The Key(wi) way to being ordinary – Part III

In this final part of a series of posts on the value of ‘ordinariness’ in New Zealand I want to focus on the question I avoided right at the start: Why would someone from the left write such an apparently laudatory comment about John Key?

In answering this question I’ll go well beyond – and hardly involve – Chris Trotter’s personal motives or convictions. I want to focus instead on the question of why anyone, on the left, should find some comfort in John Key’s popularity as an ‘ordinary New Zealander’.

For Chris Trotter, the appeal of John Key’s supposed ordinariness stems from “New Zealand’s thwarted egalitarianism”.

He’s right. But, it goes much deeper than that, and it applies to most people and places.

The word ‘ordinary‘ has many different meanings and many related synonyms: ‘usual’; ‘common’; ‘average’; ‘uninteresting’; ‘commonplace’; ‘unexceptional’ – even ‘second rate’ or ‘inferior’.

More interestingly, all cultures have some sense of the ordinary. As is reasonably well known, one set of the meanings of the word ‘Maori‘ revolves around this idea of the ordinary, but does so in a way that highlights how such ordinariness can be positively evaluated: ‘usual’, ‘natural’, ‘normal’, ‘common’, ‘fresh’, ‘native’,  and ‘without ceremony’ (i.e., unpretentious). The same is true more widely. ‘Ordinary’ – in the sense of the ‘natural’, ‘normal’ or ‘native’ – is, primarily, the given, the received (as from nature).

The ‘ordinary’ is the ‘way things are’. It’s a deeply conservative notion, so deep that it’s almost conservative in the same sense that environmentalists are often ‘conservative’ in believing that nature’s ways are best.

Interestingly, culture has itself been frequently defined by cultural anthropologists as the taken for granted (or ‘given’) aspects of our lives. It involves the ‘unexceptional’, ‘unremarked’ and entirely ordinary aspects of our collective lives. In short, culture proscribes what it is to be and, more importantly, to act as ‘ordinary’ in any particular human group.

The notion of the ordinary – given these definitions that place it close to the ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ – mean that it collides with a classic politically divisive issue: How to deal with diversity and difference. It’s familiar as the divide between liberal and conservative. In that American version of the political spectrum, it then comes to be seen as the divide between ‘left’ and ‘right’.

The fear of many left-leaning liberals is that the ‘ordinary’ becomes oppressively asserted to exclude other cultures, races, ethnicities, sexualities and – ‘even’ -women. (In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the political lines are now increasingly drawn between conservatives and liberals rather than between the rival economic and social ideologies of socialism and capitalism.)

But is this fear misguided? After all, every race, every sexuality, every ethnicity is identified by what is ‘ordinary’ within that group. And, as the farm boy revealed, “you can be anything you like” so long as you’re ordinary. So long as you’re ordinary, you can be gay; so long as you’re ordinary you can be Asian, etc.. Of course, that’s not quite true but it probably is true that the more the ‘difference’ is not allowed to challenge ordinariness people from just about any group are more likely to be accepted as ‘ordinary Kiwis’.

No matter how paradoxical, that view contains at least the claim of tolerance of difference. As we saw with John Key’s millions, differences that don’t challenge or eliminate the possibility of still being ordinary are fine (given that ‘ordinary’ is basically an ideology that you can ‘sign up’ to rather than a set of attributes – see Part II).

But there’s something else that those categories of difference don’t necessarily challenge: Economic neo-liberalism. If you think about it for a moment you’ll notice that neo-liberalism has something in common with the view that you can be anything you want, so long as you’re ordinary.

Put bluntly, neo-liberalism is the home of the same kind of paradox. You can, after all, be anything you like in a free-market, neo-liberal society – so long as you’re a consumer. It is only if you challenge the ways of the market, or the market itself, that you attract ire.

Yet, conversely, ordinariness is actually a highly collectivist notion. It emerges out of the common cooperative activity of people, whether that’s in hunter-gatherer, settler, industrial or post-industrial societies.

In New Zealand, however, Trotter is right to point out that the notion of the ordinary is closely linked to the myth of egalitarianism. As a colonial, settler culture, modern New Zealand began its (pakeha) history with the discourses of ‘the many’ getting new opportunities in a new land. Jack, as we say, was as good as his master.

Here’s an extract from an interview between James Belich and Paul Holmes in 2009 about 19th century New Zealand settlers:

JAMES An interesting people, one of the characteristics of the people who took that huge risk of going to places like New Zealand, they wanted a life as well as a living, they wanted a greater degree of equality, they wanted access to hunting and shooting and fishing which was the reserve of the gentry and the elite in Britain.  They wanted Jack is as good as his master.

PAUL Yes, which may be one reason why the descendants of the settlers are so protective about guarding their right to the Foreshore and Seabed, and I’m talking about the Pakeha.

JAMES Yeah, that may well be, I mean the thing is that part of the deal for settlers to come to New Zealand and places like it was that we wouldn’t have restrictions placed on us as we used to have in 19th century Britain where the parson and the squire ruled the roost.

PAUL What have we inherited from the settlers do you think, Pakeha New Zealanders particularly, I mean is there such a thing really as Kiwi ingenuity, did that come from the settlers?

