Cultural sensitivities

16:00, Jan 27 2013

Kia ora.

What makes an activity culturally insensitive? And who gets to determine whether something is culturally inappropriate?

I asked myself this question when I read about the group of young people who had assembled a trampoline on the Pouakai range which Taranaki iwi deemed culturally inappropriate. The same group of young people who caused a stir when they had their cook-out on the top of Mt Taranaki two years earlier.

And I asked myself the same question when I read about some idiot who had vandalised a statue of Jesus at St Joseph's Church around about the same time. As I read both stories I wondered which of them other readers would have found more offensive. Judging by comments, it wasn't the story about trampolining.

Cultural insensitivity is behaviour caused by the lack of knowledge or disregard of someone's views regarding appropriate social behaviour and manners. It can be unintended or deliberate. Cultural sensitivity means being aware that cultural differences and similarities exist and have an effect on values, learning and behaviour. To avoid being culturally insensitive it's good to inform yourself of what is considered socially appropriate behaviour of someone else's culture. But then my experience is that New Zealanders are generally pretty useless at considering and respecting other cultural norms and perspectives.

I often wonder why this is. Perhaps it's a consequence of New Zealand's isolation from the other countries, combined with the relative majority status of Pakeha. Being the majority tends to create a cultural myopic group-think. I have come to believe that some people simply cannot conceive of alternative world views having any validity worth considering.


In the case of the young Christian climbers I can only choose to believe they thought that Taranaki Maori viewed only Taranaki itself as being sacred - without considering whether the other surrounding mountains had any particular cultural status.

I have to put it down to repeated ignorance because the only alternative is cultural arrogance - where they assumed that because they didn't think there was anything wrong with it, no one else would either. Either that - or they thought the views expressed by Taranaki Maori last time were irrelevant.

This certainly seems to have been the view of mountain guide Ian McAlpine, who commented that the Department of Conservation and Taranaki iwi needed to "once again get a life and get on and do their real jobs". McAlpine effectively blamed Taranaki iwi for his own cultural ignorance about Taranaki cultural perspectives on the maunga.

That's like me arguing that my own limited knowledge of the Sri Lankan New Zealand culture is because the local Sri Lankan community just hasn't gotten off its backside and done a good enough job of getting out into the community to educate me about it.

Taranaki iwi general manager Liana Poutu put it well when she noted that the group had plenty of time to contact Taranaki iwi to discuss their idea if they had wanted to. McAlpine's position that Taranaki iwi needed to be more proactive is just an excuse for the status quo, particularly after the last time this issue erupted (no pun intended).

After the last event in 2011 you would have thought the group had no excuse to plead ignorance. But then in the end - they didn't need any excuse. The group probably didn't feel any requirement to get informed because they haven't needed to. There are no rules requiring users of our national park to respect Maori cultural perspectives. That is because many New Zealanders don't really respect Maori cultural perspectives.

Sure, the Maori world view might be a nice little story for someone to tack on to a tourism guide, and it might be a good marketing ploy for Tourism New Zealand when attempting to attract visitors from offshore. But because Maori remain a minority in this district some people will continue to treat our views and cultural perspectives (and therefore us) as a quaint, stone age irrelevancy. But that in turn will influence our view of our neighbours and the concern and consideration they express for us. That's a reality we have lived with for generations. You cannot force people to respect you or your cultural world view. That is until we gain a measure of influence which will make people take notice of their own accord - the sort of influence that comes with increasing economic development potential and greater population growth. If you want any proof of this - just go and ask China.