Disparity by Design: Challenging Neoliberalism

Whether we understand what neoliberalism is or not, the reality is that it affects our lives more than most people may realise, and not in positive ways. We might come across the term in an article or see someone post about it online, and we even heard our soon-to-be Prime Minister claim that it had failed New Zealand in September last year although her government is doing nothing to challenge it, yet if we don’t understand it we may not give it much thought. It is important to talk about it because over the last three decades it has played a significant role in many of the social, environmental and political issues we experience today and in order to address these issues, we need to understand how exactly it drives these problems.

Understanding Neoliberalism

There has long been contention about the use of the term, especially by free-market advocates that claim people, mainly critics on the left, use it as an insult without knowing what it really means. While the term does have an interesting history and the meaning has changed over the years, variations of the common usage of the term have become accepted, not only in the academic literature but also by society in general.

David Harvey gives a definition of neoliberalism as “... a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Basically, it is an economic theory proposes that business without restraint is good for everyone, and as liberterians love to say “the freer the market, the freer the people”. It is the realisation of capitalism’s most dangerous ideals, or capitalism on crack if you prefer.

To achieve this market freedom, deregulatory policies were introduced during the economic reforms of the 1980’s known in the United States as “Reaganomics”, in the UK as “Thatchernomics” and here in New Zealand as “Rogernomics”. Prior to the advent of neoliberalism, economic growth in most developed nations was significant due to government intervention, social welfare programmes and more progressive tax systems. What are now known as neoliberal policies gave greater power and freedom to employers, and soon after unions across industries were disempowered and dismantled reducing the capacity for workers to maintain their rights.

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Tax reforms over the years have seen the corporate tax rate reduced from 48% to 30% and top income tax from 66% to 33%, allowing wealth to be concentrated in the hands of a smaller elite. Austerity is often adopted by neoliberal politicians, where concern about government debt results in policy-makers cutting social spending, favouring the economy over the needs of people. Free trade deals, like the controversial CPTPP our government recently signed, are only partially about trade and largely about securing privileges for corporations.

Proponents of neoliberalism somehow believe that the market will regulate itself, as though the demands of consumers will hold companies accountable for their actions, and they also think the concentrated wealth will trickle down to everyone else. This delusional thinking seeks to portray bloated corporations as a vital part of the economy that serves a public good, despite countless examples of free market policies destroying human lives, e.g. Grenfell Tower, human rights, e.g. Apple and most companies that have factories overseas, and the environment in pursuit of profit.

When the government steps back and allows private companies to deliver essential services without supervision, we are all going to have a bad time. Consider the pharmaceutical industry. While Martin Shkreli was demonised in the United States for hiking the price of Daraprim by over 5000%, he is only the tip of the iceberg that is Big Pharma’s distorted ideologies (Watch the Netflix show Dirty Money’s episode on Valeant). But privatisation in any industry is problematic because governments generally pay subsidies, which in the case of British Rail can get rather expensive. It also means workers are exposed to the whims of unrestrained business and the impacts discussed above are exacerbated.
Neoliberal Values Have Become The Dominant Values

In a stricter sense, neoliberalism refers to the policies and legislation that favour the freedom of markets, but in order for these ideas to take place, the collective values society holds must reflect those ideals. Thus, neoliberalism has successfully become the dominant ideology in developed nations like New Zealand by embedding its values within society itself and suppressing views and theories that propose different ways of doing things.

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A phrase often associated with Margaret Thatcher and her support for the market system. It also resembles common responses when challenging dominant ideologies.

Individualism

People often lament that we have lost our sense of community and our desire to care for each other, and it is pretty clear that individualism trumps collectivism, and we are led to believe that happiness in life comes from looking out for ourselves before everyone else. Look at how we define success. A ‘successful’ person it seems is one that has achieved both fame and wealth, and reality TV stars from shows like Married at First Sight and wealthy businesspeople like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos are examples of this. Tragically, they are given more media coverage than people working to improve the lives of others and held up as role models for people to aspire to.

