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.