The Kermadecs and racist environmentalism

I did a bit of a tweetstorm earlier today, inspired by seeing friends embroiled in frustrating conversations like this one and the decided slant of articles like this about the proposed Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary.

My thoughts resonated with a bunch of people, so here they are in post form, but I’m going to stick up at the front something which I tweeted late in the piece: I’m just a Pākehā woman with a Twitter account and a reflexive critical analysis of political discourse. I’m not an expert in this area. I refer you to far wiser people like Morgan Godfery and the reportage of folk like Maiki Sherman at Newshub.

So. This week has been a revelation in the racist imperialism of mainstream (white) environmental organisations.

We’re not even arguing about meaningful consultation around establishing the Kermadec sanctuary, we’re talking about ZERO consultation by white politicians who assumed they knew best. National are literally in coalition with the Māori Party but didn’t even pick up the phone to give them a heads-up, probably because like every other Pākehā handwringer they just assumed they knew best about whether there’d be an issue.

That’s problem 1: Pākehā assuming they know everything about a complex historical/legal issue which gets really shallow coverage in the media and frequently is only lightly discussed in school, if ever.

Problem 2 is the (very Pākehā) environment lobby’s outrage that anyone might stand in the way of an ocean sanctuary. “Think of the planet!” they cry, which is appallingly arrogant coming from the ethnic group which has done the vast majority of screwing up the planet to start with.

But no, now we know better so let’s do things our way, it’s for the greater good after all!

This also brings in the horrible racist undertones of the Pākehā worldview being more ~sophisticated~ than Māori.

We have to take a hard look at how environmental organisations and Pākehā liberalism exploit indigenous culture. When it suits us, we happily draw on the notion of indigenous people being ~more in touch with the land~ and having a ~spiritual connection to nature~ and painting with all the goddamned colours of the wind. When it helps our agenda, we happily retweet the hashtags opposing oil pipelines and trumpet the importance of honouring the Treaty.

But scratch the surface and all the smug superiority is there. We know better; our thinking is more advanced because we care about ~the whole planet~.

It’s very easy to care about the whole planet when you’re on the team who took it by force.

The third problem I came to is broader than the current debate: it’s the hate-on Pākehā have for the idea that Māori dare to operate in a capitalist framework. Like, we came here, smashed their culture, took their land, tried to destroy their language, imposed capitalism on them, and when we offer a pittance in compensation for what they have lost, we get OUTRAGED when they set up “modern” business structures with it.

Do people have justified concerns about the decisions and operating practices of some Māori corporations? Probably. There are issues with every capitalist construct run for profit. But we treat Māori ones very differently – we treat everything Māori do differently (remember the foreshore and seabed? Remember how nobody seemed to have a problem with rich white people owning whole beaches and islands, but the idea of Māori just having the right to test ownership in court was the end of the world?)

We’ve put Māori in a catch-22: imposing Pākehā capitalism on them, but acting appalled whenever they dare use it to survive.

So this is how it goes. Pākehā make a decision to eradicate fishing rights without consulting Māori, because we know better. Then we decry them for not caring about the environment – which we stole from them and exploited for over a century – and imply they only care about money – which is a good thing if you’re in business but not if you’re brown.

And so we pat ourselves on the back for being More Enlightened About The Environment while literally confiscating land & resources from Māori again.

~

A tangent on industrialization, climate change and the environment: let’s consider how all the “first world” “developed” nations got to where they are – by pillaging and strip-mining every piece of the planet we could get our hands on – but now we’ve hoarded all the money and resources and built “sophisticated” economies, suddenly we want to scold “less developed” nations for doing exactly the same thing.

Blade Runner and The Fifth Element knew exactly what they were doing when they showed the working classes living beneath the smog layer, is what I’m saying.

Steven Joyce and policy-by-Twitter

It would be a perfect episode of The Thick of It, but it’s real: today, the Minister of Fixing Things Steven Joyce fundamentally altered government policy by trying to get snarky with the Opposition on Twitter:

Enter the fourth estate:

This may be news to the Minister of Finance.

And voila:

This isn’t just a case of “casually pretend that’s what we were going to do all along”. It’s a literally-radical shift in the government’s approach to public services, away from treating them like cash cows, put under greater and greater strain to deliver dividends (which just so happen to help Bill English reach that all-important surplus.) It opens the door to the idea that public organisations aren’t businesses run for a profit – they’re services run for the people of this country.

That is a conversation which terrifies National. But thanks to Mr Fix It trying to be clever in under 140 characters, it’s now one they cannot escape.

Living in a bubble

This was going to be a tweet, or probably a series of tweets, but you all know how I get.