Individualistic thinking in this economy can be dangerous because of the impact it has on people’s health. We are led to believe that in developed societies such as ours, every person, regardless of their heritage and situations, are capable of being successful (in terms of social and financial status) if they work hard enough. Coined ‘magical voluntarism’, this way of thinking convinces those better off that they achieved their wealth through their own hard work and nothing else, even though this is usually untrue. On the other hand, those who fail to achieve those goals are convinced they alone are responsible for their failures, inevitably developing confidence and identity issues that can develop into depression and anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Competition

Individualism breeds competition, and competition is one of the core principles of free market ideology, justified by claims that economic competition results in innovations that benefit everyone. What really happens when companies compete is that shortcuts are taken that have adverse impacts on everyone but the companies themselves.

Competition turns us against each other, not just to the point where we backstab colleagues for a promotion, even people or entire sections of society we don’t even know. Beneficiaries are the favourite political punching bag of conservatives, who make sweeping generalisations about welfare recipients as lazy dole-bludgers who would rather drink, gamble and take drugs than find a job. The disdain held for the lower class by middle class is one of the key ways in which neoliberal values are upheld.

See, although the majority of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very small few, this does not deter the middle class, or even many of the working class, because they genuinely believe one day they will become part of the wealthy class.

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Applicable to more places than the US.

They believe this despite evidence to the contrary that shows the wealthy are not in the business of sharing, after all, it is hard to stay rich if you let everyone else get rich, which is why corporation use their economic and political power to monopolise their respective industries.

Greed

Corporations are essentially given free reign to do whatever they please. No matter how many times they make mistakes or ruin people’s lives, the punishments are so pathetic they keep going as they are. Going back to the example of the pharmaceutical industry above, it is important to remember that Shkreli was not indicted for gouging consumers, after all, that is fairly standard now, but he was arrested for defrauding investors.

Screwing people over is simply good business, which is why Jeff Bezos is painted as a successful businessman despite so many Amazon employees turning to food stamps to survive. The idea enforced by the media that a good business is one that posts high profits, regardless of the corners cut to get there, and we blindly celebrate it. Like politicians who are blatantly bought out by private interests (e.g. most US politicians) or their more subtly corrupt counterparts (e.g. Winston Peters and the racing industry or Judith Collins and Orividia), we give tacit consent to practices that undermine democracy and our way of living in favour of the private interests of industry.

It is fascinating that greed is not considered an abhorrent thing. We actually celebrate those who accumulate masses of money even though that wealth usually comes at the expense of others, and it is amazing people are surprised when private companies undertake such dodgy actions, after all, by definition their obligation is to profit and their shareholders, not the public good.

 

How do we move beyond neoliberalism?

The world’s most powerful people and organisations have considerable stake in the status quo, so to challenge these overarching ideologies is to challenge the extraordinary power they hold. That is not to say it is impossible. While the wealthy and businesses hold a lot of power, in a country like ours they must operate somewhat discreetly as opposed to the blatant corruption we see overseas, and more importantly, their will (possibly) can be defeated by the ballot.

Compassionate Policy

Every generation has their own challenges that are different from the challenges of those that came before them. My generation, the millennials, and the Gen Z’s that follow, are set to inherit one hell of a mess. We are deprived of the same opportunities that those who hold the wealth and power now enjoyed, and many of us are struggling to get by or buy a house. Because of this, and more that will be discussed another time, there is a pretty good chance then that when we take the reins of power we are going to do things differently. Just as the Baby Boomers as a whole voted for policies that suited their interests at the expense of others, there is reason to believe that once my generation realizes its power they will vote for more compassionate policy. Indeed, already questions are forming about the future of capitalism and how long we can keep going down this road. 

Of course, it is not enough to simply wait for change, nor is the blame or burden to act placed on any one generation. That isn’t to say that there isn’t already well organised resistance to neoliberalism, because there clearly is. Jeremy Corbyn has become hugely popular as leader of the Labour Party in the UK and although he is routinely attacked by conservatives and centrists for his socialist policies, the fact that his policies have so much support from the young and the progressive left give hope that a new model for organising society is on the horizon.

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Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a rally – Source: Sophie J. Brown

Similarly, the support Bernie Sanders is still experiencing following his presidential campaign and the ongoing success of the progressive movement he started in electing progressive candidates suggests that democratic socialism may well find a platform to challenge the neoliberal model.

