Speaker by Various Artists

Making up words to prove a point

by Che Tibby

Feeling the pull of the obligation to do ‘academic’-type things I went to a public lecture the other day to hear some geezers talk about “community building”. Now, normally these things are as boring as batshit, but the Shadow Minister for Communications Lindsay Tanner was speaking and he’s actually kind of interesting. I won’t bore you with the details, but he made a good little clarification some publicaddress people might like.

Essentially, he stated that there had been two really important revolutions in his lifetime. The first was what is now called the ‘political correctness’ revolution of the 1960s, and the second the ‘economic rationalism’ revolution of the 1980s. Economic rationalism should be obvious to everyone in New Zealand. I remember attending another talkfest type night in Auckland a few years back (to hear David Lange speak) and heard a very excited Asian academic speak about New Zealand being the most highly economically rationalised-type economy in the world. Mind you, seven years has dulled the memory of a talk that mostly went over my head anyhow, but the point seems to have been that New Zealand took it onboard big-time.

Although trying to not be too partisan, Tanner indicated that Howard’s Coalition really digs the economic revolution, but is happy to try and simply forget about, or worse, try and turn the clock back on the cultural one. Instead, the Coalition uses money as a means to solve all ills. So, he argued that someone in the media says, “poverty among Aboriginal people”, or “child-abuse in middle-class white families” and like many conservatives Howard will reply, utilising the ‘Royal We’, “We have dedicated/allocated/allotted/contributed $Xmillion to that problem”. The obvious consideration being that money is the cure for all ailments.

But anyone who thinks rich people are happier than they are, might be both right and wrong. Sure having money would make my life easier, much easier, but it’s not going to do me any favours if people still call me a ‘boong’. On the other hand though, if I have money and ‘report’ someone who’s racially vilified me, maybe the coppers will listen.

Still, it didn’t help Aden Ridgeway in Democrat party squabbles last year. On Message Stick the other night he all but said outright that he wasn’t given the leadership because he’s black. Excellent…

Anyhow, the ‘political correctness’ revolution was a good description, if not only because it labels the way in which opponents of 1960s and 1970s social liberalisation see the changes that overtook both Australia (and New Zealand) back then. Tanner said clearly that the problem with liberals ‘these days’ is that they’ve still got their ‘liberation goggles’ on. He pointed out that in the 1950s things were pretty cut and dry in Australia. You went to school till you could leave and then you found a job, and advanced thru the ranks. Apprenticeship, office junior, or university? Which will it be?.

While this was going on women were almost exclusively home-makers, violence was normal, Aboriginals were “sub-human” (his words), and White Australia was the only nation-building policy. Coming from a small town Tanner reckoned that he could see and agreed with the changes overtaking Australian society that fundamentally questioned the way in which people saw these things as ‘normal’.

But, at the same time he suggested that this revolution has become a little too dogmatic in its aims, and people from that generation still want to challenge everything that is ‘status quo’, and try to force more liberalisation into society. And I’m in agreement that you can go too far. Maybe it is time for liberals to take off the ‘liberation goggles’ and let a few minorities stick up for themselves.

What I think about these really dogmatic liberals is they tend to superimpose their values on the groups they ‘freed’ during the PC revolution. What this means is that thirty years on, all too often liberals will stereotype minorities, and then find themselves shocked when they don’t conform to their expectation.

A good example is women choosing to be happy home-makers, or Maori who don’t give a stuff about being ‘warm and fuzzy community people’ and just want to go out and get filthy rich.

When I started out on my journey into academe I was your bog-standard angry young man. But I think that age and cynicism is wearing me down, as is my desire to be an academic (which is another story altogether). And this is because one of things that working in this field has taught me is that people are idiots.

As part of the current project I’ve been interviewing people on this and the New Zealand side of the ditch and it’s revealed to me some very interesting information and ways of looking at things. The number of concerned and well-meaning people of any political persuasion who think that indigenous people are helpless and in need to their guidance really, really shocked me.

A guy over here called Noel Pearson calls it the “white messiah” complex, where your great aunty Flo is happy to give money to charity as long as its spent in the way that she’d spend it, because that’s the way out of poverty (for example). In a strange way, your ‘concerned ladies society’ or ‘the middle-class civic-minded blokes club’ are just as patronising as the people who think that minorities are never going to cut it and should just assimilate.

What my study centres on is the idea that belonging to a nationality is more than conforming to majority norms and values. In a nutshell it’s like this. If you think you’re a kiwi, you have to be able to say things like “choice mate”, or “sweet as”, and not get any smirks or looks of disbelief.

I don’t want to flog a dead horse, but racism is almost always the main reason you could be denied authenticity. If you went to a private school, speak perfect English in New Zealand accent, live in Remuera and work for KPMG, but have Chinese parents, there’s still a good chance that some people are going to not think you’re a ‘real kiwi’.

And, even inside some utopian ‘white’ community there’s the same problem. Being kiwi is bigger than just worshiping the All Blacks, or eating vegemite, or following the Americas Cup, or knowing who Paul Holmes and Lana Cock-croft are (no one over here does).

I’ve read a book or two where people have tried to distil the essence of what it is to ‘be a kiwi’ or ‘be an aussie’ and they never really seem to put their finger on what I personally think these words mean. It’s like reading a horoscope, where sometimes you’ll go, oooooo…. That’s me alright, and other times you’ll wonder who in the hell the psychic is talking about.

So what this lead me to think was, if you can’t really say what a kiwi or aussie is, who are the politicians chatting up when they speak to ‘the nation’?

Answering this would do two things. One it’ll bore you to tears. Two it’ll mean that someone out there might publish my answers before I can, so I’m shutting up.

What white messiahs think, whether they realise it or not, is that their way of doing things is best for the subject of their charity, and a lot of concerned liberals think in this exact way. As a result, the difference between domineering conservatives and ‘freedom goggled’ liberals is kind of artificial, because at heart both think that the best way is to manufacture consensus at a mythical ‘national’ level, or to provide parity in socio-economic statistics. The way to tell whether someone is conservative or liberal is if they say “my way or the highway”, or “my way, but you drive”. What this all boils down to though is minorities it’s still about being labelled ‘outsiders’.

This criticism is no reason to forget or undermine the PC revolution though. For example, an effort to stuff alternative viewpoints back into the box by blurting that infrastructure projects are ‘PC’ is stupid. If it’s not PC when farmers oppose lowering tariffs, or growers oppose lifting quarantine restrictions, or manufacturers want low dollar/wages, then why is it PC when other types of special-interest groups like iwi or environmentalists are also listened to?

At the heart of the PC revolution was the realisation that words themselves have really important significance, and that ‘equality’ and ‘participation’ aren’t the same thing. Like I say, you can be formally equal as citizens, or earn an equal amount of money, but getting called a ‘chink’ can mean you aren’t included as a real citizen.

I’ve got to listen to more people talk.