Monday, May 21, 2012

Signs of Discomfort

This is a story set in New Zealand but hardly peculiar to New Zealand. Its template is a very familiar one: residents of cities with a high influx of migrants express discomfort at the growing number of businesses that cater solely or predominantly for the migrants as opposed to themselves; and that discomfort gets reported on not with the tacit or manifest disapproval that the most respectable segments of the media are still expected to attach to racist utterances, but rather with sympathy. So much sympathy in fact as to become a legitimate subject of debate. Thus the finding of a study by Massey University researchers Robin Peace and Ian Goodwin that ‘Ethnic signs [are] a worry for Kiwis’, becomes a forum topic (‘Should all business signs be in English?’) and an instant poll (‘Do business signs that aren't in English make you feel uncomfortable?’) which then produces a second report validating the original finding (‘Ethnic signs: Poll confirms Kiwis uncomfortable’).

It is an object lesson in how mainstream Western media treats race and both describes and modulates attitudes to multiculturalism. To proceed in backward fashion: of course the Herald’s ‘poll’ doesn’t really confirm the discomfort of ‘Kiwis’, since it isn’t a scientific poll (meaning that it has a margin of error of plus or minus everyone) and its definition of ‘Kiwis’ is pre-selected to include only the subset of Herald online readers who will readily answer such a loaded question. Considerable liberty is also shown in the use of the word ‘ethnic’, which wasn’t in question. This for instance is a ‘business sign that is not in English’

It’s not in Italian either – that’s not how you spell caffè. Pretentious gits.
but I bet that it’s not what the ‘Kiwis’ who answered the poll were thinking of, and furthermore that it’s not the kind of sign that would produce discomfort in the self-selected sample. Here I am happy to concede that Peace and Goodwin have chosen a legitimate topic of research, for there is no doubt something to be learned in how these attitudes reflect the degree in which contemporary societies identify economic activity with culture and negotiate these terms. The ‘problem’ with shop signs that aren’t intelligible to ‘Kiwis’ is precisely their refusal to speak to the regular consumer, who is therefore excluded from those particular economic exchanges. Conversely the people whom these signs speak to become qualitatively different subjects, no longer placing themselves in the position of the outsider who aspires to cultural assimilation because it is no longer the only option available to them. This, I am willing to further concede, may in fact produce something akin to discomfort – although that may be altogether too polite a word – in some sectors of the population. But it’s a sentiment that begs first and foremost to be critiqued, as opposed to validated and amplified as the New Zealand Herald did (much as it was probably a secondary aim to the conversion of that single news item into thousands upon thousands of delicious page impressions. However this aspect, too, of how news don’t get so much reported as exploited, is far from irrelevant to understanding these issues).

Later in the week the Herald carried another piece which reported – this time mercifully sans sympathy – the views on Māori of Louis Crimp, the main donor of the neoliberal ACT party. One sentence stood out in particular:
All the white New Zealanders I've spoken to don't like the Maoris, the way they are full of crime and welfare.
This time we were spared the instant poll, nor did the paper ask us for Our Views. We are encouraged to own and share our discomfort, but it seems that outright hatred and prejudice are sentiments beyond the pale, at least when they are expressed so crudely. I wonder however if the first part of that sentence might help us rephrase more precisely the question put out earlier in week, for who are those ‘Kiwis’ asked to express their level of discomfort concerning non-English business signs if not the white New Zealanders that the Herald spoke to (or who were willing to speak to it)?