Social Enterprise and Alternative Models

Here in New Zealand we don’t really have this sort of “radical”  representation in government, with Ardern’s Labour Party being very much a centrist neoliberal party and the Greens moving towards the centre. But there are other ways to challenge the unrestrained ambitions of capitalism, in part by changing the nature of business. Although it is not without flaws, social enterprise does offer a model of business that uses its profits to provide a social good, rather than simply accumulating wealth for the sake of it.

A good example of this is Eat My Lunch. Yes it is a company that is making money, but a good portion of that profit is used to expand its service and facilities while continuing to provide food for children in need. This isn’t simply tokenistic charity to appear philanthropic to promote one’s business, instead it is a different model of operating a business with producing positive social outcomes at the centre of its purpose.Social enterprise is becoming popular in the regions, particularly in rural areas with high levels of deprivation, and many Maori are exploring social enterprise as a way of overcoming intergenerational poverty, although they must be careful of falling into the trap of equating economic development with Maori development. 

Transition towns are an example of local resistance to the global capitalist system. This model proposed enhancing the self-sufficiency of small towns by keeping production and consumption of goods local as much as possible, at times even advocating measures like local currencies. Time will tell whether these initiatives will work in the long run, and their success is determined by the level of support, including financial support, they receive to help them get started. Such models show that thinking big but acting small is the first step in the right direction when governments fail to act in the interests of the people.

Understanding to Overcome

Perhaps the most important thing when confronting neoliberalism in any context is to be aware of its influence. Whether you are addressing poverty, environmental degradation or homelessness, in order to find permanent, sustainable solutions one must first acknowledge that neoliberalism is ultimately responsible for creating the situation, and work to find an alternative that challenges that ideology. Merely tinkering at the edge without challenging the status quo in any way will simply yield the same result.

Change has to be truly transformative, and as discussed above, neoliberalism is enforced by values that are dominant in society.  These values have changed how we interact with each other, so reclaiming the value we place on community, protecting our environment and caring for each other must occur in order for public sentiment towards policy to follow. We have been conditioned to compete with each other and think of ourselves, so we need to move towards a society that works with each other and thinks about everyone else.

Currently I am interested in how to improve outcomes for people in rural areas with high deprivation, like my hometown pictured below. While the instinct from the Government is to simply throw money at the area and create jobs, there are countless social implications that prevent this from working, things like substance abuse, disenfranchisement and mental health issues.

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Kawakawa Township – Source: twincoastcycletrail.kiwi.nz

Overcoming the feeling of being isolated and demonised by others, as so many people in these areas feel, does not come from having a job or money but by being shown by your community that people care about you and they believe in you. As my whanaunga said to me recently, a healing needs to take place, a personal, sometimes spiritual healing that counteracts neoliberal values. Once we have looked after each other’s mental well-being and given each other purpose and direction, then those jobs and that money can help turn people’s lives around. 

It’s about money, but at the same time it isn’t. It is about our values and the kind of world we want to live in, and the first step in creating a better world is by actually caring for each other and putting that into practice.

 

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Why Some People Seem to Hate The Poor

Labour’s plans to address child poverty offer hope for positive change after decades of successive governments ignoring the issue and allowing it to grow out of control. While the bold proposals outlined are a bit vague, they seem genuine in their intentions. On the other hand, National pay lip service to the importance of addressing the issue while obscuring the causes and potential solutions for the issue. While they seem so concerned about the importance of targets, if National and their supporters actually cared for those living in poverty the social policies of the last nine years would have demonstrated just a little bit of compassion. Instead, they showed a willingness to do nothing but appear to address the issue.

Maybe people are simply unaware of what causes poverty, but that seems unlikely. There is enough evidence and information out there, but instead we only seem to hear the same old myths, half-truths and excuses repeated over and over again. “People are just lazy, and if they worked harder they could escape poverty”. “If they didn’t spend all their money on ciggies and booze, they could afford proper food”. “They’re dole bludgers that don’t want to get a real job”. I could go on, but you get the picture. Understanding why people buy into these myths helps us understand why such negative attitudes towards those in poverty prevail.

