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Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.

Old King Log, New King Stork. Trump’s lesson for Aotearoa.


I remember waking up one morning last year, lying awake for a moment, feeling contented and normal. Then memory and grief kicked in; my mother was dead, and my world had changed forever.

My anaesthesia had worn off.

I had a similar moment on Thursday morning when I remembered Trump had won the US presidential elections. Of course my adult brain then took over from those primal feelings and I began to reason with myself: “don’t be so ridiculous! How bad could it really be; it is just another day; democracy has not died, and neither have you, sunshine.It’s not the end of the bloody world, toughen up. Who cares anyway? Maybe he’ll be just the kind of orange change-agent that could really cut through the smug Washington bubble…”

Oh who am I kidding. I was afraid. I’m still afraid. I’m not really afraid of Trump’s racism, sexism, narcissism or any other of his other charming personal qualities; really it is his permission-giving that is problematic. Maybe tyranny is in all of us; we just need someone to give us permission to give in to it. Social media and mainstream media is swarming with accounts of Trump-loving idiots carrying out hate-based attacks (some accounts have been made up, some not so). Those things are awful, but in a way, I don’t feel viscerally afraid about them, as many US residents now do. Maybe I am just too removed.

I am scared that our planet is screwed because a climate denier is in the White House. I’m scared that more wars will come because the significant geopolitical shifts that might happen because of the isolationist in the White House. Whatever you believe about ISIL, and the cancerous instability of the Middle East being all the fault of US foreign policy, the world is a less violent and less war-riven place than it ever has been. (Read this if you don’t believe me). Much of that has to do with trade, and the US role in geopolitics. (The UN too, but that’s another story..) As American writer and blogger Ryan Bohl puts it:

Consider how many old rivalries U.S. alliances have put to rest.  Japan and Korea are now bound under the American aegis: so too are Germany and France, Greece and Turkey, Poland and Germany, Italy and Austria, to name just a few.  While Europe was once the world’s most warlike continent, today it is the most peaceful (Ukraine notwithstanding).  That is entirely because the U.S. has secured Europe in a way that Europe never could.


Planet Earth is considerably safer with the United States as the dominant power precisely because it keeps vast swathes of humanity disarmed.  It isn’t so much a matter of it being the United States as the geopolitical system being dominated by a single power that has already reached the natural limits of expansion – that last part being key because a rising power that hasn’t yet learned when to stop conquering is quite dangerous.  The U.S. is out of the empire building business; its best leaders are those who tend to its network of alliances and trade deals with an eye for stability.

So that has been interesting. I had never thought of myself as a fan of US interventionism at all. It is only my fear of the forthcoming change that exposes me. Better the devil we know. Or maybe I’m just a doom-saying fraidy-cat, who needs more geo-political education. Quite true, I’m sure. And yet.

So what do we take from this new set of realities for us here in Aotearoa? Our politicians are uniformly dismayed about the rise of Trump. On the other hand, many Māori are probably happy, no doubt, that TPPA is dead.

I tweeted on Wednesday night about how happy I was to be here in NZ. It was the silver lining to my night. But.  Are we at risk of the rise of the Trump-style demagogue here? There are two main bulwarks, or defences, against it that immediately come to mind. One is our level of electoral participation. And perhaps there is a lesson in here for Māori, Pākehā and tauiwi alike. I firmly believe that Trump was not voted in by a pack of racist, sexist xenophobes. That’s just too glib. I think what happened is yet to be fully explained over the coming weeks and months, but one thing is clear: Trump became possible because 10 million Obama supporters decided not to vote at all, compared to 2008. In fact, only 56.9% of eligible voters cast a ballot at all in this US election. This compares with 77.9% of NZ registered voters turning out in NZ’s last general election in 2014. This includes 67.59% of Māori eligible voters. So, while Māori voter apathy is a real problem, perspective is interesting; US voter apathy can lead to a failed change-agent such as Obama and an ignorant strong-man like Trump come to power on the back of resentment of “the elites” and a yearning for revolution; a yearning for someone who promises what they simply cannot deliver. So what happens in our country as far as the housing crisis, growing discontent and income inequality is concerned matters from this perspective too. The danger is not just that people who are powerless and angry vote for someone like Trump; the danger is they don’t vote at all.

The second bulwark against Trump NZ is ongoing connection between our ‘elites’; our educated, liberal, politically engaged, high-income urbanites and the rest of us. I came across this article today, with Andrew Sullivan, an English writer and blogger cautioning against the wholesale jettison of the elites in a mature democracy:

The freedom in that democracy has to be experienced to be believed — with shame and privilege in particular emerging over time as anathema. But it is inherently unstable. As the authority of elites fades, as Establishment values cede to popular ones, views and identities can become so magnificently diverse as to be mutually uncomprehending. And when all the barriers to equality, formal and informal, have been removed; when everyone is equal; when elites are despised and full license is established to do “whatever one wants,” you arrive at what might be called late-stage democracy. There is no kowtowing to authority here, let alone to political experience or expertise.

