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A simmering pot soon to boil?

datePosted on 17:08, December 19th, 2009 by Pablo

>>This post has been updated<<.

Is it me or is there a lot of simmering anger percolating in NZ? A church puts an “edgy” advert on a billboard in order to promote thought on the meaning of Christmas and it gets attacked  and vandalized four times while bible-bashers and fundies go ballistic in the blogosphere defending the attackers and condemning the perceived insult. The government allows a (not “the”) Maori flag to fly alongside the conventional national (post-colonial) standard, and people go bat crazy over the”affront.” Words and phrases like “traitor” and “real patriot” get thrown about, and even otherwise civilized commentators set to ranting in invective-laden terms. Meanwhile news reports speak of increased violence throughout the land, many times within families and whanau , but not exclusively among the poor and disadvantaged. Contrary to NZ’s supposed reputation, tales of corruption high and low are now almost daily occurrences (be it nepotistic or corporate). Were one to just read the press, racial and ethnic conflict is the norm (understanding that press coverage does not lead but responds to public perception). Drink driving blitzes nab dozens of people on the piss (in spite of blanket coverage caution messages and a host of cheap or free driver services), parties degenerate into riots for trifling reasons, bullies continue to thrive, acts of senseless stupidity of various sorts are carried out on the streets and roads by quick to rage groups and individuals, and the “me-first, the hell with the rest” attitude permeates social discourse and interaction–all during what is supposed to be the season of peace.

What is up with that? New Zealand may have problems, but it it is a country with no real enemies, a benign climate, spectacular scenery and ample natural resources, an egalitarian social culture, and a traditionally  “can-do” attitude and spirit of volunteerism. It has no existential threats, a history of (pretty) good ethnic relations, a preference for tolerance, compassion and understanding, and, perhaps until recently, a record of good governance and political transparency. All of these traits are considered to be the exact requirements for peace and social stability, and in fact are considered to be the best insurance against social disharmony and anger. 

And yet, NZ is exhibiting signs of a polarised society stretched at the seams. This is more than annoyance at “dole bludgers,” ” troughers” and assorted easy to scapegoat miscreants and “others.” It does not seem to be entirely related to unemployment rates, arguments about climate change, or concerns about immigration. It is more than being fed up about political correctness or neoliberalism (although both may contribute to the syndrome). Instead, this appears to be an increasingly generalised symptom of a pervasive malaise deep at the core of Kiwi society. In fact, I may be alarmist but I see this as a society inching towards the end of its civilized rope. I have my own opinion as to what caused the decline (and have previously posted on it), but this recent spate of visceral anger, even if cloaked in virtuous or self-righteous terms, speaks to something darker in the NZ psyche.

So I ask again: am I crazy or is there something seriously wrong at the core of NZ society, and if so, where does it come from?

Oh, and BTW–Happy Holidays!

21 Responses to “A simmering pot soon to boil?”

  1. Eddie C on December 19th, 2009 at 17:45

    I actually don’t think this is any worse that the sorts of things I can recall over the last 10-15 years I’ve been politically conscious, Pablo.

    I recall similar sentiments about liberal christianity from the less liberal of the same faith (Presbyterian debate on gay clergy, for example), and indeed similar disapproval of ‘edgy’ advertising.

    I also don’t think the maori flag kerfuffle has been any worse than much of the fairly poisonous stuff that’s been thrown around in the last 30 years.

    Sorry to say when you also take into account the potshots at drunken parties and drunk driving, from the perspective of someone under 30, it sounds like someone over 30 saying “things weren’t this bad in my day”! I’m sure thats not how its intended, but I really don’t think the evidence supports your thesis.

  2. Pablo on December 19th, 2009 at 17:56


    It was not a generational thing, just an observation on what I perceive as an increasingly fractious society (at least compared to when I immigrated in 1997). But if it has always been this bad, then I guess the place is sicker than I thought.

