Alison Jones: Ideas need cultural context

It is not surprising that Elizabeth Rata declined to discuss her background with Carroll du Chateau who interviewed her about Maori politics and organisation in "Tough talker on tribal issues" (Weekend Herald, November 4).

She routinely refuses to talk about herself, reasoning that who she is is irrelevant to what she says, and that no-one needs to know anything about her in order to evaluate her ideas.

I disagree. Ideas cannot be sharply separated from the cultural and social context in which they arise. We all tend to evaluate what people say on the basis of who they are.

We are far more likely to take notice of the arguments of a global-warming specialist than the opinions of the local hairdresser on the matter. And Pita Sharples' comments on violence in Maori families have a different meaning from those of, say, Gerry Brownlee, because Dr Sharples is "within" the community he speaks about and his view is informed by that.

Elizabeth Rata writes with authority and conviction on questions of Maori social and political order. Perhaps as a result, some readers of her work assume she is Maori.

A young activist friend recently asked if I knew "which iwi" she was from. Her work might benefit from the impression that she is Maori, but readers who know that she is a Pakeha might evaluate the work differently.

Her writing raises the question of whether Pakeha can contribute productively and positively to debates about internal Maori matters. Pakeha engagement in Maori internal politics and society has a long history. From early in the 19th century, some Pakeha gained leadership roles within Maori hapu. These men were considered strategically useful leaders or allies.

Today, such relationships continue. During the funeral in August of Te Arikinui Dame Te Atairangikaahu, a Pakeha, Dr James Ritchie, spoke to the media on behalf of Tainui. Dr Ritchie is respected and active within Tainui, speaking at hui and tangi and undertaking other day-to-day work. Other Pakeha, especially fluent speakers of Maori who have strong links with specific Maori communities, have positions of influence within Maori settings.

But examples of Pakeha holding such esteemed positions, and being empowered to speak "for" or alongside Maori are rare. Pakeha have generally shied away from actively engaging in Maori society. Most Pakeha find it too daunting or difficult to take on, with a depth of understanding, the cultural beliefs and practices fundamental to being a part of the Maori social order.

If there are few Pakeha within Maori leadership circles, there is no shortage of Pakeha willing to speak about Maori society. Some Pakeha are pleased to enjoy the singing and dancing with little interest in its meaning. Many are happy to comment about what is wrong with the way Maori do things, or what Maori supposedly believe, and how they should be different.

Such commentators make remarks not from within the society they seek to praise or criticise, but from a position outside it.

Some would argue there is nothing wrong with outsiders having a point of view. Do I have to be an actor to be able to write a theatre review? Do I have to be a male to comment on men's health? Can only group members criticise the group? Of course not. In a liberal democracy such as New Zealand everyone has a right to raise any point with evidence and argument. This is particularly the case in the university where reasoned debate is the lifeblood of the institution.

On these grounds, Elizabeth Rata as an outsider is entitled to publicise her views, criticising Maori leadership for being (she says) elitist and non-democratic. But what is the point of the criticism? If Dr Rata's interpretation of Maori culture is intended to stimulate debate, who is the debate supposed to be with? Given their lack of response, Maori do not appear to be interested in being part of it. No group is likely to want seriously to query their social structure when the terms of the debate are not their own.

On the other hand, if the debate is meant to be amongst Pakeha, it may be terribly interesting to some academics, journalists, and a general public keen to be outraged, but outsider interpretations rarely provide genuinely useful insight.

They do little to assist non-Maori to understand the consistently stated desire of Maori to "live as Maori".

Maori social structures will no doubt evolve in their own way, debated and changed by those who live within them. Pakeha are welcome to participate, and history confirms that. It is not a matter of ethnicity, it is a matter of engagement. This is another way of saying it is about who you are.

* Alison Jones is a (Pakeha) professor in the faculty of education at the University of Auckland. She specialises in Maori-Pakeha engagement in education.

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