Myth 1: The poor need to work harder

Critics of compassionate social policies love to frame their opposition in economic terms, citing fears of potential impacts on national debt and GDP to justify their stance. The fixation on money trumps any concern for their fellow people, and such uncritical perspectives on the economy prevent them from acknowledging the role the financial system plays in perpetuating poverty. Suitable housing, electricity, food, water and transport are essential human rights everyone except hardcore libertarians can surely agree on, so when people are struggling to afford such basic rights, clearly things are not right with the way wealth is distributed, because there is certainly enough money to meet everyone’s needs as evidenced by recent reports on the state of economic inequality.

The important question to ask here is why have we allowed things to become so unfair? As mentioned earlier, one of the great myths we hold to is that if you work hard, you will be rewarded fairly. This belief drives us to perform to higher standards in our workplaces and fuels our ambitions to climb the ladder and gain new positions and responsibilities, which of course come with appropriate financial compensation. What this myth doesn’t do is define what “hard work” actually is. Some people can work their butts off for 40+ hours at a factory and still stay on the minimum wage or thereabouts for years, sacrificing quality time at home simply to make ends meet and provide for their families. That is hard work, yet those people will likely never by millionaires unless they win Lotto.

The truth is that it is not always about having a great work ethic, but about having an often single-minded ambition to accumulate as much wealth as possible, one of the sociopathic core tenets of capitalism. For those on top of the ladder, the “hard work” myth creates compliant and diligent employees that are willing to do more for less in the hopes of advancement, thereby maximising their profits. Whether it is running a company or investing in stocks and the housing market, simply having money allows one to make more money. As the ultra-rich continue to hoard the means of producing more wealth, the working poor are deprived of such opportunities to escape poverty because money flows up, but it doesn’t trickle down despite what many right-wingers would have us believe. For example, earlier generations snapped up property when houses were affordable and continue to make money today by renting or flipping properties, a luxury not shared by the poor and later generations because the market was made unaffordable by this drive to build absurd “property portfolios”. Disregarding the moral argument that housing is a human right that should not be commodified anyway, everyone in my generation should be outraged simply because the ladder into the housing market was pulled up by those who had already accumulated property to service their greed.

To be clear, none of the points raised above signal a flaw in the capitalist system, rather, they are simply the embodiment of its core intentions. This system has thrived by convincing many of us that the problems are of our own making, which is why blame is laid on the individual’s choices and actions rather than the system that created the poverty in the first place. That is why tales of “sacrifice” in order to buy a house are forced upon us (See Exhibits A, B, C and D), to show us that we need to change our behaviour and stop being so lazy, a narrative that favours the wealthy and the status quo.

Myth 2: We all have the same opportunities

There exists another similarly damaging myth, which is the idea that everyone in New Zealand has the same experiences and opportunities as everyone else. This construction of New Zealand as an egalitarian society has long been a source of pride for patriotic Kiwis, albeit one with little basis in fact. As discussed above, economic disparities exist by design and have done so for years, growing worse during the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s of which New Zealand is considered one of the more aggressive adopters. However, there are also wider social factors that influence poverty which are often overlooked by the privileged. Consider education for example. Formal education has long been considered a pathway out of poverty, however, jobs that pay well often require high levels of literacy and knowledge in math and science, things which can be difficult for those who are struggling with poverty to gain. As a result, they are often forced to turn to low-skilled labour like retail and factory work, jobs that do not normally pay very well and keep people trapped in poverty.  

There are perfectly explainable reasons why attaining education can be difficult for those living in poverty. The first, is that our Western education system often fails to facilitate learning in a way that is appropriate to those from other cultures. It assumes a homogeneous capacity and desire for learning, and although our national curriculum is progressive and encourages flexible teaching for students of diverse backgrounds, it’s application has not gone far enough to genuinely include and accommodate everyone yet. This is compounded by recent reports of racism directed towards students that denigrated them and made them feel like they can’t succeed, attitudes shared by many Maori and Pasifika students, the same demographics who unfortunately bear the brunt of poverty. Such reports are not hyperbole; as a former educator I have spoken to young people who can articulate all too clearly how the racist sentiments of middle-class New Zealanders make them feel like they can’t do well in life and forces them to question why they should even bother with school. If you were those young people, why would you want to be part of a society that treats you that way, that looks down on you and makes jokes about you for being poor? Because of this, is it a surprise that Maori and Pasifika have lower levels of educational achievement?

