There’s a difficult balance between the good and the bad in all of us — and this eternal tussle is the more difficult because we live in a world that normalises fear and violence, writes Tainui Stephens.
There’s way too much anger about.
There are people among us who are angry about the Māori language and who object to hearing it or seeing it in public.
Someone of dim ability recently saw fit to spend time painting out Māori language signage on recycling stations around Tauranga.
Such a pointless protest is weird — and it attests to high levels of stupidity among those who decry cultural diversity. The vandals would need more paint than they could ever afford if they were to cover up all the Māori language signage in the real world and online.
Sorry, dudes, you’re too late. Māori assertion is here to stay.
Such idiocy also gives resolve to the many New Zealanders who have a place in their life for the Māori language. It’d be a mistake, though, not to condemn such acts of racism.
Yet, while decrying the vandalism, and defending the language, an official offered this response: “This is not who we are.” Excuse me. This is exactly who we are. There are all sorts of attitudes among us.
As with many other countries on our suffering planet, there is growing anger at inequality, and feelings of despair about the future. Citizens everywhere are stressed — and worse.
In New Zealand, we’ve just been through a general election. And, as usual, some campaigning politicians have felt a need to play on peoples’ fears that the country is going in the wrong direction. Or worse, that someone has stolen it. Voters vote according to their personal outrage or grievance as much as according to their hope for a better future for us all.
But, after all the votes are counted and temperatures return to normal, we’ll still live in a world where anger, and its by-product of violence, plague our lives.
Only a fool would deny that deep strands of bigotry run through our society.
Obstinate and irrational prejudice against people who happen to be different isn’t just a Kiwi problem. But people of racial or sexual or religious difference are often abused, and much worse, in the country that some call Godzone. And I’m not talking about extreme events like the Christchurch mosque massacres. Small acts of hideousness happen every day in the neighbourhoods where we live and work.
Bigotry is easily expressed. Words are the clothes that our thoughts wear when we send them out into the world. And the language that a society uses reflects the attitudes of that society.
One astonishing comment from a very rich man caused a big fuss earlier this year because he was careless enough to speak to the mainstream media. Simon Henry, speaking in a magazine aimed at rich people, explained why he felt that chef Nadia Lim’s company listing hadn’t been immediately successful. He felt her looks were the problem:
“When you’ve got a little bit of Eurasian fluff in the middle of your prospectus, with a blouse unbuttoned showing some cleavage, and that’s what it takes to sell your scrip — then you know you’re in trouble.”
Happily, there was such a howl of outrage that he lost his job and reputation overnight. But there was more to it. Tellingly, he’d introduced his bigoted view by saying:
“I can tell you, and you can quote me.”
Clearly, Mr Henry moved in circles where his thoughts and his words were accepted and approved. He knew he wasn’t alone.
I recently watched a horrific video of an assault in a small-town bottle store. CCTV footage inside and outside the shop captured the brutality. A man punches a woman to the ground, and then drags her out by her hair over the footpath, to be shoved in a car and kidnapped. She protests and struggles all the way. Another man stands close by. And does nothing.
This reduction of a woman to the status of a despised chattel didn’t happen by accident.
Sexist language that belittles women ranges from crude sexual innuendo to mansplaining. It exists everywhere, in private or on the internet. For some of us, in the bubbles that we live in or visit, have normalised an environment that enables and encourages bad behaviour.
The anonymity of internet trolls and purveyors of disinformation have created a toxic sewer where the worst of us have fun or make money out of exploring the bad in us. Studies in the US have found that, in the journey from trolling to misinformation to false realities, people become what they pretend to be.
There’s much that’s been written — some of it well researched and some not — about the source of our human interest in violence. Every normal consumer of television and social media will have observed hundreds of thousands of acts of violence, and probably many thousands of murders, by the time they’re teenagers.
The debate about our capacity for violence is often a response to the question of whether such behaviour is the result of nature or nurture. It’s clearly both. A society will nurture and grow the seeds that are already within. Or not.
I first realised violence was an inescapable part of our human nature when I was an 11-year-old and saw the film masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opening scene showed a lot of apes trying to survive and cope with the strange uncertainties of their world. They were hungry and hassled by predators. One of them discovers a large bone in the skeleton of a dead animal. With surging music and in dramatic slow motion, the ape realises the bone is a tool that can be used to smash the skeleton. When a battle for dominance soon erupts, one of them is beaten to death by the ape with the bone. In triumph, the alpha male hurls his murder weapon up into the sky.
We watch the rising, then falling bone. Then, suddenly, we cut to a vast image of space and a gently gliding spaceship shaped like the bone. We’re way up high above a shimmering planet Earth, carried along with the glorious restrains of a Strauss waltz, revealing the grandeur of our world — and of human achievement.
In that fraction of a second, the director Stanley Kubrick had taken me from a distant ancient time when our primordial ancestors discovered the ultimate way to release their rage, to a time in the future when we’d be masters of our domain. The movie ends with a less bloody, but no less profound, act of violence when the hero astronaut turns off the computer that’s been trying to kill him.
In part, the rage of our ape ancestors was defensive — a necessary response to avoid being eaten by bigger animals. At some point, it was discovered that the rage could also be used on the offensive. To assert power over others.
To defeat the rage, or at least tame it, we turn, as Abraham Lincoln once said, to “the better angels of our nature”. Those angels are everywhere, in spiritual beliefs, in tikanga, in simple notions of courtesy and civic pride. They thrive in the human heart, of course. But they’re also lodged in our brains, which means it takes a bit of thinking and effort to winkle them out — and to allow them to soar.
There’s a well-known philosophical adage (Hanlon’s Razor) that casts a worthwhile perspective on people’s behaviour: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
In this era, we’re in danger of losing touch with reality. Opinion is rapidly overtaking the news as a source of authority. We’re exposed to so many shallow stories of heroes and villains, that we’re encouraged to see the world in equally simple terms. There are indeed good people and bad people, but human beings are far more nuanced than that.
Not so long ago, I heard a woman screaming racist abuse on the street outside my home. “You fuckin, black niggers! Fuck off!” I shot outside to see who the butt of such anger was. I saw no one there apart from a solitary woman getting into her car.
I realised that we were the target of the abuse — or at least a couple of our cars, with the Māoriland logo, parked outside our house. As she sped off, she yelled: “It’s not your fuckin’ land!”
I wasn’t surprised to see that she was pissed.
I was surprised to see that she was Māori.
Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.
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