Ten years ago the global economy suffered a calamitous meltdown and millions of people around the world struggled as a consequence. Now, if economists are to be believed, we are looking down the barrel of another recession.
People could be forgiven for not hearing about it, but these concerns have been published a range by media outlets around the world (see below).
Unfortunately, this sort of thing simply doesn’t make the front page of the news. Trump or some other distasteful aspect of United States politics tends to occupy that spot. It is unfortunate that more people in the media and parliament are not talking about it because we are still dealing with the impacts of the last recession, and perhaps most frighteningly, we seem not to have learned any lessons.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 was a disaster for many people, but it was also an opportunity to change things. The predatory loans handed out to people from low socioeconomic backgrounds that were largely responsible for the crash should have earned the lenders serious jail time, yet they and everyone else who played a part got away with a fine and a slap on the wrist. Worse, many of the bankers who were bailed out used that money to pay themselves hefty bonuses and, in the absence of the introduction of meaningful legislation to prevent something similar happening again, many were able to carry on conducting business as usual.
For those interested in justice, the failure of lawmakers around the world to punish those responsible was frustrating. The Occupy Movement was the product of the anger and frustration of millions of people around the world disaffected with the way the global economy operates and the disproportionate power wielded by the financial and political elite. As valid as their points were, the media and indeed many ordinary people ridiculed the protesters in typical fashion using generic insults without even bothering to engage with the critiques or solutions the Occupy Movement was discussing.
Trying to understand how the economy works is no easy task, whether it be in the local or global context. Thus, we rely on the information that we regularly receive (the news) and our lived experience. Those of us who are better off than others didn’t notice any immediate or significant change to our lives during or after the GFC, so we have little reason to complain and also little reason to analyse the claims of those speaking out against the status quo. Unfortunately, it is those who maintain this ignorance that are the biggest obstacle to doing things a better way.
This ignorance is not necessarily surprising, but it is incredibly disheartening. We know that the wealthiest 1% holds most of the world’s wealth and power and that accumulation drives many of our socioeconomic problems, which was one of the key points raised by the Occupy Movement, yet we still love to idolise the likes of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos as though they are our saviours. We are quick to ignore the fact that recessions offer the wealthy and opportunity to seize more assets (as happened with property particularly in the US after the GFC) which further deprives ordinary people the chance to get ahead. Perhaps most disappointingly, even though we know recessions occur every decade, we seem so shocked when the next one comes along.
People are often quick to dismiss socialism as a system that doesn’t work, and perhaps it isn’t a perfect model either, but we cannot continue to live under a paradigm predicated on greed and competition. More, to extol the unequivocal success of capitalism seems foolish when, not because of any anomaly but its very nature, it is driven into crisis every ten or so years, adversely affecting millions of people in the process. Ignorance is one thing, but we aren’t going to get anywhere if we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
I won’t lie, I’m not that thrilled about living in a system that we know is going to go belly up at certain intervals while we routinely do nothing at all to prevent it. The recent IPCC report claimed we have 12 years to stop runaway climate change, but if we can’t even manage not to crash the economy we revere so much, I fear there is little chance we will make the necessary changes that have been recommended to prevent many of the impacts of climate change.
That said, maybe there is reason to be optimistic. By all reports, the fallout from the upcoming recession will be bad, perhaps worse than last time. Also, we in New Zealand were lucky to be insulated from much of the fallout then, and it is likely we will not be so lucky next time. Maybe, just maybe, we will take the opportunity we didn’t take last time and seriously redesign the way society operates, because it may be that we have no other choice. It won’t be easy and will require massive amounts of energy, coordination and will, but another world is possible.
Thankfully, NZ First’s proposed Respecting New Zealand Values Bill is receiving little support from other parties and the public. In line with the party’s irrational fear of migrants and refugees, the bill would allow us to turn away those whose values are not compatible with ours. Citing concerns about xenophobia and freedom of religion, the language and history of NZ First’s prejudice makes it pretty clear that the proponents of this bill are not worried about Australians or Europeans.