For argument’s sake, let us again assume that the unseen issue, in this case racism, is not a problem. What other barriers are there to education? For one, poverty usually means a lack of food. Strangely enough, children find it hard to pay attention in class when their stomach is rumbling because they haven’t eaten all day, which again is a reality and not hyperbole. You can’t learn if you can’t eat, and sometimes those who are eating are not eating the right food. Healthier foods like fruit, vegetables and nuts improve brain health, but because they are expensive compared to processed foods, such benefits are experienced by those who can afford it and the detriments by those who cannot. Poor nutrition also leads to sickness, which when combined with ongoing illnesses stemming from substandard housing, leads to time off school and results in students being left even further behind. It is at this point in the discussion that condescending remarks about budgeting and food planning are raised, but when the decision is between quantity and quality, opting for a higher quantity of food and the expense of nutritional value is understandable when you and your family are hungry.

Beyond physical struggles, pressure from others affect an individual’s attitude towards education and society. Schools, like the wider geographic areas in which people reside and spend their time, provide countless opportunities for people to be influenced by those around them. We make friends with people we relate to and who share similar values and beliefs, so when people who share disdain for education and a discontent with society itself form bonds with each other, they are less likely to conform to the conventional idea of ‘success’ that is forced upon them. Processes like gentrification that displace the poor and essentially segregate suburbs according to socioeconomic class exacerbate both inequality and the levels and nature of influence different groups experience. The adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” becomes more truthful as one gets older and enters the workforce, and it is certainly more advantageous to reside in affluent and connected neighbourhoods than those plagued by crime, gang-related activity and poverty.

It seems we forget that the people we are, including the values and beliefs that define us and guide our actions, are shaped by our experiences and influences. I come from a family heavily involved in the education sector, and clearly those shared values rubbed off on me. I’m sure many others could also say their interests and values were influenced by those around them. With that in mind, it helps explain why those who have never experienced poverty like to blame those who live in poverty for their own misfortunes. They cannot comprehend that the pressures and struggles people face were different to their own, and empathy is difficult we fail to acknowledge that people think and see the world differently to us.

A context in which this mentality is apparent is when dealing with drug and gambling addictions. If you are poor, some ask, why are you wasting your money on pokies when you could buy food? If people understood the nature of addiction, they would know that merely berating people does nothing to cure their state of mind, if anything, they will become more resistant. More than that, addiction to gambling among the poorer parts of society is no accident, for gambling machines are placed deliberately in poorer communities where they make more money, with little regard given for the social costs. This uncaring attitude towards addiction is also demonstrated in our views on substance abuse, and again we ignore why liquor stores are more often than not placed in less affluent neighbourhoods. This is made worse by the twisted desire held primarily by older generations to simply incarcerate drug users rather than dedicate funding to proper rehabilitation and the lack of discourse about why drugs are so appealing to the poor; chiefly because it offers an escape from the unpleasant realities of their lives.  

These cold attitudes suggest that perhaps blame is warranted after all, but it should not be directed at those who are struggling but at those who throw stones from their seats of privilege. Those that say people should stop making bad decisions or blame them for their situations are part of the problem. Voicing disdain for the poor might offer momentary satisfaction and vindication of one’s life choices, but what good does that accomplish, apart from showing everyone else how out of touch and ignorant you are? To truly understand what people go through, we need to step out of our bubbles, shed our preconceived ideas of how others should live their lives and learn to listen and understand what people go through.

 

The Ignorance On Display Every Waitangi Day

As January comes to a close, media attention is increasingly dedicated to Waitangi Day. We will hear a lot about the Prime Minister’s attendance, be given a ‘who’s who?’ of key individuals and shown speculation about the possibility disruptions and protests. Following this, we will be exposed to a range of perspectives on the relevance of Waitangi Day from political commentators, iwi members and a range of other local ‘celebrities’. We know this because it is the same thing that happens every year, with little variation except the level of controversy that can be extracted and exploited. In typical fashion, the media has already begun stirring the pot, as demonstrated by Newshub’s poll Should we change ‘Waitangi Day’ to ‘New Zealand Day?, in which the ‘Yes’ vote is depressingly winning with 52%).