But maybe we are already there. There are arguably growing gaps between Māori elites and the rest of us; just as there is growing mutual incomprehension between Pākehā elites and the rest of the Pākehā population.  If this trajectory continues, we too will, one day throw the baby out with the bathwater in a fit of mutual self loathing, and surrender to demagoguery.

So what to do? For one thing, depending on where we sit on the spectrum, we have to resist the temptation to heap scorn and contempt on those we perceive to be different (culturally, socio-economically, politically) from us. For another; engage with those selfsame people. Talk to the people you loathe the most. Whanaungatanga.  Our future depends on it.

Let me finish with an ancient story; one of Aesop’s fables.

According to the story, a group of frogs lived happily and peacefully in a pond. Over time, however, they became discontented with their way of life, and thought they should have a mighty king to rule over them. They called out to the great god Zeus to send them a king.

Zeus was amused by the frogs’ request, and cast a large log down into their pond, saying “Behold, your king!” At first, the frogs were terrified of the huge log, but after seeing that it did not move, they began to climb upon it. Once they realized the log would not move, they called out again to Zeus to send them a real king, one that moved.

Annoyed by the frogs, Zeus said, “Very well, here is your new king,” and sent a large stork to the pond. The stork began devouring frogs. In terror, frogs called out to Zeus to save them. Zeus refused, saying the frogs now had what they’d wanted, and had to face the consequences.

As the US is learning…be careful what you wish for. Or even – be careful of what you can’t be bothered wishing for.

[Please note: a slightly edited version of this piece has been posted on E-Tangata]




The Māori in the Room

The Māori in the Room

I had one of those “only Māori in the room” moments yesterday. I have a lot of those. These moments don’t offend me. I work in mainstream tertiary education, I’m Māori and I profess to know something about things Māori. I’ve worked in my field for 10 years. So what did I expect?  Despite all that, these moments can be awkward. So yesterday,  I was in a meeting about a research funding proposal with very clued-up academics from various faculties. The heads swivel in my direction as I am asked my opinion on what I think the best direction for Māori would be in regard to X or Y of the proposal. There is a pause.

Expectations hang heavy in the air. The words I say are to be weighed and perhaps given a weight disproportionate to their value.  Or perhaps the reverse. Sometimes, in moments like these, I can feel my cheeks flame, and sometimes blind panic threatens to set in. On this occasion however, I just snorted, laughed and said, “well, I don’t know!” I may even have thrown my hands in the air.  That’s usually how it is. I really don’t know what Māori need, what Māori want; what direction would be best for Māori, how best to cater to, provide for, uphold, respect, all things Māori. I have no portal into the Māori hive-mind. I take educated guesses in context.That’s all I can ever do.

Of course, a lot of things have had to happen for me to have been the only Māori in that room. The absence of other senior Māori academics weighed more on me than did the cumulative weight of Pākehā expectation. There has been recent research done on the experience of senior Māori and Pasifika academics, so I’m not about go over over the ground that you can read about for yourself here. Suffice to say, my experiences are hardly isolated, as a member of the 6% of the academic workforce who identifies as Māori.

Actually, my ruminations headed in a different, but related, direction. Because I am not just assumed to be an ethnic representative of a people or peoples at moments like this, I am expected to be a proponent of, and knowledgeable in, Māori culture to some degree.

Ah, culture. You marvellous double edged sword, you.

After my meeting, I came home to a Facebook post that underscored the deep ambivalence I have towards our dominant notions of Māori culture.  And here it is; from an article outlining recent efforts being made to get young Māori into information technology.

Computer graphics company Animation Research’s founder Ian Taylor [Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngā Puhi] said the lack of Māori engagement in ICT was disappointing, as in his experience when Māori got their hands on technology they adapted very quickly.

“I believe that Steve Jobs, he didn’t realise it – but he designed the iPad for young Māori. It wasn’t in our DNA to use paper and pen, never has been. We use our hands, we carve, we tell stories. We’re great storytellers and technology has allowed us to engage in that way.”

Reading this reminded me of another such moment in 2014 and another public statement from a prominent Māori educationalist, which I paraphrased at the time:

Terehia Channings of [the recently closed] Turakina Māori Girls’ College, speaking on Te Tēpu tonight of the benefits of Kapa Haka for kids said (I’m paraphrasing) “Well, Maori are practical people. We have problems with maths and science, we learn best with our hands.’

In both cases (and you don’t have to search too far to find other such presumptions bubbling up amongst friends and whānau) an ossified and essentialist understanding of Māori culture is held up and venerated. Māori people are practical, we make things and do things. We tell stories, we perform stories, but we don’t write them down for others to read. And we probably don’t read them either.

[Forgive me if I take a moment off-screen to bash my over-educated head against a rather inviting pale red brick wall.

OK I’m back.]

I remember interviewing the actor and all-round extraordinary bloke Wi Kuki Kaa in 1992. He mused that people had often said to him that Māori were “naturals” at acting, at rugby, and kapa haka.”Nah”, he reckoned. In his view, if he had been raised in another family in another culture he would have been good at the things in those cultures. Māori weren’t “natural” at kapa haka…they were taught to be that way. There may be a genetic inheritance at work, but that can always be retooled in other cultures.

