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What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

What some bloody awful cartoons can tell us about ourselves.

(Please note: an edited version of this post has been published on E-Tangata.)

I don’t get personally offended easily. I learned a while ago not to buy too much into the fever-dreams of keyboard warriors, and most of the people around me who do say outrageous things are not loathsome people, so I don’t care to waste my energy in policing them. And, I’m lucky, I think, to have avoided some of the more obvious slings and arrows of racist misfortune in my life.

Except, I haven’t. Not really. I’m a child of the urban migrations and the lost WWII generation, before that, a descendent of colonial wars, and before that, of inter-tribal musket wars, and all the upheavals and trauma, political, demographic and spiritual, in between.  I am who I am because of the collective Te Rarawa and Māori experience of intergenerational losses; including the loss of language, place and space, tribal connection, knowledge, and sheer entitlement.  As an Anglican I’m also heir to the good and the bad of church history, particularly in the North and Waikato.  Of course, I am the sum of other things as well, my Irish and German forbears and their respective histories, but those things lie lightly on me.

Just because I have a pretty peaceable nature, it would be easy to mistake someone like me on face value as someone ‘balanced’ not likely to fly off the handle, someone who isn’t too ‘PC’. Probably so, but I carry the weight of Māori history, like any other ‘descendent of a New Zealand Māori’, to use that quaint phrase of legislative definition.

And for many of us from Māori families and communities, the historical losses don’t tell the whole story, compounded as it is, by the accumulation of many little and large unintentional slights, deliberate hurts, and omissions over years of racism and bigotry that can be forgiven, but can’t be wished  or washed away; or unfelt, unseen, or unheard.

Yet we are expected in the eyes of many (not all, of course) simply to be ‘good sports’. Come on, let the mispronunciation rest, let the accusation of theft pass, let the suspicious glance lie, live down to that low expectation, let the stereotype alone, oh, grow a sense of humour and just let the past be, don’t be so easily offended. No matter how that past calcifies around us like an oddly inefficient shell: porous enough to let the hurt through, and unyielding enough to last through generations.

So, as ‘good sports’ we know the engineering students’ bastard “haka” performed annually for 25 years, ending in ’79 was just a generation-long harmless joke; the deliberate & non-deliberate butchering of Māori names on our airwaves and in our classrooms is just something to be borne, don’t make a fuss; naked selfies on a sacred maunga are just awesome T & A photo ops; artists, academics and government officials alike can, like magpies, pinch the shiny bits of the language out of dictionaries for their signs, their academic papers, their artworks without ever being able to speak a complete sentence in the language, let alone know what it means; yes, we will sit for your portrait, we will die on your canvas, your tote bag, your tea-towel, we will be the noble savage of your dreams.

Hey, it’s OK. You’re welcome.

But a small thing is never just a small thing, right?

Of course Māori can never claim a monopoly on the experience of racism and bigotry, and grievance is not a state of grace we should seek to hold on to.  But just like the violent and heavy histories, the stories we tell and retell of small (and big) moments of everyday ignorance and racism are autochthonous; formed of this soil, and of this air, and in this land of shifting light. And sometimes, just for the purpose of release, those stories must be told and retold with fresh anger each time, as Amie Berghan Paulet shows by sharing some of the words on the tip of her tongue:

Racism is when you label my people ‘dole bludgers’.

Racism is when you tell my people to just ‘get over it, the past is the past’.

Racism is when you look at the ‘statistics’ and not the truth that is hiding behind the statistics.

Racism is when discussing history you expect my people to walk towards you for healing instead of you walking towards us.

Racism is when you take naked selfies on our sacred mountains and then label us as ‘prudes’ or pass over our offence as if it’s because we don’t understand freedom to self-expression.

It’s true that Māori are asked forgo much in order to preserve the sanctity of “freedom to self-expression”.  Up to the limit of the law, of course.

Right. So, what is the limit of the law? Al Nisbet can help us there.

Do you remember, from a few years back, his cartoon caricatures of waddling Māori bludgers with their smokes and their alcohol and the glint of greed in their beady, calculating eyes? The ones with the dull, bloated children with stunted futures and dubious parentage? Remember those cartoons? Well, unsurprisingly, some of us got upset when they were published back in 2013, and Louisa Wall and South Auckland youth group Warriors of Change took The Press and Marlborough Express newspapers to court. Well, more specifically, the Human Rights Review Tribunal.