    And perhaps you are right. As I was writing I remembered an incident in 2000/2001 when I was a first responder paramedic out in Piha/Karekare. My team got called to a party at which someone had a bad case of alcohol poisoning. While we were attending to the patient a fight broke out in which someone got KOd by a bottle. While I attended to him the crowd got ugly and threats were made against us (even though we were in full St Johns day-glow vests etc). Things eventually settled down and the patient woke up, albeit with a bad headache.
    However, as we were leaving the cops got called and people threw bottles at us. I said to my Kiwi teammates that I found it remarkable that in a peaceful place like NZ the youth would get so angry when drunk–after all, what did they have to complain about in the bigger scheme of things? They told me it was just the way things were, and then scolded me for attending to the KOd guy because in doing so I stepped into the middle of a fight. Or in other words, they, as first responders, did not wish to involve themselves with the mob even though someone was down for the count.
    It was then that I had my first serious misgivings about the state of Kiwi society.

  3. Psycho Milt on December 19th, 2009 at 22:21

    What is up with that? New Zealand may have problems, but it it is a country with no real enemies, a benign climate, spectacular scenery and ample natural resources, an egalitarian social culture, and a traditionally  ”can-do” attitude and spirit of volunteerism. It has no existential threats, a history of (pretty) good ethnic relations, a preference for tolerance, compassion and understanding, and, perhaps until recently, a record of good governance and political transparency. All of these traits are considered to be the exact requirements for peace and social stability, and in fact are considered to be the best insurance against social disharmony and anger.

    In the absence of genuine things to worry about, people become obsessed with trivia. Also, I suspect that young men are predisposed by evolution towards an enthusiasm for getting out there and fighting an enemy – and in the absence of real, actually-existing enemies, they resort to creating them out of nothing.

  4. Pablo on December 19th, 2009 at 22:39

    Trouble is, NZ wimin are as much prone to rage and violence (or at least self-destructive behaviour) as their male counterparts. Motherhood does not necessarily diminish this (see recent news reports). To my mind the darkness is not gendered (or generational), but universal. Hence my concern.

  5. Lew on December 19th, 2009 at 23:28

    Hm, Pablo, I have to object to one premiss:

    (understanding that press coverage does not lead but responds to public perception)

    My view as someone working in the field is that this is only half the picture; there’s a feedback loop whereby the media agenda is set by elites in politics and elsewhere, which drives demand, which drives supply, and so on, with the balance being largely controlled by those elites. So coverage both leads and responds to public perception.

    There’s an availability heuristic at work here: a political and media focus on crime (especially violent crime, and also a couple of high-profile but generally innocuous political cases) for the preceding decade or so is informing how people respond to reality. I’m not aware of any substantial (actual) increases in such activity — in fact, the police say the increase in violent crime is due to greater reporting and deeper penetration of new social norms around domestic abuse.

    This is not to say that your concerns aren’t founded, and there is more to the picture than violent crime. I think there are causes for concern — corruption and politicisation of civic life is one, although it is yet minor.

    Ethnic tensions are, I think, similarly amplified by politicians and the media, and despite the dark mutterings of Chris Trotter and others, I don’t see a deep tide of settler resentment emerging into an outright backlash as a result of the actions of Māori or of ‘race traitors’, but as a result of agitation by those within the greying settler rump to which my just-published post referred — those calling people race-traitors are in my view the source of the division; not those who are so called. Of course, that still signals the existence of a problem.


  6. Hugh on December 20th, 2009 at 01:15

    I’ve got to say, it seems like business as usual to me.

    No disrespect Pablo, but I think any society above a certain (fairly small) size will yield a similar crop of negative seeming news stories if they’re looked for hard enough.

    ‘The fabric of society is being torn apart’ is a headline that’s been rearing its head in commentary on New Zealand politics since at least the late 70s. Funnily enough, the gottedamerung never arrives – it just shuffles a bit further down the road.

