Busytown by Jolisa Gracewood


Front, man

"Some people are easily offended", offered Paul Henry in the first hours after his calculated race-baiting stunt went a bit Evel Knievel at Caesar's Palace, with overtones of Fonzie-on-water-skis. Funnily enough, Henry sounded a smidge offended himself. As if he'd been aiming a bit higher, hoping to offend the people it's really, really hard to offend, instead of the usual right-thinking fish in a barrel.

"I am sincerely sorry if I seemed disrespectful to [Sir Anand Satyanand]," he hazarded in his official "apology", introducing a wistful note of conditionality into the brew, as if hoping it would all just go away.

Sir Anand, to his credit, brushed the offense off, Obama-like. Water off a duck's back. A model of dignity, as befitting a dignitary. And as for the other 4 million New Zealanders who were explicitly included in the offense, well, if some people are easily offended, that's their problem, right? After all, we're all grown-ups here.

Except we're not. A significant proportion of "us" are children. And another way of saying "easily offended" is "impressionable." For them, in this case, there is no meta-cognitive "if." There is only the brute fact of divisive, demeaning racist thinking, in just one of its many slippery verbal guises.

One of the cool things for me about having a brother who reviews nifty gadgets on TV is that this makes him a cool uncle. Also, of course, a cool Dad. And also, for his son's mates, a cool "my friend's Dad who is on the telly." On the telly with that funny man Mr Henry.

Children are watching and listening, all the time. Even as the Wii generation abandons television for the more immediate delights of on-demand entertainment, they still pay attention to what's on the screen, especially if it sometimes involves remote-control helicopters. Even if they have to sit through the bit with the Prime Minister.

But as someone once put it, children are insanely good observers and slightly crap interpreters. For all that they have powerful bullshit detectors, they can also be very literal thinkers. Just this week I had to talk a four year old down from the ceiling after he freaked out over a casual reference to Wall*E's "motherboard" getting "fried."

Likewise, just this week, a friend of mine is trying to avoid explaining to her Pakeha-Chinese-New Zealander kids why mummy is grumpy with a man who thinks they don't "look like" future governors-general. Because how do you explain that to your kids without saying that the man on the telly thinks they shouldn't be in charge of the country when they grow up because of what they look like?

In this case, I think the punishment should fit the crime. No need for a public flogging, no heads on spikes, no scalping, no pound of flesh. Nothing too medieval, just a spot of good old restorative justice.

Which is why I propose that Paul Henry undertake an apology road trip, in the course of which he visits every kindy, every play centre, every kohanga, and every school in the country, where he will look every single child in the eye and say:

"You know what? I said a really dumb thing. You totally look like a future Governor General."

I think it's important for it to be one-on-one, and out loud, and in person. More effective that way than from behind a camera. Otherwise kids might confuse it with the cartoons, and wait for the ACME one-ton weight to fall on him as a punchline.

Also, as my going-on-nine-year-old just pointed out over my shoulder, it's not nearly as much fun to throw eggs at a TV screen.

The other nice thing about kids is that they're usually more than happy to "say the things we quietly think but are scared to say out loud" (to borrow TVNZ's spokeswoman Andi Brotherston's regretful phrase). I'm quite looking forward to that bit.

And as I type, I hope someone somewhere is, as @johubris suggested on twitter, making T-shirts that say, "This Is What a New Zealander Looks Like." In several colours, and all sizes: XL, large, medium, and small.

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