Mis­chief afoot in Mid­dle­march

Nelson Mail - - COMMENT&OPINION -

town, let alone a defin­ing one. Many’s the com­mu­nity, large and small, where an iso­lated in­di­vid­ual or two can be­have shame­fully like this.

The story res­onates less be­cause it’s so un­usual than for the op­po­site rea­son. It’s re­gret­tably rep­re­sen­ta­tive. A dis­com­fort­ing part of slice-of-life New Zealand. Not a large part, we’d like to think. But nei­ther is it some­thing we should res­o­lutely ig­nore or dis­miss as a one-off quirk of the prov­inces .

Cer­tainly the po­lice were right to alert the com­mu­nity to the prob­lem­atic be­hav­iour in their midst.

It’s a valid pro­tec­tion for there to be a col­lec­tive aware­ness of gos­sip-mon­ger­ing, which tends to thrive in the shad­ows but shrivel in the sun­light.

There comes a point where si­lence isn’t a dis­creet re­ac­tion but an ab­ro­ga­tion of col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity. It can leave fu­ture vic­tims iso­lated in their dis­tress.

Far bet­ter they be aware they have drawn the at­ten­tion of a ma­li­cious med­dler whose ac­tiv­i­ties have al­ready been met with the re­jec­tion, even the re­vul­sion, of the wider com­mu­nity.

This, in turn, must be ex­pressed by, and con­trolled by, of­fi­cial­dom rather than vig­i­lanteeism.

The bot­tom-line con­tent, if not the tone, of one of the three let­ters was ar­guably de­fen­si­ble. It was a tip about a per­son driv­ing while dis­qual­i­fied. Anony­mous fin­ger­point­ing in such cases isn’t in­her­ently shame­ful. In fact the po­lice Crimestop­pers, 0800 555 111 phone line has been specif­i­cally set up to re­ceive anony­mous calls in the knowl­edge that it can help pre­vent harm.

But the two other let­ters, also writ­ten in the same hand, were sent to lo­cal women and re­garded the state of their mar­riages. The com­bi­na­tion of of­fi­cial re­ac­tion and com­mu­nity dis­taste strongly sug­gests that these are the moist­ened-lipped writ­ings of some­one adopt­ing cen­so­ri­ous tone while shame­fully tak­ing sala­cious, or at least self-right­eous, plea­sure from do­ing so.

We know some peo­ple would say we’ve just de­scribed the jour­nal­is­tic re­ac­tion to this story.

They’d see this as an­other en­try for that ca­pa­cious file of prob­lems that would go away if the news me­dia would just do ev­ery­body the ser­vice of ig­nor­ing it, at least to the ex­tent of keep­ing each com­mu­nity’s less up­lift­ing news out of sight of ev­ery other com­mu­nity.

Afraid not. We need to be more hon­est with our­selves, about our­selves, while still keep­ing a sense of per­spec­tive. Which in this case means ac­knowl­edg­ing the ex­tent to which the mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties, given half a chance, will re­li­ably rally to sup­port each other.

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