A couple of weeks ago the decision came in: according to the Tribunal the cartoons, offensive as they are, did not breach the Human Rights Act 1993.

How does this happen?

First off, where does this right to freedom of expression come from anyway? This magic notion, that is as limitless as human thought and imagination, is set out in s14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, and let’s be clear; the right is not absolute, it has limits, including limits imposed by law.

Including this bit of law: s61(1) of the Human Rights Act 1993. According to this section it is unlawful for any person to publish or distribute written matter that is threatening, abusive or insulting; and likely to excite hostility against or bring into contempt any group of persons on [in this case] the basis of race.

It’s not hard to find those cartoons insulting towards Māori, and the Tribunal agreed. Those cartoons could indeed go straight to the top shelf of small and large things designed to add to the weight of everyday bigotry and racism. Straight to the poolroom, even.

It’s the last requirement that’s the hardest: it’s a causation test. Words (or images, as here) cannot merely be hurtful and degrading or insulting, they actually have to be likely to cause other people to become hostile against Māori on the basis of race.

To cut a long story short, the Tribunal said no. The cartoons did not reach that threshold. Case closed. And regardless of what I’m about to say below, in the main, I agree with the result. Simply to live in this society we have to allow those around us to say horrible things we don’t like, even if those things wound us; and they do. In turn we have the same ability to insult, wound, and offend. My Facebook feed is replete with people (often brown ones) gleefully taking up the opportunity to rip into others. This is part of our jostling co-existence and the cost to our own freedom to insult and offend and express whatever we want would be too great to close down the Al Nisbets of this world, even though his work adds to our burden of racist experiences.

But I did want to call your attention to something else in the Tribunal’s judgment.

In evaluating whether Nisbet’s cartoons were likely to incite hatred, the Tribunal, as directed by the Supreme Court in an earlier case, had to turn to that marvellous legal fiction, the ‘reasonable person‘. You see, how do we know if insulting words are likely to excite others to be hostile against Māori? Well that depends on someone who has never existed; the reasonable person, a kind of paragon of circumspect behaviour that just happens to be lurking around at the time when these published images hit the public arena. This sensible and sober person would have some knowledge, so would know that the cartoons show Māori people, would have some idea of the stereotypes in play, and would know about local conditions and community. Would that reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances surrounding the use of the words, view them as exposing Māori to hatred among other people?

But here’s the thing. The ‘reasonable person’ is not allowed, in the context of the Human Rights Act 1993, to be Māori. Not in this case, and probably not ever. The focus is not on how greatly Māori were injured, but on how likely NON-Māori were to become hostile as a result. As the Tribunal said:

In the present case the cartoons were unquestionably about a subject of public interest; they were also provocative. That Māori and Pacifika were offended and insulted is not the point. Section 61 is directed not to the effect on them, but on the effect on non-Māori and non-Pacifika and the likelihood of their being excited to hostility against Māori and Pacifika or their holding Māori and Pacifika in contempt. In our view the cartoons were insulting but fell well short of bringing Māori and Pacifika into contempt.

See, I imagine a reasonable person that can be Māori, who can emerge out of the context within which Māori live, that can appreciate the weight of history and everyday bigotry on the hearts and minds of Māori people. I imagine a reasonable Māori person that can see that, and still value freedom of expression.

But the Tribunal couldn’t really explain to me why it is that the reasonable person in this case and in our general legal system is never Māori.

Perhaps we carry too much weight, too much hurt, you see, to ever be trusted to be truly reasonable. Or truly normal and ordinary.

Just maybe the Māori reasonable person, has no sense of humour.

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Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

Casual Racism & the Phone Message of Doom

I remember how much like a punch in the gut it felt to hear, at the age of 16, how my then-boyfriend’s mother had said to him, “Well, dear. It is not as if we will ever let you marry a Maori.” He reported to this me with a shake of his head and a laugh, until he caught sight of my reaction. I stared at him with my mouth open, my eyes welling with tears. I had been staying at his house with he and his parents in Wellington, and it was shortly before I was due to leave. She had said this awful thing even as I was staying under their roof. To be honest there was a little bit of context to that remark, he and I had been caught the previous evening in a little bit of a compromising position (cuddling on the same bed fully clothed, with door closed, in 1986, if you MUST know) , and he had been trying to mollify her annoyance. So that was her ultimate riposte; I wasn’t marriageable material anyway, so what did it matter what he did?