Culture is a human creation, that is all. It is the product of generations of people doing, saying, writing, thinking, eating acting, singing, playing, and being together. Rinse, and repeat. There is no magic formula, there is no high watermark of culture. There is no line we cross exactly when we know a cultural practice or a whole culture has died or forever changed. We just forget. And then we forget that we ever knew.

But culture, despite its blurred edges, performs an important function. Adherence to, or membership of, a culture (over and above mere ethnicity) grants us entry into something transcendent, beyond ourselves as individuals. Membership of a minority culture in particular gives us access not only to that culture and to a meaningful cultural life, but the rights of protection that accrue to that culture at international and in domestic law. If there is no collation of practices, characteristics and products that can be identified as being ‘of’ a given culture then it cannot be protected.

On the one hand we might tend to view culture as a mysterious unifying quality that marks out one set of human beings from another set of human beings. On the other hand, culture is a constraint. Once the hallmarks of a given culture are identified, reinforced and repeated, it becomes really difficult to challenge. Innovation and change pose huge risks to those who identify, particularly with an indigenous or minority culture.

So the very moment we call on culture to help us advance a position, identify solutions to political problems, create unity, affirm kinship, it bites us on the backside and orders us back into the box of our own bloody making. There is no phrase that fills me with more dread than “Māori are…”. And yet, sometimes I use it. Because how else do we target and speak to Māori without identifying who we think Māori are? How do we employ Māori knowledge or seek it, without being open to seeing such knowledge is peculiarly Māori in the first place? How do we challenge Māori culture without first acknowledging that it exists?

I guess the answer is in common sense and moderation. We should reject essentialism and the constraints it places on our evolution as a people. We should reject the position that sees no culture: that way lies hegemony and oppression all over again.

And for the Māori in the room? She had better be a good tightrope walker, is all.








Banning Karakia in schools? A cultural can o’ worms, or beat-up?

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.

So why has this issue been raising its head (and not for the first time)? You may have missed it, but an important case was due to be heard in the High Court last month. Jeff McClintock had filed a claim against Red Beach school in Auckland for alleged failures of its duties under the Education Act 1989 in regards to the allegedly discriminatory treatment his daughter received after she opted out of Bible classes. The matter morphed into a national issue and by early April this year, the big guns were lined up to be joined as parties to either side of the action; including the Human Rights Commission, the Secular Education Network, and the Churches Education Commission.

Interest had been building over the past 18 months or so, tensions were rising…and then; nothing. Mr McLintock failed to get some papers into the court on time, and the case was thrown out, its central claims left un-argued. Despite this damp squib anti-climax, there may yet be some progress on this front, as an appeal has been lodged against the court’s decision.

So what is the connection between McClintock’s issue and karakia? 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!”


[Please note: this post is an updated version of the original posted on E-Tangata]




Waitangi & the Unsung Virtue of Uncertainty

Waitangi & the Unsung Virtue of Uncertainty

It’s never very far from my memory; the time in 1988 I took a taxi to Jupiter’s Casino on the Gold Coast with a couple of army friends of mine. All I can really recall is shrinking down into the back seat, between my companions, in bemused horror as the taxi driver proceeded to tell us all about how the Tasmanian Aborigines were exterminated, and that, on the mainland “they should have finished the job”. I was 18 and working at Expo 88 in Brisbane at the time, in a year of bicentennial celebrations of the European settlement of Australia. I was doing my bit back then to contribute to Australian patriotism and until that moment I had never really given the other side of the story another thought.

If you are a social media type with a New Zealand Facebook account you will likely have had a few interesting or disturbing posts on your feed in the lead up to Australia Day on 26 January, marking the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships to Sydney Cove in 1788. This Day is intended to be a celebratory one:

On Australia Day we come together as a nation to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.

In my case the social media posts I saw were less than celebratory (see here and here for examples), and largely consisted of withering criticism of Australia’s treatment of Aborigines. Invasion Day provided another view of a day intended to celebrate the formation of Australia as a nation. In truth, I shared the odd post myself.

At times like this New Zealand discussions about race relations between the majority populations of Australia and New Zealand and their respective indigenous communities takes on a competitive tinge. We New Zealanders are just SO much better than Australians at ‘dealing with’ indigenous peoples, and every year Australia Day gives us that lovely frisson that comes from revelling, for a moment, in the feeling of a job well done. There is, after all, some evidence to suggest that our race relations are better (such a quaint term that, ‘race relations’ a time when we rarely talk of ‘race’ anymore). Smugness is sterile though; each country has quite a different political, cultural and social history, not to mention a vastly different linguistic and demographic landscape.

And any little sense of complacency we might have been lured into by way of Australia Day on Jan 26 is soon obliterated by our own tortured anxieties (for some, at least) about Waitangi Day on Feb 6.  Usually there is some issue or take that demands protest and attention, for which Waitangi Day becomes a kind of cultural and political lightening rod. This year it is the approaching local signing of the TPPA (Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement). Some Māori have promised protest at Waitangi, while the John Key proclaims  his normal state of resolute relaxation about any such protests.

