Our ritual airing of grievances

Last updated 12:00 10/02/2014

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OPINION: How did you spend your Waitangi Day? I followed the old New Zealand custom of using the national holiday to catch up on some of the gardening.

That's always been my preference to our other Waitangi Day tradition - worrying about the meaning of Waitangi Day.

When I related this to my boss John the next day, he reminded me that Waitangi Day rancour is really of the essence of what it means to be a democracy.

His point was that a truly free society respects the importance of debate - even when it is bitter and protracted and not particularly productive.

On reflection, I think that he was right (and not just because I've got a performance review coming up).

Of course, there is some appeal to the idea that everyone could just move on from the past - something tried successfully in ancient Athens.

After the city's defeat to Sparta in the Peloponnesian War, her citizens were subjected to government by the "Thirty Tyrants". The Tyrants severely curtailed the traditional liberties of Athenian citizens.

When they were eventually overthrown, there was plenty of ill feeling towards those who had colluded in their rule.

But the new democratic Athenian government unexpectedly passed a decree that, in relation to the previous regime, "no-one was to recall the past misdeeds of anyone". The intention was not to simply erase a particularly nasty chapter of Athenian history.

Instead, the decree was intended to prevent recriminations becoming an obstacle to what Swiss classicist Kurt Raaflaub described as the "lasting civic peace" that followed in the city.

But where contemporary New Zealand is concerned, an "Athenian Amnesty" is completely unrealistic.

Our postmodern way of looking at history means we will always be focused on the morality of whose ancestors did what to which particular victim group.

This is so strongly built in to our educational and public institutions that we will probably never move on from it.

That being the case, perhaps we could take some inspiration from the concept of "catharsis", another ancient Greek concept.

Catharsis is the supposed renewal and relief that follows the expression of anger.

It's the idea that, by letting off a little steam, we can purge ourselves of our negative emotions toward one another .

Fans of the television show Seinfeld will remember the character Frank Costanza inventing a holiday called ‘Festivus'.

During Festivus, you erect an undecorated aluminium pole in your living room and gather for a family dinner.

Following this, everyone at the table takes part in the "airing of grievances" - during which the participants take it in turn to list what disappointments the other family members are.

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While I don't think we should take too many cues from Seinfeld (and particularly not in the case of Frank Costanza) the concept of a ritual airing of grievances may have merit.

It has certainly endured since the airing of the show.

Last year, a prominent American Senator even invoked the ritual when lamenting the state of the US federal budget.

So I suggest we codify the custom of rhetorical mudslinging before Waitangi Day.

We can designate February 5 to be our "Airing of Grievances Day" and make it a public holiday.

To prevent the overburdening of the productive sector, we could abolish the various provincial anniversary weekends celebrated around the country.

After all, do we really need to commemorate the fact that for 35 years in the 19th century we had a quasi-federal system of government that had to be abolished because it was creating too much corruption?

On Airing of Grievances Day, we can try to purge our negativity by temporarily embracing it.

One side can argue that everyone would be better off if this country had never been brought into existence and that the only thing to do about it is some Robert Mugabe-style land reform.

The other can argue the equally foolish proposition that the Crown did nothing wrong by Maori, has nothing to apologise for and no moral obligation to make some redress. The vast majority of us who sit in between those two positions can rend our garments with frustration.

Then, having got it out of our system for another year, we can recognise on Waitangi Day the fact that, like it or not, we are all in this together. Hopefully, the day could become less about guilt and navel gazing and more about releasing tensions and renewing friendships.

Naive? Probably. I'm also pretty sure there would be an army of psychologists ready to point out to me that the idea that venting our emotions is cathartic is overly simplistic or wrong. Still, I reckon it's worth a try, especially when the status quo is that some people are almost too invested in the meaning of our national day - and the rest aren't invested at all.

- Manawatu Standard


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