Wednesday 13 October 2010

Grandfather's Sword (Reflections on the Te Papa Controversy)

Respecting Family Treasures - and Maori Taonga: My Grandfather's sword (just visible below his elbow) now rests in the Oamaru Museum, where I trust it will continue to be accorded the same deep respect it always demanded - and received - from my family. Photograph of Captain William Marshall, Otago Mounted Rifles, courtesy of Margaret E. Trotter (nee Marshall).

CAN WEAPONS OF WAR inflict harm – even when they’re not in use? When displayed in a glass case in a museum, are greenstone mere and taiaha to be classified simply as "inanimate objects" – archaeological "artefacts"? Or are they something more than that? Something quite capable of harming any pregnant or menstruating woman who draws near?

Do weapons have a life of their own? That is the essense of the controversy currently swirling around the Museum of New Zealand - Te Papa. (See here and here.)

According to Maori cosmology the answer is a most emphatic "Yes." Any weapon that has shed blood, taken life, is imbued with tremendous spiritual force. It partakes not only of the life force of the person it was used against, but also of the spirit of the warrior who wielded it and of the craftsman who fashioned it. In the Maori world, weapons are objects of power. Touching them – even approaching them – is fraught with danger.

It is for this reason that pregnant and menstruating women are enjoined to remain at a safe distance from these potentially harmful objects. An instrument of death: shaped for violence, guided by anger, steeped in pain and suffering; should not be permitted to come anywhere near the bearers of life – or the sacred blood that nourishes it.

Those who embrace the scientific method will bridle at such notions. Things of stone and wood become dangerous only when manipulated by the hand and brain of Homo Sapiens. When not under conscious human direction mere and taiaha are harmless lumps of matter: nothing more, nothing less.

To those who subscribe to the core values of secular humanism, Te Papa’s tacit endorsement of Maori cosmology must also seem outrageous.

In the modern secular state, religious belief and practice is relegated strictly to the private sphere. In the public sphere reason alone is supposed to prevail. And reason dictates that differences of gender and ethnicity must in no way detract from the democratic rights and duties of free and equal citizens. To allow animist superstition to in any way prevent women – regardless of their reproductive condition – from exercising their civil rights is the nearest thing to a "sin" that secular humanism will allow.

All right and proper, I suppose, but it is very … well … thin.

We should never forget that the triumph of 18th Century Enlightenment values was challenged almost immediately by the much more visceral cultural impulses of Romanticism. Reason and science may have released us from the grip of religious obscurantism and superstition, but it also cast us adrift in a world stripped bare of meaning and mystery.

Very few human-beings are able to thrive in such a barren emotional environment, which is why so many people respond to and take comfort in what Science would undoubtedly reject as the irrational manifestations of fear and awe.

Like the mysterious power of weapons.

My Grandfather was an officer in the Otago Mounted Rifles who fought in the Boer War.

On the wall above our beds, as we were growing up, my brother and I could see the Mauser rifle Captain William Marshall had brought back with him from South Africa. It was a splendid example of German precision engineering – long and heavy and absolutely deadly. On the rifle’s stock its original owner had carved his name: "Van Rijn".

I can’t tell you how often I stared at that weapon, wondering about the man from whom my Grandfather took it as a trophy of war. Was it someone he had killed with his own hands? Or, did he prise it from Herr Van Rijn’s lifeless fingers in the aftermath of some forgotten skirmish on the High Veldt?

The spirits of both men seemed to me to linger in that rifle.

Invariably, whenever I lifted the weapon down from the wall, the hairs would rise on the back of my neck.

For true power, however, nothing came close to my Grandfather’s sword. It was kept in a special sheath of oilskin and only taken out on special occasions. The mixture of fear and awe that I experienced as a small boy as the long blade emerged from its leather scabbard is easily imagined.

For it was a thing of both beauty and power. Its greased blade was engraved with the most intricate filigree and just below the hilt a brass Star of David was inset. The initials of the King-Emperor, Edward VII, took pride of place on the finely-wrought guard to show at whose pleasure my Grandfather served.

It was a treasured heirloom of my family – a taonga filled with potent magic.

It rests now in the Oamaru Museum – where I hope it is accorded the same deep respect it always demanded – and received – from me. 


Jono said...

Hi Chris, thanks for this. In all the frought commentary on the issue this is the most generous and honest thing I have seen. In my work, from time to time, I have to deal with koiwi tangata (Maori human remains). I dont ascribe any pwoer to them but I know the great tapu that lays over them is very real to the descendants that I work with. I know they cant hear or understand me but I tell the koiwi what I am doing and why and give thanks for the opportunity to return them to their whanau. I happily work according to the prescribed tikanga.

Although it can be a stressful process it is one of the great delights of my job to help restore a special kind of whakapapa to those who otherwise would not be remembered.

Anonymous said...

Good article Chris, one of your best in regards to issues related to Maori.

Keep up the good Mahi.

Mark Wilson said...

Hi Chris,I have no problem with people believing anything they want as long as it doesn't impact on others rights.
It is demonstrably false that harm can be caused in this way. Millions of pregnant or menstruating women, including Maori women,are on a daily basis exposed to what we are told Maori regard as dangerous objects and no harm comes to them.
If you substitute Pakeha here and suggest a restriction on women because of some demonstrably wrong world view then all hell would break loose.
With the greatest respect Chris your article is sufficently PC and tree hugging to qualify you for a place in academia at Waikato University.

