A little precision please, Paul

01:40, Feb 16 2012

Last weekend I read some things that made me very angry. These things were penned by veteran broadcaster and columnist Paul Holmes. Since then I've debated whether or not to blog about that.

Initially I was so angry I'm sure I would have had no problem at all writing a response. In fact I can well imagine the speed with which my fingers might have flown across the keyboard and the caustic invective that might well have issued forth. I actually couldn't get to sleep on Sunday night, such was my outrage. 

But then I calmed down a little and realised that the last thing anyone really needs with regards to this topic is another angry person stomping around in their rantypants. As tempting as it was to let fly, upon reflection I think it's better to have waited so that steam is no longer coming out of my ears.

I'm not going to go into too much detail about what was said because there are plenty of people who have done that, for instance this post is excellent. Brian Edwards wonders if Paul Holmes might have been drunk at the time. Martyn "Bomber" Bradbury thinks he should be sacked. There's not much I disagree with in any of these posts. They are all suitably appalled at the racism in Paul Holmes' opinion piece about Waitangi Day.

What I do want to address, though, is one thing that Holmes did that I think we are all probably guilty of from time to time...the imprecision of the gross, sweeping generalisation.

In Holmes' case statements were made about Māori failing to educate their children, as well as "bashing their babies" and raiding "kai moana". And you know, there are some Māori people who have done those things. Some.


And that's where the problem lies. Holmes made no real attempt to specify which Māori people he was talking about. He mentioned Māori protesters at Waitangi and the violent abuse of Māori children in the same paragraph as if one thing had something to with the other. And do you know what happens when you don't apply any specifics? The assumption is that you're talking about all of us. Because, well, you sort of ARE talking about all of us.

If you just apply the word "Māori" and let it hang there without any qualification then you are talking about all Māori. You're talking about me and my sister. You're talking about Olly Ohlson. You're talking about Dame Kiri, Taika Waititi, Piri Weepu, Mike McRoberts and my three-year-old cousin. And other than our Māori-ness do you know what we all have in common? Well, strange as it might seem...nothing really*.

Māori don't operate with a "hive mind" any more than Pakeha or any other group does. And I can tell you from personal experience that when somebody says "Māori do this" or "Māori think that" that it is incredibly dehumanising. It makes me feel like less of a person. Like my standing as an individual really doesn't matter much, only my Māori-ness. It doesn't matter at all that I've never abused a child or poached paua or that I've only had one F in my entire life (Bursary Calculus). I must be uneducated, abusive and greedy. I'll admit to being greedy (the roundness of my lower abdomen doesn't really allow for denial) but those other things? Jeez...

Whenever I hear someone talking about a particular race or group of people as if they are a "job lot" I always want to ask "Oh really? Which ones? Give me names". Because if you really do have a valid point then surely it's worth being specific? Surely you have particular individuals or behaviour in mind?

And maybe we don't all do this with reference to Māori (though clearly Paul Holmes does), but who hasn't made reference to Baby Boomers with their "free university educations and family home plus rental privilege". I know I have. But my mother's a Baby Boomer and she has neither, so really in the interests of correctness and in the stickler spirit I should be more precise.

I should really complain about "Baby Boomers who enjoyed free university educations and bought houses when prices were reasonable and can now afford an extra one". It's a slightly weaker statement but it's a much righter one. Whether or not I have good cause to complain...well, that's another issue entirely, but at least I'm complaining about the people I mean to.

Because it really doesn't take that much effort to spare people like me (well-educated, non-baby-bashing, non-seafood-raiding) from being included in a tirade. Instead of stating that "Māori [insert despicable activity that some Māori participate in]" all you need do is say "Māori who [insert despicable activity] are [your choice of adjective]". Or you could just forget the word Māori altogether and just use the word "people". That way you're still condemning the behaviour but not having to get a whole bunch of other people and issues mixed up in what you're trying to say...whatever cockamamie thing that may be.

So whether it's the driving of people with roots in Asia, or the exercise of the democratic right to protest by indigenous New Zealanders, if you're bothered about somebody's behaviour or want to have a wee complain about it, maybe you could just limit yourself to focusing on the behaviour itself or that particular individual. Adding labels doesn't necessarily make you more precise. In many cases you can end up drawing in people who've got nothing to do with what you're talking about and who'd quite like to be treated as an individual and not part of some amorphous Borg-like organism.

At the end of the day, there's no reason that should I care what some old dinosaur's thoughts and feelings regarding Māoridom are. They're about as relevant to me as that easy listening CD he brought out or whether or not one of his kids is on P. It really doesn't matter to me. But I think it's a good opportunity for us all to reflect on how we talk about other people and maybe learn from Paul Holmes' mistakes.

So, 'fess up. Are you guilty of a bit of sweeping generalisation? (I'd say that we ALL are at some point but I don't want to make a, um, sweeping generalisation.) Do you think a little specificity is really that challenging? I'm going to try a lot harder in future, and maybe pull others up on it too when I see it. 

*Except for being carbon-based life forms and inhabitants of planet Earth, but dude, that's EVERYBODY.