Justice, Compassion, and Freedom: An Interview with Maxim Institute's Greg Fleming
At least in New Zealand, the next generation is coming through—changing the narrative enough that their culture will be very different in twenty years.
Cardus: It was heartening and to hear you say New Zealand can be a model of hope for Canada rather than a warning of the road we could be going down. What is it that gives you hope that you're coming out of the shadows, as you put it?
Greg Fleming: I think what is primarily underpinning New Zealand's policy change and the direction of our culture is the story. In my lecture today, whilst I was primarily talking about public policy changes, I spent maybe about a third of my time reflecting on what is the current dominant story in New Zealand culture. It is the story of individualism. I see that story unraveling, and that unraveling that gives me hope. If I look at indicators in terms of legislative change, even the majority of policy directions and social statistics, I really shouldn't have much basis for hope. But it's the (changing) story that is persuading the next generation coming through—particularly those in their late teens and through their twenties. I see the existing story now being sufficiently critiqued—not by the majority of people, but by enough people to suggest to me that there is the alternative to put a different narrative there. And it's upon that narrative that I think we can develop a culture, and form a society, that twenty years from now could look very different from the one that we have presently.
Cardus: What did you mean by saying that we currently do things on the basis of experience rather than fact?
GF: Well, there are many definitions of postmodernism. Postmodernism is itself probably an over-used, almost perhaps past its use-by date, but it's still a useful term in describing at least where New Zealand culture is at.
I've often heard postmodernism described as the ability to hold two contrary thoughts simultaneously in your head and not have a problem with it. I think that does sum up where the average New Zealander is at. So we can literally be doing something harmful and be convinced by statistics that show it is harmful, yet still choose to pursue the harmful course of action. And in doing so, we don't see ourselves as being irresponsible. Rather, we see ourselves as being so liberated, and so much the master of our own destinies, that we genuinely believe that our experience can trump the research, the data, the facts.
Cardus: How did we develop this belief that we can stop and start and re-mix our lives like a recording or a video oblivious to there being a real world in which we must live?
GF: Obviously, the genesis of that belief goes back many hundreds of years to incredibly influential philosophers, but I think more recently, as recently as the last quarter of a century, that idea's been picked up and amplified back to us by the greatest shapers of culture: advertisers. If you really want to hear the ideas that are most influential in culture, you listen to the advertisers. And, of course, the corollary is that the advertisers show you what they are hearing as well, which of course is how culture itself is created. Like anybody who continues to inhale their own vapors, in the end, they define their own reality. You've got these ideas that have been coming through centuries now, which is increasingly saying to us, "No, you're not part of any grand, over-arching story; no, there is nothing to constrain you, you can be master of your own destiny." You've got this idea lurking away there, and then in the last twenty or thirty years, you've got a culture that is increasingly defined by its mass media, by its advertising, by its increasing consumerist retailer world, picking up this undercurrent, amplifying back it to us in order to sell us products, and us inhaling that story. From that story, we develop our own identity, and then bingo, we've got a new story to live by.
Cardus: You tell the story of your own sister seeking solutions to problems that came into her life and encountering a bureaucracy that was structured to encourage fragmentation and departure as opposed to continuity. Can you talk a little bit about that?
GF: My sister, encountering some real difficulties in her first marriage, went to our local welfare office seeking some financial assistance. She was certainly given that but she was also given the promise of hope, and the hope was to be found in the fact that they were going to provide her with sufficient financial assistance such that she would be able to leave this marriage, which they saw as being the root of her unhappiness. And they were motivated by what they would have described as compassion. They saw the way that they were being compassionate was to liberate her from the oppressive and destructive nature of this marriage. It was neither oppressive nor destructive, but in terms of both giving her that assistance and the context of that mini-narrative, she went away and practiced that separation because she received more assistance on the condition that her then-husband wasn't living in the family home. Money was a stress for them, so the financial incentive was a good one and it prompted them to try separation, even though it hadn't been on the cards. It ultimately contributed to—by no means was it the sole reason for—the permanent divorce that took effect. At Maxim Institute, our mission is to foster the ideas and leadership for a more free, just, and compassionate society. They are terms that appeal to everyone because they are three beautiful and absolutely pivotal attributes of a healthy society. But what we mean by freedom, by justice, by compassion, now that's a whole different story. The welfare officers genuinely believed they were being compassionate by offering her freedom, as they understood freedom to be. But because the welfare officers understanding of both compassion and freedom were, I would argue, flawed, they ended up providing her with a toxin rather than real help.
Cardus: Maxim was plunged into the effort to prevent prostitution being legalized in New Zealand. Is that another example of trying to get people to see freedom, justice, and compassion from a less flawed perspective?
GF: Yeah, and dramatically unsuccessfully one, too [laughs]. I often go back and revisit in my mind how we engaged and how we could have done it more helpfully because we were quite effectively painted, by those supporters of decriminalization, as just being moral wowsers. The worst charge of all was that we were just Christians who were informed by a framework that was irrelevant to the 21st century. I don't know whether as an organization we were too young to adequately respond to those charges or whether the social context guaranteed the story was going to end that way anyway. But I would like to think that the next time a debate like that comes around, we might be able to keep the ground or to have that debate on ground that is more squarely around the nature of the human person rather than being fought on the ground of "pelvic politics."
Cardus: As you know, Canadians are headed down the same road regarding legalizing prostitution. What should we be careful of? What are the things that we should be emphasizing?
