Sunday, 28 February 2016

Whoever the “naked judge” is, I support him

I’m a nudist. It’s not something I’ve made much of on this blog, though I do mention it from time to time. But I am. If you see me with clothes on, it means I’ve made a compromise with either you or the weather today. I have very little liberty, most of the time, to live the way I would prefer. Even in my own house I have to hang net curtains in the windows if I don’t want complaints from the neighbours.

At least one other person in this country who shares my preference in this matter is a District Court judge. All I know about him beyond that is that he’s male and that he frequents the Pineglades Naturist Club near Christchurch, because those are the only personal details given in this Herald article.

Someone took a photo of this judge at Pineglades. Someone uploaded the photo to Pineglades’ website, apparently without his knowledge although he had given them written consent to use the photo – I’m not sure how that works but it isn’t the point. Someone else saw the photo and laid a complaint against the judge.

The Herald is keeping quiet about the identity of both the judge and the complainant, but the wording they report is suspiciously close to Rodney Hide’s opinion piece on the matter. Hide used to be the Parliamentary leader of the Act Party, who present themselves as champions of personal liberty. Of course in practice what they champion is personal liberty for rich white men, but judges tend to be those, so Hide’s hypocrisy demands further explanation.

Hide opens with the concession that nudists ought to be free to do as we wish as long as we do so in private on our own private property. But if you’re a judge, he says, you mustn’t appear in photos practising nudism. If you do that, you can’t do your job any more.

How... does he sit in judgement on sex cases, public indecency charges, or rule on the acceptability of pornography to minors?
To make a concrete example: how can he preside in judgement over a man accused of exposing himself to children?
Isn’t that exactly what he has done?

Um... no. No it isn’t. But this is a typical New Zealand attitude. We like to think we’re easy-going, tolerant, unprejudiced folks who accept people’s differences, who live and let live. We’re not.

I used to edit the Otago Polytechnic student monthly Gyro, and to fill our back page we would go out at lunch-time and ask five students five questions each. One time we ran a Food Issue and I asked “What do you serve vegan dinner guests?” Three of the five replied “Meat.” (The male three. Just saying.)

I get the pointy end of this mindset regularly. Even with clothes on, I’m funny-looking. I choose a look that says “I’m eccentric on purpose” because with my mental disability the alternative is “I don’t know how to society”. And many, many passers-by in town feel the need to tell me how funny-looking I am. I don’t go out on Friday nights any more.

I’m sure New Zealand isn’t the only place where this happens; I do know it doesn’t happen in Japan. I must have looked at least as strange to the Japanese people, during my visit there last year, as I do to New Zealanders. Twice, people wanted their photos taken with me. But no-one in all the crowds yelled out anything insulting. Ever.

No, I don’t think that was because I was only there for three weeks. Flamboyantly counter-cultural outfits are a common sight in Japan. And flamboyantly pro-cultural ones, as well. In my short visit I saw more traditional kimono on the street than you would see kilts on men (not counting pipe band uniforms) in ten years in New Zealand’s Scottish-heritage capital, Dunedin.

Which came as a bit of a surprise. Before I went to Japan I had the impression that their ethos of politeness and self-restraint would curtail self-expression, whereas here in New Zealand we have the freedom to speak our minds and be honest. If anything, it’s the opposite. Courtesy is liberating; bluntness enforces conformity.

To the specific issue of nudity. Yes, if Pineglades was using the judge’s photo without his knowledge, that’s a problem. But Hide’s attitude – and the complainant’s attitude, assuming they’re two different people – is in my opinion a bigger problem. Or a symptom of a bigger problem, which pervades the West and which New Zealand is not free of.

The children’s anime movie The Princess Kaguya is rated PG in New Zealand for “violence and nudity”. What on Earth are violence and nudity doing in the Family section of the DVD store? Well, the “violence” occurs when a character gets roughed up by some guards, so fair enough. The “nudity”? Two breast-feeding shots and some children swimming in a river. I find it disturbing that someone found that disturbing.

Do nudists “expose themselves”, as Hide puts it? Not according to the New Zealand statute books. Indecent exposure is defined in the Crimes Act as displaying one’s genitals “deliberately and obscenely”. Now, every word in a statute is there to do work; that it specifies “obscenely” implies that it must be possible to display one’s genitals deliberately but not obscenely, in which case one would not be breaking the law.

(In case you’re wondering, no, neither this statute nor any other in New Zealand law says anything about breasts. The arresting charge in that sort of case would be something like “offensive behaviour” or “breach of peace”, from the Summary Offences Act; these basically amount to “bothering a police officer”.)

Don’t get me wrong. Indecent exposure is a real thing. Men sometimes deliberately draw attention to their penises. If this is intended to get women interested, it doesn’t work. It says loud and clear “Your comfort takes second place to my sexual self-expression,” which makes it effectively a threat of rape. I don’t know whether the “obscenely” part of the statute has been tested in court, but if I were a judge that’s how I would interpret it.

But that’s not the same thing as one’s genitals merely being visible. Consider another part of the human body: the hand. The hand, as a fist, is a weapon of assault, and therefore also a potent threat. We would condemn someone who threatened a child with a raised fist. Yet we have no trouble distinguishing between a threatening fist and an ordinary uncovered hand.

Yes, I know, I know. When something is completely hidden, all the time, uncovering it brings instant attention. Nudity becomes indecent exposure through unfamiliarity. People see the genitals and nothing else. It can’t be a primal, animal reaction, since our animal ancestors were naked; but it feels like one. We nudists have freed ourselves from the revulsion by reading bodies in a different light. But we’re aware every minute of every muggy summer day that most people haven’t.

I can hear the Herald commenters already. Some body parts just are sexual, and anyone claiming they aren’t is a pervert; and some body parts just aren’t sexual, and anyone claiming they are is a fundamentalist. Yeah? Skim through photos of other cultures some time, including our own a few generations back. How fortunate we are to live in the one culture in all the history of the world that’s got the pervert-fundamentalist balance exactly right!

This isn’t intended as a demand to be allowed to go about my daily business in a state I find comfortable. I know how strong the barriers are. But Pineglades is a nudist club. It’s supposed to be a place where those barriers come down. We can’t exactly help it if the outside world first forces us to put up two-metre fences and then does everything it can to peer through them. Whoever the “naked judge” is, he’s not to be faulted for going nude at a nudist resort. I support him.

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