Monday, November 7, 2022

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.  

                                WHAT IS DECOLONISATION?

Recently you might have seen much controversy related to Creative New Zealand’s decision not to continue funding the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, a popular and well-attended competition for senior school-children, in which selections from Shakespeare’s plays are performed. There were many criticisms of CNZ’s decision and it took a long time for CNZ to reply formally. In a very bland statement, CNZ said that there were many artistic groups competing for funding, they couldn’t fund them all etc. etc. Alas, this looked very like face-saving or damage control, because CNZ’s statement failed to repeat WHY it had this year decided to de-fund the Shakespeare festival. The original rationale given for the defunding (before controversy was raised) was that the festival "did not demonstrate the relevance to the contemporary art context of Aotearoa in this time and place and landscape" and that it was "located within a canon of imperialism”. One or two people chipped in with similar ideas, including a senior university theatre lecturer who said   "It would be a massive, awesome act of decolonisation if we discovered our own stories first and discovered Shakespeare afterwards."

All these statements are, of course, very flawed. Do we condemn things because they are not part of “the contemporary art context”? Who decides what the “contemporary art context” is anyway? Why should school-children not be introduced to great art that preceded what is “contemporary”? Who decides that things from the past are no longer relevant? How do you define “a canon of imperialism”? Are you assuming that everything created in an imperial context is therefore imperialist propaganda? Do you define "a canon of imperialism" as anything that did not originate in this particular geographic country? Or do you mean anything that you don’t like that came from elsewhere, excluding all the things you like that were introduced by imperialists? (Such as modern medicine, a written language etc.) And behind all this we have that concept of “decolonisation”.

I won’t say anything further about Creative New Zealand’s decision, because I think enough has been said about it already by other people.

But I will enlarge on this term “decolonisation.”

Literally speaking, decolonisation means making a country cease to be either a colony or an imperial possession, and becoming a sovereign independent state in its own right.

In this sense, there was much decolonisation from the late 1940s to the 1970s, when European empires were withdrawing or imploding. Britain, France, Portugal and Belgium gave up possessions in Africa, sometimes relatively peacefully and sometimes with much bloodshed – France’s brutal war in Algeria, Britain’s disgraceful behaviour in Kenya, the horrors as the Belgian Congo ceased to exist, Portugal’s long wars in Angola and Mozambique, not to mention cases of white minorities trying to rule African countries when the imperial power had already withdrawn – such as white “Rhodesians” trying to cling to power in what is now Zimbabwe. But no matter how turbulent the eventual withdrawal was, African countries gained their independence. ( How well they were ruled after independence is another story, which I will not go into here.) There were similar stories as European powers withdrew from Asia – the mess of partition as Britain left its Indian Empire; France’s long war to control South-East Asia; the Netherlands’ withdrawal from the “Dutch East Indies” (Indonesia). All these countries ceased to be colonies. They were, in the real sense of the word, decolonised.

But please note that in many (perhaps most) newly-independent countries that had been de-colonised,  their new leaders continued to shape their forms of government (parliaments etc.) on European models and certainly adopted many ways of life that had been introduced by Europeans. They did not “purge” or dispose of European innovations. Please note too that in African and Asian decolonised counties, the great majority of populations were indigenous and not of European descent, which was one of the main factors that encouraged decolonisation.

Thus for the reality of decolonisation.

Yet, on the fringe of academe, there are now movements (especially in the USA and Britain) to “decolonise” science or “decolonise” mathematics. This means something quite different from true decolonisation. As much as I understand it, it depends on the idea that Europeans have not sufficiently acknowledged “ways of knowing” in non-European societies and the sophistication of much non-European thought – and therefore students should be taught these non-European things. But the fact is that science and mathematics cannot be “decolonised” because (a.) they are universal – the laws of mathematics and science are understood and accepted in every part of the world; and (b.) genuine and provable scientific and mathematical discoveries made by non-Europeans have been absorbed into this universal knowledge. They are now part of this universality. 2+2=4 everywhere. I recently heard a Maori academic assert that there was such a thing as Maori science because Maori ancestors had learnt how to navigate the huge Pacific Ocean when Europeans had scarcely ventured beyond their own coasts - so this, she said, was Maori science. It is very interesting to hear this, but such navigational skills as ancient Maori had, and which are still of use, have long since been absorbed into global knowledge of navigation.

And what of supposed “decolonisation” in New Zealand?

New Zealand / Aotearoa is not a colony. It is a sovereign state making its own laws. As I said in my posting GoodbyeQueenie, we officially have a head of state – the British Monarch – on the other side of the world; but this is little more than a formality, and it is now already much contested. The current prime minister recently suggested that New Zealand would probably become a republic in her own lifetime. As important, too, is the fact that the great majority of New Zealanders are not the Maori people, whose ancestors first settled this country many centuries ago. As in Australia and Canada, the great majority of the population are of European descent. Between 70% and 80% of New Zealanders are of European (mainly British) descent. At most 18%, less than a fifth of the population, identify as Maori, and of course very many who so identify also have some European ancestors. There is an ongoing flow of new immigrants, but most European New Zealanders are not newcomers. They are (like the present writer) fourth- or fifth- or sixth- generation New Zealanders, whose forebears settled here in the late nineteenth or early 20th centuries and who no longer identify themselves as British.

    Nothing I write here is intended to belittle or underestimate Maori culture. Again referring to an earlier posting (I am Tangata Whenua), I have noted that there was much brutality in the colonisation in the 19th century by British forces – the massive theft of Maori land ; the imposition of war in the Waikato – as every historian knows. There were also attempts to expunge and limit Maori culture and Maori language. I also noted, “I am fully on board with plans to teach this history more truthfully in our schools. I also support the wider teaching of the Maori language in schools and the wider use of the Maori language in public speech – a culture loses a lot when it loses its language. As for the new Matariki holiday – great! It’s good to have a Maori celebration written into the calendar. I know that in New Zealand, Maori [and people of the Pacific] are most likely to be the impoverished part of society and I know that Maori tend to be incarcerated more often than other ethnicities. Many sociologists have suggested that, if convicted of a crime, Maori tend to get harsher sentences than Pakeha. The re-assertion of Maoritanga, the “Maori Renaissance” and beyond, didn’t come from nowhere – it came from a raft of legitimate grievances.” Let Maori culture flourish and grow. But it will inevitably do so in a national context that is shared with Pakeha.

    For most New Zealanders “decolonisation” is not a relevant term. If Maori culture is to be advanced and promoted, bravo! But it cannot mean ignoring or belittling the inherited culture of the great majority of New Zealanders. This includes, of course, the English language and English-language literature.



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