And, on cue, a few weeks out, Pākehā Media Personality Angst Against Waitangi (PMPAAW) kicks in. In 2012 it was Paul Holmes who delivered up an absolute doozy against which the Press Council upheld complaints. Paul spluttered:

I wouldn’t take my three great uncles who died at Gallipoli and in France – Reuben, Mathew and Leonard – to Waitangi Day and expect them to believe this was our national day. I wouldn’t take my father, veteran of El Alamein and Cassino, there. Nor would I take my Uncle Ken who died in a Wellington bomber, then try and tell him Waitangi Day was anything but filth.

No, if Maori want Waitangi Day for themselves, let them have it. Let them go and raid a bit more kai moana than they need for the big, and feed themselves silly, speak of the injustices heaped upon them by the greedy Pakeha and work out new ways of bamboozling the Pakeha to come up with a few more millions.

The same year Richard Long had a go. in 2014 Cameron Slater jumped on the train, Peter Dunn reiterated calls for a New Zealand Day to replace Waitangi Day in 2011. This year, it was Mike Hosking’s turn, although on TV rather than in print. ‘An annual ritual of abuse, anger and ignorance’, in Mike’s view. Well, I’m not sure which ritual he was referring to, the one at the lower marae, or that perpetrated by PMPAW.

Snarkiness aside, I have never had any problems with dissent about Waitangi Day, from any quarter. These protests, complaints and flagellation are absolutely necessary. New Zealand must never, in my view succumb again to a comfortable view of itself. This uncertainty about our national identity and our connections between our communities is absolutely essential if we are to function well as a nation in the future.

The seeds of this uncertainty were sown in the years between 1835-1840 with the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Treaty of Waitangi, and only in the past 40 or so years have those seeds begun to bear fruit more obviously in the public consciousness. But make no mistake, in regards to Crown-Māori relations uncertainty has been our national lifeblood. The Treaty of Waitangi is but only one agreement between the Crown and Māori among hundreds in our multi-textual legal history. These agreements included deeds of cession, confiscation agreements, and regional pre-emptive agreements each agreement opening up new relationships, new portals for negotiation, new sites of political uncertainty.

In fact, the single most enduring and salient feature of political constitutionalism in colonial NZ has been Maori insistence on treating any agreement with the Crown as never final, but, in the words of Mark Hickford, only as:

‘punctuated moments in conversations without end’.

Time and again, year after year, decade after decade Māori have insisted on negotiation, compromise, recognition and political space. Sometimes they have got it, oftentimes not.

So, from the perspective of what we could call political identity formation, or constitutionalism, the Treaty of Waitangi generates a kind of positive uncertainty. We don’t actually know what the future will bring in the relationship between Māori, the Crown, and the peoples of New Zealand. We cannot take solace in the presumption that what has been always will be. There are new settlements, new agreements, new cultural landscapes and new relationships forming and dissolving every year. None of this is comfortable.

I like comfort and moderation. So I have some sympathy with the call for the simplicity of a New Zealand Day, such as that called for many times by MP Peter Dunne:

“We have so many wonderful things about this country that we should be celebrating; we have achieved great things as a nation and continue to do so. We need to be proud of all of that and celebrate what it is to be a Kiwi.

“Waitangi Day is not doing that and has not for a long time.

Mr Dunne said Waitangi Day rarely leaves Kiwis feeling more “united, positive or upbeat”, and non-Maori avoid the day.


Dunne and those like him seem to wish for a simpler, more certain idea of what being a New Zealander is; something more like an Australian Day celebration (without the messy complications of stolen generations and drunk NRL players).

I think we can celebrate and be pissed off at each other. Why are these things mutually exclusive? They can’t be for me, my Pākehā and Māori ancestors collectively got me into my current situation as an urban born Māori who has had to learn what being Māori even means.

So, arguably, Waitangi Day has a far different function than a mere “National Day”, it is a reminder of uncertainty, and to be frank; a safety valve. As Tim Watkin observed in 2012:

I want to hear the anger, not least because silence leads to disenfranchisement and ultimately to violence. It’s when the shouting stops that the bomb-making begins, so let’s celebrate that our national day encourages citizens to speak their truths rather than kill for them.

So wherever I go and whatever I do this Waitangi Day (more likely to be blobbing rather than protesting) I will at some point take a moment to be grateful for our national uncertainty. The alternative is more frightening.

[Please note this post is available at E-Tangata in a slightly edited form.]



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.

The Paris attacks, Derek Fox, and the chimera of free speech.

Freedom of speech. This extraordinary notion, in the wake of the French shootings and sieges this week, is now being dusted off, lauded, and reaffirmed as one of the centre-pieces of our modern democratic lives. And it is. The problem is that we seem to be losing track of the notion of speaking freely, concentrating instead on using the idea of ‘Freedom of Speech” as a pretext for whatever ideological barrow we want to push or extinguish. Over the last couple of days I’ve identified three kinds of pretexts involving free speech from the discourse in the wake of the initial killings in Paris. The first one accords with my opinion, the other two, not so much.