While the media’s role could be discussed in depth, it is important to address another Waitangi Day tradition: the predictable resurgence of ignorance and racism. Emboldened by the media, a handful of outspoken Kiwis will lecture us on the dangers of Māori entitlement and the need for a new public holiday. Dig deeper into the comment threads on NZ Herald and Stuff articles and you will see the more overt sort of racism that actively denigrates Maori. Racism has long plagued New Zealand and many Māori, myself included, have experienced it on many occasions, whether it is having judgments made about your personality and capabilities or being chased out of a store for ‘looking suspicious’. This treatment is to be expected from time to time, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. It is those experiences that make it hard to ignore racism when it rears its ugly head because while only a handful air their bigoted views publicly, you know that many more share those views but choose to stay silent. This year, for the sake of my mental health, I thought it would be helpful to pre-empt the onslaught of ignorance by going over some of the opinions that are regurgitated each year.

“Why not replace it with ‘New Zealand Day’?”

The argument is based on the idea that Waitangi Day is a public holiday that celebrates the birth of our nation, and in some ways, that makes sense. We pride ourselves on being a harmonious nation in which indigenous people and settlers came to an accord to coexist peacefully, a feat that compares favorably to the colonisation of other lands. However, as those who know just a fraction of our history are aware, this perspective is fundamentally flawed. The forging of this country into the one we know today was anything but peaceful, as demonstrated by the loss of life and land during and after the Land Wars. Some seem unaware that Waitangi Day is commemorated the way it is, with the political spectacle in the Bay of Islands, because the consequences of what occured following the signing of the Treaty, including broken promises, are still being felt today. While many celebrate the public holiday with a beach trip and BBQ and believe the purpose of the holiday is to be grateful for what we have, the reality is that for everyone to be able to do so, time needs to be spent acknowledging the wrongs committed and trying to heal the wounds of history. What better day to do so than the anniversary of the signing?

“It’s in the past, get over it”.

You will notice that it is very rarely Māori who say things like this, and for good reason. When you are privileged and afforded a more favourable social status by virtue of birth, it must be difficult to see that others are less fortunate. To gain a bit of perspective, one needs only to glance over a few negative statistics and see that Māori are severely over-represented in problematic areas like economic inequality, homelessness, incarceration rates and substance abuse. These statistics show that it is not that easy to “get over it” because it is not the past for many Māori, but the present. The acts committed in colonial times are still being felt today, for example, stripping Māori of land or obtaining it by duplicitous means deprived Maori of the ability to grow food, to self-govern and maintain cultural practices. They were forced into colonial society, required to conform to a set of laws and ideologies often antithetical to their own and forbidden to speak their own language through the education system. Systematic attempts to destroy their culture left Māori struggling to adapt to a European society, and the disadvantages they experienced were passed on to their children, then to the next generation and so forth, until we get to where we are today, with Māori still severely disadvantaged compared to most non-Māori. While many can and do, not everyone is able to escape these intergenerational cycles of deprivation and disenfranchisement because the odds are stacked against them. So no, Māori won’t just “get over it”.

“It’s just a chance for Maoris to protest”

Portrayals of Māori around Waitangi Day show them as disruptive and ‘undignified’, supporting the idea that Waitangi Day is an excuse for Maori to complain as though they have nothing better to do. You hear so often that it is mainly ‘rent-a-crowd’ protesters that go to Waitangi, which they also supposedly do at every protest where the status quo is being challenged, like anti-TPP marches. This tired line is dragged out to diminish or dismiss the legitimate reasons behind voices of protest without having to apply logic or independent thought. In the case of Waitangi Day, those dismissing Māori grievances are appealing to their misguided perspective on history which maintains the facade of a harmonious joining of two cultures which gave birth to our nation. This justifies the position of privilege they hold and absolves them from thinking critically about the discontent surrounding the Treaty, which is desirable because if they were to think about it, they would have to acknowledge that the current issues facing Māori are not the consequences of laziness or bad decisions as some like to say, but are the result of structural injustices that need to be addressed.

