the South Pacific that has an exceptionally high rate of child abuse and murder.   It is a busy country,  where everyone works hard,  where the big business interests of the country are so focused on the market that no one has noticed that bad housing,  poor health and sheer poverty have increased.   And so has crime.   Those on the bottom have been getting the very clear message that their poverty is their fault.   If they had got themselves a better education they would be OK.   But it is the crime and the need for quick,  sharp punishment that is receiving all the attention in the public arena.

When a child is murdered,  the cry goes up:  Who is responsible?   Who is to blame?   And we see the familiar sight of young women,  and some men,  standing in the dock receiving prison sentences for having killed their children.   And the cry for revenge rises:  shut them away for longer.   We must protect our children.

It is a cry for "discipline",  a cry for punishment.   It has a ring about it of the same kind of rigid cruelty that makes some parents punish their children to death,  literally.

Are we becoming what we hate?   How much easier it would be if we all took some responsibility for being in a country that fails,  hopelessly,  to support families;  that turns a blind eye to social stresses that impact most on those who are least participative in our society.   Perhaps we might even take on some care,  for care breeds care.

But violence is not only confined to the poor.   Over these past weeks we have witnessed family violence in high places.   Our politicians have ruthlessly abused each other's families,  and in the name of a totally self-interested purity have sought to bring damage and unhappiness to innocent bystanders,  some of them children.   This distressingly sordid public performance has the same quality of tit-for-tat that I have noticed in our response to child abuse.   This is,  indeed,  the race for the moral low ground.

First published in the  Otago Daily Times  of March 27,  2001.
The writer is Anglican Bishop of the Dunedin diocese.

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