Fortunately, there is no need to deconstruct NZ First’s arguments or rationale as most rational people can easily see this for what it is: dog-whistle, xenophobic politics. Nothing new from Peters and co.. However, what it does do is give us a chance to ask ourselves what our values as a country actually are.
We once prided ourselves on being an egalitarian society, but massive wealth and outcome disparities shows that this has not been true for a long time. Sure, we can be quite hospitable hosts to visitors from other countries at times, but there are also many well-documented instances where we have belittled, abused, or robbed tourists.
Controversial figures like Don Brash and the Canadian speakers Southern and Molyneaux showed how divided we are on issues such as race and immigration, and for all this talk of immigrants respecting New Zealand values, we are guilty of allowing their exploitation to occur in our restaurants, orchards and education institutions.
The thing is, I’m not sure we as a country know what we stand for. Like most liberal democracies, we are guilty of engaging in tribal and personality politics. Rather than being “for” ideas, it seems people prefer to be “against” others.
Labour supporters say that while not ideal, the current government’s policies are better than what National did during their 9 years in power, which while true, is no excuse to settle for half-cooked policy or to attack others for their views.
National supporters meanwhile are quick to criticise what the Government does, often before a proper analysis of the facts is conducted and repeat the same tired comments about inexperience and communism.
Politically, we have no shared vision of what the future may look like because all we seem to do is attack politicians and supporters of parties we disagree with over relatively minor issues or aspects of personality. Based on how things are at the moment, many of us would struggle to have a reasonable, rational conversation about what our collective values are.
We talk a big talk about looking after the environment, yet we find it so hard to agree on the smallest steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption, water pollution, and saving native species.
We can’t agree on objective facts, as demonstrated by the anti-1080 movement, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers.
House prices are going through the roof and so many people are living in cars or on the street, all the while we bicker from left to right about ideas that will do little to provide adequate housing for those in need.
We have an inherently unfair and unequal distribution of wealth in this country, and no political party (except TOP) has any decent proposals to change this. More, we routinely attack and blame each other for our financial situations rather than helping lift people up.
We have so many issues to solve and we can’t do that when we are fighting all the time. Instead of focusing on the minor differences we have, we should be talking about all the things we have in common. Our visions and aspirations for the future are likely more similar than we think, but we allow the left-right paradigm to polarise the discussion, creating tensions that prevent collaboration.
I am glad to be a New Zealander but I think we could be doing so much better. Before we go lecturing others about “Kiwi values”, we need to sort our own shit out first and decide what we stand for, which we can’t do until we learn to listen and talk to each other with respect.
When we talk about helping people overcome depression the solutions we offer involve them finding confidence and improving their self-esteem so they can deal with the challenges they face and ‘live normal lives’, whatever that means. This puts the emphasis is on the individual to change and carries the connotation that the problem is internal. Speaking from experience, I know that the causes are not always from within. In the past few years many researchers and commentators have pointed out that the high instances of depression we see today are likely caused by social influences such as income inequality, consumerism and competitive lifestyles, ideas which have not been talked about enough.
Of course, bar media coverage of a few exceptional speakers and the occasional feel-good stories, we have done a dismal job of talking about mental health in the media, in schools and in the public in general. If we are serious about addressing this epidemic, we should be looking at all the information, something we have not always done well. For example, the common belief for years was that depression is simply a chemical imbalance where low levels of serotonin would cause people to exhibit depressive symptoms that medication (antidepressants) could alleviate. This idea was perpetuated despite a lack of evidence to support it and many doctors reluctantly prescribed antidepressants despite knowing they weren’t necessarily going to make a difference, at least not in many cases.
Thankfully, things have changed somewhat, and now we acknowledge that the causes of depression are unique to the experiences and lifestyles of the individual, and therefore the help a person needs is also unique. But there has still been little discussion of the social causes of depression despite researchers and organisations including the World Health Organisation have been saying for years that the causes of the widespread instances of depression in part result from the way society is structured.
