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Mā te Whakamā: culture shaming & the China syndrome

Mā te Whakamā: culture shaming & the China syndrome

It was the feeling of dread that first alerted me. A post had slipped by on my feed, a beautiful young woman with a moko kauai, on one knee, glaring at me through my screen. “Miss New Zealand performs haka in China.” Hmm, beauty pageants and haka. ‘This might not end well’, I thought to myself. After some initial reluctance I gave in, and watched it. I actually hid behind my hands and peeked, so convinced was I that the performance would make me cringe; that I would feel embarrassed by it. Watch it here; you can judge for yourself, it is not up to me to tell you how you ought to think or feel about Dr Deborah Lambie’s performance. That is not the point of this post. What interests me instead is the response she has garnered from many Māori, and what that response may or may not say about our differing levels of cultural security.

Science can explain some of my initial reaction; a phenomenon sometimes called vicarious embarrassment, whereby the observer can put themselves in the shoes of the person embarrassing himself and imagine some of his forthcoming mortification. The Germans even have a handy word for it: fremdschämen, or ‘external shame’.

Cringe factor aside though, my own ideas of “proper”,”correct”, “authentic” or “tika” culture certainly played its part in my response. I was deeply afraid that one Pākehā woman on her own performing a haka, or even just part of a haka, for a panel of beauty contest judges in a faraway land would be very risky for that woman at least on social media. Haka are usually (but not always) performed in a kind of group context, so those weak in performance derive a level of protection from those around them, even if only a share of the blame if it all goes wrong. Haka are usually performed for some kind of defined reason: challenge, political expression, part of a ritual of encounter; acknowledgment, or for competitive performance. Many haka are considered preserved for male-only performance. I worried that a young woman performing alone & unsupported would thus become a target of cultural shaming.

How right I was, even as I am aware that commenting here is quite possibly adding to the problem that now exists. But I think looking at the responses to Dr Lambie’s performance (rather than at the performance itself) might be useful to gauge our own responses to such events.

So follow me, if you will, into the murky world of FB comments and cultural shaming. It was an uncomfortable read for me, so likely to have been a very painful one for Dr Lambie. Here there be [a selection of]  taniwha. You can read them yourself, all 650-odd comments here.

‘Waiho mā te whakamā e patu – ‘Let Shame Be Your Punishment’

What is going on in the posts is obviously a form of public shaming; whereby the observers unleash disapproval on the person or persons who have overstepped the socio-cultural line. The effect of the shaming is expected to be that the person or persons don’t do the sanctioned behaviour again, and her punishment constitutes warning to all others to not do the same lest they also be shamed.

In recent months and years there has been considerable focus on what has been termed ‘slut-shaming’. One simple definition of this kind of shaming is: ‘making a female feel guilty and inferior for behaving in a way others deem to be sexually inappropriate.’ More than this notion of making females ‘feel guilt’ for perceived behaviour, slut-shaming is a method of social control;  indeed, a mode of displacing blame for the actions of others on to women who may are perceived to dress provocatively, or engage in extra-marital sex. Don’t blame the rapist for raping, blame the victim for her social boundary crossing. In the process the woman as she really is effectively eradicated from consideration; and reduced to a collection of bad behaviours and body parts.

Now the shaming in regards to Dr Lambie’s performance is different, and, because most of the comments have come from Māori, offers something of an insight into a more collectivist notion of using shame as a method of social or cultural control. (Recent study has confirmed Māori exhibit higher degrees of collectivist thinking than do Pākehā, although the differences are not perhaps as stark as some might like to think). Social media now offers an immediate way of shaming, one as divorced from its cultural context as Dr Lambie’s performance was alleged to be by some of her most ardent critics.

As Joeliee Seed-Pihema identifies, when discussing the whakatauakī,  Waiho mā te whakamā e patu – ‘Let Shame Be Your Punishment:

Shame was often used as a form of retribution or utu and social control. Māori prided themselves on their image and the opinion of others greatly affected their behaviour and mana. This shaming process was very effective due to its public nature; the offender was put on trial in front of the whole hapū and/or iwi [.]

There is a lot of social retribution going on in the FB critique of Dr Lambie that marks out a particular kind of cultural shaming. Going by these comments as a reasonable example of the type, cultural shaming requires:

  • a firm belief that there is a ‘right’ way to present and portray Māori culture;
  • there is collective responsibility for any given portrayal of Māori culture;
  • the largest share of shame ought to be directed at those with knowledge rather than those without; and
  • that women and men have defined roles that ought to be upheld, for women to step outside of those roles can be dangerous.

A right way of doing things

Many posts made clear that the writers considered that a cultural standard had been breached, and that they knew the standard, and the gravity of the breach. There was a ‘tika’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘correct’ way to perform a haka, and by presumption, an accompanying duty to uphold that standard. Even supportive voices acknowledged the existence of such a standard, but did not see her breach as problematic.

