A little precision please, Paul

Last updated 14:40 16/02/2012

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.

Post a comment
Alan_Wilkinson   #1   02:51 pm Feb 16 2012

Claptrap, Moata. Paul's article wasn't racist, it was fed up with racism. And exactly the things that you complain about Paul's generalising as Maori social problems, Hone Harawira cited in his response blaming (all) Pakeha for them. So are you going to castigate Hone?

Somehow I don't think so.

George   #2   02:59 pm Feb 16 2012

I think both sides of the divide are guilty of generalisation. If they approve of what's being said they join the chorus. If they don't they get onto a high horse.

The chattering classes indulge in far more generalisationalism (if that's a valid word) talking up maori and their virtues than anyone gets airtime talking them down.

Ben   #3   03:07 pm Feb 16 2012

Moata, as a Pakeha I'm ashamed. But also not at all surprised, as this perspective on Maori is far from isolated in Pakeha, and not just from people who are easily categorized as racist.

Humanity is collectively a bear of little brain (hows that for a sweeping generalisation!), with a tendency to overreact to minimal facts and create 'truths' that are utter falsehoods. Maybe it's not surprising, given that often the issues are extremely complex and not easily understood.

Unfortunately, most likely we will continue to have people from both sides of the coin (the one that has Maori and Pakeha on its two sides) - like some of the activists on Waitangi day, and like Paul Holmes - who will ultimately do their bit to ensure racism continues and that forgiveness, healing and becoming one nation do not.

Phil   #4   03:15 pm Feb 16 2012

Good start, drifted a bit towards the end though.

I enjoyed Hone's article as well, although it tended to ooze, well, Hone-isms a bit too much. I've not been tempted to visit Mr Holmes article.

Your right of course, but it is a bit of human nature I suspect we will never loose, no matter how well intentioned we are.

I seem to remember being lumped together with other Trade-union hugging, fish and chip confused persons from 12,000 miles away, when I arrived here 40 years ago.

samm   #5   03:17 pm Feb 16 2012

Generalisations are the bane of opinions, and I don't use them, for the sake of clarity if nothing else.

Fish   #6   03:17 pm Feb 16 2012

I would raid kai moana, if I knew how.

Steve   #7   03:24 pm Feb 16 2012

Far more disturbing than the racist ramblings of a doddery former broadcaster, was the amount of people who seemed to wholeheartedly agree with his "hateful, hate-fuelled" diatribe.

ellgieff   #8   03:25 pm Feb 16 2012

@Alan Wilkinson: Clearly you troll these blog comments. Are you paid to do so, or are you just that lacking in things to do that you have the time for this?

His comments are racist. Because they focus on race. So are Hone's.

Julie   #9   03:26 pm Feb 16 2012

Mihi nui ki a koe e Moata, tika tau ou korero. Please don't tar us all with the same brush! I would also like to mention that here in Whanganui and in a number of communities throughout the country Waitangi day is celebrated with families and community getting together and enjoying the day, only at Waitangi on Waitangi Day is such protesting an issue. If you you don't like it, don't attend, and as most of you would not have actually attended but just brought into whatever opinion the media has feed you regarding the issues at Waitangi I can see how Paul Holmes is getting the support he has regarding what he has written. However it does scare me to read some of the korero from certain sectors of the country regarding their opinions on Maori in general. Love and respect people, kia kaha!

Ly   #10   03:35 pm Feb 16 2012


You seriously don't think that Paul Holmes was being racist? FFS It's amazing how many people are blind to the rampant racism that goes on every single day here in good ole NZ. It's actually disgusting. I'm so sick of it. "Dont paint them black, they wont work" This was said in front of me yesterday by someone I've never met before, right after they said "Dont take this the wrong way". Colleagues tend to, once I have pointed out something incorrect, make comments like "oh so what are you going to do now, claim the land my house is on?". What are we supposed to do when it feels like the bullying and racism never stops, when it gets you so down that you just want to cry because you are so mad? People expressed amazement that my husband and I went to Uni, that we work full time. They have snide remarks ever at the ready, to cut us down to make them feel better. Oh we understand that they fear us because we dont fit into the moulds that society has made for us, and we are proud and have strength in who we are, but at the end of the day people in our neighbourhood just see us as the rough looking brown people covered in tattoos with a bulldog puppy chained up in the backyard. Not the lawyer and social worker who have ta moko to show pride in our whakapapa and researched that bulldogs are one of the best breeds to grow up along side children. For a column like this to run in one of our biggest newspapers is a disgrace.

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