JAMES There is Kiwi ingenuity, but you’ll find Australians and Australians also say there’s American and Australian ingenuity.  Now that doesn’t mean we’re copycats, it means that we’re co-owners of a kind of settler ingenuity which is as much Kiwi as it is anything else.

PAUL Do you make the claim or do you have the feeling that the settler mindset who those settlers are, influences us today?

JAMES I think it does, I think elements of the egalitarianism, you know some could argue the tall poppy syndrome, you know the notion that you mustn’t get above yourself, we’re not gonna doff our cap to anybody, we don’t call anybody sir, you know.  I think these things are legacies.

This, most likely, is the origin of the egalitarianism that Trotter sees as having been ‘thwarted’ and which now, ironically for those on the left, leads to a multi-millionaire, right wing politician being able to base his popularity on being ‘ordinary’; being like everyone else; being one of the ‘Jacks’ whose as good as his master.

Somehow or other Key has embodied these insights – whether or not he could articulate them. What John Key has worked out is that, to be popular, you don’t challenge what people take as given – at least not to their faces. Even if you think differently, you go along with what people think.

Here’s a comparison that makes this clear. Doug Myers, before he finally left New Zealand, was constantly berating Kiwis for being tall poppy choppers, not being ambitious enough, not being – in a phrase – like him. Doug Myers was not particularly well liked.

John Key, by contrast, to my knowledge has never told New Zealanders that there was something wrong with them. Interpersonally, he doesn’t directly criticise people. He indicates in a myriad different ways that you’re alright as you are, that what you think is reasonable, understandable; you ‘have a point’; he accepts that ‘some people see it that way’.

For better or worse, Key has stumbled onto a truth about New Zealanders and, if only he knew it, about people in general: the implicit value placed on the ‘ordinary’ is nothing other than the assumption that you belong and that you’re ok, that you’re as good as anyone else.

Threaten that, even unwittingly, and you unleash a storm of anxiety and emotion that you won’t be able to control. Embrace it and you can do whatever you want – even re-write what is taken as ‘ordinary’.

Whether you’re an old-fashioned socialist who thinks it’s all about class or a left-leaning liberal who thinks everything is about culture and identity, that’s actually very welcome news.

Being ordinary is being ‘ok’ in the collective. It amounts to not being judged harshly for what you are. In that sense, we all want to be ordinary – no matter how extraordinary we may be.

P.S. When Don Brash, before the 2005 election, talked about ‘mainstream New Zealanders’, paradoxically he forgot about the strength of the notion of the ‘ordinary’. The backlash, in a nutshell, came from the suspicion that he did not realise, for example, that gay people were ordinary New Zealanders; ethnic minorities were ordinary New Zealanders; the unemployed were ordinary New Zealanders.

Part of me hopes that, deep down, the ‘mainstream New Zealanders’ Brash was targeting realised that Brash, by implicitly excluding groups of people from the ‘ordinary’, was not acting as an ordinary New Zealander.

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3 Responses to The Key(wi) way to being ordinary – Part III

  1. rob says:

    Mmm. Brilliant analysis.
    You seem to be saying Kiwis have half-embraced a sort of ‘big-tent’ view of society. It’s a long way from the tribal loyalties invoked by a political (or social) culture that defines itself on ‘us’ and ‘them’. Certainly that rhetoric is still widely used.
    Interesting how Key has distanced himself very strongly from the NZ First divisiveness (and seems to genuinely want Maori Party support- well, and need it too :))
    A shame his policies are designed to accentuate economic disparity.
    Still thinking about this, and will do for a while. Thanks!

    • TPSA says:

      Hi rob,

      yep, that’s the basic idea but I still don’t know whether my wish is father of the thought here.

      For me it’s like what a ‘natural community’ is: It includes whoever happens to be around you when you’re born (and, more or less, stays there as you grow and live). Unlike ‘intentional communities’ or ‘communities of interest’, a natural community has to accept whomever happens to be part of it by ‘birthright’. At least, it accepts all-comers on the condition that each member meets some basic expectations.

      Apparently, there’s an African tribe (isn’t there always?!) that has the saying that ‘A selfish man dies alone under a tree’ – so human societies do have their conditions of entry/exit. But – and this is what I’m getting at – within those bounds, typically, most human societies are also pretty open to an ‘each to her/his own’ policy.

      I’ve always been impressed at how tribal/traditional/hunter-gatherer societies seem closest to a balance between individual diversity and collective purpose and commitment. Those societies, despite being called ‘collectivist’ in most analyses, are not full of clones (the usual caricature of collectivism) – from my experience, they’re full of real, individual characters.

      My concerns over Key and those who have supported his rapid progression to Prime Minister overlap with yours. The irony is that when times get economically and socially harder because of widening disparities then that ‘natural’ tolerance to diversity (to the ‘neighbours who just happen to be there’) starts to diminish and the notion of ‘ordinariness’ can morph into a kind of ‘social oath of allegiance’.

      On that note, I remember being bailed up by a pro-tour supporter in Warners Hotel just before – or perhaps during – the ’81 tour. He was going around literally every table, thrusting his face in front of whoever was there and asking “Are you a Kiwi or are you against the tour!” (or more colourful words to that effect).

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