“It is No Measure of Health to Be Well Adjusted to a Profoundly Sick Society” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
To paraphrase Johann Hari who has written on this very topic, rather than viewing depression as the problem that needs to be fixed, perhaps we need to look at it as a symptom of much bigger problems we face. After all, if one in six people in this country suffer from depression and many of them because they are struggling with daily challenges like unemployment, economic uncertainty and material hardship, perhaps the system isn’t working as well as we like to think. Indeed, there are some pretty clear ways this is happening.
The Influence of Social Hierarchy
A popular theory is that top-down hierarchies adversely impacts an individual’s mental health, particularly that of those in the middle and lower end of the pecking order. Hierarchies cause those with less power to avoid conflict with those that control resources and wield economic and political power because they live in a state of perpetual fear; their position and access to resources that sustain their lifestyles are not guaranteed as they are dependent on those with more power. They must tread carefully, for to upset the powers that be too greatly is to risk losing much. Thus, they suppress their emotions, often choosing to keep a low profile and accept the status quo rather than expressing how they really feel, just as the middle and lower classes do in Western societies in the face of injustice. As we know, the worst thing people suffering mental health problems can do is keep things bottled up.
Surprisingly, it is often those in the middle who exhibit higher rates of anxiety and depression than those in the lower section, possibly because their position in the social hierarchy is so precarious. They are not at the top of the order but believe they are almost there, but they are also aware that they are not far from the bottom and only a few missteps could land them there. This fear of being inferior or becoming even more inferior adds to the likelihood of anxious or depressive symptoms.
“…social pressure to be polite and deferential to people with greater status and power results in more emotion suppression among those who occupy low positions within a social hierarchy” (Langner et al., 2012, p4)
The modern workplace is a great example of such a hierarchy. The more responsibility a person holds within an organisation, the more pressure they are subjected to. Those in supervisor and manager roles are subjected to pressure from above, the executive level, and are also the ones that have to deal with the workers and pressure from them. As they embody that precarious middle space, they are often striving for higher office (and therefore pay) while being aware that several mistakes could see them demoted, which would undoubtedly be embarrassing. The workers on the ground floor are equally miserable because they have little control over the allocation of resources and wealth, in particular receiving a relatively small share of the latter. The executives on top of the pile have all the power, significantly more money and less reasons to be stressed, anxious or depressed.
Income Inequality and Depression
Because of the obvious class divide in this country and similar developed countries, it goes without saying that the distasteful levels of inequality are having an impact on our mental health. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive relationship between economic inequality and depression in countries all around the world which cite a range of reasons for this relationship. One reason is that people compare themselves to others who are better off and feel a sense of defeat at the structural unfairness. Other reasons include associated developmental disorders in adolescents and a sense of withdrawal or shame by worse-off people in a community.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains it is a serious problem. The graph below shows how in the United States, states that have higher levels of income inequality according to the Gini Coefficient tend to have higher instances of depression.
This phenomena is not unique to the United States, and nor is it limited to mental health. As the graph below demonstrates, more unequal countries experience a range of health and social problems which combine to create a perfect storm for those less fortunate.
In unequal societies, competition for resources and wealth creates a host of problems.
Competition breeds misery
The defenders of the capitalist status quo love the idea of competition because apparently financial incentives foster innovation. To be fair, they are correct. It is amazing how much money and effort companies will invest to extract as much value from workers without paying them their fair share, or how to extract as much capital from the natural environment without having to pay to fix the problems they create. From that point of view, competition certainly does lead to innovative thinking, but not necessarily thinking that will benefit the majority of people.
Elsewhere, competition leads to misery in other ways. Financial wealth is often a determinant of social status, as it allows individuals to afford the symbols of wealth. In our consumerist society, clothing brands, expensive cars and the price of one’s house are common symbols of wealth, and targeted advertising convinces us either subconsciously or consciously to pursue these things. When societies are as unequal as New Zealand is, the class divide is noticeable. Because people want to climb higher up the social ladder, they pursue as much as possible the appearance of high social status, often by purchasing material goods like those mentioned above and often to the detriment of their health and well-being.
What should we be doing about it?
