Minority retort

Elizabeth Rata’s article Ethnic Fundamentalism in New Zealand is a series of extraordinary assertions, supported not with reason and evidence but emotionalism and error.

Rata defines ethnicity as “a combination of culture … and genetic inheritance.” So the idea which is so obviously false is a truism: that people are primarily shaped by their genes and social environment. Her approach to questions of nature and nurture is that both are overcome by free will, if you are modern. If this doesn’t seem silly to you, try being a few inches shorter, or speaking a language you haven’t learnt. Rata is confusing politics with science. Social and political freedoms do not change scientific facts, nor should they be dependent on them.

Rata’s definitions are unnecessarily vague and weak. Ethnicity refers to race alone, culture alone, or both together, depending on context. A race is a section of humanity identified by appearance, or by descent from such a group. Although culture is not simply caused by genes, it is obviously connected. James Belich has written, “You are unlikely to see yourself as Irish, be seen by others to be Irish, and to maintain a degree of Irish culture … if you have no Irish descent.”

What way of defining ethnic groups we use, if any, depends on the context. To some extent Rata is correct that we should be free to identify as we please; and thus as a matter of courtesy, descriptive terms should be acceptable to those to whom they apply. However, we should not always expect others to recognise our personal identity choices; try insisting that you are the prime minister. International law defines indigenous people as people descended from the inhabitants of a region at the time of colonisation. This is the definition the Crown signed up to in the Treaty of Waitangi, referring to “the Chiefs and Tribes of New Zealand and to the respective families and individuals thereof.”

In law, the borderlines of ethnic groups may seem arbitrary and unfair in some cases. This is also true of means testing, tax brackets and age restrictions. Imperfectly defined categories are a prerequisite for understanding and for social organisation. How and whether we define particular groups thus depends on how we view the consequences.

Rata is agitated by the misconception that if someone has an ethnicity, it must be his or her “primary identity”. She states repeatedly that official recognition of ethnicity replaces “the individual citizen with the ethnic person as the political subject”. Practically all New Zealanders have had their ethnicity recorded and thus their citizenship altered. How, except in an emotional sense for lip-quiveringly fervent nationalists? Ethnicity is only one aspect of a person that a government recognises. Why treat it as a special case? The government funds schools for boys or girls only that are strictly exclusive. In what way is sex thus prioritised, replacing the individual citizen with the sexual person as the political subject?

The objections Rata raises against the concept of ethnicity are also true of citizenship, which is primarily held by inheritance. The genetic element is so strong that persons born overseas who remain there still inherit citizenship from their parents, whereas people can be born and live here their whole lives but be denied citizenship if their parents did not have it.

The second ethnic fundamentalist belief is that “the ethnic or racial group is primordial … that the group is distinctive and separate”. Who believes this? Maori myths say they are Polynesians who migrated here 700 to 1000 years ago, as historians confirm. Nearly all Maori have mixed tribal ancestry, and Pakeha ancestry. Being part of more than one group is regarded as a good thing, like dual citizenship. The most valued skill in powhiri speech-making is finding connections between the hosts and the guests, to show that the groups are not ultimately distinct and separate.

Third on Rata’s list is the belief that “Who we are in terms of the ancestral genetic group causes what we do and the meaning we give to our actions”. Rata calls this cultural determinism, although it would actually be genetic determinism; she equates genes with culture, the stance which she condemns. She writes that determinism underlies such things as Kaupapa Maori Research (KMR) but doesn’t say how. There is no reference to a connection in the recent article on KMR in the NZ Skeptic, which identifies the bases as philosophical relativism and political control.

Fourth in the ethnic fundamentalists’ creed is “that an ethnic group indigenous to an area is autochthonous, … ‘of the land’ in a way that is qualitatively different from those who arrive later”. Rata identifies the problem with a group being autochthonous as that it “claims a particular political status with entitlements not available to others.” This is the same as her fifth fundamentalist belief, that ethnic groups “be the bearer of political rights and be recognised in the public and political sphere”. She calls this “blood and soil” ideology, located in mythological origins, and seductive in its mystical appeal”. She can’t be talking about Maori, ,who have rights under the Treaty of Waitangi, not on the basis of “autochthony”, unless 1840 was the time of “mythological origins”.

Rata writes that “the process of ethnic politicisation is one driven by small well-educated elites … intellectuals”. If raising high levels of education as a danger were not ludicrous enough, Rata ends her list of genocides with Pol Pot, who “began his killing campaigns immediately on his return from study in Paris”. As an example of high education leading to ethno-nationalism, she gives a perpetrator of massacres that were not ethnically based, and who studied in a country that doesn’t recognise ethnicity.

She also writes that New Zealand has recognised ethnicity and undertaken “ethnic prioritisation” only in the last few decades. In fact, schools for Maori were opened by early missionaries; in 1847 the government subsidised the schools, which taught in Maori, on the condition that they taught in English. Governor Grey expressed the hope that the schools would remove children from “the demoralising influences of their villages”, “speedily assimilating the Maori to the habits and usages of the European”. In 1867 this ethnicisation was further entrenched with the Native Schools Act; the Native Schools were disestablished in 1969. A few years later, according to Rata, the “politicisation of ethnicity”, “particularly and most dangerously in education” began.

It has long been recognised that New Zealand has a complex history of race relations, and is working through difficult constitutional issues. Rata’s article is a poor contribution. It is surprising that unsubstantiated allegations of destroying the country, directed at those identified only as well-educated, have found a home in the NZ Skeptic. Let’s stick to reason, evidence, and clarity. (Abridged.)

Nicholas Drake

Media beat-ups out of control

While the questions surrounding the tragic death of Folole Muliaga are gradually answered it is timely to pose some questions about the role of the media in the whole matter. The furore was symptomatic of the new role of reporters and presenters of current affairs in our marketplace-oriented society. News and comment on it is now a commodity to attract subscribers, listeners and viewers. What we receive is value added information. The addition is guidance towards an attitude of high emotional arousal, usually outrage.

There can be no doubt that the tragic death of Mrs Muliaga did highlight some important issues about the policies, accessibility and accountability of Mercury Energy and similar large organisations. Labour’s earlier denial of the existence of an underclass and downplaying the problems associated with living in poverty was exposed for the unreal view that it is. There remain a number of questions about where the responsibility for the tragedy lies. What needs to be also asked is whether the role the media played in the saga was wholly beneficial. It may seem obvious that the publicity led to action and movement toward accountability but it is also possible that more than a touch of mob hysteria occurred because of the ‘name and shame’ aspect of the reporting. The issue is whether the whole panorama of news and current affairs presentations are developing a method of dealing with current affairs which is socially beneficial.

Certainly incidents of significance are brought to public attention and that is part of media’s responsibility. But these events are increasingly headlined, analysed and sensationalised before the full picture has been obtained. By the time there is a clearer picture feelings are running high and any downgrading of the shock value by new facts is not welcome.

To caricature the situation, we are in danger of following the media wherever it leads us, and believing that civilisation is crumbling. Considering we are living in one of the safest countries in the world this a ludicrous and dysfunctional belief. (Abridged.)

Ian McKissack

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