Once he saw my reaction my boyfriend realised, I think, how far over the line this comment was, and how painful it had been for me to hear. Actually, funny post-script..when I did leave, he and I went to the airport, and as we waited in the terminal, there was an announcement over the speakers that there was a phone-call for me at the Air New Zealand desk. At the other end of the phone was his mother, apologising to me, and saying how she really didn’t mean what she said, and what a wonderful person I was. And while I never married her son, in the years that followed, when I would visit, she always treated me with the greatest respect, and with real (so I felt) affection. I never held any long-term resentment over the comment; I just filed it away, I guess, under ‘moments that make us figure out who we are, and who we are not.’

I was reminded of that moment when I read about the Marae employee Blake Ihimaera receiving an unwelcome telephone message, when the employee of the car company she was hiring from inadvertently failed to terminate the call, and he and his colleague had a moan about Māori people; they needed to be sent to their own island, and why the hell did they want their own prison anyway. Blake describes the moment she heard the message as being one where the bubble she had been living in burst. She had lived, up until that time in a pro-Māori world, and this moment had shattered that bubble, maybe forever. I absolutely got that, that’s how I felt. I knew, at my tender age then, that there was racism and I knew Māori had had a bad deal (didn’t quite know the details back then) but this was the first time I had really felt belittled directly for simply being who I was.

What I have learned in the intervening 30 years is that this kind of casual bigotry is endemic, but that it is only rarely a means to its own end. When my boyfriend’s mother said what she said, of course it was racist. But it was also designed to hurt him because of the rule that we had broken. I was the means to her end of belittling him and his choices, more than anything else. We say the most awful things to the people we love the most. When I listened to the conversation between the car company employees, I heard that kind of racist ‘locker room talk’ between people that quite possibly don’t know each other all that well, and are looking for ways to connect. And Blake, like me, was the means to that ignominious end.

So in that sense it’s a mistake to call this racism casual at all, there was nothing casual about it in either event. The first example was one of deliberate punishment for transgression, and the second was a deliberate social strategy (so so it seemed to me). The awful thing in that second example is really how easily  Māori people, or any people for that matter, are sacrificed to that long social process of building useful relationships. The things I have heard over my life about Chinese, Samoans, Iraquis, Somalians, Aborigines, when the speaker thinks he or she need a bit of social lubrication to get by, are pretty depressingly awful. Many such bigoted comments have been made by Māori and Pasifika, unsurprisingly. And here’s the thing: they almost always work. The raucous “FAARKthat’s funny!” laughter, the common raised eyebrows, the nod, the half shrug, the quiet ‘yeah, well…’. I have never seen anyone walk out of that kind of personal conversation, and that includes me, although I’m a lot better now at calling that kind of talk bollocks when I hear it, than I was in my 20s or 30s. I have enough social capital that I can afford to lose some of it, you see.

It’s easy enough to say, ‘well just call it out. Call all that racist behaviour out, and if you put up with it you are as bad as they are. Boycott that car company for being racist bastards.’  Yep, good call, consequences change behaviour, right?

Now let’s look at our own lives and see how honest we really are in calling bigotry out when we see it. Or are we actually quite fond of it? Is this a dirty little secret tool that we actually do keep in our kete of social interactions? Maybe lots of us don’t. I hope so. But my theory is we will sometimes put up with or promulgate outrageously untrue statements about large swathes of people we gleefully put to the sword for a moment of fellow-feeling. Or perhaps we do it to make a point, or to punish someone, or whatever our immediate social need is at the time. And social media provides us with the massive echo chamber of bigotry to play around in. This comment on Facebook summed up the problem nicely:

they should be sacked from their job not good enough that this is 2017 and we are still experiencing these racists remarks in our own country Damn white trash is all i can say

Doing it for the likes, right? in fact, 29 as at last count at 5.28pm Monday and three comments; all vociferously in favour.

Ah, basic social anthropology I guess, in group/out group, nothing new to see here. But if we are to preside over the gradual death of ‘casual’ racism in our society we can’t shame it into extinction if we don’t also eradicate our own love of casual bigotry.

So. Sport and weather it is, then…

 

 

Religion in schools…what about karakia?