We should be working together
The strength and quality of relationships between people within communities plays a significant role on mental health. Alienation, isolation and loneliness are causes of depression that are themselves caused by inequality. Neoliberalism favours individualism and places emphasis on ‘individual responsibility’, even for socially-created problems, which only further isolates and alienates people. Therefore, we can live healthy lifestyles in which we accomplish things by working together.
In a clip discussing this very topic, Johann Hari presents an anecdote of a woman suffering from crippling anxiety and depression who finds purpose by working with others to create a garden. The best thing about this story is that it isn’t some unsubstantiated ‘hippy cure’ or anything; there are plenty of studies that link improved mental health to exposure to green space and working on collaborative projects like community gardens. We should be thinking how our communities can be restructured to encourage neighbourhoods the care for and empower each other.
We need a society that works for everyone
Perhaps the best way that we can care for each other is by creating a society that is fair and just. Currently, our neoliberal capitalist system is designed to continually advantage a select few while an increasing majority are left with less. This is making the mental health problems so many people face even worse and there is no legitimate reason why such an unfair regime should continue. Not that long ago, the distribution of wealth was more fair and those who earned more than enough would pay higher taxes that would ensure they are making positive contributions to society. Now, with essential services like healthcare and education so underfunded, it is beyond time for them to give back and use their wealth for good.
Currently there are a range of wonderful and aspirational organisations working on initiatives to combat mental health by empowering people, and while it is great they are making a difference in communities, imagine how much more they could accomplish if they didn’t have to rely on charity and volunteers. Imagine how much happier and productive people would be if they weren’t living with the constant anxiety of worrying whether they will be able to make rent or put food on the table. If people were taxed appropriate to their means and needs then those struggling to get by wouldn’t have to endure tax hikes for necessary infrastructure upgrades and others could have access to suitable, equitable education, housing and health services that are needed to improve mental health. Finally, imagine the things we could accomplish if society didn’t pit people against each other and valued cooperation and working for the collective good.
Understand That It’s Not You
Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this is that depression and anxiety are not always caused by chemical imbalances or traumatic experience, but can actually be a response to a world that isn’t right. The problem, certainly in my case, is with the society we have created, a society that compels us to compete with each other and to be critical of ourselves. As we work to combat mental health in New Zealand and abroad, while our efforts should certainly empower people to find joy and purpose in each day and encourage openness about our feelings, we should also be talking about how our values as a society need to change. A happier society will be found when things are more fair and equal.
Gilbert, P., McEwan, K., Bellew, R., Mills, A. & Gale, C. (2009) The Dark Side of Competition: How Competitive Behaviour and Striving to Avoid Inferiority are Linked to Depression, Anxiety and Self-Harm. Psychology and Psychotherapy, 82(2), 123-36.
Lacasse, J. & Leo, J. (2015) Antidepressants and the Chemical Imbalance Theory of Depression: A Reflection and Update on the Discourse. Florida State University Libraries.
Langner, C., Epel, E., Matthews, K., Moskowitz, J. & Adler, N. (2012) Social Hierarchy and Depression: The Role of Emotion Suppression. Journal of Psychology, 146(4), 417-436.
Macintyre, A., Ferris, D., Goncalves, B. & Quinn, N. (2018) What Has Economics Got To Do With It? The Impact of Socioeconomic Factors on Mental Health and the Case for Collective Action. Nature.com, <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0063-2>
Patel, V., Burns, K., Dhingra, M., Tarver, L., Kohrt, B. & Lund, C. (2018) Income inequality and depression: a systematic review and meta‐analysis of the association and a scoping review of mechanisms. World Psychiatry, 17(1), 76-89.
Schultz, W. (2015) The Chemical Imbalance Hypothesis: An Evaluation of the Evidence. Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(1), 60-75
I started writing this as a draft script for a video on New Zealand history, with the intention of creating a visually compelling and informative clip that might debunk some of the myths about New Zealand and Maori history. You know the sort of tired ideas I am talking about, beliefs like all Maori willingly signed away their rights and land or that they are ungrateful, greedy, or have special privileges, uninformed opinions regurgitated by the likes of Hobson’s Pledge. Our goal was to address in some small way our collective failure to understand history that is ultimately responsible for the ignorance we see too often today. But the more I looked into it, the more I realised, or remembered, that facts do little to change people’s minds, at least the more extreme cases. Too often we are ruled by how we feel and what we believe, and it is the myths that remain in people’s minds rather than the facts.