“Waitangi Day just causes division, it should be about unity!”

This underlies one of the key arguments of the “New Zealand Day” campaigners, which is that complaining Maori are the only ones stopping us from all getting along. The “Iwi v Kiwi” line is parroted, and it is insinuated that the Waitangi talks are about greed and money. Disregarded are the valid reasons for commemorating Waitangi Day, primarily that there is much healing left to do, and it is the intention of the annual talks in Waitangi to address Māori grievances so healing can occur. But it is often those that decry division that are in fact the ones responsible for any division. It is clear that some people are unwilling to care for Māori and appreciate the struggles they face, and that lack of empathy and understanding of history is the reason we are so divided. Unity will remain a distant dream if Māori are continually blamed for their own misfortunes while the larger forces responsible are ignored. Another thread of this argument is the idea that some Māori hate New Zealand, and again, rather than berating them for not being patriotic, perhaps those who think that way might want to consider giving Māori good reasons to be proud of this country.

This is not by any means an exhaustive list of the misinformed and ignorant arguments that are voiced, but is a selection of the most repetitive and frustrating. Omitted from this list is the subject of Te Reo, which makes headlines any day of the year, and some more extreme opinions such as how colonialism is supposedly good for Māori (Yes, I’ve been told that one several times). Obviously, we do not need to respond to such ideas. We can ignore them so as to deprive them of the dignity they crave and focus the narrative on the positive aspects of Waitangi Day. However, that usually only allows those views to fester and spread. I am in favour of constructive engagement, that is, having conversations without the name-calling and expletives that are so tempting to resort to. Although it may be like talking to a brick wall, we should try as much as possible to encourage those people to practice a bit of compassion and empathy and learn our country’s history so that we may stop being so divided and come together and all genuinely celebrate being part of Aotearoa.

The Importance of Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been trying to get this blogging thing started for a long time now but my tendency to procrastinate and criticize my own work has tanked every effort so far. Being too self-conscious to expose my writing to criticism hasn’t helped either. However, I am back at it again, and in this first post, I think it is necessary to first explain why I am doing this. Perhaps it is a habit from my brief teaching career, but I believe that to appreciate any task or piece of work you must first understand what it is trying to accomplish. I intend to do just that in this post by putting my cards on the table and trying to explain, without rambling too long, why I decided to do this. This post will be rather personal and idealistic, but hopefully it gives the reader an understanding of what makes me tick and offers an occasional nugget of wisdom or advice.

So why am I starting a blog? As those who know me are aware, I can be somewhat opinionated about social and political issues like economic inequality and climate change. Particularly in recent years, I have come to appreciate the power social media gives us to share, discuss and debate ideas, something I noticed when I wrote about child poverty and taxes. It was heartening to see people around New Zealand talking about what I had said and since I received positive feedback, I figured I should keep writing about issues that matter and hope others either relate to what I say or consider things from a different perspective.

Silence isn’t always easy.

Part of why I have become more vocal recently is because I am tired of feeling like it was wrong to speak up, which is how I felt a lot of my life. I have always thought there were so many things wrong with the world, like how so many people lived in poverty and struggled through life while others had it so easy. It was especially difficult growing up and seeing that it was mainly Maori like me who struggled, at least in the Far North where I lived, with poverty, substance abuse and incarceration. It was even harder not understanding why this was the case. Worse, it seemed to me like no one cared, because if people really cared for others, wouldn’t something have been done about it? Or is this just how the world works; some are poor, some are rich, and that’s life? If that was the case, it wasn’t a world that I was proud to be part of. I felt helpless because I had no answers and didn’t know what I could do to make things better, so I bottled my emotions, put my head down and carried on with life.  

I knew even then that things only get better once we start talking about our problems, but I wasn’t comfortable talking to many people about how I felt for fear of being seen as different or weak. When you question the fundamental structure of society, or dare to suggest that things are wrong with the way we live, people will think you’re crazy or naive. For years, I thought that there was something wrong with me for always feeling sorry for the plights of others, strangers I would never meet or know, and I was given the impression that I would grow older, ‘become an adult’ and accept that injustices like poverty and inequality are just part of life and there is nothing we can do about them.

