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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.

About Sparrowhawk/Kārearea

Legal academic and writer, Wellington. (Te Rarawa, Ngāti Pākeha. Nō te Hāhi Mihinare hoki)

4 responses »

  1. I hear what you say about ‘the reasonable person’, and what you are saying there has a value completely of its own and separate to what I am going to say about the cartoons themselves. So I’m not arguing against what you’ve said there at all. It stands alone.

    I share many of the same thoughts as you, and a couple of the themes hit on by Amie Berghan Paulet that you’ve quoted also really resonate with me. And I think the ‘contempt’ requirement has been fulfilled with these cartoons. I’ve seen time and again Maori trying to manage, trying to do the best for their kids, being very aware of, and careful about how they spend the money they have. And no, the stereotype exploited here doesn’t show that they exist at all. But, stereotypes can be gross in more ways than just ugly and brash. A stereotype can highlight an issue, which is why they are used in satire in the first place. Ages ago at school, I remember reading George Orwell and, somewhere in the Road to Wigan Pier, he commented about how the poor people spend money on luxuries rather than sensible things, in order to make life bearable. I now know this from my own lived experience as an adult. In our house, we put our faith in things like coffee, hot chocolate, blocks of chocolate, the occasional bottle of cider, to give us some comfort and daydream value over and above the basics each week that are otherwise pretty much all we can afford. We buy these small luxuries because they are exactly that. They’re things we don’t have the money to not be able to appreciate, and they lift our possibilities above just getting by. Sometimes, we even buy Lotto tickets. Who doesn’t?

    To me, never having seen these cartoons before (and I think I might be having a good day, so I might be fairly reasonable at this minute), I see an ‘appeal to the absurd’ that highlights the social issue of lots of people finding it hard to live these days. I say an appeal to the absurd, because a) I studied philosophy at uni so I know there exists such a thing, and b) because I suspect no-one has ever anywhere seen any Maori or Pasifika parents trying to sneak into a school dressed as kids. Forgive me a sec here, but ‘a reasonable person’ knows that doesn’t happen. Which leaves that person, hopefully, to wonder what lies behind the image. Which further examination shows us includes an old Pakeha couple also queueing up. It’s not elegant. It is in part racist. But my take on it is that ‘this is potentially what it’s coming to for people to survive here – old people and parents living in poverty trying to piggy-back on the benefits of Food in Schools. The real issue therefore is how come so many people are so poor that we need Food in Schools in the first place? How come everybody can’t afford food first, and then the daydream ingredients?

    To me, when these cartoons highlight people spending money on Lotto tickets and smokes and beer instead of on food, that speaks to the fact these people can’t afford the anaesthetic and the basics, so they choose the anaesthetic to get them through. It is born out of hopelessness, and it is a thing that does happen. To me, the real question being asked here, in a satirical form – which is meant to be provocative by definition – is something like ‘Are programmes like Food in Schools just bandaid solutions.?’ Or, not even so much asking that, just saying that they don’t address the real issues here. When people are hopeless, and have no real prospects, and when there are band-aid solutions in place, why should they make better choices? Beer goggles and lotto tickets do fulfill a need, even though they don’t fill tummies.

    Helpfully illustrated for us here are often society’s most poor and disadvantaged – lest we forget – however inappropriately depicted. Maori, Pasifika, and the elderly. But I think I see a couple of hungry Pakeha kids in that cartoon too – just for good measure. I think part of the problem is that the artist hasn’t been provocative enough. I don’t think he’s actually provoked any real new thinking about poverty in this country. And consequently, the effect of the cartoon ends at perpetuating a negative stereotype. I don’t think these cartoons are likely to make anyone think anything they didn’t already think before, and more’s the pity.

    But then, maybe I’m not being reasonable either. Maybe my own judgement is clouded and I’m reading too much out of what’s there because of how I personally think about the issue of poverty and people not having what they should be able to count on.

    Amie Berghan Paulet is right. We do need to look behind the statistics to see why they exist, and maybe these cartoons were just a far too weak attempt to challenge us to question the stereotypes shown and look for the reasons behind them.

    It’d be nice to think so.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kia ora and thanks for your thoughts! yep, can totally accept what you say. And I think Tom Scott was asked about these cartoons, and he made a similar point to you, their main crime is they do nothing to provoke us into thinking differently; they just reinforce tired old stereotypes. I don’t have any problem with the Tribunal’s decision. Probably the main thing I take issue with in this post is this characterisation of Māori as just being too easily offended. That is context-free silliness.Thank you again…


  2. As always, thoughtful, reasoned and reasonable. But this time I dont agree that the finding was right; not by my reasonable person test.
    If the recognition factor of the ‘humour’ links to discomfort with what is unknown or unexplainable within our own terms of reference, as it appears to be, isnt whoever is being held up to ridicule being so to assuage fear of ‘other’? And isn’t perpetuation such an easy and insidious way to entrench contempt which underpins and feeds hostility? I’m sure my legal naivety could be easily satirised and my opinion discounted as not that of a reasonable person …

    Liked by 1 person

    • yeah for sure. I think that’s arguable. But to set the threshold at the level set by these cartoons would mean that the cost to Māori exercise of freedom of expression would be, I think, too high. But yeah. Many would, no doubt, disagree with me on that…thanks for your comment!



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