Of all the myths that persist, perhaps the most damaging is the idea that everybody has the same opportunities in this country. We hear it mainly from people who currently occupy the middle or upper classes rather than from lower class people. The belief that we are all equal is accompanied by the assumption that if you are struggling on the benefit, then it is because you are lazy and need to work harder. Stop having so many kids, some will say. Stop having so many kids or wasting your money on the pokies, other sages advise. Despite this wisdom, rarely do they ask why people in such desperate situations do things that clearly are not in their best interest. Clearly, some people lack the ability to empathise with others, if they even know what empathy is.
Empathy isn’t simply putting yourself in someone’s shoes and saying “If I were in this situation I would do this or that…”. That isn’t removing your biases or prejudices. That doesn’t even acknowledge that they are a different person to you with their own unique thoughts and values. All you are doing is forcing your own opinions and perspectives on them and basically demanding that they be just like you. No, empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and genuinely trying to understand them. What experiences has this person had, or what sort of life have they led that has made them the person they are today? Why do they think the way they do, and how does that make them act? If you really want to know what makes someone tick, these are the sort of questions you need to ask. We are all shaped by the lessons we learn growing up, from our family, friends and school. We are the products of our environments, so what may seem like a logical decision to one person makes no sense to another.
Those who would say hurtful things about others should certainly bear this in mind, but those of us who (justifiably) call such people out for their bigotry and racism should also bear it in mind. It is easy to resort to anger when you see someone saying some racist crap. When I see someone say something like “If it wasn’t for Europeans you Maoris would still be wearing flax skirts killing each other” (someone told me that once), of course I am going to get pissed off. Feeling angry in a situation like that is only natural and shows your moral compass is correctly aligned, but when you step back and think about it, lashing out at them in anger isn’t productive.
Taking a step back requires you think about why someone thinks it is appropriate to say something so uninformed. Perhaps they grew up in a home full of people that thought this way. It could be they learnt nothing about New Zealand history at school and took what they knew from people around them who also knew nothing. Maybe they have never really gotten to know many Maori people and therefore never had to give much thought to the concerns of Maori in general. It could be a combination of these or something else, but like any other person in the world, their values and beliefs are shaped by their experiences and those around them.
Considering they haven’t been exposed to experiences that might teach them the same compassion or empathy that we might possess, is it really fair to attack them for it? I know it may seem absurd, excusing people who are often the walking definition of ‘privilege’ for racist speech or actions, but if they really don’t know any better, is it really so different from yelling at a child for not knowing math?
The privileged live in a bubble. Many have not known hardship because of their social status and the social status of those before them, granting them opportunities that are simply unattainable by others. To them, that privilege is invisible and a part of their life, making it difficult for them to understand why others struggle. Because of this they assume others simply do not work hard or bring misfortune on themselves. We might know better, but remember that although they are adults they are so stuck in backwards ways of thinking that calling them racist will accomplish nothing other than make them angry and reduce what might be meaningful dialogue to a shit-throwing contest.
While such people may be privileged in the material sense, they are not worthy of our anger or envy. Instead, we should pity them. They might not have experienced hunger or discrimination, but they were also not taught what it means to care for people who are different to themselves, from different cultures or walks of life. They may think of themselves as compassionate or empathetic, but clearly that only applies to certain people in their lives and excludes others. That is their loss. There is beauty in each of the different cultures and worldviews that people in this country have to share, but appreciating them and their people only comes through understanding. Those who would make generalisations about others, try to exclude them or diminish their culture are missing a vital part of what it is to be human in our modern global society.
It seems counterintuitive that the people we would normally call disempowered are the ones with the power to change things, but I think it’s true. People who have lived experience with discrimination have the power to show others a better way of treating each other, and in this sense are privileged. It is our role to help the ignorant overcome their fear of other people and show them some compassion for their fellow man and woman, and it by listening to their concerns and then talking.
