Archives for category: othering

Reposted from He Hōaka: A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about reaction to a pānui from Te Papa about visiting the taonga Māori collection that they host (The tapu of taonga and wāhine in a colonised land). I finished by saying:

“. . . but of course none of this can really be understood without already understanding a Māori worldview. And this is the real issue, while Māori must understand a European worldview and law to survive in this land, colonisation has meant that very few people have any understanding of mātauranga Māori, or, in fact, of colonisation. Whenever an issue requires some understanding, whether it be the significance of te reo Māori, or kaitiakitanga, or whatever, the ignorance of most New Zealanders makes dialogue impossible. And thanks again to colonisation, this creates a problem not for those who are ignorant, but for Māori. Māori must repeatedly start from the beginning and attempt to explain their whole culture—this occurs in conversations, the media, court hearings, tribunal hearings. At some point, tauiwi need to take some responsibility for understanding the indigenous culture, and for understanding how their ignorance contributes to cultural imperialism, to Māori perspectives being marginalised and foreign in their own land.”

I want to come back to this to talk about the way Māori realities are often sidelined by people who have made little effort to understand anything beyond Western philosophical frameworks. I encounter this often, (and disappointingly for me) especially in socialist/ libertarian/ anarchist circles, where an analysis of power and imperialism seems especially crucial. I’ve written a lot about this in other posts (eg, Defining Māori), so this is only a summary.

When Europeans arrived here, they unselfconsciously slotted tangata whenua into the same orientalist framework they put all indigenous peoples—primitive, barbaric, native (meaning aligned with nature rather than culture), and superstitious. I say unselfconsciously, because Europeans took no time to consider how many of their practices would look to an outsider— unawareness of their place in nature, unthinking cruelty to children and women, inflexible codes of law, an obsession with covering (but not cleaning) the body, uncritical Eurocentric cultural imperialism (the expectation that the European way of thinking and doing is always right, even taken completely away from a European context where other people might know better). Any differences between tangata whenua understandings and actions, and Western understandings and actions, were seen as simply the result of the primitive, superstitious nature of the natives. Europeans certainly did not consider themselves superstitious—although they often did things for religious or cultural reasons that made little sense to anyone not raised within that religious or cultural framework, they were always rational.

As many have observed and written, the West tends to frame things in dichotomies, where Othering is used to strengthen one’s own righteous identity. One of the biggest contrasts at the time of European arrival here, was between European religion (inherently righteous) and Others’ superstitions or spirituality (irrational and childish at best). (It’s interesting to think about the work of Elsdon Best and Percy Smith in this context. They were fascinated by and sympathetic to Māori philosophies and beliefs, and when they wanted to show that tangata whenua were not as primitive as many of their peers thought, they tirelessly sought evidence for Māori belief in a single, supreme god. When they eventually found an informant who spoke of such a god, they then argued that this meant Māori were well on their way to developing a proper religion.)

As the values of the Enlightenment (which elevated intellect and reason above religious adherence) became more widespread, secularism became the righteous stronghold. This meant that our understandings and actions were only valid if they were based on rational (scientific) reasoning—although what is considered rational and relevant would continue to be defined by Western values. This is pretty much where the dominant culture in New Zealand is at now. For whatever reason (I blame cultural imperialism), it is not widely understood that any reasoning is based on values and a cultural framework (as Skyler, from Reading the maps discusses).

Because Western values and cultural frameworks are so pervasive, it is easy to dismiss anything outside those frameworks as not reasonable in some way. It is now common to hear Māori frameworks being dismissed as ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’—when they are actually legitimate philosophies. They have a basis in a belief system and morality, just as Western philosophical frameworks do (much as many now try to deny it). They also have a basis in a very long association with this land, which Western frameworks do not.

The sort of understanding that comes from a long association with a place is so often dismissed as spiritual, and therefore unreasonable. For example, understanding that a river is a living entity, that it has a life-force that must be sustained, and that the wellbeing of my community is intertwined with the wellbeing of that life-force. This can be, and for a long time has been, written off as spiritual, animistic nonsense. But of course, it is true, and Western science (in this case ecology) has been playing catch-up for decades, when we could have just paid attention to tangata whenua (I say ‘we’ because I trained and briefly practised as an ecologist, and never learnt anything of indigenous understandings of relationships with the environment). The knowledge that comes from generations of interdependence with an environment is more legitimate than imported ideas about the way the world works.