Maybe whoever taught you, should teach you about the maori culture. As for the “elders” who agreed for you to do this, is appalling. You haven’t and are not appreciating the Maori culture, you’re embarrassing it and just plainly rubbing it in the dirt.

…if you want to represent Maori culture you might want to try respecting tikanga.

Check out all these Maori experts.. Good on you for giving it a go Lady.. Maori Culture will get nowhere If one of our own wants to learn her culture and is ridiculed for not being up to standard..??Who are you to judge?? she just learnt it, She didn’t claim to be an expert.

Collective responsibility for performance, and the greater responsibility of those with the requisite knowledge

While almost all comments were directed at Dr Lambie (this being her Facebook page, and all) the harshest critique was often reserved for those who advised her, rather than Dr Lambie herself. These tutors have also had to defend themselves in the media against questions of their own cultural integrity. Several of the posts also focus on Dr Lambie’s apparent isolation; while haka is a collective enterprise, she performed on her own, without visible assistance.

Nga mihi girl.At the end of the day some Maori would have taught you .It’s a shame they didn’t teach you something more appropriate. All credit to you for giving it your best shot .Come on people give the girl a break !!! A bit of encouragement or constructive criticism would have been more advantages to the young lady.For those who have just outright critisised her,I think you are all just as bad.

I’ve never seen a haka solo before? From what I’ve learnt you embrace the power of a haka from the surroundings of those around you do yes I think a poi or song may have been the better option but hey good on you for putting yourself out there snd giving it a go.

Is anyone going to call out those who taught her??? Man!! Nā rāua te he!! They should have known better… Oh well MA TE WHAKAMA E PATU! Aua atu mo te kuware o te kotiro nei…

Can’t really blame the girl.
Her kapahaka tutors taught her & her haka is the result of their work with her.

Roles of men and women ought to be upheld

One of the strongest themes in the comments was significant unease that the haka chosen was one composed to be performed by men, or at least that the style of performance was ‘unfeminine’, and somehow dangerous. You can see an example of a ‘feminine’ haka here.  That’s an interesting notion; that being feminine represented safety, being perceived as masculine however, was dangerous, even justifiably so:

Should’ve done a poi song or tititorea to be on the safe side..
We mana wahine have grace and do not need to put ourselves in a position such as she has done.

I’m all for wahine doing haka but why was this girl taught to do this paticular haka? There are “haka wahine” made specifically for wahine…

I grew up living and breathing haka, it would have been much more pleasurable had you done a soft sweet waiata instead of trying to express it in such a manly way. We women never stand as a man in the haka but we do show as much mana as our men. I believe you misinterpreted the role of our wahine in the haka and displayed only what you expect the world to see from our haka.

Well I’m a traditionalist and our women like bak in the old days should not be preforming the haka it is the last resort befor going to war for us men she should have done the poi more women like

 [reply] But traditionally the poi was a mans weapon??
     Yea but the hakas not for the women isn’t it jus like everything in        the world wanna be equal to men that’s y they get the jake the         muss treatment.
I don’t want to over-egg any puddings, and it may be that what one commenter described as the “horizontal violence” directed at Dr Lambie is just evidence of bad internet behaviour, or the usual shaming without a special ‘cultural lens’ at all.
Nevertheless I thought there was something distinctive at work, perhaps if only because I have felt the sting of cultural shaming myself, on a smaller scale, so it feels familiar to me. I know what it feels like to be blasted by a Tūhoe male for leading a whakaeke in the wrong gender. I know what it feels like to get our own karanga tikanga wrong. I know the shame of providing insufficient kai for visitors and bearing collective responsibility for that. I know Mortification well, and she me.
Those of us who have had to learn to be Māori, and those of us to-the-marae-born have all experienced degrees of such shaming; it’s what moulds us into some kind of cultural shape. Some of us, after a shaming experience, never return to the culture or the language. And that is a great shame and loss in itself. But then without cultural shaming how are we to know what is tika? How are we to know what the boundaries of Māori culture are? If all is acceptable, then nothing is.
And for completeness, the entire whakatauakī, nō Ngāti Awa, is:
‘Waiho mā te whakamā e patu; waiho hai kōrero i a tātau kia atawhai ki te iwi’ ‘Let shame be their punishment; let us be renowned for our mercy toward the tribe.’
This is what the tohunga Te Tahi-o-te-rangi responded to a suggestion that the culprits who committed a hara ought to be turned out of their canoes. Nothing more than whakamā was necessary to return to equilibrium.
The real (perhaps answerless) question here is instead: just how ought we in Māori communities, virtual or otherwise, seek to police the edges of Māori culture? Surely the better path would be for us to grow and develop tikanga and culture to such an extent that such distinct act to create shame are simply un-necessary. The shame exists, and fulfils its function, but because of a shared understanding of what was breached, not because of any kind of public word-stoning.
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