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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Walk on by? Māori and the “Compassion Gap”.

Most mornings I park my car at the Wellington Railway Station and briefly join the teeming masses heading into the CBD. Often I’ll walk by somewhat rumpled individuals sitting on the ground in the subway displaying hand-lettered cards asking for money. Often (not always) these individuals will be Māori. And every single time the same small war carries on in my head. My inner liberal asks: “how much can I spare today? Does she get any support from City Mission? How did she fall through the cracks?” My inner conservative asks ” If I give her any money will it go on food or alcohol? Did she bring this on herself? Why is she there? Where’s her whānau?” Often I don’t carry cash anyway, so the battle eventually abates and the parties evacuate my mind’s battlefield. If I do have cash I’ll usually give something, reserving one or two coins just in case I see someone else in the same position, or a charity seeking donations, on Lambton Quay later on. On a couple of occasions I have bought food and passed that on, rarely I’ll stop and talk to that person.  Usually I make a conscious effort not to avert my eyes. But once or twice I have taken a detour to avoid prompting my inner turmoil altogether. Once, at night, I saw an old man standing and berating a seated young woman and her nodding politely in response. I told him to leave her alone. He did. Only once he got his point across. Several times.

I don’t actually know what other people think when they walk the same route, and I can’t presume. What I do suspect is that my internal decision-making process, springing from my own personal discretion, and formed by my internal values, is not dissimilar to thousands of decisions being made all around the country by charity and government workers springing from their own official or informal discretion. Rules and regulations abound, but at the heart of government welfare and charities are individuals making discretionary choices: help or not? Deserving or not? Right or wrong?

Another factor in decision-making may well be the nature of the distance between the decision-maker/observer and the person asking for help. Received wisdom holds that we are more likely to extend compassion to those most like us. Sometimes evidence suggests the poor are more likely to give to the poor, than the rich are, for example; ( )
although I  dislike the counterproductive demonisation of wealthy people). Arguably it’s easier to feel empathy for those who somehow seem reachable across a divide. On the other hand, it might actually be easier to feel compassion for largely anonymous people half a world away, and have a picture of an African sponsored child on your fridge and walk past local supplicants every day (and yes, I speak from experience on that too).

An interesting tweet caught my eye the other day, from Sue Bradford. She was rueing the results of the Stuff/Ipsos Poll released on 20 June 2014 showing that over the course of the last two years increasing numbers of respondents have said they think New Zealand is heading in the “right” direction, while decreasing numbers thought us to be heading in the “wrong” direction. She tweeted;

This poll ‘63% think NZ on right track’ shows again the compassion-gap – for so many, homeless & poor don’t count  

This term ‘compassion gap’ is interesting. It has figured a bit lately in New Zealand and overseas on the Net largely in the wake of a recent New York Times opinion piece by

In that trailer in Appalachia, I don’t see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parent’s dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.  

In New Zealand this equivalent phenomenon can be easily seen, often with Māori faces providing an instantly recognisable target to illustrate the gap between those deserving of our compassion and those patently not. Cartoonist Al Nisbet captures (and many would say embodies) this understanding of Māori as the  main group in the gap. Remember this charmer?

Al Nisbet Cartoon


The notion of a compassion gap towards poor Māori (deserving or undeserving) is not difficult to grasp or see, particularly when it is fed by mainstream notions of Māori (and especially poor Māori) being an identifiable and passive group at the bottom of the statistical heap separated from ordinary New Zealand, without agency or variety (except for that distinction between deserving and undeserving, of course).

Yeah. Well. Real life isn’t really so neatly dualistic. I’m interested in how Māori also exercise personal and collective discretion in determining who to extend aid to, and who to refuse. As the Treaty settlement process rolls on and more iwi are exercising a higher degree of decision making in social programmes for Māori are there likely to be more instances brought to public attention of the fruits of such decisions? Another headline caught my eye, a couple of days after Sue Bradford’s aforementioned ‘compassion gap’ tweet: “Eviction painful but our right – marae”, a story about a Marae committee’s decision to evict an elderly couple from their kaumatua flat on the basis of the husband’s abusive behaviour:

I know way too little to critique the decision, but I am interested to see how this public narrative develops, as Māori are increasingly seen as the decision-makers who can give or withhold aid based on an exercise of discretion. Of course, Māori have always exercised some level of such decision-making within Māori social organisation and Māori entities, but the idea of the Māori ‘Brown table’, the Māori corporate elite separated off from ordinary Māori has really only emerged with the first major treaty settlements (to my understanding at least) in the late 1990s. The recent Tūhoe settlement includes a social services management plan whereby the iwi works in partnership with Crown agencies to deliver better social services to Ngāi Tūhoe. Interestingly, Tāmati Kruger made the following statement in April:

…under mana motuhake, the iwi plans to take responsibility for the estimated $9 million of benefit money distributed to Tuhoe annually. As part of the 40-year plan, the tribe will take state funding and use it change the dependency culture.

