Normalising diversity

datePosted on 00:23, July 31st, 2009 by Lew

May I echo the inimitable Queen of Thorns, and say how great it is that Māori Language Week is being so well observed. Labour MPs on Red Alert are posting in te reo; Nickelodeon has done Spongebob Squarepants in Māori; Lockwood Smith is reading the Parliamentary prayer in Māori and Te Ururoa Flavell on Tuesday raised a point of order during Question Time (in Māori, no less!) to insist that the Minister of Transport pronounce “Kamo” as “Kamo” rather then “Carmow”. Even David Farrar has a post in Māori, and on that count he beats me at least. Well done.

Such usage is the thin edge of a wedge of linguistic diversity becoming normalised in Aotearoa. The wedge was first driven long ago, but one of the more memorable blows was struck by the venerable Naida Glavish who (working as a tolls operator) got in trouble for answering the phone ‘kia ora’ and generated great and unexpected support. When returning sick and exhausted, with no money and a broken shoulder from a long and abortive road trip across Asia (more on which another time), I could have hugged the (Pākehā) Air NZ cabin steward who greeted me with ‘Kia ora, bro, welcome home’. The NZ Herald has redesigned their masthead in Māori (though I can’t find a copy of it on the website just now). Māori introductions on National Radio and other media are commonplace these days and everyone knows what they mean. I recall the Māori Language Week last year, or the year before, when they were formally instituted and then – the horror! – their usage continued after the end of the week. There was apparently a bit of a backlash against it, and Geoff Robinson read some messages calling for a return to English-only introductions. Robinson, bless his English heart, had one word for the complainers: “tough”.

And that’s all they deserve. My high school German teacher had a banner above her blackboard which read “Monolingualism can be cured”, and it can be. Other languages must be used to be known, and normalisation is the first part of usage. Raymond Huo, also on Red Alert, is posting in Zhōng Wén; it is wonderful.

It goes beyond language, as well. Cultures, norms and ways of doing, approaches and modes of understanding are not monopolised by English-speaking WASP culture. I wrote earlier this year about a book by John Newton about James K Baxter and the Jerusalem commune – it is called “The Double Rainbow” and has been published. The title is Baxter’s, and Newton explains it in the introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori – though few Pākehā have seen this more clearly or objected more trenchantly – but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place names and a great deal of plunder.’

Diversity is both a means and an end. It is a means by which people may understand one another and live in harmony and all such wishy-washiness; but more importantly, it is an end in itself because two heads are better than one, every culture has its own irrationalities and blind spots and deleterious foibles. Humankind has achieved its primacy as a species through the constant adaptation of cultural and biological systems which spread risk rather than concentrating it. Monocultures are vulnerable; they may be unified and may even be strong against certain threats, but against uncertainty, or against threats or challenges of an unknown or unpredictable nature, homogeneity a weakness rather than a strength. Diversity is resilience. If you won’t believe me, take it from Robert A Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Who wants a society of insects?

L

17 Responses to “Normalising diversity”

  1. Idiot/savant on July 31st, 2009 at 08:42

    And Heinlein’s list is for psychopathic frontier barbarians. Quite apart from the fact that the division of labour is the foundation of civilisation (one of the things Plato got right), he’s just a little obsessed with the killing, neh?

    This desn’t address your substantive point (sorry, its too early in the morning for that) – its just that Heinlein’s definition of a “renaissance man” is frightningly narrow. Oh, and utterly monocultural too.

  2. Lew on July 31st, 2009 at 09:27

    I/S, for me it illustrates that even psychopathic frontier barbarians need diversity. Particularly important in the NZ context, where a common refrain runs something like ‘what have those savages got that we conquerors haven’t?’, the questioner invariably having never looked.

    L

  3. Quoth the Raven on July 31st, 2009 at 10:01

    Even Jubal Harshaw needed someone to take care of the electronics for him. If someone’s making the point that people are generally too specialized in this day and age I would whole heartedly agree. But this all seems beside the point of the post.

    I/S would you say Valentine Smith was utterly monocultural?

  4. Idiot/savant on July 31st, 2009 at 13:56

    I/S, for me it illustrates that even psychopathic frontier barbarians need diversity.

    So did medieval peasants. And in both cases its because they lacked the population to be specialised, and so had to do everything, from the farming to the processing to the fighting, themselves. The diversity isn’t cultural, it’s economic, and primarily born of necessity. And the whole point of modern civilisation is so that we don’t have to live like those poor bastards anymore.

    This still isn’t addressing your actual point, about the value of cultural diversity, which I generally agree with. But idolising peasantry as the preferred state to be? Screw that for a joke.

    Quoth: Sorry, after reading a few of his shorts and (of course) Starship Troopers, I figured out pretty early that Heinlein was not to my taste.

