Monday, July 08, 2013

Identity, politics and education: a friendly argument with Opeti

[The Labour Party's plan to achieve a gender balance in its parliamentary caucus may have attracted gibes from right-wing bloggers and newspaper columnists, but it has also kicked off a thoughtful discussion on the left about the proper place of gender, race, and sexual orientation in politics. In the past I've had a number of debates with left-wing commentators, most notably Chris Trotter, about whether or not the left should support Maori struggles for self-determination. Last January I had an interesting discussion about the same subject with 'Opeti Taliai, my boss at the 'Atenisi Institute. I've reproduced my exchanges with 'Opeti here, because I think they underline the fact that an issue like Tino Rangatiratanga can look very different in Tonga, a nation which never experienced colonisation, than they do on a marae in the Waikato or Tuhoe Country.]

Hi Opeti,

I did want to query the passage in the statement of 'Atenisi's principles which said that the institution rejected all study programmes based on race, gender, and sexual orientation (that isn't an exact quote, I know, but I'm sure you'll recognise the passage to which I'm referring). I understand and admire 'Atenisi's tradition of opposition to various forms of extreme cultural relativism, and its insistence on the importance of cross-cultural exchange. Futa Helu's vision of a school that taught Italian opera and Greek philosophy as well as Polynesian dance and poetry is inspiring in its democratic internationalism.  
I think it ought to be possible, though, to oppose cultural relativism without attacking study programmes based around race and gender. As it stands, the statement of 'Atenisi's values seems to imply a rejection of, for instance, the Maori Studies Departments which exist at many Kiwi universities. I think that the establishment of these departments in the 1970s, which came after long years of lobbying and protest by Maori, was a step forward for New Zealand education, because it brought a long-oppressed people in from the cold, and gave them a seat at the academic table. After being kept out of universities for a century, Maoritanga became acceptable subject matter for students. 

I don't think that the academics who have worked in Maori Studies departments have by any means all been cultural relativists. A number of them have been Marxists, and thus advocates of an ideology which has deep roots in Europe! It was the marginalisation of Maori by Pakeha New Zealand, not the cultural relativism of Maori educators, which necessitated the establishment of separate Maori Studies departments.  

And I think the same general argument can be made about Women's Studies and Queer Studies departments. These institutions have grown up because of the long-time exclusion of sections of the population from the academy.  

Surely the statement of 'Atenisi's values could include an affirmation of universalism and a rejection of cultural relativism without implicitly attacking Maori, Women's and Queer Studies programmes? It seems to me that, as it stands, the statement could do 'Atenisi needless damage amongst good scholars who belong to these departments and are potential allies of ours. 

Malo Scott, 

When we start any discussion from a particular topic like colonialism then like you are doing here you put the whole situation in a dualistic structure which is directly contradictory with ‘Atenisi philosophy of education as strictly criticism for its own sake. Criticism, I must remind, is basically one learning from another’s lack hence both parties at the same time experience real development to the benefit of all. Hegel and his true followers demonstrate well this collapse of dualism. At ‘Atenisi, we welcome any thoughts and at the same time open all thoughts to criticism. 

Regarding ‘Atenisi’s principles relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation, ‘Atenisi’s philosophy of seeing things as they are must be protected from the understandable tendency to personalise things. To discourage this kind of movement in ‘Atenisi is to keep ‘Atenisi’s profile as an independent academic institution of learning clear and unique. In other words, this is my own hunch, Futa was concerned that his school should not become a unit in some kind of political separatist movement. ‘Atenisi, though it speaks strongly about politics, but, is strictly independent from an academic point of view... 

Hi Opeti, 

I'm all for interdisciplinary studies - I don't identify, really, with any one discipline! - but we have to remember the context in which Maori Studies Departments emerged. The institutions weren't founded by decadent postmodernists, but by a generation of young Maori who came to university in the '60s and '70s and discovered that their culture and worldview were completely absent from the curriculum, and that many academics were hostile to them. The situation at museums was similarly bad: the only Maori employed in these storehouses of Maori treasures were cleaners. Maori needed to create a foothold in institutions like universities and museums, which is why groups like Nga Tamatoa took to the streets to demand Maori Studies departments and creation of Maori Director positions at museums.

There's an analogy here with Maori seats in parliament and on some local councils. Most Maori support these seats, and belong to the electoral roll which votes for them, because they feel, with a good deal of justice, that the Pakeha majority around them is uninterested in hearing their concerns, and will never vote for a Maori candidate who puts forward Maori perspectives. There has been a campaign to establish Maori seats on the Waikato District Council for the past few years. Supporters of this campaign point out that Maori constitute about a fifth of the population of the Waikato District, and that not once, in the whole history of the District, has a Maori candidate been elected to the council. As someone who grew up inside rural Pakeha society, I know why Maori don't get elected in the Waikato 

In an ideal world we wouldn't need Maori Studies Departments, or Maori seats. In the real world, though, both institutions have been vital in improving tertiary education and politics in New Zealand. I think that Maori Studies Departments and the Maori-only positions at museums have changed the institutions in which they exist, by allowing Maori perspectives to leak out into the wider institution. To take one example: nobody today would dream of arguing, as the University of Auckland did until the late '70s, that there was no such thing as Maori art, and that Art History students therefore shouldn't engage with Maori culture. 

By correcting the anti-Maori bias of universities and museums which had been founded by white colonists, Maori Studies scholars actually made the New Zealand education system more objective, and less culturally relativist. They added to rather than detracted from the pluralism of the universities.  

Futa Helu was lucky to grow up in a society which hadn't been colonised, where the indigenous language was in an unassailable position, and where faka Tonga was strong (perhaps it was too strong at times!). It would probably have been hard for him to understand the historical context for the emergence of Maori Studies in a colonised society like New Zealand. 

 Malo Scott, 

You’re right in your view of Futa coming from and speaking from a society which hadn’t been colonised and, likewise, I’m with the Maori people (not all I must say) here in their fighting against colonisation. In the anthropology course I am offering this semester we (the students and I) will learn together about the history of anthropology’s use by colonialists to establish themselves in the Pacific for political economic purposes. I guess the difference is that the Maori movement seems to promote the establishment of a system that would operate based, first and foremost, on its own cultural identity, and likewise wants other cultural groups to retain theirs while recognising the cultural and political status of the tangata fenua.  

‘Atenisi, from the beginning, has already been a tangata fonua and has had the responsibility to act and operate independently, sifting the best out of the two cultures, Western and Tongan, in a Heraclitean simultaneous exchange. Maori people are just starting their  fight for independence whereas Tonga has done it and must hold onto independence. This is where my vision lies.

Could you finalise your papers and outlines for our handbook.


[Posted by Scott Hamilton]



Anonymous lib com said...

You are BOTH wrong. Way wrong.
An anarcho-communist perspective on the situation is clear.
The workers are the only universal class. They must take power and small all states forever.
Petty bourgeois politics is race and gender based.
Why don't you visit and also find out what the anarchist communist in Tonga is doing. I bet it is doing something interesting.

4:51 pm  

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