There have been articles posted recently saying old white men need to shut up. This kind of nonsense does more harm than good. It assumes based on age and skin colour that they have all experienced privilege and power in their lives. Blaming all men for being overpowering or sexually abusive as some ‘feminists’ (not actual feminists) do assumes men have never been in similar positions. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, left-wing or right-wing, we make some awful generalisations about others that risk making enemies of those who might have supported our cause, but because we insulted and made generalisations about them, now no longer will. I say this because the tactics of some animal rights and ‘feminist’ activists have had this effect on me, making me resent them rather than wanting to listen to what they have to say. Attacking me for eating meat or simply being a man assumes that I am not a good person or that I don’t care about those issues, and their cause loses my support because they pissed me off.
Consider some of the stereotypes we make about old, white and wealthy mean. The general assumption is that they must be conservative, don’t care too much about the environment and probably are a little bit racist. No one would say that about David Attenborough, but they would about Trump. They belong to the same demographic yet represent vastly different ideas and values. Some say white men have held all the power for too long, yet many old white men throughout history have also lived in poverty and without power. On the other hand, some of those old white men who hold positions of power and influence have progressive ideas and are trying to make the world a better place for everyone. Within any demographic there is a spectrum of beliefs and experiences, and while it is true that certain demographics as whole have worse experiences than others, generalising a group of people dismisses both the struggles and contributions of individuals.
Not everyone has the patience to deal with recalcitrant people and that is fair enough. There is also only so long you can try understand someone before you accept they may be a lost cause, but it is important that we try, and equally important that we move away from painting everyone with the same brush. If we are to change people’s minds, we need to understand who they are, what drives them and treat them like we would treat anyone else.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
School has been back for a few weeks now and every so often I feel momentary regret that I am also not back in the classroom, as well as no small amount of guilt for leaving the profession considering the difficulty many schools are having in finding quality teachers. The teacher crisis is very real, despite what some people out there claim, and is a serious problem.
Despite this, I still decided to leave. I taught full-time for two years, and part time for a third while studying. It was toward the end of the second year that I felt drained and realised my heart was no longer in it, a feeling shared by more than a few beginning teachers. For me, it wasn’t the money, although that could have been better, especially living in Auckland. It wasn’t the lack of work-life balance either, for while that was almost non-existent, I was happy to spend that time if it meant developing great lessons. It took time away from school to understand exactly why I felt compelled to leave, and I know now that while part of me left to find ways to make a difference for our communities and the environment, part of me can’t get over the fact that certain aspects of our education system make it too difficult for me to be the best teacher I know I can be.
We are failing our Māori and Pasifika students
Like many other teachers, I was inspired to join the profession by my personal experiences in school. Attending a predominantly Pākehā school, some people made more of a fuss than was necessary about the fact that I not only made it through to Year 13 and was going to university, one of only a handful of Māori students to do so, but that I did so fairly easily. While most people were positive and my friends thought it no big deal, other Māori students called me ‘white’ because I always followed the rules, did my work, and listened to ‘white’ music, that is, rock and metal rather than hip-hop. While they were only the sentiments of immature teenagers, those attitudes made me think that I wasn’t a ‘real’ Māori and discouraged me from wanting to connect with or even understand the culture.
Because of this, I embraced my ‘whiteness’ and decided my identity is solely defined by my own decisions and nothing else. However, the colour of my skin always made it clear that I was different. Sometimes it was the poorly disguised surprise when I opened my mouth and I didn’t speak like a stereotypical Māori. Other times it was comments like “You’re smart for a brown guy!” which while meant to compliment, only enforced the idea that when you are a successful Māori, you are an exception to the rule that your people, generally speaking, are not very successful.
As much as those experiences had an impact on my identity which took years to work past, they are still far less damaging than what other Māori must endure. This is why I vowed to only ever teach at low-decile schools, to show show those students that despite the obstacles they face and what they believe, they are more than capable of surpassing them. However, some things, like institutional racism and unconscious bias, are not so easily overcome. One might think we have passed that stage, but only this year the Children’s Commissioner reported on the racism that students still experience, from their teachers of all people, where students recalled being told they weren’t going to succeed or felt they were being ignored in class because they weren’t Pākehā.
