Monday, March 14, 2016

What colour is your nationalism?

It’s bad enough that it was a question at all, but when I took the survey it was the opening one. In the form of a statement, it read as follows:
Māori should not receive any special treatment
What a way to start a survey on New Zealand’s national identity – the largest ever, no less, and backed by the state broadcaster as well as academics from our second largest university. Organisations including the Human Rights Commission and institutional figures such as the commissioners for Race Relations and Indigenous Rights took strong exception to it – dutifully, one might say. My learned friend Tze Ming Mok disagreed, characterising it as ‘a perfectly reasonable way to measure how anti-Maori people are.’ She went on to say:
People want research that can help society. But we can’t help society if we don’t know where the problems are. And we can’t see where the problems are unless we ask the hard questions about people’s sometimes shitty attitudes.

Her post goes on to articulate several criticisms of the survey, and is well worth reading. I’m sticking with that first question, however. Because if it’s true that social scientists have an obligation to hold a truthful mirror to us, it beggars belief that they should have taken such an inflammatory approach to doing so. Not only is the question of whether or not Māori should receive special treatment unacceptably ambiguous and loaded. If it happens to come up near the start of the survey, it immediately excludes Māori from the sample. For how would a Māori person respond to such a question? Would they strongly agree, on the grounds that they don’t want to receive any more special treatment of the kind that was dished out at Ruatoki, or continues to be meted in our prisons or in the wider society? Or would they simply conclude, quite reasonably, that the survey is not for them?

It’s not enough to say that the question may be efficient in rooting out racism, either. Racism can take many forms, and not all of them were canvassed. The survey run on the TVNZ website is a shortened version of a larger one conducted among 10,000 respondents earlier this year, but I’m willing to wager a large sum of money that the full one contained no questions on, say, the natural superiority of white people over other races. Yet I’m sure there are some New Zealanders who would vigorously espouse that position, too. So, the statement that ‘Māori should not receive any special treatment’ is really just one that can be included in the survey because it is socially acceptable to express agreement to it in polite society. We have read enough Waitangi Day columns and editorials in the mainstream press to know that this is the case.

If one question alienates Māori, of which there are about six hundred thousand, questions 3 (‘Refugees should be welcomed in New Zealand’) and 4 (‘Immigration is a threat to New Zealand’s culture’) alienate two further groups of people who might identify as New Zealanders. Again, it doesn’t matter that one statement is ostensibly positive, in the same way that question 19 (‘A history of discrimination has created conditions that make it difficult for Māori to be successful’) doesn’t ‘fix’ question 1. Simply put, we are never invited to consider a statement from a position other than that of a New Zealand-born Pākehā. For instance, we are never asked if ‘a history of discrimination has created conditions that make it disproportionately easy for Pākehā to be successful’ – which would be a no doubt provocative but also perfectly reasonable and historically grounded statement.

All this, on the way to discovering what the survey’s authors call ‘the six archetypes of Kiwi nationalism’, for in 2016 apparently it’s acceptable for academics to nonchalantly drop the word nationalism as if it wasn't soaked in blood. But then I suppose it’s a perfect match for the word ‘Kiwi’, that great index of a transparent national identity, uncomplicated by indigeneity or history. Sport, the great outdoors, beaches, an attachment to old England and its monarchy, and a token Māori icon are the only images that we are allowed to attach to this identity, like stickers on a suitcase. Hence a series of questions designed to progressively rule out the least preferred national symbols.


And so forth for several more iterations. Then, obligatorily, a question about the flag.

It’s all terribly fitting as the reduction of contemporary attitudes towards the idea of nation into the six archetypes – which by the way are globalist, traditionalist, patriot, sceptic, loyalist and egalitarian – is the perfect mirror to the shrill, puerile debate on the flag: not allowing for original invention, or an honest exploration of who we are, but rather exhausting itself in a dull marketing exercise.

If it’s true, as Tze Ming says, that the questions we may find troubling are designed to pinpoint our ‘shitty attitudes’, then we might expect to find the corresponding qualitative judgments in the findings. Yet not only do the archetypes fail to include ‘The Casual Racist’, but all of them are described in such a way as to conceal specific attitudes that may be regarded as negative or uncomfortable. For instance the Patriot – a likely candidate for feeling that Māori have it too easy – is described thusly:
Patriots pride themselves on being New Zealanders and feel a deep sense of attachment to the Kiwi lifestyle. They see Kiwi values as unique and preferable to most others, and generally think that New Zealand is the best country in the world in which to live.
Every nationalism is a good nationalism, you see? And even if we designed our survey to capture, say, bigotry, we’ll find ways to hide it underneath other, more positive characteristics. Like an attachment to traditional values, or mother England, or religion.

All of the problems with the survey are not reduced but rather magnified by the involvement of the state broadcaster, which is after all in the business of creating and updating a national identity for us to consume – through its sports coverage, its news and current affairs, the things it thinks will entertain us, or even its choice of brand imagery. And, inversely: its systematic marginalisation of Māori voices and issues, as well as those of New Zealanders who are atypical, outside the mainstream.

The involvement of a university in such deeply patronising and uncritical work should also concern us. But it’s time we abandoned once and for all the illusion that our universities serve their institutional function of ‘critic and conscience’ enshrined in the statutes by liberal legislators. It hasn’t been true for quite some time.

If you're in the mood for something somewhat less bitter, my New Humanist piece on David Bowie and online grieving is now up on the magazine's website