OPINION: What is going on?
When earlier this week we published photos from Uruti School's fundraising event, in which dead possums were dressed up in all manner of silly disguises, we thought there might be some reaction. But no-one at the Taranaki Daily News seriously thought the story would go around the world and inspire such heated and passionate debate.
There have been more than 400 online comments about the story and hundreds have responded to our polls. Also, news organisations around the globe, from Russia to Britain and the United States, have splashed the pictures on their own websites.
Part of that worldwide interest and reaction is predictable: in our industry things that happen overseas are often portrayed as quirky, bizarre or even downright wrong. And the further away the subject geographically and ethnically, the more likely we are to see something as just plain weird and either chuckle or reel in horror; it's an ingrained, muscle- memory reflex that helps us to deal with anything that might challenge the way we do things in our own society.
That's understandable, but the sometimes vitriolic backlash within Taranaki and around the rest of the country is not so easy to fathom. Unless you consider how our society has changed over the past few decades, an idea we will be exploring in greater depth in next Saturday's paper.
A number of comments about the pimped-up possums have highlighted what the writers perceive as the growing gulf between town and country. And it's a view given some backing by the response to one of our online polls.
We asked readers if the polarising reaction to the possum story highlighted a widening gap in urban-rural society. Of the close to 600 responses, 74 per cent said yes.
That view is further bolstered by population statistics. In 1881 there were just under 486,000 people living in New Zealand. Of those, 291,238 were defined as "rural" rather than "urban". That's not surprising given that it was a young, as-yet undeveloped country. By 1969 the population had grown to 1.84 million and 570,000 (about 31 per cent) were classified as rural dwellers. So close to one-third of New Zealanders still had a strong relationship with the country's rural roots.
Today, statistics put the figure at 15 per cent. Which means 85 per cent of people live in urban areas, potentially disconnected from rural communities and an important part of this country's heritage and history. And no doubt that potential demarcation is made more marked through migration trends.
Maybe that partly explains why our celebrated and lucrative primary industries, so important in a time of global fiscal turmoil, have been so sullied and undermined by accusations of dirty dairying and environmental piracy. And maybe that explains why hundreds of people in our region and around the country would react so strongly to an unusual fundraising idea by a tiny rural school.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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