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When close-knit equals close-mouthed

Most readers will be familiar with the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept.

In essence, it’s a theory that posits any person on the planet can be connected to any other person on the planet through a chain of acquaintances that has no more than five intermediaries.

The idea was given its first airing in a short story published in 1929, and widely popularised by a 1993 film adaptation of a 1990 play called Six Degrees of Separation.

Although there doesn’t appear to have been any robust research that emphatically proves the theory, it’s certainly got a ring of truthiness to it – and if it wasn’t true prior to the advent of internet-enabled social networks, odds on it is now.

In New Zealand it’s a commonly held belief that there’s just two degrees of separation between Kiwis, and that, too, seems about right – three tops, surely? [An experiment in 2018 in which school kids were given the challenge of getting a letter hand-delivered to then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern using only personal contacts certainly indicated we need far fewer than six steps.]

Being such a closely connected population appears to have given rise to the idea that if anything dodgy were going on within New Zealand, we’d all know about it sooner rather than later.

I’d suggest, however, that it more often cuts the other way. Our stifling closeness with the other inhabitants of these shaky isles arguably means that privacy is more closely guarded than in larger places, while a certain wilful blindness is often adopted by those who pick up intimations of something untoward going on but don’t wish to have their suspicions confirmed.

Because, let’s face it, many Kiwis don’t appear to appreciate a tattletale, even if their account is accurate. People who poke their head above the parapet are apt to get it [metaphorically, mostly] shot off.

This was brought home to me some years ago when a senior employment lawyer told me how he spends a significant amount of his working day trying to convince potential clients not to take a case against their employers, even if the likelihood of success is approaching 100 per cent.

Why? Because speaking out of class is the cardinal sin in this country and, as such, even clients who are vindicated by the employment court are unlikely to ever get work in the same sector in New Zealand again.

Telling an inconvenient truth will often result in being labelled a troublemaker; those who rock the boat are more likely to find themselves bobbing like a cork in the ocean than celebrated for speaking out.

But perhaps there’s reason to hope that’s changing, prompted by a couple of recent news items regarding people in positions of power whose predatory behaviour has been held to account thanks to their victims being brave enough to call them out.

Both prominent businessman and art patron Sir James Wallace and teacher Connor Taurapa Matthews were found guilty of sexual misconduct as a result of victims who heroically refused to be silenced.

One can only hope that more New Zealanders are inspired to have the courage of their convictions, about all manner of things. Because if it remains cloaked, it can’t be fixed.

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