Monday, May 2, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.    

            In Stephanie Johnson’s 2015 novel The Writers’ Festival [reviewed on this blog], there’s a scene where a rumpled, likeable old leftie character considers the way that Maori placenames were once pronounced by many Pakeha New Zealanders “Tauwpo. Ruapeyhoo. Owneehunga. Wangaray. Koikoiee. Taowrunga. Mangeree. Wakkawat. Paikok. Pram.”(p.170).
The old leftie is of course momentarily abashed by what we would now call the cultural insensitivity of this. But he later reflects (p.177) that such mangled Kiwi-isms were in effect the voice of a more egalitarian New Zealand which has passed away in an age of New Zealand’s worship of the market, the widening gap between rich and poor, the unaffordability of housing for young people and all the others things to which our country is now subjected.
And yet – forsooth – we are ever so sensitive about what we say. Let not an age-ist, racist, sexist, homophobic, able-ist or even species-ist phrase or word pass your lips, even in the most light-hearted, inconsequential or flippant way, or you will be damned, pilloried on social media or otherwise held up as a pariah. Not that we care about what is happening to wealth or poverty. What we say is extremely important, but as for what we do about the main issue facing our country – well, that doesn’t matter, does it?
We can also feel immensely superior to our parents and grandparents, who mispronounced Maori and told politically-incorrect jokes. And as we feel superior, we can ignore the fact that from approximately the 1920s to the 1980s, the driving ideology in New Zealand was a real egalitarianism, which supported the welfare state and would have been appalled at the chasm that now divides our richest from our poorest. In other words, by many objective indicators, that verbally retrograde society was more humane than the one we have now.
I won’t be long with this week’s sermon, but I cannot think of our current cultural situation without remembering the story from the Book of Judges. Enemy spies are trying to penetrate Israelite territory, but they are stopped by Israelites who ask them to say the word “Shibboleth”, knowing that it is a word which foreigners are prone to mispronounce. The Israelites slay anyone who mispronounces it, and of course end up with a pile of corpses. The wrong use of language kills.
No wonder the term “shibboleth” has now come to mean any cultural marker that shows whether someone is or is not an acceptable member of a social group.
On one level we have advanced. On another, we have become more callous. And the mispronunciation of Maori placenames also gives us, as educated middle-class people, a neat opportunity to look down on those uneducated working-class slobs.
Not that we’re classist or anything.
A fine sensitivity over the pronunciation of Maori placenames is a modern shibboleth.

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