I am shamelessly recycling this post from a year or so back, only cos religion in school is now back before the court

***

My eye was drawn to a catchy headline thrown to me by my Facebook feed the other week. The headline read:

Karakia could fall foul of ban on Bible teaching in state schools

Upon clicking, I discovered AUT Professor Paul Moon had asserted  that: “Banning religious practices in schools, may inevitably extend to removing karakia from schools as well”. This piece was followed up by a report on Te Karere.

My first response to these reports was a swift stab of, “Oh, no you bloody don’t!” Many, many Māori would have had their hackles raised at the mere prospect of State interference in what many consider to be primarily a cultural, rather than a religious, practice. I can’t think of a serious endeavour, or hui, in everyday Māori cultural life, where karakia don’t have some kind of presence, even if a muted one. The most irreligious of Māori will often still take part in karakia. Would kids and teachers in kura kaupapa Māori, for example, really be faced with a ban on saying karakia? I wondered.

The article I read did not identify exactly how karakia might qualify as ‘a religious practice’ or how it could be controlled or banned, let alone if , or how, such a path could even be implemented. There are a few building blocks that need to be put in place before we can agree with the Secular Education Network’s confident assertion that McClintock’s case (if it does get heard) would not result in the banning of Maori cultural practices.

First of all; just what are we allowed to do, in our public education system? Some of the answer is in s77 of the Education Act 1964:

every State primary school shall be kept open 5 days in each week for at least 4 hours each day, of which hours 2 in the morning and 2 in the afternoon shall be; and the teaching shall be entirely of a secular character.

So, our primary public education system is a secular one, and has been since the inception of free, compulsory education in 1877; separation of church and state, and all that.Except..when it may not be.

(And interestingly, secondary education need not be secular, and Boards of Trustees have discretion to allow non-discriminatory religious instruction under the Education Act 1989; arguably a hangover from the days when education was not compulsory beyond the age of 13)

s78 of the 1964 Act says that primary schools can close for short periods of time during the day:

for the purposes of religious instruction given by voluntary instructors approved by the school’s board and of religious observances conducted in a manner approved by the school’s board or for either of those purposes; and the school buildings may be used for those purposes or for either of them.

So. religious instruction and religious observation can be carried out at secular primary schools during periods of agreed closure. As an example, during lunchtimes, schools are ‘closed’ for instruction, so available for Bible classes as matters of religious instruction (teaching children what to believe, not teaching about religions). This is when the children who opt out might be set aside to read a book, or even wash dishes, or some other alternative activity.

Yes, opt out. Under s79(1) children may opt out of any such instruction, as long as their parents or guardians request this, in writing, of the school. Not opt-in, whereby parents or guardians request in writing that children ‘sign up’ for such instruction.

Ah. You see; this system also applies to religious observation, not just instruction. And that is where we have to look more closely at what karakia may, or may not, be. Because if karakia count as religious observation under s78 then schools need to ‘close’ during the day in order to facilitate such observation, and parents have to notify their schools in writing if they wish their children not to participate in karakia. And if a case such as McClintock’s succeeds in prompting law change, for example changing opt out to opt in, then religious observation would be included, and parents and guardians would need to write in for their children to be able to participate in religious observation; IF karakia can indeed be called that. To say that such a change would threaten a chilling effect on cultural practices at the very least would not , to my mind, be scaremongering. A ban would not be technically correct, but it wouldn’t have to be.

So we have to grapple with this question: what the heck are karakia anyway? There is no doubt that sometimes prayers occur in New Zealand primary schools that are Christian in nature, but that called karakia (and sometimes called īnoi). As alluded to above, we have been down this track before. Three years ago, some staff at a Christchurch primary school were unhappy about prayer being used during school hours.

Children from the Avondale primary school’s Maori bilingual unit lead pupils and staff in daily prayer, a tradition stretching back two decades in a school that is a melting pot of race and creed.

Principal Heather Bell says beginning the day this way brings a sense of grounding to the school and creates a sense of belonging.

Translated, the brief Maori prayer penned by the school’s kaiarahi reo or Maori language assistant, says: “Lord look after us, guide us with your work today, in your holy name.”

Some, perhaps many Māori will say such prayers are not, in fact, karakia at all. Ngaire McCarthy is a keen proponent of the view that karakia have been co-opted by Christianity, and that at their traditional core, karakia are in no way religious:

The traditional karakia that is used to open and close ceremonies is not a Christian prayer, it is a ritual chant, a set form of words to state or make effective a ritual activity. Karakia are recited rapidly using traditional language, symbols and structures.