The point of this post is that those of us who have been raised within exclusively Western philosophical frameworks need to be open to the limitations of those frameworks. Others understand the world differently, they may understand the world better. They may express that understanding in ways that sound irrational or strange to us. If we dismiss it as nonsense, or incorporate it into our superior frameworks and explain it back to them, then we are behaving as cultural supremacists. We will continue to creep infinitesimally towards understandings that others have known for generations and have freely offered us. Which might be fine, if we weren’t destroying ourselves and our planet as we do so.

To learn more about cultural imperialism and the importance of mātauranga, I highly recommend getting hold of Te Wānanga o Raukawa: Restoring mātauranga to restore ecosystems (produced by Te Whare Whakatupu Mātauranga, published by Te Tākupu and written by Āneta Hinemihi Rāwiri).

From Cautiously Pessimistic. Whenever controversies around issues like race, gender or sexuality erupt in the left, they always seem to produce a fairly predictable set of responses. As if by clockwork, a certain set of male leftist writers spring into life to churn out another attack on “identity politics” and “intersectionality”, eager to defend what they claim is the purity of class politics against the dangers of contamination. What’s curious about this phenomenon is that the arguments of the diehard anti-intersectionalist warriors, when examined, don’t actually seem to offer that much in terms of practical suggestions for how to take the class struggle forward. Instead, in their eagerness to attack “identity politics”, they tend to abandon the basic perspective which antagonistic, materialist class politics is based on, and instead ground their arguments on a set of straightforwardly liberal principles.

For the benefit of readers who might not have encountered these arguments, a quick introduction to a few of the more noisy and visible anti-intersectionalists: there’s Ross Wolfe, a valiant opponent of identity politics who writes articles about subjects like “Marx called Bakunin fat, so that means that there can’t possibly be anything problematic about publicly shaming women for their weight” along with other weighty issues facing workers in the age of austerity, such as early Soviet architecture; James Heartfield, a member of Brendan “look at me look at me LOOK AT ME LOOKATME!” O’Neill’s bizarre Trot-turned-tory clique; and the CPGB, a small and almost entirely male group of Kautsky enthusiasts and leftist trainspotters with a knack for the fine art of unintentional self-parody, who regularly publish articles defending Marxism against the feminist menace, alongside other topics of pressing concern to workers everywhere, like how the Socialist Platform of Left Unity’s refusal to exclude the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty demonstrates their lack of principles, or attacking the Socialist Party and the Communist Party of Britain for their failure to write more articles about the Socialist Workers’ Party.

As representative examples of the genre, I’ll take James Heartfield’s rants against intersectionality and Charlie Winstanley’s article on a recent row about race and sexuality within the International Socialist Network, itself a recent, libertarian-leaning, split from the SWP. These pieces aren’t identical, but they share enough common ground that, taken together, they can be treated as fairly representative of the anti-identity camp.

These articles always tend to be a bit short on suggestions as to how to deal with the actual problems that intersectional approaches aim to address – most notably, the issue of people with certain privileges, and especially men, acting in ways which completely devastate the organising efforts they’re involved in. From Gerry Healy to Tommy Sheridan* to Julian Assange to Martin Smith, the behaviour of powerful men becomes an issue time and time again, and if the approaches suggested by intersectional feminists aren’t sufficient to deal with it, then we urgently need to find a more constructive alternative. Sadly, the anti-intersectionalist warriors don’t seem to have a huge amount of time or energy for this particular task, preferring to concentrate on other issues, like explaining why they think feminists are silly.

When dealing with critiques of “intersectionality” and “identity politics”, it’s important to address the truths that they’re based on. It is certainly the case that many people influenced by these perspectives tend to have a habit of getting into quite heated and vicious arguments on the internet, particularly on twitter (of course, this is to be contrasted with the behaviour of everyone else on the internet, where people just have calm, rational and respectful exchanges). Watching, let alone taking part in, these arguments is often quite tiring and depressing, and it’d be ridiculous trying to pretend that everything said in them is in any way justified. But if we’re to judge ideas by the behaviour of the people who hold them, then anarchism’s tainted by Proudhon’s anti-Semitism, Kropotkin’s support for WWI, and the CNT’s collaboration with the government, Marxism’s fatal flaws can be identified by looking at the jaw-droppingly stupid positions held by at least 99.9% of all Marxist groups that have ever existed, from defending the USSR as a workers’ paradise to insisting that it’s possible to reclaim the Labour Party in 2014, and intersectional feminism is discredited by the fact that some of its supporters are unnecessarily abrasive on the internet, so we might as well just junk all the ideas gained from past efforts to abolish exploitation and oppression and start over from scratch. For myself, I think that a society without government is still desirable no matter how many anarchists say stupid or embarrassing things, I think that historical materialism is still a useful way of trying to understand the world despite all the repressive dictators who’ve claimed to be inspired by Marx’s ideas, and I think it’s worth trying to understand how different forms of oppression intersect with each other even if some other people who share my ideas are unhelpfully rude when they get in arguments on the internet.

