UNWILLING TO ENDURE the opprobrium associated with its “gulags”, the Soviet Union of the 1970s changed tack. Rather than sending dissidents to labour camps the Soviet authorities decided to redefine dissidence as a form of mental illness. Opposition to the Soviet system could now be presented as a sickness, not deserving of condemnation, but care. Opponents of the USSR no longer faced summary trial and incarceration. Instead they were to be diagnosed and hospitalised. The barbed wire fences of the labour camps rusted away, replaced by the locked doors of Soviet mental hospitals. Resisting the tyranny of the Communist Party didn’t mean you were bad – it meant you were mad.
That this grim historical detail should be recalled more than thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is due to Ao Mai te Rā | The Anti-Racism Kaupapa a document which first saw the light of day back in August 2022 under the rubric of the Ministry of Health. Subtitled “Combatting racism in the health and disability system”, Ao Mai te Rā boldly declares:
“Eliminating all forms of racism is critical to achieving health equity and the vision of pae ora – healthy futures for all New Zealanders.”
Intentionally, or unintentionally, this statement of official health policy raises the spectre of political dissidence being redefined as a form of individual and/or social pathology. Like Covid-19, racism is being presented as a threat to the future health and wellbeing of New Zealanders. This threat must be eliminated – presumably by a process akin to inoculation.
But racism is not a sickness, it is a political belief. As such, it stands to be argued against and condemned. But, attempting to eliminate “all forms of racism” under the guise of a government health programme is sinister in the extreme.
To oppose the purposeful creation of ethnically derived distinctions is one thing; to treat the creators of such distinctions as “sick” is something else entirely. Pathologising racism instantly casts any kind of political debate about ethnicity and nationalism as illegitimate.
The Ministry of Health’s paper presents racists as the carriers of something akin to a dangerous virus. As New Zealanders have discovered over the past two years, those deemed to be carrying a dangerous virus by the Ministry can be detained and confined until they no longer test “positive”. Should racists refuse to “unite against the racism virus” by undergoing a government-mandated programme of “inoculation”, they could end up losing both their employment, and their ability to access all but the most basic services.
The experience of the public fight against Covid-19 has revealed just how injurious to social cohesion and the public peace such draconian levels of medical intervention can be. And, let’s not forget, Covid-19 was an real virus! Arming the state with equivalent powers against a metaphorical virus would unquestionably engender much greater resistance.
That the Ministry of Health anticipates such resistance is made clear in another document released under its name. Entitled Position statement and working definitions for racism and anti-racism in the health system in Aotearoa New Zealand, this document defines racism in ways that leave no ethnic groups – apart from Māori and Pasifika – in a position to assert their innocence of the charge. Pakeha, in particular, find themselves declared guilty from multiple perspectives: historically, politically, scientifically, culturally, institutionally and socially. It is a verdict in which the legal concept of mens rea (evil intent) plays no part. This is because racism can be both conscious and unconscious. Regardless of whether a Pakeha New Zealander’s closet contains a Ku Klux Klansman’s robes, or an anti-apartheid banner from 1981, they are racists – beyond all reasonable doubt.
Given that the Position Statement was not only released under the authority of the Ministry of Health, but also the Government of New Zealand, what should we make of the state’s “working definition” of racism?
Racism comprises racial prejudice and societal power and manifests in different ways. It results in the unequal distribution of power, privilege, resources and opportunity to produce outcomes that chronically favour, privilege and benefit one group over another. All forms of racism are harmful, and its effects are distinct and not felt equally.
The most important conclusion to be drawn from this definition is that there is no culture, no society, no state on the surface of the planet that would not stand condemned by its content. All societies contain racial animosities and hierarchies based on religious, political, sexual and economic power. Everywhere “privilege, resources and opportunity” are distributed arbitrarily and inequitably so as to “favour, privilege and benefit one group over another”. Equality is a moral aspiration, not an settled condition. Indeed, if one substitutes “capitalism” for “racism” in this definition, it works just as well.
What, then, is the “working definition’s” purpose? The answer, sadly, is to render any attempt by Pakeha New Zealanders to challenge the Māori- and Pasifika-centric project currently unfolding in the health sector, politically and ethically untenable. What the “working definition”, and the twelve bullet points listed below it, set out to achieve is a situation in which the only acceptable role for Pakeha politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals, is to sit quietly and learn how they might make the fullest possible restitution to the victims of their racism.
And it’s working. So averse is the professional-managerial class of most Western states to the charge of racism that its members will accept just about anything to avoid the accusation. Critical to this posture of surrender is the essential concession that it is impossible for the victims of Western racism to themselves behave in racist ways. Of equal importance is the companion concession that any suggestion that racism can be overcome by treating all human-beings as equal in rights and dignity is itself racist.
