Monday, 15 July 2013

The right kind of equality

Nine years ago almost to the day as I write this, the Māori Party was formally established in this country. Many people, most prominently its co-founder Tariana Turia, were dissatisfied with the then-governing Labour Party’s stance on various issues affecting Māori; the final straw was the Foreshore and Seabed Act. The point is that recently, a bunch of dopey munters have set up a Facebook page and called themselves “the Pakeha Party”, because isn’t it racist to have a Māori Party and no Pākehā Party? Er, since people in other countries do occasionally seem to visit this blog, though judging by my comments filter you’re all spambots, I need to explain that “Pākehā” is the Māori word for the European-descended majority culture of New Zealand.
The other thing that happened recently has been dubbed “the Man-Ban” by the New Zealand media, because the New Zealand media is apparently a fourteen-year-old kid. The Labour Party was considering implementing a quota to ensure equal numbers of male and female MPs, and allowing some electorate offices to seek only female Parliamentary candidates. Read that again: they were considering the idea, and (had they not backed down in the face of the media) some electorates would have been allowed to seek only female candidates. Nothing had been decided for sure, and it wouldn’t have been mandatory. But that was enough to spark a nationwide whinge-storm from people who would never have dreamed of running for Parliament for Labour.
You see the common thread here, right? In both cases the complaints are about what has been called “affirmative action” and “reverse discrimination”. If it’s sexist to keep women out of office, isn’t it sexist to keep men out of office? If it’s racist to give white people special treatment just because they’re white, isn’t it racist to give Māori people special treatment just because they’re Māori?

Let’s take the sexism one first. Why should there be gender quotas? Why not just nominate whoever would be best for the role, regardless of what gender they are? Otherwise you end up with people who can’t handle the job, getting in there just because of what they have or haven’t got between their legs. And worse, you cast doubt on the very people you’re trying to help – “You don’t count, you only got in here because of the quota.”
When someone tries all that on you, ask whether they think women are likely to be systematically less competent than men at governing. The answer will be something along the lines of: no, that’s not what they’re saying, in fact it’s the opposite of what they’re saying, what they’re saying is that women are competent and therefore there shouldn’t need to be a quota.
But that’s just it. If women are not systematically less competent statespeople than men, then it follows that the set consisting of
  • the 60 most competent stateswomen in the country plus the 60 most competent statesmen in the country
will be the same, give or take one or two, as
  • the 120 most competent statespeople in the country
on the assumption, of course, that there are about the same number of eligible women as men. The quota won’t remove anyone who deserves to be there, nor introduce anyone who doesn’t. Anyone, in those circumstances, who said “You only got in because of the quota” would thereby prove themselves to be ignorant as well as inconsiderate and thus not entitled to an opinion on the matter.
In fact, if you really believe that women are just as good at governing as men, and if your sole concern in choosing a candidate is competence, Parliament’s present gender ratio of 41 women to 80 men should be an urgent problem for you, because that can only mean that approximately 20 incompetent men have been elected at the expense of 20 competent women. No, it can’t have happened that way just by chance. Not in a Parliament of 121. If you’re looking at the single most competent person in the country, then the odds are nearly fifty-fifty that that person will be male. If you’re looking at the top six, the likelihood that two or fewer of them are women is about one in three (22 of 64 possible arrangements). But the more people you add to the list, the smaller that chance gets. When I ran it through Excel, the probability that 41 or fewer of the top 121 people were female came out as less than one in 4000. In other words, it is 4000 times more likely that there is some kind of gender bias in New Zealand’s democratic process than that we’ve elected the 121 best people for the job.
Unless there is some systematic difference between women and men when it comes to getting nominated and elected, of course. That’s not out of the question. Some fields show clear gender differences. I’ve taken notes now in a first-year social work class and a first-year physics class; each had a clear gender majority, and I think you can probably guess which gender in both cases. I don’t know whether social work graduates and physics graduates enjoy equally rewarding careers, but if they did then I wouldn’t see a problem here. I’m not sure it argues either major innate differences or major socialization differences between the sexes, either. Our studies and occupations, which mark us out from other people, don’t use nearly as many of our different mental faculties as the daily business of organizing ourselves, getting on with others, and finding meaning in our lives, which unite us all. If you only look at the areas where we differ, the differences between us will look bigger than they are.
Which is probably benign enough as it applies to social work and physics. Political power, not so much. The things we’re good at tend to align with the things we’re interested in – practice makes perfect and exercising our skills is fun. The question is what, exactly, men might be more interested in or better at than women, that they would be putting to use in governance. Dominance and aggression, both things men seek more than women in every society ever studied, are obvious perks of a career in government, and they’re also the exact things that democracy is supposed to try and minimize. So politics is a special case; if more men are interested in it than women, that’s an indication in favour of gender quotas, not against them.
Whether women-only electorate seats are a good way to make a quota work (since about half of New Zealand’s MPs get in on a party list, which would presumably be easier to adjust) is of course another question, and worth asking. But very few people did.

