Things not to post on Facebook: Part 34,683

Okay, so I just picked that number out of the sky.

Five high school students (from my old high school) have caused a minor scandal after they were found to have posed with the swastika and other various Nazi regalia during a school trip to the Auckland War Memorial Museum. According to media reports, this included ‘kissing a swastika, making a Nazi salute and kneeling in homage before a flag.’ (This news comes a month after it was reported that first year university students decided that to have an Oktoberfest party with some students dressed as Nazis and others as concentration camp prisoners.) The boys involved in the current incident have now been back to the Museum and apologised in person to staff and war veterans.

The incident actually occurred earlier in the year, but came to the attention of the school recently after the pictures were posted and seen by a former student on Facebook (not me in case you are wondering – I am useless on Facebook). Whereas in the past one might have called up one’s mates and told them about pictures of such tasteless and offensive acts, the age of digital cameras, wifi and social networking means that the pictures themselves can be there for the world to see.

Now, the New Zealand Herald wonders breathlessly, ‘What history should schools be teaching our students?’ (I like history, so super-deluxe with extra cheese.) But seriously, I hope this is just a case of historical ignorance about World War II, Nazis and the Holocaust. In any case, I imagine the five boys concerned will have learnt about, if nothing else, the perils of Facebook.

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2 Responses

  1. Simon Wang says:

    The Nazi Flag Incident and the Overstepping of Moral Boundaries by AGS and the NZ Public-A Riposte to John Ip.

    Above are the views by my Law 121G professor from UoA, who directs his regret over “the state of historical ignorance” in New Zealand education and seeks to put the “onus of shame” on the students for worshipping the Nazi flag. But is history so simple, and does the general public have a right to demand censorship and physical/academic sanctions on students who have only performed a symbolic ritual which did not have concrete effects on society? Furthermore, does the fact that something offensive can been seen on facebook constitute a right for it to be pulled down, and did the Nazi Flag Incident violate law?

    At the risk of my Law121G grades going south, I must stand up for my side of the issue, which was promptly ignored, unrefuted, and drowned by rhetoric by Professor Ip’s side during the great debate in NZ herald forums back in the days of the Nazi flag incident. I trust Mr Ip’s integrity in leaving his full name on that post, and I optimistically hope for the same integrity to be applied to my Law121G test and exam. However, back to the topic, once we move to the defining aspects of the issue, it becomes clear which side really needs a history lesson, and which side needs a lesson on Facebook.

    1) Mr Ip’s polemic about “ignorance of history” is entirely irrelevant to whether those students have a right to worship the Nazi flag. By the strictest standards, the Nazi flag was a sign of peace before Hitler’s rise. Hitler’s use of the flag’s image does not override the original symbolism of the flag itself, and therefore from a strict historical basis, it cannot be charged as a sign of offence to worship that flag as Hitler’s actions had no right to take a pre-existing symbol of others’ design and representation.

    2) It is nice of Mr Ip to mention the Holocaust, but what about the British Empire having killed, plundered, and raped thus far that “the sun never sets”? What about the America’s Guantemalo atrocities, torture Iraq, Vietnam, Afghanistan, plundering Arabs’ oil, biological testing and chemtrail poisoning on unsuspecting civilians over the past two centuries? What about Japan, holding Okinawa hostage after invading the nation in the late 1800s? How about India, raping and killing in Kashmir, where there is a 2:1 soldier:civilian ratio? If students are to be denied their rights to worship the Nazi flag under the name of international and inter-racial atrocities, why can all these other flags be worshipped? It can be argued that America and Britain were not completely evil, but neither is the Nazi regime. The economy actually improved drastically under Hitler, prior to the war, and although Germany has an obligation to apologize to the Jews, WWII with New Zealand is based on a simple chain of international incidents atarting with that famous assassination, during which all sides got pulled in. Nazis do owe something to the Jews, but I don’t know how this translates to a direct offence to New Zealand, even as Ip’s side likes to repeat “NZ veterans fought with them”. New Zealand’s involvement in the war has nothing to do with the Nazi’s treatment of Jews in the first place, especially when prison camps were mostly discovered near the very end of the war. So how could the students’ actions have posed a direct insult to New Zealand war veterans, when New Zealand did not join the war because of the Jews in the first place? Despite that being the case, Auckland Grammar stepped out of their moral boundaries to make the students apologize to the war veterans, and even the museum staff (one begins to wonder what the staff has to do with this incident). Moreover, if we talk about atrocities, the consensus among historians was that the Allied forces committed far more atrocities under WWII than German troops. While Ip’s side drones on about the murder of 6 million Jews, Americans starved 12 million Germans to death-mind you-just the numbers starved to death-by looting alone. The American troops were estimated to have committed 5 times as many rapes as Germany, and Soviet Russia around 10. Neither is Germany’s authoritarian government an excuse to rule out the Nazi flag for a ban of worship, while all these other flags can be worshipped. Nobody was free in those days, whether “authoritarian” or not. McArthur carried out his own mini-Holocaust of unarmed Communists in America (out of which China traded a spy for the scientist Qian Xue Sen), and Churchill lighted up a city to distract the enemy bombers from the Capital, forcing huge numbers of civilians into unwarranted death. NZ has still not given back Maori land they robbed in the land wars, despite the Treaty of Waitangi and generations of government electives promising “the return of more Maori assets”. Should we ban the NZ flag from being subject to worship as well? Oh hold on, what about places in Africa, whose governments leave a hideous mark in the corruption index and yet pester the whole world for AID every single year? Why can’t we do something about Japanese students worshipping the Japanese flag, say, when Yoshihiko Noda goes into the Yakusuni Shrine to visit hundreds of Class A war criminals of WWII? Why single out the Nazi flag as unfit for worship? Where is the objective boundary between “fit for worship” and “unfit for worship”? That is my challenge to Mr Ip.

