Language matters. Just take a look at where we have ended up on the debate on the repeal, now amendment, of Section 59 of the Crimes Act.
Early on, opponents dubbed Sue Bradford's Private Members Bill the 'banning smacking' bill. Never mind that the Bill does nothing of the sort. What it does do is remove, with some exceptions inserted by the Select Committee, from the list of justification or excuse the use of "reasonable force" for parents when hitting their children. Smacking, hitting, whatever you want to call of children is already 'banned' by law. What is now going to happen is when parents use horsewhips or hosepipes to discipline their children there will be no justification in law for doing so. But you won't hear that from opponents of the Bill. They have very successfully framed the debate in their language, and I venture to suggest much of the public outcry on the issue is based on this deliberate distortion of the Bill.
And in the same vein of controlling language, we see the attempt of the conservative, christian fundamentalist based Maxim Institute to re-brand itself as the promoters of Social Justice.
For those who have not been paying attention, Maxim has had a difficult couple of years, with their intellectual power-house, Bruce Logan 'retiring' in late 2005 after he was exposed as having plagiarised many of his writings for the Institute. He said it was just sloppy citation - others saw much more of a pattern. Maxim was also very active in the allegedly non-partisan "NZ Votes" campaign in 2005. As exposed in Nicky Hager's, The Hollow Men this campaign was far from non-partisan and Maxim in fact stayed in close contact with the National Party over its development.
Maxim has been relatively quiet since then, but today they are holding a conference and launching a book on the theme of Social Justice.
Even the good folk at Maxim would have to admit that the concept of Social Justice is one that has been long associated with the left of the political spectrum and derided by the right. In their own 'research report' on the subject they acknowledge that Hayek said the concept was "intellectually disreputable".
The term social justice has generally been built around key concepts like income redistribution, egalitarianism and fair treatment of minorities. As such it has a key role for the state at its core. It has been the rallying cry of many politicians and political groups on the left- including in the maiden speech of our own Prime Minister, and as recognised by the Financial Times in a recent article on her.
Not concepts or people that politically conservative, fundamentalist Christian organisations like Maxim would generally be seen to be supporting. But this is what neo-conservative groups have become very good at: using language to frame debates and issues in their terms. In the US the take-over of "family" and "family values" by groups pushing a conservative, religious agenda has been almost complete. The aim is to claim a piece of language as their own, and define all debate in the area on their terms.
What Maxim is trying to do with social justice is something more as well. From last year they have launched a careful campaign to take the concept away from the left of politics. I have no doubt their polling told them that New Zealanders liked the notion of social justice. They invented the proposition that the meaning of social justice in New Zealand was 'hotly debated' and undertook an internet based campaign (under the guise of 'research') to get views on social justice, and are now using their seemingly very deep pockets to produce a book on the subject.
The re-framing of the issue has focused around pushing the place of the individual in achieving social justice, or a "responsibility form" of social justice. Convenient, when that, the rights of the individual over the collective, is the core your own political philosophy. Hilarious, when in the summary of the issue on the Maxim site they claim that the greatest unanimity on the issue was 'about the contribution individuals can make to a just society'. Perhaps that is because one of the seven questions they asked was specifically about how an individual can promote social justice? Its all about framing you see.
No doubt Maxim will tell you they are simply opening up debate on this issue. Rubbish. They are attempting to alter its meaning. From my perspective, the Maxim Institute is most certainly not about social justice. Any organisation that has undertaken campaigns to stop same-sex couples getting equality under the law, reduce the rights of workers and lower benefits or which promotes elitist and failed concepts like education vouchers is simply not in the realm of traditional concepts of social justice.
This is all simply a matter of re-branding for a discredited lobbying organisation, but it represents a warning sign that we must be ever-vigilant about attempts from the right to colonise a successful catch phrase for the kind of politics I care about - collective action for the sake of fairness, tolerance and equality.