As a peculiarly infantilised expression of default personhood in New Zealand, ‘Kiwi’ most often means in fact Pākehā, but has the distinct advantage – from the perspective of white New Zealand – of not being a Māori word. It is therefore implicitly less confrontational, more cheerful, less loaded. We (white New Zealanders) own it. And it doesn’t matter that, as John Moore has argued, attitudes of prominent Māori activists such as Annette Sykes on this particular issue can be just as chauvinistic as that of the average Pākehā. That is very much a separate question, with a more complex answer. Ultimately, the people whose discomfort matters to the New Zealand Herald are the 'Kiwis', understood not as a bicultural – much less multicultural – entity, but rather as the addressees of Don Brash’s Orewa speech, and who therefore include not just the ACT party but also of much of the rest of the Right and not a few people on the Left, that is to say the equal-in-law New Zealanders for whom the only legitimate privilege is economic privilege, is class privilege, which just so happens to be disproportionately white privilege. In fact this obstinate racial fissure (a sorry if not downright inconvenient historical legacy to the pious liberal; an irritant to the braying arch-conservative) won’t be overcome until every citizen gets equal treatment, and every last vestige of positive discrimination – including the provision of welfare to a segment of the population that heavily skews brown – has been abandoned.

The Tories are working on this, abetted by an Opposition that is just as keen, if not keener, to use the word Kiwi to construct its uniform (that is to say, middle class and white) referent. Together, these political forces and the media have seized upon that discomfort as the means of articulating racism with respectability, and of presenting the racist subject as asking for nothing more than fair treatment, as opposed to the further entrenchment of its privilege. The mock-psychoanalytic language of feeling is a key to this move, for a feeling such as discomfort – unlike prejudice, unlike hatred – can be true or false, that is to say genuine or faked, but is neither right nor wrong. We feel the way we feel, and the way we feel – in an elegant twisting of the meaning of the word democracy – produces right and wrong. Thus when its own Attorney General brands a measure discriminatory, the Government, in the person of the Prime Minister, can retort that it doesn’t matter, because the measure is popular. People or, rather, Kiwis feel good about it. Conversely, when enough Kiwis feel uncomfortable about something, then it does not behove us to question the feeling or investigate its roots, but rather to treat that something as a political problem to be solved as a matter of priority.

The current moves to standardise and privatise education – including measures aimed at making public schools run on a private model to the benefit of the children of the ruling class – also originate from the politicisation of an emotion, namely the insecurity common amongst parents who fear that their children will not be equipped to thrive in tomorrow’s job market. This has nothing to do with the actual shortcomings, real or imagined, of the education system, and everything to do with diffuse and well-founded anxieties concerning the economic system, but the misguided, misdirected response – fixing education – has the virtue of addressing the point at which the emotion manifests itself and becomes intelligible. In this respect politicians follow the same script as journalists, amplifying these feelings and recycling them directly as political statements. The result is a politics dominated rhetorically by the figure of the non sequitur, as befits its lack of analysis and its reliance on inchoate expressions of the electorate’s state of mind.

One of the principal effects of this politics of feeling is to disable social forces and actors. A citizenship reduced to its emotions is incapable of real aspirations, let alone of formulating demands or strategies, and is only capable of thought in the very limited sense in which a focus group can be said to think, that is to say by responding in positive or negative fashion to elementary inputs. At best such a citizenship can ultimately hope to feel better, according to parameters that it doesn’t get to define and as a result of actions that it doesn’t get to take.

None of this, of course, is remotely new, but as I said at the beginning this isn’t a uniquely New Zealand story, nor an original one – just one that happens to make some of the mechanisms that govern contemporary public discourse particularly easy to observe. The task, just as obviously, remains that of reconstructing the excluded social actors against this remarkable convergence of media and politics. Be prepared for a lot of people to feel uncomfortable about that.


Unknown said...

Apparently unaware he was still being filmed, Mr Crimp then asked 3 News reporter Jane Luscombe whether she'd ever had sex against a tree.
Harman acknowledged Garner's contribution to The Nation, which is funded by New Zealand on Air.
I want to blame Descartes, then I realise that today in order for him to make a living, he would have to apply for NZ On Air funding, probably argue with his producer over direction, and have to say something really controversial to pump up Brand Descartes.

Dougal said...

A nice post, Giovanni, for which thanks as ever. What a week for reactionary gibbering. Particularly galling - although also complicated, as you acknowledge - that the racist posing around the restaurants also infects sections of the left.