The early missionaries saw Maori traditions through a Biblical framework and believed that karakia was always a prayer, so they took the word and reinterpreted it to mean Christian prayer. The word karakia then became just another tool of colonization.

If the few kaumatua (elderly Maori) who articulate the karakia, are Christian, they will continue to misrepresent our customary karakia. This puts them into direct conflict with our pre-colonization customary traditions.

According to 19th century sources; karakia were used to ensure correctness of process, to mark transitions, to ensure safety (among many other things). Te Mātāpunenga defines karakia in the following way:

Karakia. A set form of words to state, confirm or make effective the intent of a ritual activity, and the reciting of these words, thus often translated by terms such as “incantation”, “charm”, or “spell”. In modern usage the term has been extended to include Christian and other religious services (for example, a church is often referred to as a whare karakia). In traditional ritual activity strict adherence to the proper the form of the karakia was essential; hesitation, mispronunciation or omissions in its recitation could negate or reverse its intended effects and bring harm to those involved. The word is Proto-Tahitic in origin, with similar meanings in Tuamotuan, Rarotongan and Mäori.

On one view then, karakia are cultural ritual without religion, and ought to be entirely safe for use within the primary school environment. On this view culturally bastardised prayers are masquerading as karakia, and fall foul of the law.

I really question this dualistic approach to understanding karakia. For one thing, the moment any traditional karakia envisages, propitiates, or acknowledges any power or entity outside of the human experience; that karakia takes on a spiritual dimension, and it becomes a matter of definitional point-scoring in determining when matters spiritual shade into matters religious.

Further, the presumption that Māori traditionally had no religion sometimes stemmed from ethnologists and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries (a great collection of such attitudes are listed and traversed in detail in Elsdon Best’s Māori Religion and Mythology) who assumed that Māori practices lacking temples, and in most cases, reference to a supreme being, could not comprise “true religion”. This attitude smacks of a similar insistence that Māori law could not comprise “true law” because there were no courts or Parliament. The extent to which Māori religion remains in modern New Zealand, as with law, is an open and fascinating question.

The courts in New Zealand, and Canada have all had to consider what counts as ‘religion’ as Fiona Wright identified in 2007:

Australian and New Zealand courts have said that religion involves belief in a supernatural being, thing or principle as well as canons of conduct that give effect to that belief…Canadian courts have described religion as a “particular and comprehensive system of faith and worship” combined with “belief in a divine, superhuman or controlling power” [..] In essence, religion is about freely and deeply held personal convictions or beliefs connected to an individual’s spiritual faith and integrally linked to one’s self-definition and spiritual fulfilment, the practices of which allow individuals to foster a connection with the divine or with the subject or object of that spiritual faith.

So depending on your definition of religion karakia can be defined as religious observations for the purposes of the Education Act 1964.  Or depending on your definition of religion, karakia are not religious and won’t count for the purposes of the Act.

On either reading, karakia are still cultural practices. This is arguably the line skated in Te Aho Matua (the curriculum followed by Kura Kaupapa)  which ascribes a special place to karakia:

5.2 Ko te tino painga o te karakia he mea whakatau i te wairua, whakawatea i te whatumanawa me te hinengaro, whakarata i te ngakau, whakataka i ngā raru, kia ngawari ai te whakauru atu ki te mahi kua whakaritea hei mahi.

[Kura kaupapa Māori] practise karakia as a means of settling the spirit, clearing the mind and releasing tension so that concentration on the task at hand is facilitated.

But there will be times when merely ‘settling the spirit’ involves invocation of a deity or deities, and the cultural thus arguably includes the religious.

So if the McClintock case ever does get argued, and if restrictions do end up being  placed on religious instruction in primary schools, in order to protect secular education, and to uphold the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion (in NZBORA, s13), Māori cultural rights (protected under s20 of the BORA) will most definitely be under threat.

And I wonder (with my tongue in my cheek..but only just) about implementation. Who will put their hand up for the job of karakia police, patrolling schools and kura, watching and listening for karakia and those code words in Māori that sound suspiciously religious (depending which official is defining ‘religion’ that day), and must face strict control, rather than those that sound merely ‘cultural’, that can be left alone. How would any kind of regulation not involve cultural interference?

After all that, I think I’m back to my old gut instinct with which I started this piece: “Oh no, you bloody don’t!”

 

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