But the Heartfield/Winstanley camp aren’t just offended by the tone of the intersectionalists: they also seek to attack the intersectional project on a more basic level. For Heartfield, the problem “is a philosophy, the philosophy of anti-humanism… The main claim of the anti-humanist philosophy is a rejection of the assertion of a common human essence. All such claims to the anti-humanists are false and ideological supports to oppression. Claiming, for example, that men and women, or white and black are fundamentally the same, in this argument, is to hide the oppression of the one by the other under the appearance of equality.”

In his post-script to Heartfield’s article, Wolfe complains about people who  “hold the view that thought is not universal, but embedded, not true for all, but specifically attached to races and groups.” Similarly, Winstanley objects to “the intersectionalist assertion… that all intellectual disagreements sit within a broader system of oppressions, directly manifested by the ethnicity, sexuality, race or gender of the individual involved. In essence, within the context of any discussion in any environment, it is impossible for an individual to remove themselves from these characteristics.” In short, these gentlemen seek to object to the idea that people are shaped by their experiences, and that having different life experiences can lead people to form different ideas.

For the likes of Heartfield, Wolfe and Winstanley, individuals are not the products of their environments, and there’s no need to look for material factors to explain the course of human affairs: we’re all just pure, abstract citizens engaged in a reasonable discussion of ahistorical, universal truths. This is, of course, the classic position of liberalism, but it isn’t the only way of seeing of the world. Against the liberal position, there are those who believe that a genuine human community is possible and desirable, but it cannot exist within this society, so it needs to be created by the active, conscious destruction of all the structures that separate us from each other. This is the perspective on which intersectional feminism is based, but there’s an older name for it: this idea has gone by a number of names, but it has sometimes been referred to as  “communism”.

Antagonistic class politics always relies on the insight that the truth is not a simple, objective thing, but reality always looks different depending on the perspective you approach it from. The pyramids meant different things to the pharaohs and to their slaves, just as Britain today looks different depending on whether you’re viewing it from Downing Street or Benefits Street. Class politics is all about seeking out the perspectives of those who’ve traditionally been denied a voice. It’s about viewing World War I through the eyes of the soldiers who fought in it rather than the generals who ordered the slaughter, the USSR through the eyes of the Kronstadt sailors or the Hungarian rebels rather than the various ideologists and central committees, and the reality of free-market liberalism from the perspective of those who’ve always paid the price for it, from the slaves and industrial workers whose blood and sweat laid its foundations to those being exploited by neoliberalism today, not the abstract, free-floating individuals dreamt of by liberal theorists. And it’s this insight – both the project of seeking out and amplifying perspectives that have traditionally been repressed and ignored, and the realisation that these perspectives exist at all – that also defines the approaches that get labelled as “intersectionality”.

But my problem with the hard-line anti-intersectionalist approach isn’t just that I find its theoretical foundations to be questionable. I also find it difficult to work out how exactly this vision of a pure class struggle untainted by questions of race or gender plays out in practice. A note of humility here: I’m not claiming to be an unsung hero of anarcho-syndicalist organising. I’m not Big Bill Haywood or Lucy Parsons or Durruti: I’m a young(ish, even if not quite as young as I used to be) worker who, like most people of my generation, hasn’t taken part in any mass workplace struggles comparable to things like the Miners’ Strike, and I’ve spent most of my working life alternating between more-or-less insecure temporary work and periods of unemployment. But by now I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time within workplaces trying to think about how to strengthen my fellow workers’ sense of solidarity and self-organisation, and I’ve played a minor part in a few attempts at community organising: again, I’m not talking about campaign that beat the Poll Tax here, but I’ve tried my best to do what I can.

In my experience, it’s fair to say that, in most cases, workplace organising consists of trying to identify the informal groups and networks that always already exist, and then trying to strengthen their internal sense of solidarity and confidence to challenge management, as well as trying to break down barriers between the different informal groups that exist and bring them together. In other words, it’s about paying attention to other people, and thinking seriously about who they talk to, how they talk to each other, who they look out for, who’ll stick their necks out to protect other people and who they’re prepared to do it for, and who has whose back.