    3) Mr Ip stipulates that “posts on facebook are there for the world to see” and thus implicitly suggests that the students hold liability for posting the video on Facebook. We can instantly rule out legal charges of treason or defamation as no police were involved in this case, so we can safely conclude that the incident is not a legal matter. But morally? Where does the evidence point? The fact that facebook can be SEEN by the public does not override the fact that posts are made on students’ own walls, and that they have not been spamming non-stop on others’ walls, nor have forced any of the public to see it. Here we see Mr Ip’s confusing case that potential for public exposure warrants posters’ obligations to suit the public’s taste. But that is definitely not true. Obligations are defined by ownership of a space-facebook wall in this incident-and legal usage of that space-which constitute rights. The fact that usage of space offends people who gaze upon it is irrelevant to whether an owner of a space has right to exercise legal activity on that space. I’ll take a 2011 case from a court in China for example. Chinese apartments are very close to each other (also having numerous windows), and one apartment owner was particularly fed up about a neighbour walking around naked in her apartment next door. The former brought the latter to court, and claimed that the latter “violated common decency and common etiquette, and if this occurred on the streets she would have been arrested”. The Court refused the accuser on the basis that while it is inconsiderate for the woman to be walking around naked in her own house, exposure of this scene to other apartments does not constitute a right for others to stop her from legitimate actions in areas of her own ownership. This analogy provides a perfect link to the facebook incident. While the men may be advised to be careful for the sake of career aspects and vitriol and negative attention that might be thrown on them, there is no legal nor moral justification of them having to take liability for the video, IF the basis of accusation is merely that there posts are exposed to the public. While the public might unwillingly come across these posts, it is not the onus of the students to pull it down.

    4) The critical point of importance to note down here is that had it not been for Auckland Grammar School, no authority would have been able to bring punishments and forced apologies from the students. I.e. Had the students been homeschooled they might have been called distasteful and disgusting, but definitely not subject to punitive action from any established authority. So the core of this debate lies mostly in the question “Does Auckland Grammar have authority to do what it did?”. Nominally, those students are representatives of Auckland Grammar because they are students of Auckland Grammar on a school trip. But morally, that claim is very dubious. I have spent my whole life questioning “Why is it that schools, which are service industries, have the right to make their customers representatives of them? Why is it the only service industry able to claim the onus of representation on its customers?”. Every single economist, historian, and academic from whom I have enquired have so far not uttered a single valid response to my question. Moreover, even if we just suppose such representative burdens are morally acceptable when agreed voluntarily upon both parties, what makes anyone think that students voluntarily agreed to such terms of representation? The government forces students at this age to go to school. The public schools automatically deem students to be “representatives of their image” on such trips, and history classes make these trips compulsory. As we can see from the chain of forced contracts, the majority of normal students have not a single opportunity to oppose the bizarre concept of being forced into “representation of the school”, lest they violate truancy laws altogether or be forced to fend for themselves on the streets.

  2. Daiwen says:

    Nice review Simon. You’ve consistently pointed out points on our side that Ip’s side insist on ignoring.

    The key problem, is NOT, as Ip says “I hope students will learn something about the perils of facebook”. The key problem, is INSTEAD, “students should be aware of power-grabbing authorities acting outside its moral bounds to inflict concrete punishments on those who expose a symbolic ritual posted on their own internet space.”

    The right of free speech cannot be refused on the basis of the imaginary slogan “abuse of rights”. A right is inherently defined as a course of action or state of being that is indisputedly available to its beholder, and which is not subject to external interference, irrespective of its consequences. If things were justified respective of their consequences, they aren’t rights in the first place. They’re simply discretionary actions in that case. Therefore by definition, you cannot have an “abuse of rights”.

    Furthermore, Simon’s commentary that the Nazis are not indebted to New Zealand is of critical relevance. Even without reference to the fact that it is the boys’ own walls that they are posting on, why should the boys be made to apologize to NZ war veterans and museum staff? NZ’s involvement in WWII had nothing to do with Jewish persecution, which is why the Nazis were hated for in the first place. So why do the boys have to apologize to NZ’s war veterans? Moreover, how does the museum staff have such a degree of vested interest in this incident, that the boys had to apologize even to them?

    Yes, it’s a demonstration of a sick sense of humour. Yes, it may be foolish, stupid, arrogant, idiotic, nonsensical and certainly not very clear-minded. But it’s about time internet Nazis like Ip realized that rights exist irrespective of the moral motivations of the user who invokes them.

    The right questions to ask are, is Nazi worship being singled out as the only punished category among international offences? Yes.

    Is it the students’ own pages and walls that they are posting on? Yes. Indeed, it can be SEEN by others. But it is not the students’ onus to protect public taste, it is the public’s onus to ignore things they may not like to see.

    Does schools have a moral case for binding students as “representatives” given students are forced to go on the field trips and forced to go to school by law in the first place? No.

    But the critical question is, what right did Auckland Grammar have to punish them?

    And the answer is, face it, they didn’t.