Our collective dream, surely, is that one day we will reach the point where we all live in peace and mutually beneficial harmony. Once upon a time, not that long ago, we seemed to be heading in that direction, but not any more. Some of us are going the wrong way about it, aided and abetted by a government that, with the best of intentions or an unspoken agenda, depending on one's degree of paranoia, seems intent on emphasising our differences and grievances, real and imagined, and is driving a wedge between those who the Prime Minister optimistically insists is a team of five million.
We haven't been much of a team for some time, and every passing day makes realising that aspiration less likely.
We can console ourselves with the thought that we do race relations better than most, but harmony has to be worked at. And the deliberate promotion of one culture as superior to another is the antithesis of what we should be pursuing. That is a tragedy in a country where the two major cultures, Māori and European, have over the last couple of centuries gone a long way towards melding into something unique, something beyond value in a world where strife and seemingly insurmountable barriers are the norm.
We see what is good about this process in our everyday lives, perhaps not recognising it for what it is.
Many years ago an Australian expressed surprise that the writer, with no Māori ancestry, would observe a rāhui/tapu following a drowning on 90 Mile Beach. He did not understand that that centuries-old tradition, an important part of Māori culture, was simply part of everyone's way of life, in the Far North if not throughout the country. It's about showing respect for a culture that is fundamental to our way of life. Respect is shown without a second thought. It's about being a New Zealander.
Similarly, no one the writer knows would dream of entering a marae without removing their shoes. It is what we do. It's about respecting a culture that is a part of all of us, wherever our ancestors came from.
An English vicar told the writer years ago that this country was well on the way to developing a unique culture, a blend of Māori and European traditions. He saw that at his first funeral in Kaitaia. The deceased had no Māori ancestry, and the vicar had been expecting what he was familiar with in England, a small gathering of mourners, comprising the spouse, a sibling or two, the children, perhaps the family lawyer. What greeted him at St Saviour's was a congregation of 600.
That, he said, had nothing whatsoever to do with English tradition. It was a New Zealand 'thing,' a clear example of how English culture had blended with Māori.
Our ancestry is gradually taking on greater importance, however. The significance of differences between Māori and European culture and traditions are being emphasised. They are becoming a gulf that, if we aren't careful, might never be bridged.
We have seen two very recent examples of that, although the issues themselves were (and are) not as important as reactions to them.
First there was Opposition leader Judith Collins being denied the right to speak on the marae at Waitangi because she is a woman. That was a pure expression of the hosts' traditional culture, with no relevance whatsoever to the 21st Century, yet Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson declared that if it was to be discussed and addressed, it would be discussed and addressed by Māori women, not Pākehā.
That principle didn't apply a few days later, when Māori Party MP Rawiri Waititi was ejected from Parliament for not wearing a tie. He was wearing a hei tiki, which he argued was his culture's equivalent of a tie, or what he described as a symbol of colonialism, a "noose," but that didn't wash with Speaker Trevor Mallard (who conceded defeat 24 hours later, to the obvious delight of a number of MPs, who instantly ditched that particular element of the long-established dress code for male MPs).
The difference here is stark. Only Māori have the right to consider the continued place in society of a long-standing tradition when it comes to who may and may not speak on a marae, while Māori have the right to object to a long-standing European tradition. That ties might have long lost any sort of sartorial relevance is, well, irrelevant. Tradition demands that they be worn in the House. Or it did until Trevor Mallard caved in. Assuming that tieless MPs do not signal an all-out assault on parliamentary decorum, to the point where board shorts and jandals make the cut, we will be none the worse off if it disappears. Nor we would be worse off if women were permitted to speak on the marae at Waitangi.
Neither of those traditions can be justified, apart from the possibility that they will prove to be a chink in a cultural wall that will evolve into something more profound, and undesirable.
The not so subtle message behind all this though is that Māori culture is sacrosanct, European culture is not. Neither is true. Or shouldn't. And the sight of a showboating MP, lounging back in the House in his Western-style suit, Western-style shirt, Western-style shoes, Western-style whatever else, claiming that winning the right to dispense with a Western-style tie was a victory not just for him but for generations of his descendants to come, all whilst wearing an American cowboy-style hat, would almost have been funny if it wasn't so worrying, and sad.
Does the oh so sensitive Rawiri Waititi really not see anything inappropriate about his choice of headwear? The American cowboy might not have contributed much to the horrors inflicted upon the native American peoples - by the time the big cattle drives began the Plains Indians had already been decimated - but the Stetson is a much more powerful symbol of a colonising power, albeit in another country, than the tie will ever be in a country where the early (and modern day) interactions between coloniser and colonised, if we must see them (and ourselves) that way, were and are much less brutal.
Perhaps we should be grateful that Waititi doesn't see himself as a frontman for exposing the oppression of indigenous peoples around the world, but if we are going to continue evolving a true New Zealand culture, one where everyone who lives in this country is shown the respect they are their culture deserve as they contribute to a unique New Zealand way of life, he will and others of his ilk will have to give and take. We are all entitled to respect for what we bring to the mix via our ancestry and our cultural traditions, just as we are honour-bound to show respect for others.
Cultural respect must be a two-way street. If it isn't it will inevitably breed resentment where there should be goodwill. And where there is resentment there is division, and ultimately the kind of strife that we see in other societies, where barriers are so entrenched that that they will never be broken down.
It is incumbent upon each and every one of us in this country to make our contribution to creating a happy, healthy society. Picking and choosing when we will compromise isn't going to work.