National’s Taieri candidate Stephen Jack posted a sexist joke on Facebook.
Alison Mau is a senior writer at Stuff, and editor of the #MeTooNZ project.
OPINION: I’ve recently accepted that no-one cares that they’re mispronouncing the word mischievous. This was big for me; the extra “ee” so often slipped in there to make ‘mis-chee-vee-ous’, really grinds my gears.
It’s a hill I used to think I was prepared to die on – you may laugh, but in the household where I grew up, words were not just important, they were critical. Ending a sentence with a preposition was, well, preposterous (borrowing from Churchill, my dad would cry ‘this is an outrage upwith which I will not put!’ while waving my latest school essay in the air).
But language is not static, and it changes. I am mellowing enough to accept that. What I won’t accept is the premise that words mean nothing at all – or that you may pick and choose and change their meaning just to suit yourself. Which is what ex-National Party candidate Stephen Jack did this week.
* Poem shared by National candidate ‘disgusting’, disrespectful to Ardern, MPs say
* ‘Crass’ post about young women doesn’t reflect National’s candidate vetting – Luxon
* How an offensive joke reveals a problem with how National chooses its MPs
Jack has lost his candidacy after Stuff journalist Andrea Vance, on this website last Sunday, revealed he’d shared a disgusting sexualised joke on Facebook. He apologised to party leaders and clung to the candidacy, until another Facebook post – this time comparing former prime minister Jacinda Ardern to Hitler – emerged.
This column is not really about Stephen Jack; he’s resigned and is – realistically – unlikely to trouble the public discourse ever again. He also admitted the first post he shared on Facebook was offensive when questioned about it by Vance – that’s why he took it down.
It’s his subsequent backflip in a statement to media days afterwards that deserves examination, if only to ensure we can recognise it as the steaming pile of tripe it was, and do not fall for it from anyone else seeking to represent us at the highest public level.
The first phrase he misused is a favourite of those whose behaviour has fallen short of accepted standards – woke. I’d wager Jack does not know the etymology of the word nor its meaning, but it is a convenient one to chuck around when you’re under pressure.
Woke is a word from black culture, and many would argue white people have no business using it at all (cultural appropriation). Its origins date back to at least the 1960s and further; more recently it has been used by black musicians and in the #blacklivesmatter movement. In 2017 it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary with this definition: “Woke, adjective: Originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice; frequently in stay woke.”
Another accepted definition of woke, is “to be socially and politically aware”. Yet another is to be “open-minded”. Both of those things would be handy in any politician, you’d think.
But when Jack accused detractors of “woke stupidity”, he was painting them as pretentious or overly sensitive. As anti-racism commentator Dana Brownlee wrote in Forbes magazine in 2021, using woke in that manner gives the user an “ideological off ramp that shuts down any real listening, learning or self-reflection.”
Self-reflection, as evidenced by his statement, is not something Jack is likely to do, as it might shake the foundations of what he believes about himself.
The word woke has the same meaning it’s always had, but people like Jack use it to excuse their original behaviour and frame themselves as the victim. It, of course, does not let him off the hook; Jack does not want us to see him clearly for what he is, and yet we do.
He then hurls in another convenient phrase (like so many cherry tomatoes into a word salad) by claiming he has been the victim of a “character assassination”.
Because words matter, let’s look at that one, too. The Collins English Dictionary defines it like this: “A character assassination is a deliberate attempt to destroy someone’s reputation, especially by criticising them in an unfair and dishonest way when they are not present.”
Not one moment of the Jack brouhaha matches that definition. The same applies to his claim of having been cancelled. As National Party deputy Nicola Willis said on RNZ on Friday, “He cancelled himself.”
Flailing against the media for simply doing their job (a job National Party candidate vetting should have done, but failed to do) is an attempted sleight of hand, and it hasn’t worked. Jack, and others who hope to represent New Zealanders in Parliament, might like to have a think about what the words they use, actually mean.
What do you think? Email Sundayletters@stuff.co.nz.