Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind


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Manaakitanga – a Kiwi answer to Covid

One aspect of Pākehā (European) cultural dominance that we Kiwis have historically downplayed is the undervaluing and sometimes the suppression of Māori culture. Sometimes it has been the result of a misplaced belief that one culture is more advanced or otherwise better than another. Other times it resulted directly from a notion of entitlement – that settlers had a right to indigenous resources and if that necessitated the overriding of Māori customary law by British law, so be it.

A hundred and fifty years later, the courts are beginning to recognise that customary law has equal footing with common law, and not before time. In legislation we are seeing a start to the recognition of the Māori world view as a legitimate perspective on equal footing with the Western world view. One example of a change from the Western perspective has been the granting of personhood to forests, to rivers and their catchments, and to mountains. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next few decades much more of the landscape is also granted personhood.

I accept that such a concept is alien to most people immersed in Western monoculture where personhood can only be granted to individual humans, and to a limited extent, to corporate entities. In the West, two thousand years of Christian thought has separated humanity from nature and has placed mankind, collectively and individually, above and in control of nature. It hasn’t worked out too well in my view.

Since the revival of Māori culture, from the 1970s onwards, aspects of Māori culture have started to infiltrate our once Western culture. At first, it was merely the acceptance that aspects of Māori culture were “allowed”. In other words, Pākehā “granted” Māori the “right” to express their culture publicly – a form of tokenism. But over the decades something more profound has occurred.

Not only have Pākehā accepted, and more recently welcomed aspects of Māori culture, they are also embracing it. By this I mean that not only have Pākeha recognised that Māori culture has equal standing with their own, their world view is being coloured by it. Perhaps Pākehā have been influenced more by Māori for more than a hundred and fifty years, but it’s only very recently that they have acknowledged the fact.

I return now to the topic of this post: manaakitanga. If you look up the term in the Māori Dictionary, you’ll see that it is defined as “hospitality, kindness, generosity, support – the process of showing respect, generosity and care for others“. But it’s more than that. It’s also about recognising the collective – that one’s freedom as an individual is only as strong as one’s place in the community.

The importance of the “collective” has probably been an unconscious part of the Kiwi culture for more than a hundred years. Perhaps some on the right of the political spectrum will identify this with socialism, but I believe that is only partially correct. Socialism is “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole“. Manaakitanga is more about values than about process.

Concepts such as universal suffrage and welfarism that became part of the New Zealand landscape in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and more recently, a universal no fault accident compensation and recovery system, can I believe, be at least partially attributed to manaakitanga, although Pākehā have been slow to recognise the source. Today manaakitanga is a core part of the education system in Aotearoa New Zealand.

So what has manaakitanga to do with the current pandemic? It is, I believe, the reason why this nation has been successful in keeping Covid-19 out of our communities. While being an island nation has made the shutting of borders somewhat easier than most nations, given the will, any nation could do the same. And the argument that a nation can’t shut its border due to commerce doesn’t cut it either. This nation is more dependent on international trade and the steady inflow and outflow of travellers than most. For example, as a percentage of GDP, international trade in NZ is twice that of the US.

Manaakitanga can be seen in our willingness to forgo personal freedoms for the sake of the community as a whole. When this nation went into lockdown for six weeks from late March last year, they were the most restrictive anywhere, (with the possible exception of Wuhan.) If you believe Kiwis accepted the hardships and pain the lockdown caused because we’re “subservient to our overlords” (yes, I’ve seen that description used of Fox), then you really don’t know Kiwis at all.

We made our sacrifices in the interests of the the collective – what we have called a “team of 5 million“. And it worked. Our lives are for the most part like they were before Covid appeared on the scene. The experience has reinforced the idea that an individualistic approach is not enough and that it takes a team for us all to gain true freedom.

Perhaps the relative failure of many nations in the West compared to those in the East, is due to the notion that personal individual freedom, and “rights” are paramount and above the interests of the collective. I’m not sure that such a concept has ever been held in the high regard in this nation. It’s not part of the Māori world view, and when we consider the motives of many of the early settlers, it wasn’t high on their agenda either. A “fair go”, an escape from the excesses of unregulated capitalism, egalitarianism, equity and equality in equal measure, and fair sharing, were more on their minds than personal liberty and bettering their peers.

The influence of a Māori world view has, I think, lead us to better understand what it is that we have always, if unconsciously sought, and now Pākehā too have a name for it: manaakitanga.