Kruger said: “We want to work with the Ministry of Social Development in utilising the $9 million of benefits to use some of that for job creation, and also changing a mindset in Tuhoe around being beneficiaries of the state.” 

In working with a system of individual entitlement based on stringent eligibility criteria (as the benefit system is) Tūhoe are going to be engaged in deciding, in some way at least, who are deserving and who are not. How those decisions will be made and how tikanga will feature will be interesting to learn.

If we are to accept the notion of a compassion gap, we ought to be alert to it wherever it occurs, or could occur, in all parts of our society, and not make easy presumptions as to who resides on each side of the gap. And that includes my own decision making on my own uncomfortable walk to work every morning.

BTW: I’d be interested in your thoughts: do you agree there is a compassion gap in our society (generally speaking? Among Māori?)? How do you make your decisions on whether or not to help people?

Why the Glenn Report makes me uneasy (but we need it anyway).

I read the Glenn Inquiry’s report (The People’s Report) yesterday, during the course of two or three hours (when rampaging offspring permitted).  I found myself feeling increasingly uneasy as I absorbed the material and reached the end of the report. As I cooked a very slapdash dinner I tried to work out the source of my unease. Was it the absolute lack of secondary material or relative lack of statistics supporting the material in the book? No. Not at all (once I got over my irredeemable pointy-headedness which has a tendency to bark: “What’s your evidence??” and “What about peer review?” at inopportune moments). Actually, those aspects were strengths. This report was largely what the Chairman (Bill Wilson QC) said it was:

…it has allowed so many victims and frontline workers to tell their stories in an unvarnished way. It gives them a genuine voice in exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the present system. The report does not dictate, rather it recites what those most affected by family violence say happened to them, what worked and what did not. 

There should be a place for unvarnished voices, however grating on the ear, to be heard, however discomfiting the message. 500 interviewees is not a large number of people given the thousands upon thousands of people involved with, and affected by, family violence and child abuse every year in New Zealand.  There are also obvious gaps in the kinds of voices included (as acknowledged in the report itself there is no focus on the voices of disabled New Zealanders), but nevertheless these are 500 people we would not have heard from without this report.

I was involved in a similar (albeit far more modest) process as a member of Welfare Justice, the alternative welfare working group commissioned by the Anglican Social Justice Commission, Caritas and the Beneficiary Advocacy Federation which operated in 2010-2011. Welfare Justice was set up to feed into the welfare reform process that was being dominated by the Welfare Working Group set up by Paula Bennett, which ultimately led to the welfare reforms of the past few years. We had  more than 400 people take part in our consultation process and we keenly felt the need to issue a separate report that would allow the observations of those groups and individuals to be heard on their own merits. Predictably enough much of what we heard focused on the perceived deficiencies and inequities of the welfare system, and gave people a real opportunity to tell us how things were for them.

This report is at: /

I do have faith in these kinds of mechanisms that feel democratic to me; because they encourage and provide for participation by ordinary people in a process of discussion and prioritisation of important ideas. We need more, not less of this kind of forum.

So a report reflecting ordinary voices in crisis and critique is welcome. Provided…ah. There’s the rub. There is a proviso in my endorsement of this kind of report. As I tried to articulate to myself why I struggled with the report it eventually became clear to me that the report purports to be more than it is. The report crosses some line from reflection of voices into direction on what form reform ought to take. I think this is too early.

The final section of the report (Taking Action) starts out OK, as it provides an account of suggestions made by interviewees and submitters as to how they would like things to change. The report states at the beginning of the section:

We have devised a set of suggestions based on the voices of the people who came forward to speak to the Inquiry. These suggestions are based on key issues that are complex and multilayered. They require substantial changes to societal, institutional and community perceptions, organisations and systems, and families. We suggest seven key issues for consideration that might help New Zealand better meet the needs of those impacted by child abuse  and domestic violence.

