I’m very happy to respect people’s right to hold cultural beliefs, to behave in a manner that is courteous and respectful, to adopt the behaviour of my hosts when I am at someone else’s place.
However I am not happy to be told that I must engage in particular cultural behaviours for my own safety.
The former asks me as a decent human being to behave in a respectful manner in the presence of someone else’s holy objects, or in their special place; the latter attempts to enforce a particular set of beliefs.
When Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand, issued an invitation for regional museum staff to visit and see some of the work being done behind the scenes, it did the latter. Subsequently, it modified its stance to the former. I think the former is acceptable, and more than acceptable: it is desirable. It is something that gives people the space to choose their own way of life, their own set of values, their own beliefs. The latter is dangerous, all the more so when back by the power of the state.
Here’s what Te Papa said in the first instance when inviting regional museum managers and workers to its behind the scenes tour.
Wahine who are either hapü (pregnant) or mate wähine (menstruating) are welcome to visit at another time that is convenient for them.
There was no indication that this was an ‘advisory': it was a straightforward instruction that women who were pregnant or menstruating were not welcome. To read it any other way is an egregious refusal to consider the ordinary use of language, and the history of such phrases. Try these sentences for size:
Black people are welcome to sit at the back of the bus.
Aboriginal people are welcome to come to the back door of the shop to get an icecream.
Women are welcome to purchase a drink in the lounge bar.
Catholics are welcome to apply for jobs elsewhere.
In other words, black people are not allowed on the front of the bus, Aboriginal people are not allowed to enter the icecream parlour, women aren’t allowed to go into the main bar, and Catholics are not allowed to apply for jobs here.
These are not just random things I have made up: each of these sentences resonates with particular episodes of discrimination.
When Te Papa says that women who are pregnant or menstruating are welcome to come back at another time, it looks very much as though it is engaging in discrimination.
Te Papa quickly issued an explanation. It wasn’t discrimination based on gender. All they were trying to do was to keep women safe.
Wellington’s Te Papa says it is advising pregnant or menstruating women against attending one of its tours, which includes sacred Maori objects, “for their own safety.”
She said there was a belief that each taonga had its own wairua, or spirit, inside it.
“Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects.”
In order for this policy to work, and remember, this is a policy for a national museum that is open to everyone, you have to believe that taonga have a spirit which can affect pregnant and menstruating women. Women are asked to stay away, not out of respect for the culture, but because the spirits really do exist.
At that point, the state institution has moved from asking people to respect a particular culture’s beliefs, to actually believing them. At that point, through Te Papa’s policy, the state is imposing a particular religious belief on people.
Now before I, or anyone else, starts shrieking, “Taliban! Taliban!” it’s worth remembering that there are absolutely no consequences to refusing to take on the belief about spirits in taonga, and very few consequences for failing to act in accordance with the belief. Requiring people to believe in the spirits is a long way removed from the way in which the Taliban has attempted to impose its beliefs on people. To be sure, it is a difference of degree, not kind, but it is a difference of degree so great that for most purposes, it is a difference of kind.
Nevertheless, Te Papa explained their instruction to pregnant and menstruating women not to come on the grounds that the women might be harmed by the spirits of the taonga. That explanation is the beginnings of the state imposing beliefs on its citizens.
There has been a long, long struggle in Western nations and other nations around the world to separate church and state. And there’s good reason for this: the history of Western nations and other nations is rife with the horrors caused by people trying to impose their beliefs on others. These days, we tend to think that the state has no role in imposing belief. Instead, it should try to create the conditions where each person, each group of people, can practise their own beliefs, without interference from others, and without fear that they will be discriminated against because of their beliefs. State institutions should not discriminate against people because of their beliefs, and they should not try to impose beliefs on other people.
By Wednesday, Te Papa had changed its story. By then, it was saying that as a matter of respect for Maori culture, it would be good if this particular tapu could be observed, even by those who did not believe in it. That was when it moved from imposing belief, to asking that belief should be respected. And that is something I have no problems with whatsoever.
More than having no problems with it whatsoever, I think it is a highly desirable thing to do. It is in fact the best way for modern liberal democracies to proceed. Why? Because it reinforces the idea that individual people and groups of people are free to choose their own beliefs, and it creates space for people to respect each others’ chosen ways of life, even if you would not take on that way of life or those beliefs yourself.
I think that it is a much more secure approach. If you rely on your beliefs to be respected because the state has those beliefs too, then you are vulnerable. You are vulnerable to the state finding that it no longer holds those beliefs, so it sees no reason to allow believers to continue to follow that particular way of life. I think that something of the sort has been going on with respect to Christianity, which has for many years been the de facto state religion in New Zealand, but it’s influence is declining. Even so, Christians have no reason to worry that they will not be permitted to practise their faith. No churches have been closed down, Christians have not been banned from exercising freedom of speech, they have not been forbidden to associate with each other. Their right to be Christian has not been affected at all. Of course, Christianity no longer enjoys the power it once had, but that’s a matter of changing social mores, not discrimination by the state.
I think the distinction between requiring people to believe, and respecting people’s right to belief, is very important. It creates the space in which people may choose their own way of life, and it creates the space in which other people may respect that way of life and those beliefs, without participating in them personally. So contrary to some, I think that Te Papa’s choice of words was very important.
Finally, I think today’s editorial in the Herald is a bit bloody rich. On Monday, they contacted me, looking for an Angry White Feminist to condemn Maori customs and beliefs. When I refused to do so, and instead focused on the distinction between imposing beliefs and respecting beliefs, they went with the Angry White Feminist line anyway. But today, suddenly, they are all about respecting beliefs. Whatever.
On a personal note, I’ve found it frustrating to be accused of being an unthinking white liberal feminist who has no idea about Maori culture and beliefs, who denigrates Maori culture, and who has no business telling Maori what to do. It has been frustrating because I have not made negative comments about Maori culture at all. I don’t even want to repeat the words that someone told me I had used to denigrate Maori culture, because not only are they words that I did not use at all, they are nasty words, and I don’t want to put them on my blog. I haven’t been telling Maori what to do: in the very first comments I made on the matter, I made it very clear that I did not think I should be involved in discussing what cultural practices Maori should engage it. I said, “It’s up to Maori to work out if and how and when cultural practices should change for Maori, within the traditional freedoms of liberal democracies.” In another place, I said that as a matter of fact I don’t like the ban on women speaking on some marae, but that what I thought about it was irrelevant, and it was a matter for Maori women and Maori men. And I made it clear that if I was on a marae, I would follow the customs of that marae. In another place, I’ve said that I’ve got some thoughts about what might be done with respect to working towards much greater respect for Maori as the first people in New Zealand, but that I didn’t want to put them out there, because it’s not my place to charge on in and tell Maori what to do.
I’m not expecting cookies for this. However it would be nice not to be criticised for things I have neither said nor done.
Mind you, I guess that this sense of frustration is all too familiar for many Maori, and probably far worse. I’m fairly confident that talk back radio and comments threads on some of the newspaper sites have been full of nastiness about Maori culture. Perhaps I should have spent some time on those threads myself, trying to knock back some of the nastiness.