I am ambivalent about the hashtag du jour (#IAmMetiria) and the issue that gave rise to it. In case you have been under a rock, this hashtag refers to the declaration by Metiria Turei a few days ago that she had over-reported her housing costs, thus claiming a greater degree of social assistance than she was entitled to during her time as a solo mum on the DPB. Metiria made this declaration in the context of the release of the Greens’ welfare policy. I’m ambivalent because there are thousands of people living in poverty in this country, and we need to talk about it; and there is no doubt that Metiria’s kōrero has struck a cord with many. But I am uneasy because many of us now engaged in the discourse created around her statements have found ourselves trapped, as I’ll explain in a moment.
I don’t know Metiria personally. I do love the fact she graduated from law school to become not only a solicitor but a doyenne of the McGillicuddy Serious Party. I have no reason to disbelieve these statements about her life prior to her entry into politics:
In three of those flats, I had extra flatmates, who paid rent, but I didn’t tell WINZ. I didn’t dare.
I knew that if I told the truth about how many people were living in the house my benefit would be cut.
And I knew that my baby and I could not get by on what was left.
This is what being on the benefit did to me – it made me poor and it made me lie.
It was a stressful, terrifying experience.
At any moment, WINZ could have caught me and cut off my benefit.
They could have charged me with fraud and made me a criminal as well.
Metiria told this story presumably to highlight the pressures that beneficiaries face in surviving life on a low income coupled with the intrusions of the State in the personal lives of all those who receive this kind of support. Not long after her speech, the IAmMetiria hashtag appeared and social media is replete with people feeding into one of two main narratives:
- Metiria is a bad beneficiary, she rorted the system she should pay the money back, resign, or be sacked (and yes, they also have their own not-very-popular hashtag: #IAmNotMetiria)
- Metira only did what she did to survive and look after her baby, she stands for us; for my mum, my family, she is a good beneficiary (#IAmMetiria)
My first point of unease is that there is no real dualism in this kind of issue yet we pretend there is. Beneficiaries are neither saints nor sinners. I resent any narrative that forces me to pick imaginary sides. Bugger off and leave me with my shades of grey and lack of certainty, please.
Further, we are turning the welfare debate yet again into competing salvos of personal stories that are deeply affecting and get us nowhere along the road to working out good solutions or even critiquing the Green Party’s policies in any depth. Stories are useful if they illustrate the issues of law and policy that need to be changed, but the resulting debate must be disinterested (in the sense of not being influenced by personal involvement in something or impartiality.). Public debate should not just consist of a rhetorical fight to the death between my personal interests and yours; or between degrees of disadvantage, or rely on prurient, even invasive, fascination with the most heart-wrenching accounts of poverty, disability, survival and difference.
I guess I also struggle with how easy it is for us to exploit our personal stories, and sometimes I wonder about the whiff of instrumental hypocrisy. Many of the people congratulating Metiria for her honesty and candidness no doubt also criticised John Key for using his ‘being raised in a state house’ narrative in the political arena, or Paula Bennett’s ‘struggling solo mother’ narrative being used for similarly political ends. Just because we might empathise more with either one of those individuals’ politics doesn’t make it consistent to have criticised the others for the same damn thing. I’m guilty of the same damn thing in the last week. I lashed out at ACT leader David Seymour for his statements that poor people should not have children if they can’t afford them, getting gratifying likes and retweets for doing so. But he was doing something very similar to Metiria; using carefully chosen words that tap into a deep reservoir of resentment among a particular group of people, inviting me to respond in a tribal manner. This I did, pointing to my own background as evidence of the rightness of my own position. What a sucker I can be.
I can’t be too hard on myself, or any of us really who retreat to our moral high grounds at such moments. We have pasts and they matter to us. We have extraordinary connection to the people, places and experiences that formed us. We all have lived lives that inform our decisions and influence our alliances, hell, fair enough. Our stories can inspire us to lead, too. And those stories are revealing.
In 1969 Carol Hanisch penned a famous paper called ‘The Personal is Political’. In her experience personal problems were important because they could reveal the structural and societal issues that created those problems in the first place.
I’ve been forced to take off the rose colored glasses and face the awful truth about how grim my life really is as a woman. I am getting a gut understanding of everything as opposed to the esoteric, intellectual understandings and noblesse oblige feelings I had in “other people’s” struggles.
And so that phrase ‘the personal is political’ developed a lot of momentum, and became a maxim. And like all maxims, it lost something in the repeat telling. Because Hanisch also said that we couldn’t rest on those personal laurels:
…personal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.
We have to take the leap from using our own personal experience to identify structural problems in our society to being able to consider collective political solutions that might be best for people different to ourselves. If we keep failing to take that leap, we head down the road to sterile tribalism, if we are not there already. And I think, for many of us, we already are.