A few weeks ago, the Mana Party – sorry. An explanation, for the benefit of the overseas spambots. The Māori Party formed a coalition government with the business-oriented National Party in 2008 mainly because the alternative would have been nicing up to Labour. One member, Hone Harawira, dissatisfied with the compromises this entailed for the party’s values, left and formed his own party in 2011 along with a few other left-wing activists. Harawira is now Mana’s sole MP. Clear? OK.
A few weeks ago, the Mana Party announced a scheme to build a bunch of new state houses, to be made available to Māori first home buyers only. That was apparently what prompted David Ruck to put up his “Pakeha Party” page on Facebook. “If the Maori get it, we want it to!” they announced. Later, they corrected the spelling of “too”.
On the face of it, if you were ignorant (as Ruck and his ilk are evidently content to be) of the facts, this seems reasonable. But it really does depend on what problem the policy was intended to fix. Consider: I have a friend who, get this, owns a personal vehicle that the government gave him – for free. Free! How is that fair? How come I don’t get one? How come my taxes have to pay for him to ride everywhere? Sometimes I even have to push it for him! Er, the vehicle in question is a wheelchair and he gets it because he has no mobility below the chest and very little above it, but that’s not important, the important thing is that I should get anything anyone gets from the government and if I don’t get it no-one should get it, am I right?
No, I don’t think that’s excessively heavy-handed satire. When I posted a counter-argument on The Pakeha Party’s Facebook page, the first comment it got said, and I quote, “Blacks and cripples always get the easy road”. And the commenter was The Pakeha Party (i.e., one of the page admins), not some passer-by. By the time I thought to screen-cap it, it had been deleted, or I’d have shown it to you.
Māori live in a predicament closely parallel to that of African Americans in the United States. Many New Zealanders tut-tut over racism in other countries while quite casually participating in it here. The attitude often seems to be: of course the idea that African Americans are dirty, lazy thieves is nothing but a racist stereotype; and of course the idea that Australian Aborigines are dirty, lazy thieves is nothing but a racist stereotype; and of course the idea that Black South Africans are dirty, lazy thieves is nothing but a racist stereotype; but Māori and Pacific Islanders really are dirty, lazy thieves.
All these ethnic groups really are over-represented in crime statistics, and under-represented in employment. This isn’t about people making up stories out of spite, it’s about people not understanding underlying causes. Nor does it have anything directly to do with skin colour; although most disadvantaged ethnicities today are brown, the same stereotypes attach to white ones, such as Gypsies and the Irish within living memory. There’s a Lowland Scots poem about God creating the first Highlander from a cowpat, and the Highlander’s first act is to pick God’s pocket. That came from a time when Highlanders were marginalized in Scotland.
I really should explain how it works by pointing you to somewhere Māori and other marginalized people tell their stories. But my experience is that the people who read those and take them in, already get it; people who still need to have the whole thing explained, brush them off as either exceptional cases or “So they’re whiners as well as lazy and violent.” So instead I’m going to refer you to two theorists who, between them, fully explain the fundamental problem faced by African Americans. Each one of them is quite enlightening alone, but put together they complete each other.
...police resources are stretched, and their ability to control the drug traffic is maximized by information that enhances the probability of finding illegal drugs. The dividends of targeting extend to other areas of crime prevention. As police officer Mark Furhman of O. J. Simpson fame put it, if a black man is driving a Porsche and wearing a suit that costs less than $100, you stop him on the assumption that the car may be stolen. Anyone who listens to a police radio will discover that blacks who walk through a white neighbourhood are labelled suspicious, while whites in a black neighbourhood go without remark (except as to their lack of prudence).
It is rational for police to use race as a low-cost information bearer to enhance their efficiency... Irish Americans have a rate of alcoholism well above those of most ethnic groups. When resources are stretched, as always, and the highway patrol is conducting random checks for drunken drivers, they would do well to stop only Irish male drivers, particularly where Irish are heavily concentrated. The problem is that they cannot be identified by appearance, and stopping all drivers to verify whether or not they were Irish would be self-defeating. Irish could be forced, and everyone else forbidden, to drive green cars, but that law might be evaded. The rational solution would be shamrocks indelibly tattooed on the foreheads of all Irish males, perhaps luminescent at night. There would be a cost in this, but it could be shifted to the Irish themselves. Levin also notes that people associate insider trading with Jewish Americans. This association may not be based on evidence, and the resources of the Securities and Exchange Commission may not be stretched. But if those conditions hold, the utility of Stars of David becomes obvious.
Jim Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? pp. 113–114
Another low-cost information bearer is driving a car in crappy condition; when my partner’s old car was reaching the end of its life – its boot banging open, large swathes of paint missing, its roof covered in guano because for some reason the elm tree outside our house was the birds’ favourite in the whole street – we found ourselves being pulled over for random spot checks twice a week. But you can get rid of a crappy car, and we eventually did. You can’t do that with brown skin. My consciousness was first raised to this when a Māori friend and classmate once casually mentioned, as if it were nothing out of the ordinary, that if he and two mates were to walk along the street all dressed the same, the police would come over and have a friendly chat, just in case they were a gang. (If you’re thinking “Nah, that doesn’t happen,” because it hasn’t happened to you, please check your skin colour in the mirror.) And some people know how to exploit the profilers. Shoplifters in the US have discovered a way to fool electronic security gates: walk through them at the same time as a black man, and he will be stopped and searched instead of you. That happened to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
