Healing after one of the country’s ‘darkest days’ and encouraging empathy on both sides

In this interview with trauma psychologist Paris Williams we discuss the political dangers of the moment, the importance of self-care and how New Zealand can rebuild social cohesion – particularly in light of the state violence that was visited on anti-mandate protesters at Parliament on 2 March.

Trauma psychologist Paris Williams says in order for social divisions to heal, everyone’s needs need to be heard and valued.

TLG: The events of Wednesday 2 March, when riot police violently broke up the freedom camp at Parliament, was a landmark event in New Zealand’s political history. Some have called it one of our darkest days. It was notable, because the Government had refused to enter into dialogue at any point – even when a mediator was offered up. Instead, the protesters were portrayed as right-wing extremists and ‘anti-vaxxers’. In light of this, what is your take on where we are currently at as a country?

PW: My sense is that there is a lot more sympathy than the mainstream media makes it sound like. But so many people are afraid to speak outwardly because they don’t want to be classified as ‘one of them’.

And what I’m trying to do, and you and others, the best we can do is put our necks out there and speak out and try to encourage empathy from both sides.

So, it’s kind of like a what we know about the slippery slope to totalitarianism, where you end up with typically a minority – but a significant minority – that gets completely lost in the propaganda of the state, they get sucked in by that. Then you get another similarly sized minority that is definitely not sucked in by that. And then you’ve got this majority in the middle that are on the fence but are too afraid to push against the power of the state and so they go along with things.

And that is my general impression of where we are at just from talking to people. We still have a significant number of people who are sympathetic to the protesters but who don’t have the courage for whatever reason, to put their voice out there.

A short documentary about the Freedom Convoy, and the state violence against them on 2 March 2022. ‘River of Filth’: The People’s Perspective Credit: Luke Reich

TLG: The divisions that were created through vaccine mandates and vaccine passes crystalised around support of and opposition to the protesters. How does this reflect on the state and its covid response?

PW: I specialise in conflict resolution and mediation. I draw a lot from non-violent communication and that kind of work. I’m familiar with what happens when people become polarised against one another and of course, how being in a threat response there is an increased tendency to polarise and create enemy images of one another. It closes down the capacity to have empathy for each other and hear each other, all those things that are so important to resolve conflict.

And so, we end up in this kind of spiral like we’re seeing now where we have this increasingly authoritarian regime using intimidation tactics, using censorship and basically blocking all the things that are required to resolve conflict, and even blowing on the embers that add to polarisation and fear. [The Government] is blocking dialogue, communication and understanding, and alternative perspectives.

It’s the same slippery slope we’ve seen time and time again over the last century. We are on the cusp, we haven’t quite fallen off the cliff yet. But we’re damn close, I’d say. And if it even gets much further, based on history I think we’re in for a really really rough ride.

One of the New Zealand Government’s covid propaganda messages, and a popular catchphrase associated with the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

TLG: From your perspective as a psychologist, how do the’ team of five million’ and ‘be kind’ slogans match up with hints from Government that vaccine passes and exclusions were to reward people for doing the ‘right thing’ and punish those who had not?

PW: It’s classic behavioural conditioning. It’s what you might do to a bunch of animals to try to condition them into certain behaviour – you use punishment and reward. That is basically what the policy has been. And of course, along a very particular agenda, which also requires censorship to avoid alternative perspectives.

And our leadership, the way I see it – and I don’t know for sure – but they either have to be extremely incompetent or extremely corrupt. Or maybe some combination of the two. It’s the only thing that makes sense to me when I look at the situation.

This is the worst thing you could possibly do to your society, it just creates such horrible ruptures and divisions and ultimately it’s moving towards an apartheid kind of system.

I did half of my dissertation on corruption within the pharmaceutical industry. What became really clear when I did the research [into the treatment of psychosis] was how they are willing to put profit about just above everything else. I’ve written a book on it.

And then they end up paying fines for fraud. They basically learned that they can do fraud, and nobody goes to prison and instead they just pay a fine and the fine is much less that the profit they made.