It’s been going on for a while, but especially after the results of the first flag referendum, I’ve seen various comments along the lines of:

HAHAHA, sucks to be YOU, Red Peak fans, looks like you’re not so cool after all! You and your stupid Twitter bubble are powerless! More like Red PIQUE am I right? Stop thinking you’re so important because you never get anything done and your flag is stupid! Neener neener neener, you lost, BOW BEFORE ZOD!!!!

I paraphrase.

The thing is, I’m a Red Peak fan. I even spend time on Twitter, and I live in Wellington. I’m exactly the kind of person I think that kind of person is addressing their scorn to.

I’m also very aware of the fact my social circle, like everyone’s social circle, is a bubble. Even in the internet age, the people I “hang out with” are usually going to be a lot like me – from similar backgrounds, with similar tastes, and yes, similar positions on the political spectrum (make your own “some of my best friends are rightwingers” joke here).

This is true of everyone. We all hang out with people we have a lot in common with: work, geography, faith, fandom – whether that’s sci fi or sports. And even the most ardent Highlanders fan can acknowledge (probably through gritted teeth – I may be an Auckland-Wellington transplant but I know Highlanders fans) that not everyone in New Zealand is a Highlanders fan.

The people I most often see slamming the Twitterati/Red Peak Clique/Thorndon Bubble’s belief that we represent the entirety of New Zealand opinion and are the only people worth listening to … are people who are really invested in describing, and decrying, the Twitterati/Red Peak Clique/Thorndon Bubble. People – individuals – who need to push the idea that there’s a difference between a community of people with like minds and an interest in discussing political matters, on a social media platform designed to create such communities, and … well, whatever Borg-esque hivemind they’re railing against.

borg assimilation

Resistance is futile.

I haven’t seen many people say “yeah, Red Peak should be our flag because Twitter likes it!” I’ve seen people joyously post pictures of the Red Peak flag “seen in the wild”. I’ve seen people discuss what it means to them and whether it resonates with them (for some, even in my bubble, it doesn’t.) I saw Red Peak’s designer and supporters run a really savvy campaign to raise its profile online.

But ultimately Red Peak lost, this time. That’s how democracy works. (And that’s also how it’ll work if the second referendum goes to our current flag, you folk who think it’s unfair for us to vote “no” to your awful blue Lockwood logo.) People are disappointed, and tweeting about it. That’s how Twitter, and being a human being, works.

There are undoubtedly people within the liberal/Pākehā/Twittering/lefty population who do overestimate how much their opinions are shared by the New Zealand population as a whole. Because there are people like that in every single political group. Brian Tamaki thinks he’s representative. ACT Party leader after ACT Party leader has convinced themselves there was a massive silent voter base just waiting for them to come along. On the other end of the spectrum, there were the massively inflated predictions for Internet/MANA in 2014.

It’s pretty much a fundamental point of human ego to assume that our subjective, flawed, self-contradicting beliefs are normal, rational, and widely-accepted.

But just because you saw a few people on Twitter rejoicing that Red Peak made it onto the ballot, or now you’re seeing a few people on Twitter feeling grumpy because that blue Lockwood design is bloody awful … it doesn’t mean there’s some special, extra-presumptuous, extra-unrealistic groupthink going on.

It probably just means a bunch of people on Twitter liked Red Peak.

red peak

We all care

[Content note: discussion of dead children, Syrian refugee crisis – no images]

I haven’t seen a single person genuinely react to the harrowing photo of Aylan Kurdi – or any harrowing photo showing the plight of Syrian refugees – with a shrug or a “who cares?”

That kind of heartless reaction is being loudly performed on some platforms – i.e. the comments sections of news sites or rightwing blogs which regularly stir up anti-immigration, anti-Muslim sentiment for the sake of pageviews. They’re loud, but they’re a minority, and their only true goal is to shock people with how cool and extreme they are.

But when it comes to your average not-very-political friend on Facebook, or the broad audience using the #doublethequota hashtag, the reaction is universally one of sadness, and horror, and a desire to do something.

This has given rise to many a weary cry of “why does it take a picture of a dead child to make you understand how serious this is?”

And it’s lead to a backlash against people who are honestly traumatized, triggered or upset at having those images retweeted constantly, without warning, into their timelines or news feeds. “We must show these photos, because no one cares!” declare the humanitarians, full of righteous indignation. “How dare you try to turn away and refuse to acknowledge what’s happening!”

Yet that’s not what anyone is saying (except in the aforementioned, disingenuous “look how edgy and uncaring I am” comments.) It’s a straw argument. So why the outrage?

Those of us with the privilege of spending a lot of time talking politics online are living in a world of immediate gratification. We want to buy something – we can buy it. If it’s a video game, or an album by our favourite band, we can not only buy it the moment we decide we want it, we can begin downloading it immediately.

And we see the political power that social media can have, even if it’s only watching the race between political candidates to adopt popular hashtags or reference the latest meme. Politicians and political journalists are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram too, and you can believe they’re just as hooked on the instant feedback and “23 people retweeted this!” validation that we are.