To me, it seems unimaginable that anyone could spend any time paying this kind of attention to their fellow workers and still think solely in terms of class, without at the very least taking gender into account. Depending on where you work, you might have an all-white workforce or a workforce with no workers who are openly, visibly not straight, but there is at least some gender mix in the vast majority of workplaces, and, in my experience, the composition and behaviour of these kind of informal social groups is always heavily gendered. To go into a workplace determined to only see workers and bosses, without seeing the way that gender intersects with these relationships and plays out in all kinds of ways, is to blind yourself to a crucial part of the ways that power operates within a workplace, and to ignore a whole set of challenges and opportunities that are deeply relevant to the task of building workers’ power at a grassroots level. If you don’t want to use the language of intersectionality to talk about these things, then that’s up to you, but these issues are worth thinking about for anyone seriously concerned with class struggle.

Likewise, let’s say that your organising project, whether in the workplace or the community, is going well, and starting to make some ground. You can more or less guarantee that, very early on, your opponent will seek to divide you by buying some people off. This may or may not take place along the lines of “identity” – divisions like permanent versus temporary workers are just as useful for the bosses – but if you’re interested in trying to build a movement that won’t just collapse at the first hurdle, you need to think about the potential faultlines that exist within the group you’re trying to organise, and the ways that your opponents can exploit these to turn people against each other by giving some of you access to limited benefits. In other words, to think about the kinds of questions that people who talk about privilege are talking about. Again, I don’t care that much about whether you find the language of privilege useful for discussing these questions, but if you display the kind of frothing-at-the-mouth hostility that some leftists do to even thinking about the idea of privilege, then you’re not going to be able to deal with these issues when they inevitably arise.

On closer inspection, the whole question of “serious class politics versus post-modern liberal identity politics” is a false one. The crusade against intersectionality means abandoning class politics for liberalism in theoretical terms, and it has nothing useful to say about practical questions of organising for class struggle. It’s not about class politics versus identity politics: it’s just a choice between an approach to the class struggle that starts from people’s lived experiences, which in turn means taking into account all the different identities which affect those experiences, or a toothless, abstract liberal universalism.

*to be clear, by including Sheridan in this list, I’m not trying to say that his behaviour is the same as that of Julian Assange or Martin Smith, but if we’re considering “powerful leftist men with big egos who act in damaging ways” as a category, then I think a strong case can be made for including him.

Beyond Resistance member Kim McBreen was on a panel with Fetu-ole-moana Tamapeau and Maihi Makiha on “Takataapui, Pasifika ways and beyond queer theory” at the C.L.I.T. fest in Wellington. This is the text  from that presentation.

Ani Mikaere and Moana Jackson say it’s important to start from the beginning, so I’ll start somewhere near where they tend to start.

I want you to imagine a line in front of me. This line stretches out past the arrival of my European ancestors, past the arrival of my tūpuna Māori, all the way to creation. It also stretches out behind me all the way to eternity with no milestones because we can’t see into the future. This line represents the knowledge and wisdom of generations, what Whatarangi Winiata calls the mātauranga continuum.

Imagine just in front of me, there’s an intersecting line. That line represents colonisation. When you imagine this line, I think it’s helpful to remember the scene from Psycho with the knife—because colonisation brings with it western cultural imperialism, which is the denial of anyone else’s knowledge or tikanga. Colonisation is trying to break the continuum. It seeks to cut our knowledge off from our past, by denying we had laws, let alone philosophies or an intellectual tradition. And it seeks to cut off the possibility of the continuum carrying on, by replacing our mātauranga with Western understandings. Our colonisers would have us believe that our knowledge is exactly what Europeans recorded when they arrived, no more and no less. We are supposed to believe that the Western academic tradition can better understand and represent mātauranga Māori than a Māori academic tradition can. Whether we’re talking about Western trained researchers 200 years ago, or now, somehow they’re supposed to have a better take on the truth than anyone else. And finally, we are supposed to believe that authentic mātauranga is fixed in time at that point when the colonisers arrived. It didn’t develop from anything before then, and it can never develop beyond that point.

Those distorted views of our mātauranga have endured since the colonisers started their project, but our traditions have also endured. We can use them to ensure that instead of cutting us off from our knowledge, colonisation is just a tiny blip on our continuum. As Ani Mikaere has said “While our experience of colonisation has been devastating, its impact should not blind us to the fact that it has occupied a mere moment in time on the continuum of our history” (Mikaere, 2009). And that’s where Ahunga Tikanga comes in.

Ahunga tikanga is about ensuring the integrity of the mātauranga continuum, fixing up the damage of colonisation and allowing our mātauranga to continue to develop.