  7. jcuknz on December 20th, 2009 at 07:12

    I’m sure if one could research that far back The fabric of society is being torn apart existed in cavemen days. Hugh is an optomist and Pablo you are depressed at the moment.
    [Note. As a mere human it has taken me three tries to find a captcha I could work out :-( :-) ]

  8. Tiger Mountain on December 20th, 2009 at 11:46

    “You are not wrong” Pablo, as the negatively affirmative old kiwi saying goes. There is a pervasive dark, curtain twitching, punitive attitude in this country, which I estimate afflicts around 40% of the population. Bonking, boozing policemen, crooked white collars and meth hoovering malcontents in wifebeater singlets are a concern, but so are mean employers and racists.

    Some obvious suggestions for Kiwi ugly
    • British Imperialist colonial takeover, enduring denial from settler descendents and others hampers societal progress.
    • Major initial deforestation and degradation of nature
    • Isolation, Islanders are different, always vigilant, wary of the “others”. Generational hardwiring for self reliance becomes “don’t mess with me mate-or else”. Much of the country still tends toward anti intellectualism and remains a cultural desert. Pop culture rules. Jandal fence anyone? Oases abound of course, even Whanganui has a decent art gallery.
    • The missing generation. At least 1.5 generations have known nothing but Rogers legacy. Low union density, community resources extinguished, bums on seats education, corporate stats presented like sports results etc. Choice? it was more like abandonment for some 80s males expecting a job for life and instead were scrapped. The result-a thousand lawn mowing rounds, self employment/unemployment (more islolation) and the offspring of these depressed bewlidered blokes themselves now struggling.
    • Urban alienation. The existential aloneness of city folks who feeling the disconnect, have morphed into competing individuals sitting alone in automobiles and office cubicles, subject to commodity feitishism and easy prey for finance capital. Under pressure. Assault someone perhaps if no bushland creature is available to slaughter. Road rage. Que rage. Phone rage.
    • Town planning, urbanites tend to live in virtual villages each with a Burger King, gas station, DIY store (living the dream) a clone culture encourages clone thinking and behaviour, “empty a bottle, feel a bit free”.
    • Sure many thousands are into land, sea and culture and a brighter view, and live in idyllic little kiwianaesque spots, but ‘at the end’ of the proverbial it is difficult to escape the demographics. Most New Zealanders are on low incomes with high consumerist aspirations, somethings gotta give. And it does, as our troublesome munters show. Pressure plus societal inequality plus ‘man alone’ pschycology equals blowout.

    ps belated thanks for the magnanimous invite to remain commenting here, I will submit a piece in January on M/L theory related to recent topics.

  9. Pablo on December 20th, 2009 at 13:44

    So I guess the answer, in the main, is that it is just life as usual in Aotearoa. Nice.

    jcuknz: I would call it “alarmed,” not “depressed.”

    Lew: my focus was not on violent crime, and I was certainly not implying that media elites do not manipulate news coverage at all (but I did know that you would rise to that particular bait). I am merely asking if my sense that there is a rising, seemingly blind anger amongst the NZ citizenry is correct. The causes, needless to say, are many, but it is the form of expression (say, in contrast to just being stoic and suffering silently) that has caught my attention. But it seems I have just missed what has been there all along.

  10. Hugh on December 20th, 2009 at 14:16

    Pablo – have you ever read any of Bruce Jesson’s stuff? In some ways his analysis is quite shonky but I think you might find some valuable insight in his work, particularly during the 80s and 90s, into my position that this is all grist for the mill.

  11. Tom Semmens on December 20th, 2009 at 15:11

    Pablo, you lived here for ten plus years, but it is clear you’ve never got to know the fretful sleepers.

  12. Tiger Mountain on December 20th, 2009 at 15:22

    @Pablo, Anger is definitely quicker to surface now in many, but it has taken a slow several decade buildup. I had a usually laid back surfer friend fix a botched minor trades job last week and he vehemently, not jokingly, commented that the guy “should be shot with a ball of his own shit”. I did not feel we had to go that far! But is typical of how people often treat others.

  13. Pablo on December 20th, 2009 at 16:19

    Hugh: No, I have not, but will look for Fragments of Labour (my partner’s suggestion–she is an kiwi academic who was brought up reading him). If you can suggest others, pray tell.