This is another reminder, too, of how limiting and distorting it is that 'multiculturalism' remains the untranscendable theoretical horizon for almost all left and liberal commentary on questions of race and racism. (Or, worse, the false question 'biculturalism or multiculturalism?' generates endless false answers).

Most of the 'defences' of the signage I've heard follow the classic multiculturalist rhetorical strategy of offering up these other details as useful supplements to the White nation. This is 'multiculturalism' and 'tolerance' working as what Ghassan Hage calls nationalist strategies (and what Vijay Mishra calls 'principles of containment') working to renovate 'White fantasies of the nation.' There's little wonder that particular case doesn't generate much enthusiasm either.

There's a whole anti-racist political and theoretical tradition outside of, and hostile to, the ideology of 'multiculturalism', and yet its almost completely disappeared from view. Your comments here on how the Herald and others frame 'Kiwis' (or Key's 'most NZers'!) have set me thinking about all that again now in this context.

Dougal said...

Oh, and also, on Caffe L'Affare: my granny used to make us this splendid drink when we were wee, cribbed from local fashions and memories of Italian ice cream vendors in the British summers of the 1950s. It's called "cuppacino" -- equal parts instant coffee and sugar mixed through whisked hot milk. Gorgeous.

Giovanni Tiso said...

This is me last night:!/gtiso/status/204513589246164992

Giovanni Tiso said...

I have greater problems with the word tolerance than with the word multiculturalism*, but whatever reservations or critiques I might have for those terms, it's become a lot less pressing for me to express them after Orewa, and then again after the joint declaration by Merkel and Cameron that multiculturalism has failed. No sense in pretending that the Right is not setting the terms of the debate for us on this one.

By the very same token, I'll take the response that the 'ethnic signs' are a free lesson in cultural diversity, again in spite of the limitations I might see in it, simply because it's the best one available.

(* plus we called the association Multicultural Aotearoa. I was there, we took a vote.)

Giovanni Tiso said...

Equal parts sugar? It's like a mutant deranged Turkish coffee.

Alex said...

Interesting post, contrast it to Chris Trotter's where he equivocates severely over whether or not he tacitly endorses Crimp's views. It is couched in the language of the will of the majority, but posts like that will only add fuel to the fire.

Unknown said...

What is remarkable is how the reporter responded, and how the media have framed this ACT donor. Banks has been silenced until the Budget go NZ Media and NZ On Air
In NZ at this time I would have thought we were way down the track on racist bigots, obviously not.

Dougal said...

I agree the Right is setting the terms of the debate on this, yes, and that - for the reasons you give - this is a defensive moment. (I'd choose a different emphasis were I commenting elsewhere or in a more immediately political setting). I agree also tolerance is the worse of the two. Who's doing the tolerating?

But this also points to a problem, and one that can't be wished away with what's pressing. Multiculturalism was a state strategy, which is in part why Merkel and Cameron are making the claims they do. But is there a way to defend the fact of multiculture - immigrants' rights, the right to your own language, the status of refugees - without also ending up having to align yourself with multiculturalism as an ideology and strategy for national identity and renewal. I quoted Ghassan Hage for a reason -- he produced his works in the Howard years, in which the 'multiculturalism has failed' line was strong, and in a climate of ferocious anti-Lebanese sentiment in Sydney, and so his critique of multiculturalism is well aware of that wider context. If the Right set the terms of the debate they shouldn't also be allowed to set the limits of analysis.

(* We called the association Multicultural Aotearoa, sure, and I voted against that name. I was in a minority and the common cause seemed more important than, in that context, this quarrel, so it didn't come up again. So it's a debate within our movements, not one that needs to divide them).

Giovanni Tiso said...

"If the Right set the terms of the debate they shouldn't also be allowed to set the limits of analysis."