  5. Hugh on July 31st, 2009 at 14:34

    The sad thing about this post is that it seems to imply that the only way, or at least the best way, to encounter new ideas is to go to other cultures.

    Is no culture capable of generating ideas spontaneously through thought and cogitation?

    For that matter, are all ideas bound to cultures?

    Oh and also:

    ‘every culture has its own irrationalities and blind spots and deleterious foibles’

    I presume you didn’t intend this statement to apply to Maori culture – if you did, it’s a pretty ugly thing to say at any time, let alone during Maori language week.

  6. roger nome on July 31st, 2009 at 14:42

    David must have been expecting a backlash for this from the more regressive elements of the KBR – and he got it. A few gems:

    “Can somebody tell me what all that gibberish means?”

    “Well that’ll be immensely helpful to anyone trying to develop new export markets in China and Eastern Europe.”

    “About as complicated as Welsh, less useful, and spoken by fewer people.”

    “I’ll learn maori, when maoris pronounce English correctly.”

    “Yes. Lets all waste time learning a dying and irrelevant language.”

    And that’s just the first few comments – boy have we got a long way to go as a country.

  7. Lew on July 31st, 2009 at 14:52

    Hugh,

    The sad thing about this post is that it seems to imply that the only way, or at least the best way, to encounter new ideas is to go to other cultures.

    It does no such thing. Rather than it being the only way it is one of many ways, and no useful ways should be excluded.

    For that matter, are all ideas bound to cultures?

    This is a very interesting question. My instinct is to say that implementations of ideas are; the ideas themselves not so much (though it seems possible for them to be).

    I presume you didn’t intend this statement to apply to Maori culture – if you did, it’s a pretty ugly thing to say at any time, let alone during Maori language week.

    Of course it applies to Māori culture; it applies to every culture. And I don’t see as how it’s an ‘ugly’ thing to say, that a culture is imperfect. Do you think any are perfect? If so, which, defined by whom, and why haven’t they been universally adopted?

    L

  8. Lew on July 31st, 2009 at 14:53

    I/S, i’m really not sure where you get an argument against division of labour out of my post.

    L

  9. Quoth the Raven on July 31st, 2009 at 15:26

    I/S – Stranger in a Strange Land is Heinlein’s magnum opus. I suggest you read it before you presume to have an opinion on Heinlein. There are two quite different renaissance men in the story and the contrast between the two is enlightening as to Heinlein’s renaissance man.

  10. Jack on July 31st, 2009 at 16:14

    Polite nitpick – “zhongwen” (can’t figure out how to do the tone indicators, sorry) only refers to written Chinese; “hanyu” would probably be better.

  11. Lew on July 31st, 2009 at 16:17

    Jack, blog posts are written, no?

    L

  12. Idiot/savant on July 31st, 2009 at 18:24

    Lew: From Heinlein’s comment that “Specialization is for insects”. That specialisation he hates so much is why we can spend time blogging.

    Quoth: And “Battlefield Earth” is apparently Hubbard’s. Not having read it doesn’t stop me from thinking he’s shit.

    (Heinlein is not exactly shit, BTW – he just ages really badly, is an insufferable psychopathic frontier barbarian, and is generally not to my taste. But I hear he was all the rage in the middle of last century…)

  13. Ari on July 31st, 2009 at 18:41

    I wonder if we had the same German teacher, or just the same poster, Lew. LOL. :)

    I totally agree on Maori Language week, and the it’s… third on my list of medium-term projects for my spare time to actually start learning Maori properly. It was great to see people doing much better than I could everywhere. ;)

    I’m not exactly a fan of Heinlein either, but I’m not exactly worried if someone quotes him on diversity. In fact I tend to agree with Lew that it shows just how important diversity is that Heinlein got it, even if I disagree with him on almost any political test.

  14. QoT on July 31st, 2009 at 18:42

    “Yes. Lets all waste time learning a dying and irrelevant language.”

    AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH.

    I know, I know, I shouldn’t let the KB trolls anger me, even vicariously, but this is what a dying language looks like, you xenophobic b@$t@rds.

  15. Quoth the Raven on July 31st, 2009 at 18:44

    I/S – Except Smith is not a “psychopathic frontier barbarian” which you’d know if you’d have read the book and Smith is to Heinlein’s what Jesus is to the bible. If I was limited to reading contemporary literature I wouldn’t read.

  16. [...] of miles from Moscow, his statesmanship. Closely resembling what I/S calls Heinlein’s psychopathic frontier barbarism, Putin rides horses, treks in the mountains, fishes in a wild river, pilots a fast boat, builds a [...]

  17. [...] spent years studying martial arts and I’m trained to do or have done most of the things on Heinlein’s list. I wear a Swanndri to work on Victoria Street, for crying out [...]

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