    TomS: My NZ friends joked that I was way too optimistic to become a “real” kiwi (since I was considering taking out citizenship). That optimism ended with the dismissal, so perhaps now I am a “fretful sleeper.”

    TM: It is exactly that visceral anger that I am talking about. I also agree that it seems to have been building for some time, but it is the precipitants (recession? PC-ness? lack of opportunity?) that interests me and motivated the post.

  14. Lew on December 20th, 2009 at 22:20

    Pablo, sorry, I’m a bit of a broken record on the topic.

    I understand you weren’t specifically talking about violent crime — it was a case study for my wider point about availability. There are others, some not to do with the malaise you identify (or with elites): if a naïve reader were to take the NZ papers for the past few months, they’d assume there was a sudden rash of toddlers getting hit by vehicles reversing out of driveways, because there was one particularly unusual case in which the toddler was incredibly unharmed despite having been run over by a people-mover; this was a legitimate ‘gee whiz’ news story, and ever since has driven substantial coverage of every similar incident, where previously these would go largely unreported. The reason for the change in emphasis is that the incident is fresh and readily available in peoples’ minds, and it sells ads to cover such issues.

    A sort of angry embattled grimness is part of NZ’s national mythology. Mulgan’s Man Alone (already referenced by TM) and Sam Neill’s The Cinema of Unease are two works which explore the theme. These depths have always been plumbed.

    Not to say that there isn’t a malaise — only that I’m not so sure it’s really growing. I see quite a lot of be optimistic about in broad long-term societal changes, if not so much in the immediate term. As my post on the h decision shows, I suppose.


  15. Tom Semmens on December 20th, 2009 at 22:32

    Not to say that there isn’t a malaise — only that I’m not so sure it’s really growing. I see quite a lot of be optimistic about in broad long-term societal changes.

    Have you read Fretful Sleepers Lew? It was written fifty seven years ago and it looks like enough of our character has stayed the same for me to wonder if bedrock characteristics can change.

  16. Scott Yorke on December 21st, 2009 at 10:10

    Pablo, I don’t remember a time when some or all of the negative things you discuss weren’t present in some form.

    I wonder if part of the reason why it seems as if there’s more anger is because the Internet has given a lot of angry people the chance to be heard. Whereas once they might have muttered into their beers at the bowling club or RSA about “queers” and “pinkos”, they can now go onto sites like Kiwiblog and other forums, where their unpleasant views can reach a wider audience.

  17. Pablo on December 21st, 2009 at 13:08

    Indeed Scott Y: I get most of my current events information from a variety of on-line media, so the cross-section of news is 10 times what is was when I was a kid reading the local newspapers (while holding them) and listening and watching radio and TV (in my case in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, so even then I had access to a wider range of info in more than one language than most people). But today that range seems limited when compared to what I habitually access, which includes blogs, other alternative news sources and of course various “MSM” outlets. And that is where the anger is most manifest, so yes, perhaps my perception is just a reflection of the availability of public outlets rather than any negative change in the national psyche–which is some sense is even more worrisome than an episodic upsurge in anger.

  18. Ag on December 21st, 2009 at 13:20

    Why is anyone surprised? Our rulers have proven themselves incompetent, and there is a general sense of insecurity throughout the world. That’s the sort of thing that gets the RWAs going.

  19. SPC on December 21st, 2009 at 22:30

    It’s an age thing – idealism diminishes with age, pessimism increases with age.

    Otherwise as the world media grows aging adults become aware of more and more problems to be resolved, this undermines the innocence of a secure youth – from which their young adult idealism came.

  20. Pablo on December 21st, 2009 at 22:33

    SPC: Rest assured–I am not THAT old! Geez. You make it seem like I am geriatric. Save that for Chris T.

  21. […] so Auckland public transport users, what the hell is your problem? Is this a manifestation of the neoliberal atomisation which people have been ruminating of late, or what? L Tags: Auckland, babies, Chris […]

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