It was a few weeks back now, but David Seymour’s attack on “race-based” policies designed to lift Māori vaccination rates serves as a useful microcosm of the much broader debate over what the Act leader and his ideological allies like to call “wokeness”.
The term, everywhere you look in recent times, is applied to anything resembling progressive or left-wing orthodoxy or, more precisely, what is seen as the parading of such views to gain social status. At its heart, to call someone “woke” is to accuse them of being performative and disingenuous in their politics.
But the phrase “woke” came into common use via the same progressive politics it is now most commonly used to deride.
“Stay woke” was a catch-cry of the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the US after the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
Since then, it has been adopted with gusto by conservative activists and politicians as code for what they used to call “political correctness”, another sarcastic appropriation.
“Wokeness” comes up with such frequency in Aotearoa these days it is hard to imagine how the New Zealand Taxpayer’s Union ever managed to cobble together a media release without it.
By leaking Māori vaccination codes as a way to attack “race-based” health policies, Seymour earned such widespread and scathing rebukes from what he might call “woke elites”, you could be forgiven for thinking it backfired. It did not. If anything, the reaction helped solidify his reputation as a fearless truth-teller, and further propelled his surge in the polling stakes.
A happy warrior in the Culture Wars, Seymour is unconstrained by the governing or factional considerations that demand more caution and nuance from the National Party.
By releasing the vaccination codes, Seymour took astute aim at perhaps the greatest shibboleth of the anti-woke set: the belief that progressive policies give rise to reverse racism.
The fact it turned out Seymour’s argument was way off base, and that the programmes he was talking about were delivering vaccines to four times as many Pākeha as Māori, is beside the point. Whether in this case or more generally, the notion that programmes or policies designed to aid Māori must come at the expense of non-Māori has no evidentiary basis whatsoever, and yet is held as indisputably true by a large enough segment of the New Zealand electorate to be irresistible to conservative politicians.
The controversy exposed a fault-line in New Zealand politics we cannot hope to bridge as long as each side continues to attribute the worst imaginable motives to the other.
Once they deem it is motivated by “wokeness”, political conservatives feel free to ignore the substance of an issue, just as progressives dismiss and demean anyone considered to be motivated by racism. In both cases, these terms of derision kill debate, offering both sides reassurance not just that they have better ideas, but that they are better people.
This keeps us cocooned in safe ideological spaces, creating a gratifyingly simplistic world of allies and enemies — and compromise, common ground, even basic civility, become impossible to achieve.
There is a debate to be had about the extent to which governments should devise and implement policies to redress historic wrongs. Or whether targeting health or other services to Māori is a better or worse approach than universalism. We can disagree over the best ways to honour Treaty obligations, or manage our water resources, or teach history in our schools.
On all these issues, I know where I come down — but I can promise you it’s not out of a desire to win wokeness points. My views, like yours, come from lived experience — as a Māori New Zealander; as the son of working class parents; as an activist; as a dad.
I have witnessed rapid and positive change over my lifetime, both here and abroad. Much of it has arisen from the belief that we are all born with the same right to live up to our potential, irrespective of race, gender, sexuality or social class. This sounds like a truism these days, but it has brought about a radical reordering of Western societies, especially as we confront the legacy of centuries of inequality.
For those of us historically on the outer, we’re impatient to see our newly acquired seats at the table translate into meaningful progress.
It’s not that we weren’t always calling for justice and equality — it’s that our voices have only been heard for the past couple of decades, a blink of historical time.
For some who always had a place at the table, these changes feel like a threat. You might even think you’re being blamed for past wrongs you had nothing to do with.
Personally, I don’t think that’s going on — and I reckon the table’s big enough for everyone.
But here’s what I say to anyone who disagrees: I won’t call you racist, you don’t call me woke, and let’s have a chat about it.
• Shane Te Pou (Ngāi Tūhoe) is a company director at Mega Ltd, a commentator and blogger and a former Labour Party activist.
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