As the Position Statement makes clear:
Race and racialisation are social and political constructs designed to categorise physical differences between people (that is, skin colour, hair texture, geographical origins, etc) and assign value and meaning to a hierarchically arranged racial grouping. These constructs originated from Europe and influenced the structure of society, racial superiority and hierarchy.
And if you balk at the almost unbelievable historical cheek of this statement. If you want to shout out “Have none of you studied anthropology!” Or point out that for centuries the majority of the world’s slaves were white. Or that there are a number of other “constructs” that “originated in Europe” – like democracy, and the quaint belief that all human-beings (in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) “are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Well, then, you can only be a carrier of the racism virus, and you should be hospitalised until you test negative.
The bleak Russian humourists of the 1970s expressed the difficulties of principled disagreement slightly differently: “Only a madman”, they declared, “would question the superiority of the Soviet system.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 28 October 2022.
"But racism is not a sickness, it is a political belief."
Not really. Some people just seem psychologically destined to become conservative/racist because their brains are set up differently. They are suspicious of strangers, people who don't look like them, and are less open to new ideas. There is no cure for it really, because it is embedded in their psyches. :) And unfortunately reinforced by the Internet.
There is pretty much no persuading them by rational argument, because for these true believers* rational argument simply reinforces their beliefs. The most we can do is try to mitigate the damage.
I presume no one is suggesting that we attach electrodes to their testicles, flash pictures of brown people in front of them, and give them a shock when they react negatively similar to what took place in Tom Sharpe's hilarious book Indecent Exposure?
It might be fun, but it's not going to work.
(We lost a great satirist when Sharpe died. And someone who knew a great deal more about racism than most.)
There was a great article in the British paper – I think the Express – now unfortunately behind a pay wall, about a 9/11 conspiracy theorist whose mind was changed. It was time-consuming, expensive, and temporarily it least ruined the poor bugger's life, because all his friends of course were of a conspiratorial bent and abandoned and excoriated him. :) So I'm not hopeful for mere political discussion.
*Eric Hoffer's book about these is fascinating – particularly considering he was an autodidact. He wasn't particularly hopeful either.
A bit to unpack here. While it is correct "race and racialisation are social and political constructs", I would expect that the Ministry of Health would analyze the role of medical science on proliferating the myth of race. To suggest that these "constructs originated from Europe" is narrowing the concept of racism to one model, albeit the one most prevalent in NZ. "constructs designed to categorise physical differences between people (that is, skin colour, hair texture, geographical origins, etc.) and assign value and meaning to a hierarchically arranged racial grouping" was a major factor in Japanese ideology during their occupation of Korea, China and the Asia-Pacific. It is difficult not to suggest racism in the biblical book of Ezra.
That said, many look to the modern European concept of race developing in the Iberian peninsular when the Jewish and Moors were classified by heritage rather than religion. A "converso" found state discrimination despite now claiming Catholicism. Meanwhile expansionism drew the Portuguese to west Africa, where they falsely reported women gave birth with no pain. To medieval Europe this was seen that they did not have the 'curse of Eve', therefore were not descended from Adam and Eve, and were not of humanity. These views helped racalise the slave trade when labour was required in Cape Verde then the Americas. Once an economic model had been established there was a requirement for biblical justification, when enlightenment came to the fore, there was a need for scientific justification. This was maintained in some circles to this day despite entirely refuted.
I would have thought that the Ministry of Health would first ensure that the NZ health sector ensured that any residual belief in medical science is addressed.
Addressing Chris' central point "racism is not a sickness, it is a political belief', we should not forget that many view racism as a form of violence. That is the reality that it is a view of 'power over' and the MoH is correct to note it is "harmful, and its effects are distinct and not felt equally". In other exercise it is troublesome to suggest that physical violence "is not a sickness, but a political belief". It is not unreasonable to propose that it can be both, one informing the other. Certainly when shown the irrefutable historical, scientific and medical evidence that the concept of 'race' is a harmful social concept, people that still insist it is tangible have a doctrine that defies reality. If a violent narcissist may have a sickness, then it is hard not to extend this to the racist.
Possibly we are giving too much credit or condemnation to what is just a ham-fisted attempt by a government department to produce mission statements.
I was thinking about this after I posted that first statement. Some people are "naturally" racist, but some people are taught racism when they are kids. My father was – not so much in the family or world of work, because there was simply no other races in Britain the time pretty much, outside the ports like Liverpool or London. But at school he learned all about the British Empire and how the British were looking after inferior peoples – for their own good.
I have the photograph albums that he created when he was in the RN in World War II. Unfortunately not his early service in the Atlantic and the Arctic – he was on a small ship and I suspect cameras were difficult to keep – too wet for a start. But his later service in the Mediterranean and the Pacific. His Mediterranean pictures are captioned, and the word 'wog' occurs with distressing frequency. Not with any great animus, it was the word they used to describe people of the Middle East – but it's illustrative.
