Saturday, March 04, 2006

John Roughan: An acute sense of belonging

Auckland University farewelled a professor of political philosophy this week who has been a hidden national treasure. Political philosophy sounds like a dusty subject unless you were lucky enough to have heard the lectures of Andrew Sharp.

He was that rare academic, a first-class thinker who could teach. He didn't so much lecture as think aloud. When he introduced you to philosophers through the ages he became them. He would extemporise on the theories of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke and the rest, with scarcely a note in front of him.

His lectures regularly attracted more students than were actually taking his course, possibly because he was immensely good looking but more likely because he used clear, vivid language to apply the great minds of history to timeless questions of rights and justice, freedom, fairness and good order.

He had the endearing habit of taking a wrong turning sometimes. When he realised his reasoning had strayed from the track of the philosopher he was representing, he'd stop, wind our minds back and pick up the trail.

After his 35 years at Auckland, and before that at Canterbury, many thousands of students of politics must know what I am talking about. Some of them have been in recent governments.

He would disclaim much influence on their thinking, and his own writing on national issues, notably Treaty justice, has been aimed at academic audiences.

But those thousands will be as grateful as me for the minds he opened to us and for helping us to think.

I would like to hear from Andrew Sharp on one point before I fill out the census on Tuesday night. Its most difficult question asks, "Which ethnic group do you belong to?" and lists a number of possibilities, inviting us to mark one or more.

The only listed category that remotely applies to me is "New Zealand European", and that is remote. It is four generations back.

When in Europe I have never felt I belong in any part of it, even Ireland where those roots of those four generations lie.

I went looking for them once, in County Clare where our family name is common. In the town of Ennis I even found a shopfront proclaiming, "John Roughan, Hardware".

Bowling up to the proprietor, I thrust out my hand and greeted him as a long-lost relative from the colonies.

He turned a dark eye on me for a moment then decided it was best to pretend I wasn't there.

Fair enough, too.

So what ethnic group do I belong to? A widely circulating email is urging people like me to use the space provided in the census for people to an unlisted ethnic group and there I should write in "New Zealander".

The anonymous author believes that if enough of us take the write-in option, "then maybe, just maybe, we can get the powers that be to sit up and recognise that we are proud of who we are and that we want to be recognised as such, not divided into sub-categories and all treated as foreigners in our own country".

The force of this appeal is causing consternation among social scientists whose livelihood depends on putting the population into categories, particularly ethnic categories, and who rely on census data for almost their entire knowledge of humankind.

A plea on their behalf has been issued by an organisation called the Population Association of New Zealand which says the census question was not intended as a test of commitment to New Zealand or as an inquiry about nationality.

"If it is taken as a test of national commitment, and if we assume that everyone who is either a citizen or a permanent resident could consider themselves a 'New Zealander' then we might have as many as 90 per cent of the usual population giving this response."

That, they say, is unlikely, "but even if a significant, though unknown, proportion of each group opted for this, the resulting data would be difficult to use".

It would take a political philosopher to untangle people's concepts of ethnicity and nationality, and the conclusion, I suspect, would be that the distinction is not as clear as social data-users would like to believe.

People don't think of themselves as "ethnic", they speak of their nationality. Even in social science, "ethnicity" has a meaning much broader than most people think. It embraces heritage, culture, kinship, religion and all the things that cause people to feel a greater affinity to some than to others in the same state.

The ethnic majority, which naturally dominates a democratic state, is not encouraged to feel a greater affinity for its own and typically responds by insisting that all ethnic allegiances be submerged in the majority's "nation". But it confuses nationality with patriotism.

Nationality is more like ethnicity, I think. It is the identity I feel most strongly in places such as London, and it is not European; quite the opposite. It is an acute sense that I come from a different place.

It wouldn't matter how long I lived there, how fond of the place I became or even if it became convenient to change my passport. It would not change what I know myself to be.

New Zealanders who spend a lifetime in Australia and never want to come home, nevertheless seldom change their citizenship.

It will be the same for immigrants here. Few people ever turn their back entirely on their origins. Officially they may change their nationality but they do not cease to be what they were born.

In a spirit of inclusiveness, the census writers refer, for example, to "Chinese New Zealanders". But the immigrants call themselves New Zealand Chinese.

The nationality of a minority is seldom a problem if there is a place in the world where their identity is strong and secure.

The census question is politically loaded only because there is more than one nationality that has its identity here.

It seems to me there are now three indigenous national conceptions in this country: Maori, who were first here and remember nowhere else, New Zealanders who recognise no other nation within, and New Zealanders who draw distinctive national sustenance from the Treaty of Waitangi.

So go ahead and write in New Zealander if you wish. I will.

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