Pete McKenzie looks at what he describes as a “spiralling polarisation” of identity in New Zealand, arguing it threatens to slowly rip apart Aotearoa’s social fabric
Most mornings I walk off my train and straight to the end of Lambton Quay, where – before the outbreak of community transmission in Auckland – the cafes were packed with public servants and political staffers on their way to work. After ordering a coconut cappuccino and cinnamon roll, I wander to Victoria University’s law school for lectures on constitutional theory and the origin of trusts.
Let’s pause there. The image in your mind is of a coffee-sipping, philosophy-reading Wellington caricature. Let’s start again.
A cramp twitched my hand as I stood in the chest-deep hole. I quickly adjusted so as not to drop the light machine gun I was holding. It was 2am and the darkness blanketing the Waiouru Military Training Area would have been overwhelming without the night vision monocular glowing over my left eye. I’d spent the last hour alternating between visual sweeps of the barren landscape before me, and glimpses at the stars splashed above me.
The contrasting experiences of my life – law student, Army Reservist, writer, so on – make my identity unique. But the fact my identity is composed of contrasting experiences is something I share with practically every Kiwi – whether the apprentice builder who unwinds by reading Thomas Piketty, or the history student who disappears to Stewart Island for weeks-long hunting trips. It’s one of the best things about Aotearoa, and it’s increasingly at risk.
Developed democracies around the world are experiencing a crisis of identity polarisation. For example, as Ezra Klein observes in his recent book Why We’re Polarized, America is “sharply split across racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological lines. There are many, many powerful identities lurking in that list, and they are fusing together, stacking atop one another, so a conflict or threat that activates one activates all.” And while we haven’t reached that level of American meta-identity, where the sports team you support or the fast-food chain you eat at predicts practically everything else about you.
Aotearoa is sliding that way. Gender, ethnicity, birthplace, level of education and daily habits are all increasingly good predictors of your political preferences and socio-economic position. Political preference is an increasingly good indicator of how you perceive reality itself.
“The crisis emerges when partisan identities fall into alignment with other social identities, stoking our intolerance of each other to levels that are unsupported by our degrees of political disagreement.”
– Lillian Mason
That’s dangerous. Identities that are more firmly entrenched and less internally diverse lock us into beliefs and attitudes we can’t escape, such that, per Klein, “there is virtually no candidate, no information, no condition that can force us to change our minds.” And identity polarisation doesn’t just make it harder to convince people – it makes that conversation more toxic. According to the scholar Lillian Mason, who Klein cites, “The crisis emerges when partisan identities fall into alignment with other social identities, stoking our intolerance of each other to levels that are unsupported by our degrees of political disagreement.”
This spiralling polarisation of identity, which threatens to slowly rip apart Aotearoa’s social fabric, is not inevitable. The ‘team of 5 million’ has become a cliche during lockdown, but it captured a remarkable truth: for a few months Aotearoa came together across our differences. As we experienced the same challenges and frustrations, and faced a common threat, the group we identified with expanded beyond our typical geographic or class boundaries and encompassed the nation as a whole.
That pandemic solidarity partly reappeared with the news that community spread had broken out in Auckland, but even then it was a far weakened form of what it once was. We have to figure out how to produce a more sustainable version. It is here that Aotearoa’s unique identity becomes relevant.
When Pākehā first landed in Aotearoa, they were confronted by Māori collectivism which, in the words of legal scholar Ani Mikaere, they have usually regarded since as some form of “beastly communism”. Ironically it is the rich concepts of whanaungatanga and whakapapa undergirding Māori collectivism that now offer the best hope of sustainably bonding Kiwis together. In her book Colonising Myths – Māori Realities: He Rukuruku Whakaaro, Mikaere explains how whakapapa, intertwined with whanaungatanga, “connects us to everything there is, creating a myriad of relationships that speak to us of reciprocity, of responsibility and of the need for respect.” It presents a compelling philosophy of interpersonal duties: to listen, care for and work with others. Those interpersonal duties are the connective tissue which allow the formation of a tightly-knit community that can collectively recognise and mobilise against significant challenges, even if not all members of the community have directly experienced them.
Solidarity spurred by a common threat – a pandemic, war or otherwise – tends to enforce sameness, preventing the expression of diverse beliefs or the embrace of different experiences. Tikanga Māori respects difference because it cannot undermine our irreducible unity. In a society informed by tikanga Māori, Mikaere writes, “Instead of searching for meaning in simplistic dichotomies such as black and white, we expect and even delight in the subtleties of light and shade.”
There are all sorts of things politicians could do to foster this kind of society – including avoiding divisive language which pits Kiwis against each other, introducing programs like Peace Corps-esque national service, genuinely decolonising our power structures and supporting Māori leaders to integrate tikanga and mātauranga Māori into our national conversation.
Of course, it is also election season. We should hope politicians will lead by modelling new political behaviours; it is more realistic to expect them to follow the incentives they are presented with. “To appeal to a yet more polarised public,” Klein says, “institutions must polarise further; when faced with yet more polarised institutions, the public polarises further, and so on.” For the moment, it is better to consider what we as individuals and communities can do to break down that partisanship-fostering incentive structure: broaden our range of experiences and interactions, deepen our relationships with others and therefore change the make-up of our identity.
It’s only difficult at first. I’d never fired a rifle before marching in to Waiouru, but by the time we tramped out of the field it felt strange not to wake up with mine lying beside me. Standing in a muddy hole for hours-long sentry shifts in the middle of the night was draining to start with, but with repetition it simply became boring. The idea of marching for dozens of kilometres with a pack three quarters my weight was initially exhausting – and admittedly remained exhausting – but we did it enough times that it eventually became just another day’s tasking.
It is the rich concepts of whanaungatanga and whakapapa undergirding Māori collectivism that now offer the best hope of sustainably bonding Kiwis together.
More profoundly, the relationships I built were a far cry from any I’d have found otherwise. During Basic Training, every recruit is thrust into a section of 10 others. On my first night in barracks, the rickety cots around me were occupied by a fitness equipment salesperson from Palmerston North, a builder’s apprentice from Wellington, a medical student from Otago and a cook from Whanganui, among others. For two months, we sweated, slept, shat and shot together. By the end of Basic, I’d heard them worry about their kids, describe their favourite recipes, remember difficult childhood experiences and imagine ideal futures.
The experiences I had and the relationships I built in Waiouru (and since, in Trentham, Linton and New Plymouth) are neither better nor worse than those I would have found at law school, but they are dramatically different. Suddenly I was exploring a radically new world and developing a radically new identity. With roots in completely divergent communities, the othering which is so crucial to polarisation became much harder to engage in.
It isn’t necessary to throw yourself into the military to experience that kind of self-discovery. But if we want to genuinely challenge the rot of identity polarisation, it is necessary for you to find experiences which can challenge your preconceptions and push you outside of your normal environment.
As former President Teddy Roosevelt remarked, “A man who conscientiously endeavours to throw in his lot with those about him, to make his interest theirs, to put himself in a position where he and they have a common object, will at first feel a little self-conscious … with exercise this will pass off. He will speedily find that the fellow-feeling which at first he had to stimulate was really existent, though latent, and is capable of healthy growth.”