One of the things I learned is that the United States and New Zealand are basically the top two most corrupted – most influenced in the world by the pharmaceutical industry. With Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada being close behind. They are the only two countries that allow advertising of prescription drugs to the public.

An anti-mandate protester at camp freedom, which was on Parliament grounds for three weeks in February and early March.

TLG: How can we rebuild social cohesion?

PW: The simplest way to approach a mediation when you have conflict is by setting attachments aside for a moment and just hear each other’s needs. Obviously in this situation now, the biggest needs we’ve put on the table are safety, freedom and choice.

The protesters were saying they want autonomy, choice and freedom. And they’re wanting safety. Not wanting to be forced to put things in their body that don’t feel safe to them. And the pro-mandate side are afraid of the virus, they’re afraid of getting sick and they are wanting safety on their side.

You put everybody’s needs on the table and you work together to find a strategy where everybody’s needs can get met. What might that look like? Instead of picking sides, and saying ‘your needs are invalid’, everybody’s needs are valid. Now it becomes workable.

We use our own collective intelligence, which can be amazing when we open our hearts and minds, to come up with new strategies where everyone’s needs can get met, or at least met well enough. There is no perfect.

Credit: Bob Moran

TLG: On top of all the stress that the covid response has created, now we also have the stress of the Russian invasion of Ukraine to deal with. This is the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in the late 1960s that two nuclear powers – Russia and NATO – are coming into conflict, creating global instability and of course fear.

PW: Everything that is going on in the world is terrifying looking at it from a psychologist’s perspective. It’s exactly what leads to world wars. There seem to be a few people at the top slathering for a war with Russia.

And as soon as you start going into censorship – like getting rid of Russia Today* and other Russian information sources, then we are going in the opposite direction of social engagement and more into tribalism. The only way to come out of that is more dialogue, more willingness to listen.

TLG: And just as with covid, a sophisticated and comprehensive propaganda drive is playing a huge role. How do we centre and balance ourselves amidst it all, whether it’s covid or the dangers of war?

PW: We get into a totally different state when we are in the fear response, a more tribalised kind of place. It’s just how we’re wired. As soon as we feel threatened, we start to shift into ‘us vs them’. We become paranoid about ‘them’ and increasingly dogmatic about ‘us’. It becomes impossible to resolve the conflict until everyone’s nervous systems have been settled down.

A way to settle our nervous system and practice self-care is to focus on these things: Be mindful about food – what you are putting into your system – including drugs and alcohol. Get lots of rest and exercise. Do enjoyable activities regularly and enjoy healthy social connection.

A good approach instead of ‘vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate’ is that, basically. Teaching people about the importance of self-care.

I know it’s so complicated and we all imagine what we would do if we were in a leadership role. But as soon as covid came along, whatever you may believe about it, I would have used it as a really excellent opportunity to get everybody on board around self-care.

There is so much contradictory information about covid, the vaccines, this and that. But what we do know for sure is that if you focus on things like regular exercise, healthy relationships and good nutrition, that is the best way to reduce your risk for getting sick.

TLG: Do we need a new civil rights leader for the age? Like Ghandi, Martin Luther King or Mandela?

PW: Rather than a saviour, it’s going to take the courage to speak out.

In the past when we see these edgy territories where things could slide into totalitarianism, what happens is that it seems to almost come down to a percentage, can you get that middle 40-to-50% who are on the fence [to side with you]. Which side wins? The paranoia and brainwashing or is it the people calling for dialogue and compassion? If they can capture the hearts and minds of the middle, then that swings it.

* Russian news outlets RT and Sputnik International have been banned in the EU and the UK after the invasion of Ukraine. This has been called ‘a dangerous moment for journalism’, and has been criticised by the European Federation of Journalists as being counterproductive. The news outlets can still be accessed in New Zealand.

Paris Williams, PhD, has degrees in psychology and ecology and runs a psychology practice in Dunedin. He has strong interests in trauma and holistic wellness at both a personal and collective level, and is very concerned about escalating social inequalities and harm done to the Earth and its many ecosystems and species. He is the senior editor for CNCL’s blog. Find more of his articles/media here.

He has published articles about New Zealand’s covid response and its impact on civic life at The Brownstone Institute.

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