Victor said...

Mark Wilson

Were I to attempt to go into a women's public toilet, I would probably be judged to be offending against the mores of our society.

But,unless I proceeded to pester the women there, leer laciviously at them or interfere with their exercise of their bodily functions, I wouldn't necessarily be doing any objective harm.

The same goes for a woman entering a men's toilet (as Kim Hill once reported doing by accident at Auckland Airport).

In other words, we cannot and do not reduce public rights of access to a simple notion of gender equality trumping all other considerations. Social and cultural expectations are also expected to be tolerated and respected.

Nor can the demand for the privileging of gender equality over other values be justified on the grounds of its inherently greater rationality.

The very notion of equal rights, and indeed of all human rights, became part of our intellectual heritage as a result of religiously derived notions of Natural Law, which, at the very least, sit uneasily with Darwinism and scientific empiricism.

The right to equality of treatment is, to my mind, an important principle and one for which I would be happy, in certain circumstances, to lay down my life. But, like all values, it is an intellectual construct and not a self-evident truth.

It's certainly no excuse for heartlessness or impoliteness to the the people who have very kindly made the taonga available when they were under no obligation to do so.

Mark Wilson said...

Sorry Victor but that is a bit too much special pleading in one hit. Where to start?

No one has the right to impose their views on others unless to not do so harms others.

People have the right to believe anything they like as long as those beliefs are not forced on others, and they also, unfortunately for people who believe in demonstrable untruths, have to face the consequences of those beliefs.

There are absolute truths (gravity, light)stupidity etc) despite the likes of Waikato University who hold the religious view that reality is dependent on the observer.
As Mark Twain pointed out when feed that line of stupidity, "Kick that rock and tell me you don't feel pain".

Social and cultural beliefs are entitled to be respected, or for those who live and compete in the real world, unlike the staff of Te Papa, ignored. But the slipperiest slope in the known universe is special pleading for "special cases".

The weaker the logic, the weaker the culture, the less able a belief makes its adherents able to succeed, the more it must be pandered to.

The more this is so, the more the protaganists suffer. Most Maori women ignore this Tapu, and if you don't believe this ask any food manufacturer in NZ. But those who don't are hamstrung by it.

I can never understand why the left insist on further handicapping those least able to succeed. And by pandering to a belief held by so few while ignoring a basic human right that is exactly what they are doing.

Victor said...

Mark Wilson

Where to start indeed!

Firstly, for what it's worth, I don't consider myself as on the left.

Philosophically, I can probably be best described as a small 'c' conservatve, although I tend to vote for Social Democrats of one stripe or other rather than for the Neo-Liberals who have taken over most erstwhile conservative parties in recent decades.

Secondly, I'm not engaged in an exercise in special pleading. Quite the contrary. I'm drawn to this debate primarily because it exemplifies a philosophical issue that has preoccupied me since at least the early 1970s.

And, as it happens, this same issue has grown in prominence globally over the last few years as a result of increased religiosity, multi-culturalism and (most recently)an increasingly doctrinaire secularist response to these other trends.

I have no particular axe to grind for or against Maoritanga and actually agree with you over the need not to impose an unwanted cultural identity on Maori or anyone else.

BTW we would probably find ourselves in agreement over getting rid of the Maori electorates and the reacionary neo-feudal doctrine of Tino Rangatiratanga.

But where we differ is over your insistence that what you identify as a human right needs to be asserted irrespective of the size and shape of what's at stake or of the subjective hurt you might be causing.

It seems to me that, unless you start from a Theistic framework, it's impossible to argue that human rights have the same objective existence as light or matter or gravity

(I'll leave it to the physicists to debate whether these actually do have an objective existence. Like you, I'm happy to stick with Mark Twain.)

Most children are born with two arms, two legs, two eyes, a nose, mouth etc. But they're not born with any rights. These are given to them by the family, culture, society and/or nation into which they're born.

Our assumed rights are matters of the highest importance and are integral to our civilization. But they are human constructs and the product of a particular time and place and a particular institutional and intellectual history. They are not things that reside in us as a fact of nature and cannot therefore be moral absolutes.

On a day-to-day basis, it's essential that we preserve the benign fiction of the rights doctrine. It makes our society more cohesive, kinder, more civilised, more peaceful, spiritually richer, more stable, more creative and so on.

Conversely,the sustained denial of such rights leads inevitably to dystopia, as much of the history of the twentieth century clearly demonstrates.

But,there will always be small areas of human interaction where an over-zealous insistence on a particular right may detract from the overall benefits of living in the type of society that a rights-based approach has helped shape.

One such area is where the insistence on a right benefits no-one all that much but delivers a considerable degree of hurt to someone else.

Sometimes that hurt may be objectively observable or even measurable. And, sometimes, the hurt will be subjective. It really doesn't matter which, as, in either case, the insistence on an abstract right will then become an act of unkindness.

Acts of unkindness are not just bad in themselves. They are also undermine the consensual civilization that the benign fiction of rights exists to support.

There's no clear, infallible way of recognising situations where a conflict exists between a human right and a humane duty, but, in my judgment (and judgment is all we have) the recent affair at Te Papa clearly fits the bill.

And, as the great Sydney Greenstreet remarked: "There's not enough kindness in the world!"