Freedom of Speech as a pretext for acts of terror

Freedom of speech, as employed by Charlie Hebdo artists, was not the reason for the attacks. Sure, the staff were exercising the right (more on this shortly) but their exercise of that right (some pretty blimmin’ offensive cartoons) was not really why they were attacked. Those set upon a course of creating their own war require pretexts upon which to act. The pretexts just have to resound enough with some prevailing ideology to ensure that at least some people will give a patina of ideological rationale to the acts about to be carried out. Offensive/satirical cartoons are as good any other kind of pretext. A girl sitting on a school bus, an Iraqi queuing to join the local police. The murder of some teenagers. Rationales can always be found when required for a course one has already decided upon anyway. For this reason I don’t really hold with those who wax lyrical about how the cartoonists and the cleaner and the cop outside at the Paris attack were heroes of free speech. They and their families deserve commemoration and respect. To be clear, though, they were the chosen victims, because of their connection to the most convenient pretext to serve as a rationale for what the terrorists wanted to do. 61 journalists were slaughtered around the world in 2014, 17 of them in Syria. I don’t recall any freedom marches for them.

Freedom of Speech as a Pretext for Cultural Imperialism

Derek Fox, who is something of a bloody-minded curmudgeon on a good day anyway, reckons the victims got what they were looking for. He, like me, thinks freedom of speech is being used as a pretext, but in his view, a rationale not so much for the gunmen in Paris, but for the actions of the cartoonists and the magazine editor; as an excuse to perpetrate cultural imperialism by magazines in order to sell more magazines.  “Well” spat Derek, “now they have been severely bitten on the bum.” Well, bitten on the bum, slaughtered, in the case of that particular magazine, but yeah, same thing, clearly, Derek. Putting to the side my niggling questions as to whether Derek has been taking sensitivity training from post-Steve-Irwin-stingray-attack Germaine Greer, one of the criticisms made by Derek was:

Power cultures all like to use the old chestnut of freedom of speech when they choose to ridicule people who aren’t exactly like them, and mostly they get away with it.

I don’t exactly disagree with Derek on this. Good arguments can be made that much bad stuff has been done upon the pretext of bringing liberation and the values of Western democracy and values to the ‘other’. But Derek’s notion of what free speech is restricted to, it seems, thing being said by:

…people who believe they can use the power they wield by way of dominating the media to abuse and ridicule others they believe to inferior to them – just like [in] this country

So in his view freedom of speech is merely a pretext if the wrong people are exercising the right, and saying bad things. But actually, that’s kind of how it works. Freedom to speak will mean that sometimes the wrong people will speak awful stuff. (By the way, Elipsister’s powerful and more eloquent critique regarding the use of freedom of speech as this kind of pretext setting can be found here).

Freedom of Speech as Enabler of New Zealand white male bigotry

In New Zealand there is a lot that people can say that is not prescribed by any kind of law. Cameron Slater, Muriel Newman, Rodney Hide, that woman who thinks women should ‘surrender’ to their men, that Alan Titford supporter, that pastor in Auckland who thinks and says gay people should go to hell; all of them can express these views within the bounds of legality. OK…that old Evelyn Beatrice Hall quote comes to mind: “I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it.” It’s a seductive tenet, right? But some of the comments emerging in the wake of the Paris attacks in support of Derek Fox’s comments have focused on the New Zealand context expressing the view that in New Zealand free speech is something of a ‘one-way street’ and apparently  extends to having to tolerate, or enable views that may be perpetrating oppression of whatever nature, once again. Another observation might be expressed like this: “by virtue of his/her privilege this person gets to be heard all the time anyway, and alternative voices get lost.” Free speech once again becomes merely a pretext for something far more sinister apparently: the perpetration of the right-wing agenda (not that I am entirely sure what that is..)

Flippancy aside, I have some sympathy for the view that only certain (usually Pākehā) points of view tend to filter through our mainstream media. But I’m not sure that the fact we have a fairly homogenous set of voices in our mainstream media means that freedom of speech has somehow become reduced to a mere pretext for this state of affairs. Freedom of speech, according to some of these voices, has merely become shorthand for exclusion, oppression and marginalization of various groups within NZ society. I was reminded by the reaction, on FB,  to Gareth Morgan’s  set of articles about the Treaty of Waitangi derived from his recent book. According to some of the reactions, he’s an economist with no background in the Treaty. He perpetrates disinformation, he is just another white male speaking to other white men. Maybe so. I don’t have time here to critique his writing (there are some problems with it, and some good stuff too, but I’ll leave that for another day) there are some interesting response pieces already out there, such as from Potaua Biasiny-Tule here, and from Morgan Godfrey here. But here’s the thing…he is speaking and writing freely, and we, in response, are speaking and writing freely. The structure and biases of mainstream media does not cancel out that freedom, does it?