When he came to New Zealand and had to work with brown people he managed to overcome this racism. Simply by experience. I guess he didn't have the conservative brain structure. :) That being said I think racism is a problem that will be with us pretty much forever. Although to be fair, there have been societies like ancient Rome, where racism if it existed wasn't nearly the same as it is today. But it's still not going to be overcome by rational argument. You can't reason people out of a position they haven't reasoned themselves into.
Some people just seem psychologically destined to become conservative/racist because their brains are set up differently.
When humans became apex predators they had to find a way to work in large groups.
Human instinctively assess age, sex and alliance. Race is a proxy for ally but is easily reassessed.
Violations of cultural norms by out groups are a triggering (survival ) mechanism (no need to chew the fat).
All societies are diverse in the sense that you find all types. As Jon Haidt says liberals and conservatives are like Yin and Yang.
Studies are quite clear people prefer space, sunlight and small cities over large.
Current high levels of immigration are driven by a wealthy middle class in (particularly) India and China escaping a degraded environment. Bombays population 2m in 1950; now 22m. People fall off overcrowded trains. Livability is suffering for the rest of the population; the economic benefits are captured by the few.
97% of births are in the tropical belt.
When we've proven that pale people are racists and made them suffer for their race's'sins'- what then?
No one involved with propagating this weed answers that question.
When Polynesian people arrive in Australia, and settle, and work, and send their kids to school wanting a 'better life' - are they 'colonists'? Or something else? Also people from far away and differently religioned. Which 'authority' gets to say, and why just them?
Underneath this bubble of muck it is possible that amused people are profiting from the Hurt Feelings and Ancestral Guilt. Regardless of ethnicity. The earnest believers are visible. The game players - less so.
Speak softly, and carry a big stick...because 'all animals are equal but some are more equal than others'.
Most people are racist, if you define that as preferring to associate with people who look and think like them. I've worked in Africa, China, Laos. New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea and they all thought their own people were the best.
It starts with the family, you want your kids to do well and help them if you can. Then it spreads to the wider family, town, province and country. Surely asserting Kiwis punch above their weight must be racist because it implies other countries are less than we are?
I thought that Chris Trotter's detailing of state attempts to medicalise the political issue of racism chilling. Then I read the New World Order adherants like the psuudonymist Guerrilla surgeon who think it is a good idea. New Zealand is very clearly headed in a very dangerous direction
Ribro90: "...preferring to associate with people who look and think like them."
Yup, this is part of what it is to be human: we're a groupish species, after all. And there's nothing wrong with it.
In my view, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that individuals can be racist. It gets in the way of debate about crucial issues. If opponents scream "racist!" at those with dissenting views - and we've seen that they do - it shuts down the expression of those views. Nobody wants to be characterised as racist.
Racism is what governments do, when they implement societal arrangements - electoral systems, eg - which discriminate in favour of, or against, distinct ethnic groups.
What individuals think and say doesn't constitute racism. We as a society can't control individual views, not should we be trying to do so, proposed hate speech laws notwithstanding.
It's what people do that matters. This is why we have laws which sanction behaviour that discriminates against others on various grounds. That's the best we can hope for.
Ribro90: "....preferring to associate with people who look and think like them."
Yes, this is part of what it is to be human. We're a groupish species, after all. There's nothing wrong with it.
We as a society need to free ourselves from the notion that what individuals think and say is racism. It gets in the way of debate on contentious issues. If opponents scream "racism!" at those with dissenting views - and we've seen that they do - it shuts down said dissenters. Nobody likes to be characterised as a racist.
We can't control what people think and say, and nor should we be attempting to do so. It is what people do that matters. Society can use laws to sanction behaviour considered to be discriminatory. As I understand the situation, that's what we already have.
Racism is the preserve of governments, which can implement legal arrangements - electoral systems, for example -which discriminate in favour of, or against, specific groups in society. A racist polity isn't a democracy.
Dissidents are already being misdiagnosed as insane and sent to mental institutions. NZDOS knows about a case or two.
"We can't control what people think and say,"
More certainly we can't control what people think, but we can control what people say – because what people say is part of what people do and it may well have consequences beyond simply hurting people's feelings.
"Dissidents are already being misdiagnosed as insane and sent to mental institutions. NZDOS knows about a case or two."
God here we go again, no they aren't. If they were half the commenters on MSN news would be behind bars or in padded cells. You might even be there yourself. This is complete Bullshit – presumably put about by the New Zealand Dentists Orthodontic Society? There must be something in the water. Christ, I get tired of these drive-by comments that make wild statements and provide absolutely no evidence for them. It's just drip, drip, drip, like Chinese water torture.
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