When a story goes viral, we’re used to seeing a swift reaction from our leaders. A condemnation of a terrible crime. A promise to investigate allegations of misdeeds.

But on the Syrian refugee crisis – because there’s a lot more involved politically than simply opening our borders to people in desperate need – we’re not getting the speedy response we want.

We see the photos of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, alive and happy, and think “If I were Prime Minister, I would double our refugee quota immediately!” We see the thousands of people signing petitions and donating goods and money and say to ourselves, “Everyone can see this is the right thing to do. Our leaders must see it too!”

Instead, we get silence. Or if not silence, vague promises of reviews and reassurances that something will be done. “We’re looking at all the options,” John Key says, without even the decency to rule out options like “do nothing”. All the while, those haunting images are stuck in our heads on a tragic loop and it offends our sense of justice that the well-polished politicians aren’t reacting the way any moral human being should.

So we keep sharing those photos in the desperate hope that it will impel action from our leaders, and when others ask us to stop – to at least put a warning at the top, the way all the mainstream media has been doing – we can react cruelly, turning all the frustrated rage we feel about our Prime Minister’s inaction on other people who are already on our side and already understand too well how horrific this situation is.

Powerful images (used with the consent of the people involved) have a long and noble history of focusing people’s attention on a human tragedy, and prompting us to respond. But let’s take care of each other, too, and focus the pressure and denunciations where they belong: on political leaders like John Key who are standing by and twiddling their thumbs waiting for a focus group to tell them what to do, while thousands more Syrian children and their families are at risk.

[Update: Key has now announced he’ll announce a “one-off” intake of “hundreds” of refugees, i.e. the absolute minimum possible response. The focus group results must have come in overnight.]

Graphic images and clicktivism

[Content note: discussion of dead children, refugees – no images]

There’s a regular discussion which crops up around trigger warnings, graphic images, and social media. It appeared yesterday when an horrific picture of a drowned child became the image which defines the Syrian refugee crisis; and a few people pointed out that it’s a bit gross to just drop an image of a dead child into their Twitter feed for the sake of raising awareness about a terrible humanitarian disaster.

What got me was the utter, unashamed indignation of many of the people who had posted the image and were asked not to. No, they thundered, how dare you refuse to look at this picture of a dead child? You clearly don’t care about dead children! You don’t care about Syrian refugees! The world must be forced to look at this picture of a dead child so they’ll know how terrible this story is!

And then there were sneering comments about clicktivism and “why are you policing my posting-pictures-of-dead-children when you could be lobbying the government to #doublethequota”, and essentially a point-blank refusal, from too many people I otherwise respect, to consider what other people were actually saying.

No one said “don’t talk about Syria”. No one said “don’t lobby the government.” No one said “I refuse to donate money to humanitarian organisations because you posted that photo.”

They just wanted a little warning before a haunting, tragic image was thrown up in front of their eyeballs.

The thing about social media is that it – Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram – is designed to share small flashes of information widely. Images especially. When you’re scrolling down your timeline, you’ll often see the image first – then the caption, or the explanation, or the link. It works that way because images are so powerful.

Well, with great power comes great responsibility. The responsibility not to wilfully traumatize people just because we think our message is the most important thing in the universe.

A side note: this is usually where people complain that trigger warnings “mean you never want to see anything which hurts your feelings” or some other strawperson. Take it from me, the woman incapable of seeing “content note: giant bugs” and NOT clicking on it even though I hate giant bugs with the power of a thousand suns, trigger warnings don’t erase your audience. They just give your audience a choice.

And if you’re really trying to reach the people who don’t care about Syrian refugees dying, they’re probably the kind of callous person who’ll ignore your trigger warning anyway.

But here’s the thing. You know what real “clicktivism” is? It’s thoughtlessly retweeting an image of a dead child without even taking two seconds to type TW: image of dead child at the top. It’s slapping an image of a dead child at the top of your post – a post with a title which contains no information indicating such an image will appear in it – without the decency of putting it behind a “Read More” link.

If you can’t even be bothered taking less than a minute to consider the people immediately around you, who will be confronted without warning of a dead child – a child who may be the age of their own kids, or who looks like their kids because not everyone on NZ Twitter is white, actually – then you’ve got some cheek lecturing other people about how ~little~ they’re doing for the cause.

And if shocking people who are already on your side with a graphic image is the only way you can think to create political action, maybe you should stop, because you’re not very good at it.

If you want to take some real action, you can sign Action Station’s petition to Michael Woodhouse to increase our refugee quota, donate to the UNHCR or any one of these agencies, or volunteer for the Red Cross’ Refugee Service.

If you’re in Wellington, an impromptu demonstration is being held at Parliament at noon.

And take two seconds next time to check you’re not doing more harm than good.