Thinking back in wistfulness to Evelyn Beatrice Hall again…Just why is it that we seem, some of us at least, to presume that freedom of speech only really matters when we agree with what is being said? An interesting column on this can be found here. I guess my point is that for free speech to mean anything other than the pretexts other people load on to it we need to be active in speaking freely and (critically important) allowing others to speak freely. The greatest threat to free speech is not Al Quaeda or ISIS or Boko Haram, or even the editors of the Herald. The greatest threat to free speech lies within our own tendency to want to stomp on dissenting voices, from any part of the political, cultural or social spectrum. So let’s worry less about the pretexts for which the idea of freedom of speech is being manipulated. Let’s just get on with the business of speaking freely, and maybe, even once in a while, listening.

The curious case of Korotangi Paki and inherited privilege in modern New Zealand.

The curious case of Korotangi Paki and inherited privilege in modern New Zealand.

The news today that Korotangi Paki has now had a conviction entered against his name for Excess Breath Alcohol reminded me of a conversation I had with my mother a few months ago when the news broke that he had, at that time, escaped conviction.  “What!” She yelped. “How did he get off? That’s not bloody fair! And anyway, the Kingitanga’s not even bloody REAL!” My Mum’s Pākehā. I’m pretty certain my Dad (nō Te Rarawa), were he still alive, would have had pretty much the same response. That Korotangi Paki’s story has had legs for a large chunk of this year is in part because of a powerful idea in the mainstream New Zealand public imagination. People with privilege should not be treated more gently than the rest of us plebs, especially when such privilege is based on birth and inheritance. Every so often some issue such as this swells in the public consciousness and has people claiming loudly and broadly about equality for all. On a good day I can see that kind of response as some kind of evidence that the reputed strong egalitarian streak in the New Zealand psyche is alive and well in our heads if not in real life, and some degree of disdain for inherited privilege is pretty healthy.

Privilege is an interesting topic as it has so many manifestations. And of course, the slightly notable thing in Paki’s case is that the charge has always been that he was was a Māori supposedly claiming inherited privilege.  The general tenor of this kind of criticism on a popular, dedicated Facebook page is easy to spot:

This is an outrage! […] This shows the Kingitanga as an excuse for featherbedding and protection of tribal privilege. The rest of us would have to take our lumps!…


Unfair justice. No matter who you are or where you come from, If you do the crime, do the time!!! Is it fair to say, if we got caught for theft, burglary & drink driving we can ask the Maori king to get the case DISCHARGED without conviction too? FAIR JUSTICE for all…just saying..

Of course, this criticism is also interspersed with even more comments bemoaning so-called racial (as opposed to inherited) privilege. and, curiously, many, many comments scorning King Tūheitia for being a truck driver with that fact being held up as evidence that the Kīngitanga isn’t a real monarchy anyway. Hmm. Well, be that as it may… Certainly, in Māori thinking, often lineage does count for something.  This fact is often perceived to be in direct tension with New Zealand’s long-lived love affair with the idea (if not the reality) of classlessness/equality. Focus on lineage is often easily conflated with the presumption of inherited privilege.

Lineage is extraordinarily important in Māori thinking, but not so much because it comes with attendant wealth, but because whakapapa (genealogy) is the pre-eminent organising principle of Māori life, even among many Māori who profess no Māori cultural life otherwise. Māori commonly seek connection with each other on a familial basis for any number of purposes; to decide on the speaking order on the paepae, perhaps, to help a therapist and client create a good therapeutic relationship, to make slyly apt jokes hidden in the lyrics of a particularly lascivious haka, to smoothe the way in creating a relationship between newly introduced strangers. Whakapapa, as the basis of collective action, is now commonly referred to as a teaching tool and necessary focus in some rehabilitation frameworks.  Whakapapa can help determine those who might best serve on a hapū negotiating team, given the connections that could be created with other hapū to get the most combined traction. And obviously whakapapa can determine ownership of land. Like the gossamer threads of the spiderweb, whakapapa, is everywhere, connecting pretty much everybody and everything. This is no misty spiritual abstraction; whakapapa is a bloody useful tool.

Undoubtedly, whakapapa can, sometimes, bring with it wealth and influence, and opportunities not open to others, which is why the privilege presumed to apply to Korotangi Paki, as the second son of King Tūheitia, has received such a public airing. This idea of privilege based on whakapapa, although relatively less exercised among Māori, is probably quite familiar to most New Zealanders who recognise, and deeply distrust, lineage-derived privilege. But how deep does this distrust really run, I wonder? And can we see it in our own mirrors, I wonder?

I wrote two wills, this year. One for an older female relative on the Pākehā side of my whānau , one for one of my older whanaunga in my Dad’s family. In doing up these documents I got a pretty clear idea of how inherited privilege can work even just within my own family. Although my Pākehā relative has been a beneficiary (DPB and Super) for more than 40 years she inherited some money from her stepmother when she died, and when she received a similar amount from her own mother who passed away, that was enough to pay the remaining mortgage on her home, about 12 years ago. So all she has in her house, but she owns that, and absolutely nothing else. When she passes away her adult children will inherit some part of that legacy which will then bolster whatever they have managed to accrue for themselves over their adult lives. A smaller share of her legacy will also be divided between the grandkids to be held on trust until they are old enough preferably for use in tertiary study or for partial house deposits. In turn, the grandkids themselves will also inherit their parents’ shares of that legacy providing for some level of economic stability for decades to come, that, most likely will only increase in value and carry on down the generations to come. That’s inherited privilege, isn’t it?

