The Honours system is flawed

RICHARD BOOCK
Last updated 10:02 03/01/2013

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OPINION: Titular honours. For a country that's discovered its identity on the back of an egalitarian vision, deliberately and unashamedly distancing itself from class and rank, the awards seem about as appropriate as milk powder advertisements on a La Leche website. An archaic, anglophile hang-up, they don't so much stand for service to the community as service to the establishment. Recognition for those who play the game and win.

People say it's healthy to recognise success. No doubt that's true. The trickier bit is interpreting what success really is. A cursory glance through the most recent list reveals a scarcity of those who challenged the system, who fought the status quo, who helped us re-consider institutionalised wrongs. Yes, some of the nation's greatest triumphs were celebrated, but few involved anyone who had the temerity to confront, question or dispute.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche reckoned the surest way to corrupt the young was to instruct them to hold in higher esteem those who thought alike, than those who thought differently. It's a fair point. And given the rich vein of Kiwi counter-culture past and present, all the more relevant when it comes to our titular honours: an establishment system for establishment people, albeit many who have been wonderfully successful.

Was about to say the United States seems to have avoided this nonsense without becoming a basket-case but perhaps that's going too far. Still, it's instructional that Americans, world champions at celebrating their champions, have nothing to compare with our titular Oscars. How are they coping? Well, people still seem to remember Mark Twain, Martin Luther King; Alexander Graham Bell. The Wright brothers don't appear any less celebrated.

That's the thing about having a poncy, annual community awards system. It encourages us to think more of those who (first and foremost) successfully exploited the system for themselves than of those who confronted it on behalf of others. People who achieved by taking us out of our comfort zones, who won great social victories by defying authority and exposing wrong; people who made those in power feel awkward, are, as a rule, studiously ignored.

Maybe the Americans have the right idea, after all. Over there, activists and protesters such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Margaret Sanger are mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Edison, John F Kennedy and Neil Armstrong. There's no contrived and politically loaded merit system that encourages you to think more or less of their great achievers. Yes, they have the congressional medal, but that's neither titular nor a regular occurrence.

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Aside from the egalitarian thing, the other problem with titular honours is they're so shamelessly exploited by politicians. Take Wellington anaesthetist Dr Graham Sharpe, who in 2009 was a very worthy recipient of the NZOM for services to the profession, I'm sure. Still, interesting isn't it? That the bloke who complained to police after Helen Clark's painter-gate revelations was decorated during the National Party's first term of office?

People like to talk about the "tall poppy syndrome" whenever the honours season rolls around. Let's be clear, this isn't a moan about the folk singled out for recognition; am perfectly happy to accept their worthiness for celebration and the fantastic successes they represent. It's just that, when you start attaching a value only to those achievements favoured by the political power-brokers of the day, you risk rewarding the compliant as much as the excellent.

We also risk overlooking some of our genuine game-changers and influencers. Not necessarily folk who enamour themselves to the Government but figures who, nonetheless, have contributed enormously to our community through protest, activism, advocacy and so forth. In doing so we flirt directly with the danger Nietzsche warned us about all those years ago: encouraging people to think more of those who conform, than of those who challenge.

No honours system is worth that.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

- Auckland Now

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