Yes, you are right. Although I think the way in which words like tolerance and multiculturalism can be of use is that you can make them mean something other than what that ideology and strategy dictate. As we did in the particular anti-racist project that Multicultural Aotearoa came together for.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Yes, the fact that he won't take a position himself, but defer to the people of Nelson (if not the Waitakere Man he himself invented) is typically unnerving.

Jmf said...

Photo of the lovely Louis Crimp: that must be where the expression '(almost) one-eyed' came from

Anonymous said...

Really great article, although your discussion of the politics of feeling leaves me feeling "uncomfortable". I'm not sure what else we have - after all, "discomfort" is too mild to describe what I felt after hearing Louis Crimp's remarks. And most of the feelings engaged in politics are thick concepts, in that they can't be reduced to mere goodness or badness because they contain a significant element of descriptive or cognitive content. And it's here, in our understanding of what our emotions are directed at, that a feeling can be said to be true or false. I feel disgust at the economic status quo, but that relies on my understanding of its structure and values, and mainstream political discourse has yet to convince me that this understanding - and hence disgust - is misdirected.
And your analysis of the polls is spot on. I'd happily see polls on political issues banned, but at the very least they should be required by law to meet some standard of statistically validity.

George D said...

"Most think erroneously that mastering a second language ultimately leads to an ability to say the same

and familiar stuff, but in a different set of words and sounds. But in practice, language is participating in social relations in an extremely complex world of unequals. You cannot say you have mastered a new language if you have not discovered a brand new world, and your new self in it, through the experience of learning it.

The possibility that knowledge might transform the knower is either a foreign idea to many or too scary for some to contemplate, despite the abundant evidence throughout history. This is why conservatives in many parts of Asia feel apprehensive about the spread of language and knowledge from the West in their homeland."

(Emphasis added)

From an entirely different context, but one that I think adds value to this conversation. In Australia elites are apprehensive about the unwillingness or disinterest their population shows towards learning the language of their large and powerful neighbour. NZ shows no such concern towards Asia, in part because even less than Australia it sees itself in a 'sea of islands' (Hau'ofa), a lone Anglo(-Maori) outpost with a larger brotherly neighbour. Even in this limited island context, support for Pacific language education has languished, supported only very recently by parties of the left. The possibility of transformation is a very real one, and one too frightening to contemplate.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I read that article when you linked it on Facebook and meant to comment there, but this is a very important point: the transformative power of language and of social and economic relations is what gets written out of these stories, except insofar as it can be presented as a vague, amorphous threat.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you for this Pale Fire. I think the issue is precisely that the strategy pursued by our media is to separate feelings from the descriptive and cognitive content, structure and value - an operation carried out with surgical precision by the form of the instant poll. And interestingly when the Herald asked its readers for general comments, as opposed to a multiple choice response, this generated a fairly useful discussion, or at least one that, if you were to apportion the responses according to the schematic logic of the poll, would have produced a radically different result to the one that was reported. But naturally in determining its own findings the paper chose the poll tally, rather than actually reading and trying to make sense of the more articulate responses it had solicited, and in spite of the fact that neither sample had greater statistical validity than the other.

Ben Wilson said...

Gio, you're building an excellent community here. Keep it up, it's on the money every time.

I keep feeling there's one hell of a wake up call coming to "Kiwis". Soon.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Thank you Ben, really appreciate your words.

Stephanie said...

Nah, one teaspoon instant coffee, one teaspoon sugar does not equate with Turkish coffee. Methinks it has been a long time if ever, Giovanni, that you have had an instant coffee!

Giovanni Tiso said...

Good point. I misread that, didn't I? I though it was make the coffee, then add as much sugar.

Unknown said...

I am convinced that our media is enabling the right,
"Finance Minister Bill English has taunted student protesters who yesterday blockaded an Auckland street saying "they need some Greeks to show them how to do it."
I would love to do a study on when the message commences and follow it through the various channels to it's ultimate conclusion. We used to do this media analysis in the bad old days and yes it was a given that editorial was flexible.

Unknown said...

Oh bingo!