My whanaunga’s will on my father’s side of the whānau represents an entirely different situation. There is a large amount of land, and a house on its section. Neither is owned outright by my whanaunga. Instead the land is collectively held in different areas around the North Island with literally hundreds and hundreds of other people. The house and section are in a whānau trust under the Māori Land Act. My whanaunga worked all his life until retirement, but there is no inherited wealth, other than his actual lineage and whakapapa connections that already belong to his adult children anyway. Of course there is the wealth of the homestead itself and the landscaping; a wealth of memories and connections that will remain. So much for our dual legal system with ‘special laws’ bestowing privilege on that whānau. There is no increased capital value that will enhance the lives of his children or grandchildren.

I want to be clear that I don’t think I am talking here about ‘white privilege’ per se. While inherited privilege will often accrue to white people, in my unsophisticated view, white privilege refers to a degree of racial and cultural privilege experienced by, well, white people.  I am speaking here specifically of inherited privilege. Often the two will coincide, but not inevitably. And yes, of course there will be a significant number of Māori families who will have exactly the same kind of individual wealth as I described above. Provided, of course, that they have managed to accumulate individual wealth outside of the Māori land system. It is probably also entirely possible now to talk of an inheritable collective privilege, as iwi and hapū develop and grow their asset bases and engage in post-settlement reconstruction. So obviously I don’t consider Māori to be excluded from the notion of inherited privilege. However I consider it far more likely that Pākehā families will benefit more directly and more materially from inherited privilege.

For one thing, I’m pretty sure I see inherited privilege most days I go to work at my university, and I’m the beneficiary of it myself, from the Pākeha side of my whakapapa. I wonder how much outrage generated against Korotangi Paki was created by people who themselves owed something significant to their own inherited privilege. How many of those people end up being somewhat insulated against the possibility of being claimed by the criminal justice system because of their birth privilege, I wonder? Chuck Collins in a post last year identified certain kinds of students whose inheritance determines, at least to some degree, the nature of their futures. This quote is a lengthy one, but worth including (bearing in mind the US context). Collins imagines a scene that could happen in any uni cafe around NZ: two 21-year-old students sit down in a cafe to study for an upcoming test:

Behind the counter, a barista whips up their double-shot lattes. In the back kitchen, another young adult washes the dishes and empties the trash. One of the college students, Miranda, will graduate without any student-loan debt and will have completed three summers of unpaid internships at businesses that will advance her career path. Her parents stand ready to subsidize her lodging with a security deposit and co-signed apartment lease and will give her a no-interest loan to buy a car. They also have a network of family and professional contacts that can help her. Ten years later, Miranda will have a high-paying job, be engaged to another professional, and will buy a home in a neighborhood with other college-educated professionals, a property that will steadily appreciate over time because of its location.

The other collegiate, Marcus, will graduate with more than $55,000 in [student loan], a maxed-out credit card, and an extensive résumé of part-time food-service jobs that he has taken to pay for school, both during summers and while in college, reducing the hours he can study. Though he will obtain a degree, he will graduate with almost no work experience in his field of study, and begin working two part-time jobs to pay back his student loans and to afford rent in a shared apartment. Ten years later, Marcus will still be working in low-paying jobs and renting an apartment. He will feel occupationally stuck and frustrated in his attempts to network in the area of his degree. He will take on additional debt—to deal with various health and financial problems—and watch his hope of buying a home slip away, in large part because of a credit history damaged during his early twenties.

Tony, the barista, has the benefit of not taking on mega-debt from college. He will eventually enroll in some classes at a local public university. But his income and employment opportunities will be constrained by not having a degree. He will make several attempts to learn a building trade and start his own business, eventually landing a job with a steady but low income. The good news for Tony is that his parents, while not college educated or wealthy, are stable middle-class with modest retirement pensions and a debt-free house, acquired by Tony’s grandfather with a low-interest [..] mortgage. They are able to provide a bedroom to their son. That home will prove to be a significant factor in Tony’s future economic stability, as he will eventually inherit it.

Cordelia, working in the kitchen, has even less opportunity than Tony for mobility and advancement. Neither of her parents went to college nor have significant assets, as they rent their housing. Though she was academically in the top of her urban high-school class, she did not consider applying to a selective college. The costs seemed daunting, and she didn’t know anyone who went away to college. There were no adults or guidance professionals to help her explore other options, including financial aid available at private colleges, some of which would have paid her full tuition and expenses to attend. Instead, she takes courses at the local community college where she sees many familiar faces. Cordelia will struggle with health issues, as lack of adequate health care and insurance means she will delay treatment of several problems. Over time, she will have a steady and low-wage job, but she will also begin to take more responsibility for supporting members of her family who are less fortunate.

So while many of us might be pretty happy about Korotangi Paki’s shiny new conviction (or not) I think it’s worth a moment of reflection to ask what role, if any, some manifestation of inherited privilege might play in our own lives. Just a thought. Not a judgment.