Again, relaying the suggestions of those people who participated at this of the inquiry is important. Further, it would be  inevitable that the authors imposed some interpretation on the material they received, if only by the way in which they had to organise it for presentation. We had to do something similar with the Welfare Justice report. In this case the authors collated the suggestions made under the rubric of RESPECT:

R     Refining documentation to eliminate 

        inaccuracies, fragmentation and errors
E     Early intervention
S     Skilled workforce – it only takes “one
        champion” to make a difference
P     Prevention via education, especially children,
        to interrupt the cycle of violence
E     Equitable approaches – helping one, helping
C     Community action – how can communities
T     Tying it all together – inter-agency

So far so good. In this section, however there are a number of instances where the authors move beyond merely reflecting the voices of those participants to the inquiry itself directing the nature of the reform that ought to take place.  I understand the frustration at the lack of action on family violence issues, and that the temptation to be directive at this stage would be huge, even if at least to give the media some handy nugget to digest and to kick off debate. There were a great couple on interviews this morning on Nine to Noon about the notion (strongly enunciated in the report) that further reform is needed in the Family Court. So the report in that sense is doing its job, getting people to engage in public discourse and wrangle about the best path forward. Good. maybe only directiveness can get that ball rolling.

My worry is that the authors (and by necessary extension, the Inquiry itself)  taking such an early and directive stance on what needs to happen for reform now undercuts and discounts all other relevant research or perspectives that would need to be taken into account before working out that best way forward. I thought the job of the Inquiry was to gather information (including the incredibly valuable material in this report) and propose a framework of reform, the ‘Blueprint’ to be released in November this year. The work of information gathering is only part-way done:

By identifying promising solutions from the panel interviews, working with people who have an in-depth understanding of the current system, and with the help of system experts from New Zealand and overseas, we will look at how to develop an ideal system for addressing abuse and violence. A literature review, in-depth interviews and workshops will be undertaken as part of this work.

So, in other words, there is a heck of a lot of water that needs to go under this bridge before the Inquiry is in a position to make even solid suggestions let alone recommendations for change. Here I have to let my pointyheadedness take over and identify that my fundamental unease is that the People’s Report presumes it has the answers already to what it identifies as key issues that are complex and multilayered. Here is the final paragraph of the report:

A national strategy also needs to include requirements around the improved education of professionals and frontline workers, and require better inter-agency collaboration. There also needs to be a major review of the courts system and Child Youth and Family so that the gender bias against women and mothers is eliminated and victims can get the necessary assistance when they are traumatised and need help to be safe and secure. Importantly, people need help in overcoming the trauma and abuse they have endured. They need access to free counselling that is not time-limited, because child abuse and domestic violence erodes people’s spirit and psychological wellbeing. It can’t be fixed in six short sessions. Finally people need to have a code of rights and an independent forum whereby they can have their grievances heard and addressed

I do not suggest for a moment that these statements are wrong. I’m saying they are directive and break away from the purpose of the report which was to give voice to the voiceless. There is nothing merely suggestive here, this is the Inquiry speaking. Perhaps  the perspective the report’s authors want us to understand is that of the Inquiry as Advocate: in these (and many other) directive words, the Inquiry is standing as an advocate on behalf of those who spoke with the panel and contributed to the inquiry. Perhaps this stance is is intended somehow, to make up for the inaction and the trauma that those contributors have described. Goodness knows passionate advocacy is required, as is productive and creative imagination to figure out the best way out of the morass. But if the Blueprint is to have any chance of success once released, I would have thought that allowing the New Zealand public to hear these voices in as unmediated a fashion as possible would provide those people with the best service at this stage of the inquiry.

Reality and pragmatism have to kick in. It’s inevitable that this report was going to be subject to huge scrutiny. We wanted it to SAY SOMETHING. Here I am moaning that it says something, so it seems.  But early criticism that the report lacks rigour and analysis ( might have been avoided if the Inquiry had kept its powder dry and stuck to what it said this report was intended to be; that voice for the voiceless.



Elliot Rodgers, Mauha Fawcett and the truth about monsters.

The last week has been a bad one for human monstrosity, or at least obvious and individualised examples of it. The sad discovery of Blesilda Gotingco’s murder happened when we were still processing news of Elliot Rodger’s slaughter of 6 people in California. A few days later we learned of two teenaged girls in Uttar Pradesh, gang-raped and lynched because they had tried to find a safe place to relieve themselves. And yesterday the 60 year old father, a lay minister, pleaded guilty to 3 counts of incest with his adopted daughter who later killed the baby born of that incest. He is reported to have claimed he was under the influence of the Devil, when he offended against her. (’s-‘oppressive-conditions’)

The families in all these cases will be searching for meaning and explanation for the terrible crimes committed. We all are.

