Hobson’s Pledge and their ilk argue for a culture that treats everyone the same. Anthropologist Haimona Gray looks at what’s actually at stake when we embrace multiculturalism.
Go look at a wall!
Is it very different to say, dirt? It is, because a wall is not a natural phenomenon. A person made that wall, but not before other people came up with the idea of a wall and how they should be built. The oldest, still standing, man-made walls are 11,500 years old and can be found in what is now southern Turkey.
Cross cultural exchanges of ideas and actions gave you that wall. They also influenced over thousands of years the type of walls you come across today, and your personal taste in walls right now. It took centuries of experimentation by many different cultures, and the sharing of knowledge about wall building, to perfect that wall.
The History Of All Human Endeavour – tl;dr version
Herein lies the problem of discussing ‘culture’ – it incorporates essentially all human knowledge. Because of this it will always evolve faster than our ability to manage or control it. Like how Wikipedia grows faster than anyone could read it all.
Culture includes all ‘social learnings’ – these are skills or knowledge we have learned from our cultural upbringing as opposed to individual lessons gained from personal trial and error. It can be mundane in its micro-focus, but it is vital to understanding whether we have anything to fear from new people and cultures.
In human history there are no concrete examples of multiculturalism contributing to the collapse of society. Diseases collapse societies. Wars for cultural domination and assimilation frequently collapses societies.
The real fear is that if we don’t learn enough from these examples and cultures we will be stuck doing the same things in the same way until our nation falls so far behind culturally – including economically and technologically – that we become a state of Australia.
A state of bloody Australia.
New Zealand, or The Only Good Zealand?
Privileging sources of knowledge from people who look like you or agree with you is anti-academic and anti-evolutionary. Why? Because it defies our basic need to adapt to an already globally influenced society and changing environment.
Culture is often misunderstood as both exotic and divisive. Not speaking English in New Zealand is seen by some as a ‘cultural’ decision, but speaking English is seen as part of being a ‘normal’ New Zealander.
This oppositional approach stems from generations of intellectual laziness supported by an overwhelming desire to smother New Zealand in Anglo-Saxon traditions and rules.
This image of Anglo-Saxon culture isn’t grounded in the up-to-date distinct cultural traditions or practices of the United Kingdom. It is a cover of a misremembered song, played by a drunk who forgot the words mid-song and so started humming.
Language has the ability to evolve quickly and demonstrably in interesting and traceable ways. The English language is a distinct cultural product, but not of New Zealand. Our dialects have evolved in our own little cultural laboratory thanks to decades of cross-cultural exchange of words. It turns out some vowels weren’t popular amongst the group and, with limited motive, culture did what it does and evolved for the surroundings.
This is why, rightly or wrongly, I personally like the ‘Nu Zillind’ pronunciation. It is informal and fitting of us as a nation, because it’s making the most out of a poor decision made somewhere else.
A Māori Scottish Pole walks into a bar alone
A guy once told me he doesn’t see race. I asked him if he saw his own.
His point was that all people should be treated the same, regardless of race, gender or anything else. My point was that he had already created an oppositional dynamic between himself (and his race) and anyone with needs different from his own.
“I don’t see race” is the opposite of critical thinking – it frames how this person wanted to be treated by other cultures as the gold standard for everyone, dismissing any self-reflection or discussion about how his treatment of others actually comes across.
Focusing on what unites us comes from a place of good intentions. But doing so says that you place more value an unchanging world than on protecting the things about the cultures of New Zealand that make us unique, and what we can learn from those cultures to find the next great idea. Ideas like the new wall, which probably won’t look like a wall but will be just as revolutionary.
Pre-colonisation Māori culture grew into its surroundings, making each person’s rohe a part of their definition of themselves. From roughly the fourteenth century until invasion, different iwi’s practices evolved with the growing of knowledge of the land.
Early immigrants found many parts of our nation a challenging place to prosper using skill sets designed and honed on the other side of the world, and relied heavily on Māori support to eek out an existence.
What started out promisingly – as cultures learned from each other, developing shared skills and building a society far stronger and united than that which the immigrants had left behind – devolved into a tacky knock-off England. Our housing stock, our streets, and even our capital city were designed in defiance of local common sense and for another hemisphere.
Culture is a collection of successful and meaningful practices which have survived and evolved throughout history. This is why we need more of it, not less, if we are to understand and be prepared for the future.
Cultures are like data points on a graph to survival: the more we learn, the better we are at seeing the full picture of humanity and what is needed to keep existing.
This is why attempts to erase all but the most dominant cultures are always doomed to fail – because those who do so see culture as set, something capable of being destroyed and replaced with their own. They’re too focused on the now, not focused on learning from the history of everything they rely on to survive.
Sapa sui: the food of the present and the future
New Zealand has an indigenous culture which first adapted to the environment, and which was later followed by a culture that tried to adapt the environment and people to them. Then others cultures followed that weren’t made to feel welcome.
Let’s try again, with feeling this time. All of these cultures have positive contributions to make to the nation; as history has shown us, we can’t live in a bubble and expect to keep up with the rest of the world.
This isn’t a great big mixing pot – we need to not be blind to other cultures for convenience. We need to come together like a rainbow layer cake, each level complementing the next without overpowering the last.
If cake is too sweet for you, even in metaphor form, how about sapa sui?
Sapa sui is a Samoan variation on chop suey. It is a delicious and simple example of how something perfect can be made into something equally great but new, distinct and regionally designed.
We all need to be a little more like sapa sui. Here’s a good recipe.
Beyond New Australia
Cross cultural exchanges of ideas and actions are our only hope to survive as a nation and not just a state of Australia.
What we have in New Zealand is pretty sweet in a lot of ways. We have a stable society not facing any existential threats other than maybe natural ones. We have attracted highly productive and diverse waves of migrants. Each has brought unquestionable wealth to this country. We wouldn’t have half our health system without migrants.
To be honest I have never understood the anti-migrant and anti-culture mindset. That probably comes with being ethnically Māori and Scottish, with a Żubrówka shot of Polish in there too.
It’s not that I have never come across it. As a parliamentary service staffer in my early 20s dealing with correspondence I saw some extreme anti-migrant treatises – if it was written by hand and over ten pages long I knew I was in for an unpleasant read. In spite of it all I have never fallen into the trap of thinking those people, or this mindset, is the present or the future. All because of a kindly Scottish Presbyterian grandmother in Palmerston North who politely disagreed with “that nonsense”.
When my grandparents’ church started a Korean language night for a recent influx of Presbyterian Korean migrants and including the language in hymn sheets, my grandmother was thrilled.
As a Christian, my grandmother saw the chance to convert souls as God’s will, but she wasn’t offended that they needed sermons in their own language or with more Korean iconography. She recognised that these people were seeking the same thing she was.
I’ve seen the consequences of multiculturalism: they are the nice old grandmothers in Palmy North singing in Korean, they are you using Hindu-Arabic numerals every time you swipe a credit or debit card, they are pronouncing it “nuu zilind”, and they – significantly in my opinion – are not dying.
Seems like we are getting an amazing deal in spite of our media. And ourselves.
Haimona Gray (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Rangitāne ki Wairarapa) is a trained anthropologist and a colourful character.