In praise of…Pākehā learning and teaching te reo Māori

I had one of those lump-in-the throat moments the other day watching Jennifer Ward-Lealand on Native Affairs talking in te reo Māori about her journey into te reo Māori (watch it here.) She was suffering from a bit of a cold, and she chose her words carefully, and she was gorgeous to watch and marvellous to listen to, giving hope to many an aspiring reo learner judging by comments on social media. I found my own emotional reaction a little surprising. After all, what’s new about people learning te reo? What, especially, can possibly be new about that kind of interview during Māori Language Week? Get a grip, girl! At any rate I found myself analysing my own response (yes the inside of my own head can be a pretty annoying place at times). One stream of thinking in my mind was the cynic. She is often present and not always pleasant. ‘Riiight’, she sneered. ‘You need Pākehā approval of our language just to be able to feel good about it. Typical behaviour of the colonised mentality.’ ‘Ah shaddap’, I told my cynical self. But on the other hand there might be a grain of unwelcome truth there. As someone who has had to learn how to be culturally Māori over the last three decades or so, perhaps I really haven’t left behind that insecurity that has me fear that I will some day be found out as a cultural fake. As the late and very great Barry Barclay said to me in an interview once, he always felt like he was in a ‘spiritual wheelchair’ during his journey to learn to be culturally Māori as an adult. By this he meant that he always felt at a level of disadvantage that perhaps was only perceptible to him. Maybe, if I still have the remains of that kind of cultural ‘dis-ease, I still need ‘validation.’  Perhaps I really do need Pākehā I admire to like and respect things Māori in order for me to ‘have permission’ feel good about them myself. I don’t know. I hope not.

But there is another slightly (actually substantially) louder voice in the hubbub. That’s the voice that reminds me how absolutely grateful I am to certain Pākehā who cropped up at critical times in  my life to let me know that not only was it OK to be Māori, the Māori language is truly a thing of genius as well as beauty. My Pākehā mother raised me to believe it was good and special and enviable to be Māori even of she was never quite sure what that meant. (My Māori dad, I don’t think, gave a pātero in the high wind for the language, for much of his life.) It was Dr Winifred Bauer at Te Kawa a Maui in 2007 who opened my eyes to the brilliance of the language. I knew how to speak and write it by then (to a useful but not fluent degree) but I had no idea that the language I had been learning was so bloody GOOD. Yes, I know all languages are good. I just think I had taken it for granted up until that point, and being in her class was like taking the back off a Swiss watch and seeing for the very first time the unbelievably intricate mechanisms that lay behind the smooth and beautiful face.

Then there are the Pākehā who are fluent in te reo Maori that I just happened upon over the course of my working life, people like Anaru Robb, Tipene Chrisp and Mary Boyce just to name a few. There were the many Pākehā and Tauiwi students that formed some part of my own language learning journey. Something I have learned over the years is that for Pakeha learning te reo there may be quite a heavy personal cost as they can be challenged about their right to access te reo, and for those that attain fluency and go on to teach, the pressure they can experience, the challenges placed before them because of their Pakehatanga can be substantial (as alluded to in this article). Not only do such individuals sometimes face challenge from Māori about their right to participate in a language that has been lost to so many Māori already, they will often face challenges from other Pākehā and Tauiwi questioning the utility of their choice. That decision to plough on regardless takes a certain kind of bravery.

I have heard it said that if Māori is to survive in this country as a viable language, then Pākehā must speak it. If they do not, the declining numbers of Māori currently speaking te reo (as identified in the most recent census) may be the harbinger of linguistic doom. We need all hands on deck. If that is indeed the case (and I agree that it is) reports this week of the low numbers of non-Maori studying te reo at school (4% of the total student body in year 9 and above, (see here) are concerning. The Māori and Pākehā learners of today are the reo Māori teachers of tomorrow. One of the key argument against making te reo compulsory in schools has been that due to the low numbers of te reo Māori teachers the bulk of the people who would need to deliver te reo to the school kids would be Pākehā, and in many cases, inexperienced and underprepared to do a good job. As calls for compulsory te reo Māori at primary school level start to gain a bit more of a head of steam (see here) it becomes pretty obvious that there would be a massive problem in delivery, even if the compulsory element is only in the offering of te reo Māori, rather than in ensuring every child must learn it. But I don’t think the lack of human resources comprises an effective argument against compulsory reo in schools, rather, that is a logistical problem that will need to be solved by governments – governments that have a shabby record in solving logistical problems as far as the Māori language is  concerned, at least. (If you need evidence of this, have a look at the te reo Māori chapter of the WAI 262 report as profiled on Carwyn Jones’ Te Ahi Kaa Roa blog.) I don’t know what the new language strategy holds for the future of Pākehā learning te reo Māori, but without those Māori and Pākehā dedicated to, and loving, te reo, I would not be able to hold the conversations that I do. I know how lucky I am, and how grateful I am to all those who have helped me over the decades of my reo journey, Māori mā, Pākehā mā. Tēnā koutou katoa, ngā manu tioriori. But the flight path you leave has to be a wide one, so it seems, if enough of us are to follow.

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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