In regards to Rodger, the internet is now alive with discussions presuming misogyny and rape culture and everyday sexism to be primary drivers of his actions, helpfully assisted by his video placing the blame for his isolation and unhappiness on those females who refused to allow him access to their bodies. No doubt that thinking holds some water. See for example, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen. One of the benefits of this thinking is the line drawn between this single sociopath and his acting out of a misogynistic fantasy, and ordinary men and everyday sexism. I get that. The human monster is not just slavering over the helpless victim in the dark and stormy night of our imagination, he is on the couch next to you sharing your popcorn.

But in some ways this kind of analysis feels incomplete..misogynist monsters are formed to a large degree by societal pressures that demean and dehumanise women and girls, enabling and facilitating misogyny, and in Rodgers, its ultimate expression. Rather than Victor Frankenstein as the creator of the monster, the creator is patriarchy and its gun culture.

We crave explanation. We need motive, we need cause, we need rationale as if human monsters are the product of some fiendishly screwed up recipe that went horribly wrong. If only we could just find the gene, or the step-father or the poverty-stricken background that could enable us to see the perfect formation of the causal chain. Of course, mental illness, gun culture, caste hierarchy, misogyny, alienation, social disenfranchisement, lost moral compasses, can all explain in some part why people do bad things. But at the end of the day sociological or psychiatric explanations can only take us so far. This is because at the heart of all these kinds of events something evil has happened. In New Zealand’s secular society the notion of evil is unfashionable and a sign of a bygone and more credulous age. Evil, as an explanation for bad things, is now only really permissible in movies and books. Respectable commentators and analysts rarely speak of evil. But every so often the narrative of human experience of evil breaks through the strictures with which we have attempted to eradicate it.

I remember something one of the witnesses said at Mauha Fawcett’s trial for the murder of Mellory Manning:


“I could hear the crackling of tarpaulin or plastic,” he told the jury. “It was made to be done really slowly, you know what I mean, it wasn’t rushed, or hurried.”


A splash followed and was “pretty loud”, the witness said.


“I said it ‘aint Canadian geese or ducks or anything like that,” he told the court. “I couldn’t hear anyone talking, I couldn’t see anyone.


 “I actually ducked under a canopy, some trees, to see if I could see any silhouettes moved.”


But before the man could see anyone he was stopped “dead cold” in his tracks by a feeling he described as horrible and cold.


“It was quite freaky, it was a lot of fear; I knew something was not right, I retreated rather rapidly to where [my partner] was.” Read more: 

I don’t think what that witness felt would be unusual in such circumstances, and those feelings are what has kept Stephen King in clover all these years.

It’s tempting to think that Fawcett and his as-yet-uncharged co-offenders, Elliott Rodger, Mrs Gotingco’s killer, and the rapist-murderers in Uttar Pradesh are true monsters, or ‘mad’ or any other label that separates them out from us. In truth though, they are extraordinary only in the degree of harm they have caused. True, these perpetrators had, between them, created something evil, something greater than the sum of its parts. But in order to do so, they probably felt entitled to follow the only yardstick that mattered to them (for whatever reason): their feelings at that time. Nothing, no moral strictures, no societal restraints, no physical restraints stood in the way between these perpetrators and what they felt they needed or wanted to do. Above all people, they alone were entitled to do what they saw fit.

Now while it might not be easy to see ourselves becoming fully fledged ‘monsters’ and bringing evil into the world like Rodgers et al, we probably can imagine what we might be like if we had no limits placed upon us, no obstacles to meeting our our desires. And we all know the battles we fight on a daily basis within ourselves between what we want to do, and what we know we should do. This is a war as old as humanity. What was it that Paul said of his darkest struggles between what he knew he should do and what could not stop himself from doing?

Romans 7:14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

That willingness to turn away from what is right to instead give in to our desires, (‘sin’ as Paul saw it) was not externally imposed, not purely the result of external factors such as poverty, or abuse, or loneliness. Of course our willingness to, in the words of Depeche Mode ‘give in to sin’ can be informed by all those things and other factors that make up our complicated selves. But the capacity to sin is within us all, and in this nothing really separates us from the more obvious human monsters that make the news. There is no devil on our shoulder. If only it could be that simple.

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