Opinion: It’s winter. A southerly blast has hit Wellington. As I battled home on my bike up the slight incline of Adelaide Road –made worse by the wind that most recently saw Scott Base as it whistled past – a familiar grim feeling set in. “It only gets worse from here until February” I thought, teeth clenched and muscles burning. After winter comes that uniquely Wellington season “Shitsville”, and only then, after some endless months of cold, do we get summer. It is a challenging time for those who feel the cold.

But now there is a bright spot. Matariki has been nurtured into prominence over the past eight years that my children have been at school – it is a central feature of their school year. And the hard work of those Māori hapori, scholars, activists, educators, knowledge holders, politicians to restore the important cultural practices of Matariki (submerged by laws and practices across Aoteroa’s history) means we all get to share in it.

Learning bit by bit about Matariki as an important cultural practice for tangata whenua, hearing the stories, and understanding the values, while observing the reappearance of the cluster of stars in the north eastern dawn sky for myself on my early morning runs, has made this time of year something special for me where before it was, well, a little bit shit to be honest. That is a cool gift – one of the many things that make being Pākehā in this place so special. So the question is how do you treat such a gift? I think with great care.

For people like me to take care of the gift that is the knowledge of the traditions that encompass Matariki, we may need a bit of help. Plenty of evidence of that, as some people running non-Māori businesses first thought about how Matariki could be used to leverage their business and sales. While this isn’t particularly edifying, it is also not surprising. For many secular Pākehā, especially in our day to day lives, there is no space at work, at school, in the media for us to bring to the surface and reflect on what living values such as Aroha, Kotahitanga or Manaakitanga (some of the values that underpin Matariki) feel and look like. Sure many of us may get exposure to the idea of values (things we aspire to, the big “why” of life), through organisational values for example, but many of us don’t get to experience motivational forces such as care, contribution and compassion, (some of the Western values Matariki gives us the opportunity to reflect on), being driven through our day to day conversations and decisions. That is not to say that values are not everywhere though.

We are surrounded by values – just not the ones that we can connect to most

We shouldn’t mistake the squeezing out of collective and care values in our daily lives for not having exposure to values at all. We are actually swimming in values-informed information every day at work, home, media, and advertising. Many of those values are individualistic and consumerist in nature. It looks like frequently being asked to reflect on the world around us, think about why an issue matters, or asked to act, in terms of what we can buy as consumers, how much something will cost us, what will happen to us if we don’t, or what we can achieve or gain for ourselves as individuals.

Last week for instance I got a newsletter from Employment New Zealand that told me I should be thinking about slavery in my supply chain, and I should do this because it could be bad for my business. Well yuck, I thought. Having spent a little bit of time in some cotton mills in India I need my fellow New Zealanders to reflect on slavery in our supply chains because there are people, children, women especially who we are connected to as fellow humans. 

No doubt the people writing that section of the Employment NZ website simply positioned doing something about slavery in the supply chain through a money and reputation frame because it came easily to mind. It is something people talk about a lot –take care of people/the environment and save money! But my big why (the values I hold dear) is not money. Yes we have financial goals in our organisation (and I have them personally) – but it is not our (or my) driving motivational force (which is distinct from a core need). Research from the World Values Survey shows it is not most people’s big “why” either. The values we most prioritise most are care, contribution, compassion, creativity-type values, with a trend over time towards increasingly prioritising things such as tolerance and broad-mindedness.

We mirror the values we see around us

While most people share and prioritise a broad set of care and compassion values, when we are asked what others value most we assume others only care about themselves. It’s called the values perception gap. It’s a phenomenon that is explained in part because individualistic and consumerist values are so prevalent in our information environment (and the people who have power over it) that they crowd out other values in our social discourse. They are the water we are swimming in and see everywhere – for the moment anyway. When this perception gap is present it can prevent people acting on their most deeply held values – people may be less inclined to vote or take fewer actions to care for the environment or for others. 

It’s like a snake eating its tail. We care but think others don’t so we don’t act, thereby giving other people the evidence that people don’t value the things they say they do and so on.

However, when you show people how many others do share these care and compassion and contribution values, it helps motivate people to act in line with these values, as seen in research with young people on the environment, as one example. Social psychologists and anthropologists can give you lots of reasons for this, but in essence we are social beings and we are primed to act in line with how we see others acting.

That brings me back to Matariki and the values that underpin it. I think that by sharing the celebration of Matariki with all people in Aotearoa, Māori are leading a re-balancing of our shared values. Opening a door for all of us to better reflect our most deeply held values – the things that really matter to most of us in the world. It’s an amazing opportunity at a time when we so dearly need to rebalance the values we prioritise. Cool gift.

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