The police attitude is generally cavalier and unhelpful to the marginalized group. dealing with low-income African Americans, police “seem to vacillate between indifference and hostility, ...reluctant to become involved in their affairs but heavy-handed when they do so.” Judges and prosecutors too “tend to be... uninterested in the disputes of low-status people, typically disposing of them quickly and, to the parties involved, with an unsatisfactory penal emphasis.”
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p. 84
And this has consequences on the streets.
The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help”. This has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured justice in the absence of intervention by the state.
In an influential article called “Crime as Social Control”, the legal scholar Donald Black argued that most of what we call crime is, from the point of view of the perpetrator, the pursuit of justice. Black began with a statistic that has long been known to criminologists: only a minority of homicides (perhaps as few as 10 percent) are committed as a means to a practical end, such as killing a homeowner during a burglary, a policeman during an arrest, or the victim of a robbery or rape because dead people tell no tales. The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defence... Most homicides, Black notes, are really instances of capital punishment, with a private citizen as the judge, jury, and executioner.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature p. 83
If you can’t rely on the police to protect you, you have to rely on your reputation. You have to be scary. You have to make sure people know you are dangerous to mess with. Hence the honour code – you must react violently even to minor harms or insults, or people will think you’re easy prey. Minor acts of terrorism, such as robberies, will also make you look more badass, as well as netting you some extra cash. So the police persecute ethnic minorities because they commit more crimes, and ethnic minorities commit more crimes because the police persecute them; a classic vicious circle. Meanwhile, the correlations between ethnicity and crime are also known to employers, with predictable results in the jobs queue. Any wonder stealing and selling drugs start to look like better bets? And on it goes...
For example, take a bank that has an excess of apparently sound white applicants for loans over the amount of funds it has to lend. The bank knows... that the risk of non-payment is greater. It can conduct a thorough investigation of a particular black applicant to determine whether he or she is an exception to the group. But unless its competitors do so, it has incurred an extra cost to its disadvantage. Therefore, the bank will tend to assess the black applicant as a member of his or her group and refuse the loan.
Landlords also use race as an information-bearing trait. Take a widow with a room to let. A Korean American female and a black American male knock on her door. The cost of hiring a private detective to check them out as individuals is prohibitive... Asian female affords a good chance of a tenant who is docile, will please neighbours thanks to sobriety and reticence, will be prompt and reliable in paying rent. Black male means a significant chance of someone who is criminal, destructive, noisy, and insolvent. In every such case, the cost of investigating individuals is high and the cost of identifying race nil.
Jim Flynn, Where Have All the Liberals Gone? pp. 116–117
Now, if the same logic applies in New Zealand, you have a neat explanation of the “mean-spirited attitude to Māori homeowners”, on the part of the banks, that Mana’s housing policy is intended to sidestep. I haven’t actually looked up the statistics on bank loans by ethnicity in this country. Any bets which way they go?
And as if all that weren’t enough, there’s a fog of silly myths surrounding Māori issues, many of which make it into the media. The very first paragraph of this post brought up two of them. “Foreshore and seabed”, to many New Zealanders, is code for “those greedy Mowreys want to stop us going to the beach.” That was a deliberate and cynical piece of spin from the Labour Party in 2004. In fact the Foreshore and Seabed Act ruled that if the Government wanted to appropriate a piece of coastal territory, people who had commercial title to the area had property rights over it to stop them, but Māori who had traditional title did not. It was the Government kicking people off beaches, not Māori, and the Foreshore and Seabed Act was their means to do so.
Then I told you that the word “Pākehā” is the Māori word for the European-descended majority culture of this country. It is; the simple, neutral, everyday word. If you want to sound formal, you can say tauiwi or tangata Tiriti, but these make conversation sound awkward. If you want to talk about the English language, you might say te reo Ingarihi, but the usual phrase is te reo Pākehā. There are all manner of crazy stories among Pākehā about what the word “means”. Well, I can give you some clues. It has never meant “long white pig” or “white maggot” or “white enemy” or any such thing. It seems to derive from a word for the pale-skinned fairy folk of Māori legend, also known as patupaiarehe or tūrehu (like fairy lore all over the world, Māori tales give their fairies features that were rare but not unknown in the tellers’ population). But nowadays, Pākehā means, simply, the European-descended culture of New Zealand. By extension, it can also refer to European cultures elsewhere in the world. It can be spat out in a voice full of hate, but so can any other cultural identifier.
Now I’ve got started on Pākehā myths about Māori people, there are a dozen more clamouring in my brain to be debunked next. I really wish I had space here to go into the Treaty of Waitangi, or the idea that there were people in New Zealand before Māori got here, or the meaning and application of the phrase tangata whenua, or the Māori electorates in Parliament... but I haven’t. And don’t get me started on “We should forget about being Māori and Pākehā and all just be New Zealanders.” Because, you know, the racial profiling by the police and employers and banks and landlords doesn’t happen, because it’s not happening to me. There could be no clearer expression of the ignorance which is the very cause of the divide.

