Thursday, August 11, 2022

No lessons in shaming and bullying farmers

Who am I? Kathryn Wright is a Southland-based counsellor specialising in working with rural people. She is married to a Te Anau farmer.
Southland counsellor Kathry Wright says the erosion of rural communities due to forestation is creating an environment where social connections are being lost.

Somewhere, beneath the hyperbole, there had to be a human.

Usually, in all disagreements and misunderstandings there are two factors at play – the issues and how the issues are being dealt with.

And in the very pertinent issue of our environment and how some environmental activists are presenting some southern farms, it is most certainly the latter. 

No one is disputing that the health of our land and water holds great importance, well, certainly not anyone that I know. 

Like many a disagreement gone before me, rather it is how the issue is being played out.

I’m a mental health professional that works with almost exclusively rural people. 

I am currently doing research on the mental health of young rural men, however, all matters pertaining to rural mental health are of interest to me, and I will strongly advocate where there is social and individual harm occurring in this sector.

This is why, when I saw the latest Facebook post from an NZ-based environmental activist, something snapped within me. 

These activists covertly photograph Southland farms that they perceive to be flouting restrictions and harming the environment. 

I am not a farming or environmental expert, so I cannot comment on those particular matters, but I do understand mental health and I do understand rural people. 

I also know a fair bit about how people learn and how they are affected by bullying and shame.

Hypothetical question: Imagine for a moment that your community has a gambling problem. 

So, to address this problem, a group of photographers were hired to covertly photograph these people sitting at the pokies, draining their money away. Then, the photos were posted all over social media, with thousands of horrified followers slandering and shaming them. 

The people who were photographed are harassed for weeks or months, and their mental health suffers substantially. 

All this, to get people to stop gambling. 

Will this solve the gambling problem? 

The answer is of course no – humans do not learn through bullying and shaming, they learn through support, example and education.

Social media is a double-edged sword. 

It connects people like never before – (almost) everyone is available for instant contact at the touch or swipe of a button. 

This can be a light in endless darkness for some, or an allocation of misery for others. 

Photos shown on social media are literally a snapshot of a moment in time. 

And in that moment of time, people will often believe without question that what they see is legitimate, without any context. 

What represents that moment in time for some, equates to weeks, months or even years of investigation, suspicion and hardship for the farms that are held up as an example in those photos. 

This creates untold grief for them, but even for other southern farmers, there exists a constant feeling of needing to be on guard, looking over their shoulder and a sensation of a loss of control because those moments in time are seldom the whole story.

Every farmer is fair game.

Experiencing a feeling of constant surveillance damages the social fabric of affected societies. 

It affects the way that people think and act and alters their perception of who to trust. 

Constantly living in fear of defamation and public shaming is damaging to mental health and will promote anxiety, depression and a multitude of other mental health conditions that will flow on to affect relationships, families and wider communities.

Poor mental health exists in spades within the rural communities of New Zealand – agricultural workers are more than twice as susceptible to suicide than their urban counterparts. 

There are stratified reasons for this and these explanations are changing over time. 

Currently, through my research, governmental pressures around new regulations that are moving too fast – along with a growing national perception that agriculture is to blame for all of this country’s environmental woes, are coming through as reasons that agricultural workers feel maligned and unappreciated. 

Of course, this is a little like the entire school getting held back for detention when that one naughty kid throws their sandwich at the teacher.

I know of individuals and families that have been torn to pieces when these photos have been published – photos that never seem to tell the entire story. 

It might seem incredulous to some, but those farms have real people, families, livelihoods and in many cases, bank managers behind them that exist on the turn of a dime. 

There appears to be no consideration of this when those photos are witnessed by urban-dwelling, farmed-food consuming individuals whom to them, the farmers are nothing but faceless, heartless environmental slayers.

Contrary to this, many farmers love the land and take kaitiakitanga (guardianship of the land) very seriously. 

Yes, some need to do better, but again, bullying and shaming is never the way.

What if, instead of using bullying, shaming and trespassing on peoples’ land, these activists used their above-average photography skills to showcase the many good examples of farming we have here in NZ? 

Regenerative, organic and conscious farming methods exist everywhere if you look. 

Hold them up as examples and mentors – show them a better way. 

I’m sure their financial backers are rational, empathetic human beings that would see the logical side of this and will also understand the human cost of the current bullying tactics. 

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