Tag Archives: He Taua

Insensitive and hypersensitive

In the Insensitivity and hypersensitivity paper I referred to previously, Raymond Nairn and Timothy McCreanor studied submissions to the Human Rights Commission in response to the Haka Party Incident in which He Taua, including one Hone Harawira, broke up an offensive Auckland University engineering school mock-haka (this is poorly documented on the internets, but see here). They found that Pākehā responded by conceding that while the students may have been insensitive, He Taua were hypersensitive. This was and remains the default mode of rationalising race relations incidents in NZ: no matter whether it’s having their haka mocked or their Foreshore and Seabed nationalised, those Māoris are always complaining about something.

The insensitive-hypersensitive contrasting pair is a victim-blaming technique: the assertion that while we may have been insensitive, they are hypersensitive. This is presented as a concession but is in fact an attack which minimises the ‘insensitive’ party’s wrongdoing and magnifies the other party’s ‘hypersensitivity’ as a character flaw:

The term ‘hypersensitive’ carries a psychological load for which there is no parallel in ‘insensitivity’. Insensitivity is represented as deriving from ignorance; as such it can be dispelled by information. It is to be regarded as transitory, incidental, and non-deliberate. From a state of insensitivity an individual can act in ways similar or identical to those who are malevolent but is less culpable because a plea of ignorance can be made in mitigation.
In contrast, hypersensitivity is represented as deriving from emotional sources and is thus internally mediated. Such psychological phenomena are seen as part of the person’s nature and are not easily accessible to adjustment. Hypersensitivity is thus regarded in the same way as aggression, introversion and other personal characteristics. […] The association of hypersensitivity with emotion and indeed with extremes of emotion facilitates the marginalising of the actions and beliefs of people so labelled in ways which removes them from serious contention in social debate.

… and it’s ‘Warrior Gene’ all over again. Moreover, the common lexical root of the terms produces a false equivalence which amplifies this imbalance:

Blaming both sides, albeit one more than the other appeals to readers’ commonsense lore. […] It doesn’t matter that the unequal weighting of the ideas of hypersensitivity and insensitivity prejudices the judgement.

The sweet irony of this device is that, where there is a genuine imbalance of offence perpetrated by one group against another, it requires the offending group to be both insensitive to their own actions, and hypersensitive to the response of the group against whom the major offence was given. So it is with Hone Harawira’s deeply foolish, divisive and unhelpful comments of late: Pākehā New Zealand took hypersensitive umbrage at the terminology while insensitively ignoring the much greater offence caused by the repeated injustices visited upon Māori. I do not defend Harawira; the purpose is only to illustrate that this remains very much the standard means of reasoning around such incidents.

And so it is with Phil Goff, who played the insensitive/hypersensitive Pākehā role to the hilt in his response to Harawira, and has compounded that ill-considered reactionary stance by extending the narrative to the Foreshore and Seabed and the māori party’s decision to coalesce with National. This implies that Labour still thinks that Māori were unreasonable to object to the mass nationalisation of resources to which they had a legitimate claim in law, and that by cutting loose and forming another party they had somehow given greater offence to Labour than the original nationalisation had justified.

The message from Goff’s Labour party is loud and clear: we make no apologies for the decisions taken while being chased by the Brash Iwi/Kiwi monster, and are now prepared to do it all again if need be. This is a damned shame for the country, and for the party. Labour had a great opportunity to mend its bridges with Māori, as the māori party is burdened with an appalling ETS and its more and more fraught partnership with National — and instead of doing so they set another charge and detonated it. The Māori electorate will not support a Labour party which has declared itself the party of blue-collar Pākehā rednecks who are sick of ‘those Māoris’ and their complaining about things which happened the century before last. Where will they go? What will Labour do without them?