Yes, we should all be equal before the law. What kind of equality, is the point. We would not want a law that mandated cervical screening for both genders, for instance. The kind of equality we want is the kind where people really do have the same opportunities to succeed and get on with their lives. Some of us are working on that; others are sabotaging their efforts by insisting we already have it. This post is so that the latter won’t have the excuse of ignorance.


  1. I was complaining to a friend at the school gate about horrifyingly embarrassing it is when your toilet-training kids have a public accident. She good-heartedly agreed, but then pointed out "Try being a Maori mum. You should have seen the looks I got when my kid had a whoops."

  2. As you stated, this wonderful piece of writing will sadly be overlooked by those who need to read it, and celebrated by those who already agree. I truly wish there was a way to fix this. Isn't it funny how those who are unlikely to read it are probably also the same folk who complain that Maori need to "take responsibility" for their actions and stop blaming everything else? Actually no its not funny that these people refuse to "take responsibility" for their ignorance.

    My rant aside, thanks so much for this terrific insight. This is the first time I've seen any of your blogs and I'm sorry that it took subjecting myself to the butchering of the English languages (as well as the voice reason and Te Reo) on the Pakeha Party FB page(another irony perhaps?) to find it. Thanks again!

    Noho ora mai koe,

  3. Mate you need to shorten up your posts and take out the straw men. You might have something to say but you need to tighten it up and apply yourself a little more to your arguments - else it's not going to matter.