GF: I certainly couldn't advise you on how to do it because, as I say, we tried to do it and failed spectacularly. But if there is any way at all that you can keep the debate around the nature of what it means to be human, rather than solely about the nature of prostitution. You're going to have to unpack what prostitution is, and unpack what its inherently harmful effects are, but that always needs to be coupled with, or perhaps built upon, the nature of actually what it means to be human. The problem is that our debate was constantly reduced to nothing more than choice—it's the choice of the woman to do this. We did try hard to say "no, this isn't a choice," and we formed a really good working relationship with a strong feminist group who didn't like a lot of our other work as a public policy group, but they really appreciated our work on this one. And they provided us with no end of evidence around the first-hand work, the research that they had done, and just how harmful this was to women and how few women who were in there actually had choices. The argument was constantly put back onto the fact that this was just a difference in morality, and that we were trying to impose our morality on them. Maybe, on reflection, we didn't keep the ground firmly enough around the bigger story of what it means to be human and the very nature of freedom itself. Maybe we inadvertently allowed ourselves to be sucked back into this ground of "that's what you think, but this is what I think." I do think avoiding that is the only way that you'll actually make ground and be able to make a useful contribution to this debate.
Cardus: You talked about the power of story, in particular your optimism in New Zealand about alternative narratives that you see as points of hope in the younger people, in the Maori and so. What do you do to fund an alternative narrative in your organization that you use to approach public policy that's different than just what's out there and in the ether?
GF: We begin with relationships. For us the ultimate foundation, the ultimate base, the ultimate currency is that of relationships. We view everything through the lens of, if you're looking at a policy, will this encourage and foster healthy, vibrant, sustaining relationships? It's not the only lens, obviously there are other facts that have to come into play, but without a doubt that is one part for us. Our indigenous Maori culture understands this better than most. And so do a lot of young people who are sick of the myths of individualism.
Cardus: You mentioned some of your core tenets being justice, compassion, and freedom. How do you explain those terms when you get into a public arena? When someone asks you: "You say this is justice, but what do you mean by that?" What's the kind of language that they use? Is there are transcendent language? How do you work that divide?
GF: The audiences we're speaking to are varied, so the answer is very much context-specific. I do the majority of my public speaking with high-school and University age students, and so on that one we tend to go straight back to examples. For example, one of the things I'll often do if, I'm speaking to older high-school students, is put up a picture of. There's one great image in particular that a colleague of mine gave me, and it's taken in India. It's of a man in a lovely suit and he's walking away and he's got a briefcase. He's just walked past a beggar. Rather than doing abstract explanations of libertarianism and Marxism, we ask what the students think has just happened in the pictures. What do they think has been the response of this man to this beggar, and why? We begin with that and then work backwards to reveal to students what their story and what their assumptions are saying about the nature of freedom, about the nature of justice and about the nature of compassion. Invariably they will start talking, they can't help themselves, talking about why people are in that situation. The libertarian will say, "Well, it's because one man has made better choices than the other." And the hard-out socialist will say, "Well, it's because the beggar has been oppressed and his share of the fixed pie has been taken by the man in the suit." And in that way we start to work back and ask what those terms might mean as opposed to abstract lectures. When I'm speaking with MPs, ironically, sometimes I need to make it simpler than with high school students.
More often than not, it's because they won't take the time to process. They're like, "Look, I've got five minutes until I need to be in the House, can you . . . convince me, or let's move on?" Which, interestingly, has increasingly convinced me that the best audience to be working with is young people. The reality of it is that most times people who have gotten into office or power have already, at least subconsciously, made up their mind about what they think.
Cardus: They've absorbed the story.
GF: And you're not going to unpack it to them in five minutes. You're not. When I think about my own journey, about how much my own political framework has changed in the last nine years, I've got to be fair to them and say, if it takes that long to convince them, they're not even going to be in office any longer by the time I've convinced them. So I'm better to try and work out who is going to listen, and start a decent conversation with that person.
Cardus: You seem very intent on moving the institute away from the policy type casting that allows those who disagree with you to dismiss you by placing a label on you.
GF: That's certainly what we're attempting to do. I mean, our early years at Maxim we were very much defined as being right-wing conservatives. In the end, you're unavoidably labeled by the topics that you take on. I wonder how different the last nine and a half years may have been for us if prostitution and civil unions hadn't both hit the agenda just as we arrived as an organization. None of our work is actually in those areas now. So I'm pleased in the last two or three years with the relationships that we've been able to build genuinely across the spectrum. I mean, the most left-wing party in New Zealand is the Green Party, and one of their senior policy guys and the principal advisor to the leader of their party, is a very good friend of mine. I've gone through University with [him], and on occasions we've been known to go to evensong together at 5 o'clock, and then at 6 o'clock to be found at the local pub disagreeing on everything.
PS: The challenge is to keep ourselves open to the truth in others without losing our own core beliefs . . .
GF: Absolutely. And to do so is very, very difficult. New Zealand is no different to North America in this regard. We live life at such a pace, with so much noise. I'm so aware of this. I hop in my car and within thirty seconds I've either got my speakerphone on or I've got the radio on. When I get up in the morning, I get up and I just can't resist checking, have I got a text, I'll check my email. Increasingly, it's this pace and so to try and create this space, to be silent and still. It's just as important as ever, but I would argue that it's increasingly difficult. It's one of the reasons I've just about finished negotiating with my board to have nine months' leave next year. So it's going to be the first time in ten years—it will be over ten years by that stage—that I have stopped. That's literally what I want to do. I want to go and take my family somewhere, sit in a house somewhere and do a directed reading program, and obviously be involved in conversation around that reading. But my primary motivation for it is to actually create that extended space to think, and I'm really hoping that out of that time I'll be able to create a new discipline. Without it, I think it's very difficult to be able to engage in any meaningful critique.