Now that I am older and I understand the world somewhat, I know that believing something is right simply because it’s “just the way things are” is the craziest perspective one can have. There is nothing mature or ‘adult’ about blind conformity, and while others may understandably prefer the comforts of willful ignorance or apathy, I realised that I can and will never be like that. I know that I may be ridiculed for being such a “bleeding-heart”, but compassion is a strength not a weakness, and worrying about people’s perception of you seems silly when real people out there face such daunting challenges. It is important to speak because when we choose to be silent, we support the status quo and condemn those less fortunate and the environment to continual struggle and exploitation. Therefore, I plan to write to stay true to my myself and to promote empathy and compassion as it is my way of contributing to the better society I know we can be.

It is important to act…but how?

Now you might ask: “is being another keyboard/ social justice warrior really accomplishing anything?” I will try to explain how it can in the next half of this post. As I write, I hope I don’t come across as some holier-than-thou activist judging people for their decisions and for not doing their fair share because in all honesty, I don’t have a leg to stand on. I talk the talk, but my actions haven’t always reflected my values. Yeah, I’ve donated to a couple of charities over the years, but I haven’t gone down to the mission to help those less fortunate. My record of recycling properly has been patchy at best and I have contributed more waste than I care to admit. My food choices leave much to work on, and while I have no intention of going vegan, I can still make better decisions in regards to food miles and ethical considerations. I would like to imagine myself as a more conscientious and socially active citizen, but I have indulged my vices like laziness and far too often. I have lived a relatively privileged life, a position which obliges me to do more, so why haven’t I?

The problem is knowing where to start. If the actions you take will make no tangible difference, it’s easy to see them as pointless and just give up. Donating to charities like UNICEF was a noble gesture, but because the same systems and practices responsible for creating that poverty remained unchanged, the poverty would remain. My donation would offer temporary alleviation and little more. Yes, I could have volunteered to feed the homeless, but they would still be homeless after they ate because no radical social welfare policy to prevent further homelessness has  been discussed. We can take certain actions as individuals, but things will only truly change when we address the cause of issues, rather than tinkering at the edges. The neoliberal doctrine would have us believe that the onus is on us as individuals to change, but it takes more than that. People need to have a shared understanding of the causes of problems and what solutions there are for those changes to have a noticeable impact. With issues like economic inequality, you have to convince part of the public that they are wealthy at the expense of many other people, and perhaps they should share some of their wealth via taxes so everyone can lead a comfortable life, which is a fair request. But because this requires sacrifice and lifestyles to change, people will resist the idea that things even need to change and that the problem is not the system but the laziness and greed of others.  

Whether it is outspoken resistance to facts or the more subtle traits of indifference and apathy, trying to convince people to care about others and the environment is an incredibly difficult task. Values like greed, competition and the love of money have been ingrained in us through the education system, the influence of mass media and the heavy rule of public opinion, so to want to change the way we live is to challenge perceptions we have had all our lives. Because it is often like talking to a brick wall and invites such infuriating resistance, I have wanted to just give up so many times. However, that despair faded as I came to accept the fact that progress is hard. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and changing people’s minds is especially slow. It may be that we never see the change we hope for in our lifetimes or get recognition for doing the right thing, and that is hard to accept. Tiresome, draining arguments and ridicule are an unavoidable part of it all. But what gets me through is the reminder that it is not just about me, or even my generation, but it is about the generations that follow. It is making sure that our children and grandchildren do not inherit a world plagued by issues affects their ability to live long, happy lives. 

Finally…the point.

I am no expert on the issues I discuss and I don’t know for certain what the right solutions are, but you don’t need to be a genius or celebrity to feel like you can speak up. Too often, the media and influential individuals shape the narrative, which further entrenches power imbalances in support of the status quo. All our voices have power, and simply participating in conversation is the first step towards positive change. While I intend to work on my personal contributions, individual actions alone do not inspire others to act differently unless we are having conversations with each other about our values and aspirations and why these ideas and actions are important. To create a better tomorrow, we need to work past our differences and understand that we are all in this together, and I hope that by writing, I may plant even just a couple of seeds that help make that happen.