Put yourself in the shoes of these students for a moment, and imagine how utterly demoralising must it be to have to endure stereotypes by the media and public (mainly by Pākehā) about the chances you have of succeeding in life, only to go to school and have predominantly Pākehā teachers telling you what you can and cannot do every hour of the day and to put you down. The degrading comments are just plain wrong, but even the commands, which are well-meaning as it is the teacher’s job to help students focus in order to achieve, exerts a level of controlling power that adversely affects Māori and Pasifika more than other students. Some would say that it is just school, everyone is treated the same and it is not about race, but when when you exist outside of the dominant culture, it is always about race.
Māori and Pasifika remain outsiders because they are forced into a system that tries to change them and often undervalues them. Conformity is coerced through methods such as enforcing uniform requirements which are often justified along the lines of affordability and tidiness. Pride in a uniform is often demanded rather than earned, just as rules are often enforced without the time being taken to explain the rationale behind them. Failure to comply to these expectations results in a student being labelled a troublemaker, given punitive punishments and being excluded from schools, all while the underlying issues that drive such behaviour, such as not understanding work, dealing with the trials of poverty and undesirable situations at home, remain unaddressed.
It is no surprise then that alternative education is comprised primarily of Pasifika and Māori students, and it shows that conventional schools are failing to truly engage with these students and are not providing them with the right motivation to continue in school. For example, educators know that Māori learn best in ways that differ from traditional teaching methods, preferring to work collaboratively, learn from communities and whanau rather than just teachers and would rather learn by doing, not just reading or listening. Sometimes it is simply innocent ignorance of these methods that explains why they are rarely used, and perhaps teacher training courses warrant some scrutiny in their role in this ignorance, and other times it is simply a lack of trying to understand other cultures.
Despite great improvements in recent years, there remains in education a lack of appreciation for other cultures, and in particular, for other cultural worldviews. Moves to target “priority learners” only reinforce the idea that the blame for poor educational outcomes are the fault of the students themselves, and that they need a helping hand to keep up with everyone else. This also assumes a homogenous view that the purpose of education is for all students to achieve academic success as defined by the dominant culture, but although colonisation has long impacted both Maori and Pasifika, it has yet to completely replace the values of community and sharing intrinsic to the former with the pursuit of individual wealth and success that has long been a Western virtue.
Now to be clear, I am not blaming teachers for any of this. Most of the teachers I have worked and trained with are fantastic, genuine, caring people that do everything they can for their students. I would not even say that many teachers are actually racist, although no doubt there are a few bad eggs out there. Rather, I place the blame on an educational system deeply entrenched in Western industrial-era values, a system that pays lip service to cultural responsiveness and equality in education but then places so many unnecessary burdens on teachers that they can’t actually practice what is preached.
Nevermind the paperwork… I just wanted to teach!
In my view, an empowered student is one that thinks critically and logically questions what they are told and the world around them. My personal experience of school was that it didn’t seem to foster critical thinking at all, it was merely rote learning and doing what the teacher said. As stated earlier, I became a teacher to do better than how I was taught and to empower students, but unfortunately, critical thinking is a difficult thing to teach when there isn’t enough time to do so.
A good lesson takes time to prepare. You have one hour in which to teach a limited number of concepts, so activities have to be sequenced appropriately and run according to schedule as much as possible. There are around thirty students, all of whom are at different levels and learn best in different ways, so tasks need to be differentiated to accommodate this diversity. Not all of them will be paying attention, and some will be outright disruptive, so timings have to change to put out these small fires.
There are between three and five lessons most days, with a couple of non-contact periods mind you, but those hours of what should be respite are taken up by things like meetings, giving feedback, moderation, reports, mentoring and appraisal documentation. This often means lesson planning has to happen late in the afternoon or at home, where it tends to be rushed. Such lessons are usually not developed enough to encourage critical thinking because they need to be made with the individuals in the class in mind, not taken out of a textbook or an online plan. Personally, I felt unhappy with many of my lessons as I knew if I had the time, my lessons would have been great.