There are five statements that sum up what we believe:

  • We have faith in our tūpuna. Faith that they did things intentionally, and that those intentions were good
  • We have faith in our mātauranga—our oral traditions: creation stories, whakataukī, and mōteatea. Our tūpuna had generations in which to understand their rohe. They experimented, and learnt the important skills and values in making and maintaining the relationships that they needed, and they embedded that knowledge in those oral traditions
  • tikanga is the first law here, and it is the only legitimate law here
  • Whakapapa is the philosophical framework of tikanga
  • Colonisation has led to imposter tikanga through cultural imperialism

This last statement is acknowledging that because of colonisation, some of the stuff we think of as tikanga mai rā anō is actually of recent origin, and doesn’t reflect our mātauranga. It may actually reflect the values of our colonisers, or the stories they told about us. This is especially true of issues like gender and sexuality, where the cultures of the colonisers and the tangata whenua were really different.

So if we look to our oral traditions, our mātauranga, what does it tell us about gender and sexuality?

First of all, there’s a heap of different creation traditions we could talk about. If you look at the stories lots of us grew up with, based on Pākehā writers like George Grey, it looks like our tūpuna were as revoltingly patriarchal as Pākehā. For example, Ranginui and Papatūānuku’s romance sounds like a rape scenario, she gives birth to a bunch of male children, the males make a female out of dirt, tāne has sex with her, she gives birth to a daughter who becomes the first woman, tāne has sex with her, she finds out he’s her father, flees in shame to the underworld, etc. This is a typical playing out of a western male-female dichotomy. Most Pākehā writers wrote stuff like this, and theirs are often the most commonly known versions.

But that’s not how my people talk about creation. In Kāi Tahu traditions (for example, in Te Maire Tau, 2003), Rakinui has other partners, and Papatūānuku is with Takaroa before Papa gets together with Rakinui. Takaroa goes away, Raki and Papa hook up, Takaroa comes back, fights with Raki, Takaroa wins, and goes away again. I like this tradition, because it so reflects the world of our tūpuna—the going away and coming back of Takaroa. You can see why they understood Papatūānuku as having a relationship with both Rakinui and Takaroa, because that’s how the land sits, surrounded by sea and sky. I’m interested in whether Rakinui and Takaroa have more of a relationship than rivalry—because if Raki and Papa look intimate, Raki and Takaroa look even moreso.

And then you have the creation traditions of Tainui waka. Pei te Hurinui Jones (2010) talks about how Ranginui had partners other than Papatūānuku, that they were both bi-sexual, and that Ranginui gave birth to several children. Tāne-mahuta also has sex with another male atua, Kahukura, who gives birth.

There’s lots there to think about, but it’s not my tradition to speculate on. I just want to show you that the traditions as tangata whenua know them, show complex understandings of both gender and sexuality.

You can see that monogamy is not privileged. You can see that males are not especially privileged, you can see that heterosexuality isn’t necessarily privileged, and the more you look at them, the more you can see that neither gender nor sexuality are fixed.

I’m going to stop here, because I don’t want to use up any more time, but I have a couple challenges to you. The first is explore your indigenous creation traditions, wherever you’re from. Find out what your tūpuna had to say about the world before their traditions were swallowed up and reinterpreted through a narrow-minded patriarchy.

The second is, wherever you live now, support tangata whenua. Support their organisations, support tikanga solutions. Don’t try to be an expert on them. Be prepared to learn from tangata whenua instead of critiquing or trying to teach them. For example, if you want to learn about tangata whenua, if you want to learn te reo, or Māori law, don’t go to a colonial institution where our mātauranga is understood within a western tradition, at best relegated to an offshoot of anthropology. Instead, support your wānanga where mātauranga is central. Think about whose culture you privilege when you are organising. When you’re doing things like setting up safer spaces policies, think what it would mean to prioritise indigenous culture. What does a Māori safer spaces policy look like?—is it something you can do? What would you have to change to make it possible in the future? At the very least, it’s going to mean making sure you’ve got meaningful relationships with tangata whenua.

There’s a heap of really valuable stuff in our traditions, they hold generations of knowledge and solutions to problems that the west is only just starting to recognise—like hetero-patriarchy. The less energy tangata whenua have to put into defending our right to cultural survival, the more we can put into invigorating our traditions, exploring them for their diverse and unique solutions to problems we are facing. That’s something we should all be supporting.

Jones, Pei Te Hurinui 2010 King Pōtatau: an account of the life of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero the first Māori king (Huia Publishers and the Polynesian Society, Wellington and Auckland)
Mikaere, Ani 2009 ‘How will future generations judge us?’ Mā te rango te waka ka rere: Exploring a kaupapa Māori organisational framework (Te Wānanga o Raukawa, Ōtaki)
Tau, Rawiri Te Maire 2003 Ngā Pikitūroa o Ngai Tahu: The Oral Traditions of Ngāi Tahu (University of Otago Press, Dunedin)