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Writing as a grindstone. Finished writing, unfinished writing, writing ideas, things that I'll never get round to writing, other things. Grinding it out, grinding away. Writing some more.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Superstition, spiritualism, religion, philosophy

A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about reaction to a pānui from Te Papa about visiting the taonga Māori collection that they host (The tapu of taonga and wāhine in a colonised land). I finished by saying:
“. . . but of course none of this can really be understood without already understanding a Māori worldview. And this is the real issue, while Māori must understand a European worldview and law to survive in this land, colonisation has meant that very few people have any understanding of mātauranga Māori, or, in fact, of colonisation. Whenever an issue requires some understanding, whether it be the significance of te reo Māori, or kaitiakitanga, or whatever, the ignorance of most New Zealanders makes dialogue impossible. And thanks again to colonisation, this creates a problem not for those who are ignorant, but for Māori. Māori must repeatedly start from the beginning and attempt to explain their whole culture—this occurs in conversations, the media, court hearings, tribunal hearings. At some point, tauiwi need to take some responsibility for understanding the indigenous culture, and for understanding how their ignorance contributes to cultural imperialism, to Māori perspectives being marginalised and foreign in their own land.”
I want to come back to this to talk about the way Māori realities are often sidelined by people who have made little effort to understand anything beyond Western philosophical frameworks. I encounter this often, (and disappointingly for me) especially in socialist/ libertarian/ anarchist circles, where an analysis of power and imperialism seems especially crucial. I’ve written a lot about this in other posts (eg, Defining Māori), so this is only a summary.

When Europeans arrived here, they unselfconsciously slotted tangata whenua into the same orientalist framework they put all indigenous peoples—primitive, barbaric, native (meaning aligned with nature rather than culture), and superstitious. I say unselfconsciously, because Europeans took no time to consider how many of their practices would look to an outsider— unawareness of their place in nature, unthinking cruelty to children and women, inflexible codes of law, an obsession with covering (but not cleaning) the body, uncritical Eurocentric cultural imperialism (the expectation that the European way of thinking and doing is always right, even taken completely away from a European context where other people might know better). Any differences between tangata whenua understandings and actions, and Western understandings and actions, were seen as simply the result of the primitive, superstitious nature of the natives. Europeans certainly did not consider themselves superstitious—although they often did things for religious or cultural reasons that made little sense to anyone not raised within that religious or cultural framework, they were always rational.

As many have observed and written, the West tends to frame things in dichotomies, where Othering is used to strengthen one’s own righteous identity. One of the biggest contrasts at the time of European arrival here, was between European religion (inherently righteous) and Others’ superstitions or spirituality (irrational and childish at best). (It’s interesting to think about the work of Elsdon Best and Percy Smith in this context. They were fascinated by and sympathetic to Māori philosophies and beliefs, and when they wanted to show that tangata whenua were not as primitive as many of their peers thought, they tirelessly sought evidence for Māori belief in a single, supreme god. When they eventually found an informant who spoke of such a god, they then argued that this meant Māori were well on their way to developing a proper religion.)

As the values of the Enlightenment (which elevated intellect and reason above religious adherence) became more widespread, secularism became the righteous stronghold. This meant that our understandings and actions were only valid if they were based on rational (scientific) reasoning—although what is considered rational and relevant would continue to be defined by Western values. This is pretty much where the dominant culture in New Zealand is at now. For whatever reason (I blame cultural imperialism), it is not widely understood that any reasoning is based on values and a cultural framework (as Skyler, from Reading the maps discusses).

Because Western values and cultural frameworks are so pervasive, it is easy to dismiss anything outside those frameworks as not reasonable in some way. It is now common to hear Māori frameworks being dismissed as ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual’—when they are actually legitimate philosophies. They have a basis in a belief system and morality, just as Western philosophical frameworks do (much as many now try to deny it). They also have a basis in a very long association with this land, which Western frameworks do not.

The sort of understanding that comes from a long association with a place is so often dismissed as spiritual, and therefore unreasonable. For example, understanding that a river is a living entity, that it has a life-force that must be sustained, and that the wellbeing of my community is intertwined with the wellbeing of that life-force. This can be, and for a long time has been, written off as spiritual, animistic nonsense. But of course, it is true, and Western science (in this case ecology) has been playing catch-up for decades, when we could have just paid attention to tangata whenua (I say ‘we’ because I trained and briefly practised as an ecologist, and never learnt anything of indigenous understandings of relationships with the environment). The knowledge that comes from generations of interdependence with an environment is more legitimate than imported ideas about the way the world works.

The point of this post is that those of us who have been raised within exclusively Western philosophical frameworks need to be open to the limitations of those frameworks. Others understand the world differently, they may understand the world better. They may express that understanding in ways that sound irrational or strange to us. If we dismiss it as nonsense, or incorporate it into our superior frameworks and explain it back to them, then we are behaving as cultural supremacists. We will continue to creep infinitesimally towards understandings that others have known for generations and have freely offered us. Which might be fine, if we weren’t destroying ourselves and our planet as we do so.

To learn more about cultural imperialism and the importance of mātauranga, I highly recommend getting hold of Te Wānanga o Raukawa: Restoring mātauranga to restore ecosystems (produced by Te Whare Whakatupu Mātauranga, published by Te Tākupu and written by Āneta Hinemihi Rāwiri).

2 comments:

  1. Kia ora Kim,

    I have a paper due out in the Proceedings of Nga Pae o te Maramatanga's conference this year that nods at some of the issues you talk about. My topic was innovation is discussed with respect to the so-called 'Maori economy' but there are parallels to your interpretation and concern of Western overbearance in research philosophies.

    First I'd have to point out that the 'West' is a marvellously fragmented and fractious construct! Western peoples have been challenegd by Eastern (to briefly dichotomise) thinking for hundreds of years and vice versa. And as for ecologists, I have found them generally more sympathetics in Indigenous approaches than any other science body, mainly through our acceptance of holistic life processes. (Many supposedly hard-core sciences dismiss ecology as not real science.)

    Second, as for Maori/Indigenous approaches, I've gained useful insight from the writings of German philosopher Paul Feyerebend. While we can accuse Pakeha of taking over in collaborative projects involving Māori, by accepting and using mātauranga and Kaupapa Māori – even superficially - Pākeha exhibit an essential modern skill: the skill and pragmatism to assimilate ‘all forms or aspects of social activity without exception’, to understand and apply, not only of one particular methodology but any methodology or variation (Feyerbend 'Against Method', 1975:10). We went from stone-age to musket-age in a relative blink.

    Third, the rational objectivity of science was always a myth (how does anyone 'get outside' of the universe for a 'proper' look?!). The outcome - rational market allocation of resources a la neoliberalism - is struggling under the weight of its inherent irrationality. The unfortunate repercussions are that Maori, Pasifika, and undoubtedly other marginalised communities will bear the brunt of this pain.

    Our matauranga is vital for localised responses. However, with planetary scale issues (environmental and social) I believe we are also angaged in the process of re-indigenising humanity...

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    1. Anonymous12:51 pm

      Instead of reiterating my views on this topic, I'm going to post this article by Chomksy who we should remember as one of the greatest logicians of our time. On rationality and science he responds to some of the arguments brought up here, but it is part of a wider discussion that took place in America http://www.chomsky.info/articles/1995----02.htm

      Gwilym

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