Teachers are expected to constantly deliver fantastic lessons that raise student achievement while increasingly being expected to demonstrate accountability for their students’ performance. I have heard few policy-makers seriously suggest reducing teacher workload, particularly the expected contact hours and class sizes, both of which must be cut for teachers to deliver those effective lessons. In fact, most of the discourse about education is superficial and focuses mainly on statistics, such as how many people are gaining qualifications across schools, demographics and nationally, and how many credits they are gaining while doing so.
This obsession, which grew worse under National, means the success of a school and a government’s education policies are determined by the number and nature of credits gained by students. This in turn compels students and the schools themselves to panic about getting those numbers up by setting percentage goals for the amount of students that gain each qualification. One problem with such goals is that they lead to “teaching to assessment”, where each course simply moves from one internal to another and the emphasis from both students and staff is placed on the credits those internals offer, rather than the skills that must be demonstrated to do so. This is where exemplars and assessment workbooks, although structured to scaffold students, may do them a disservice by dissuading them from appreciating the true value of the work they are asked to do.
A student’s future is determined by the number of credits they have when they leave school, so NCEA becomes a numbers game. Once the number has been reached a student can kick back and relax, which is exactly what I did at school. There was no drive, no intrinsic appreciation for learning being developed, and personally, I didn’t care that much about Excellence credits when I was in school. I wasn’t after any scholarship or anything special and even now, endorsements seem geared towards gaining scholarships or making CVs look good.
A friend of mine said that schools had essentially become “credit factories”, concerned with pumping out qualifications in order to meet achievement goals, which in part affects funding. To do this, schools offer extra assessments that students can complete later in the year or students go to different institutions to get them. Again, teachers and schools cannot be blamed for this, they are simply doing what is right by students to ensure they can progress to whatever future endeavours they have in mind after school. Unfortunately, this means that for all its good intentions, NCEA is still just another way to define the value of a young person as easily-processable numbers and terms, handy for employers and universities to easily make judgments about their worth.
Education cannot continue to be merely a mechanism that molds young people into ideal employees to exported to the workforce. The previous government’s narrow focus on STEM subjects reflects the industrial-era attitudes that still fundamentally underpins our education system, such as the idea that the skills a student learns in school should be directly related to their future employment. These values are often at odds with the values of other cultures, like how the education system promotes individual excellence over manaakitanga and looking out for one’s own interests over working to help others. Schools, like the wider society they reflect, equates one’s identity with their work, and ideally that shouldn’t happen at all. People, after all, are more than the job they do, and we should start talking to students like this is the case.
Schools should focus on providing students with the ability to navigate the many complexities of adult life, things ranging from financial literacy to civics to even just understanding and appreciating their cultures. They should leave school confident enough to meaningfully interact with people from all walks of life, able to take on any challenge they face with a curiosity to continue learning and improving (the idea of creating life-long learners is discussed in the NZ Curriculum) and be empathetic, active citizens. If they have all these attributes, they will likely succeed in whatever they pursuit they choose.
I may not go back, but I hope it gets better
I knew many of these problems existed before I started teaching, but I underestimated not only how difficult it would be to make the change I wanted to, but also how much I disagreed with the fundamental ideologies that drive our education system. The frustration got the better of me and I felt like I was accomplishing little. That said, the issues highlighted in this piece do not mean that it is all doom and gloom. There are plenty of positive discussions occurring and ideas being put forward about how to make our education system better, such as recent announcements of major reforms provides cause for cautious optimism. There is talk of removing the Tomorrow’s Schools that fostered competition between schools, a review of NCEA and the need to address Māori issues in education. I hope that the changes are sufficiently radical and not the tinkering at the edges we have come to expect from Labour, but even then, I will likely not return to teaching any time soon. The issues, particularly those that face Māori and Pasifika, may be exacerbated at school but they start beyond the gates, and it is that change out in the community and with society that I intend to make. For all those still teaching, I have the utmost respect. Sometimes I wish I had persevered, but students are better served by those whose hearts are still in it.
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.
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.
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.
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.