By: Christopher Cookson
The recent tragic events in Christchurch might be be three hundred kilometres away from Blenheim, however following the news from Marlborough, I am left with a lot to reflect on. Could it ever happen here? What can we do as a community to ensure it never does?
Sadly, intolerance is something that has been around as long as humans themselves, but taking a look at history can reveal where things went wrong, and also things that can be done to prevent history repeating itself.
Marlborough had its own moment of infamy due to intolerance that lead to the violent deaths of a number of people in 1843. The 'Wairau Incident', was tragic, although in an ironic twist of fate those who demonstrated intolerance ended up as the victims. The aftermath of the incident though was remarkable in that Te Rauparaha, though no angel, and responsible for the brutal subjugation of many other Māori tribes, did not choose further retribution against colonials. A cool headed governor, Robert FitzRoy, unswayed by 'social media' of the time in the form of colonial newspapers, carefully researched the evidence, and declared Te Rauparaha innocent due to provocation, despite plenty of calls for military intervention, thus de-escalating a potentially violent situation, and perhaps sparing Marlborough the land wars that subsequently broke out in the North Island where hotter heads prevailed.
Marlborough owes its existence in part to the recognition that part of the Nelson Province was not receiving adequate representation and benefits from the rates being levied. Throughout its history, Marlborough as a large region with a small population has had to fight to ensure that the powers that be give it adequate attention. That struggle is perhaps what has led to parochialism, however, parochialism that excludes people who commit themselves to Marlborough is plain wrong. Anyone who chooses to live in Marlborough and commit to participation in the local community for the good of everyone has as much a right to be regarded as a Marlburian as someone who's had generations of family here, and all of us should celebrate anyone who contributes to our region. Governing authorities need to be careful to ensure equitable allocation of resources so that everyone can thrive, and listen to local communities, but communties themselves need to hold authorities accountable, rather than expressing resentment against other members of their community.
Having lived in Marlborough most of my life, I'm a proud Marlburian, if a first generation one. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your region, your nation, your religion, your favourite sports team or whatever, but in expressing pride in what you value, it's never right to incite violence against those who might value something different. If you're lucky, your values may be dominant, but if you happen to support a minority position, then you depend on the benevolence of those in the dominant position to respect diversity of opinion. Over time the groups that are dominant and minorities can change, so a strong precedent of protecting minorities is in the interests of everyone.
When my parents married, they moved to Blenheim, as at the time, it was one of only two places in New Zealand, where both of them could find work. In spite of my father having holidayed in Marlborough since his childhood, and having ancestors in the top of the south since 1842, outsiders, even from another part of New Zealand weren't always given the warmest welcome, such was regional parochialism at the time.
Things had certainly improved by the time I married, and my wife moved to Marlborough from overseas. Although her English wasn't great when she arrived, she soon found she had a lot of community support, to help her settle in, with our church involvement playing a significant role. Not everyone is able to move to a new community and make strong connections immediately, so some years back my wife and I were part of a small team that helped found the Marlborough Migrant Centre (now known as the Marlborough Multicultural Centre). A number of people recognised the need to provide support for migrants in our community so that they could become well integrated members of the community. I met people of all nationalities and faiths as part of my involvement. I might not always agree with other people's beliefs, but spending time with them, they became friends, and in my own Christian faith at least, we are reminded that everyone falls short of perfection, and we should hesitate to pass judgement on others, but instead work on dealing with our own defects.
This isn't necessarily just a Christian principle. Most people would think it ridiculous if a losing sports team, instead of looking at how they could improve their own performance, spent all their time blaming the teams that beat them for playing too well.
Tolerance doesn't mean we all have to agree. Democracy would be unnecessary if everyone shared identical views. Differences of opinion on many issues are inevitable, but how we resolve those differences reflects on our maturity.
Some of my great-grandparents were from Northern Ireland, a protestant married to a catholic, which at the time, and sadly even more recently, was reason for disinheritance, and one of the reasons they emigrated to New Zealand. New Zealand has a wonderful national anthem, that unlike many others that revel in vanquishing enemies in bloody battles, encourages people to come together in mutual love and respect for one another. Tellingly, the words were written by an Irishman, who no doubt, like my great-grandparents, was well acquainted with a very different reality.
In expressing abhorrence at violent extremists of any kind, it's important not to fall guilty to the same kind of stereotyping they themselves apply. Certainly, in parts of the world, Islamic extremists have committed atrocities, but in New Zealand, the Muslims I've met are much like my Irish great-grandparents, looking for a safe place to live in peace, yet somehow the Christchurch gunman managed to equate law abiding men, women, and children with violent jihadis on the other side of the world. I'm a white male, yet it would be ridiculous to suggest I share the same views as the Christchurch gunman, yet that is the kind of sterotyping he applied to New Zealand Muslims.
In spite of my great-grandparents' unfortunate experience of religious intolerance, I was one of a handful of non-Catholics who attended St. Mary's School, where I received a good education, had a largely enjoyable time, and was not exposed to any of the horrific abuse that the Catholic church now struggles to admit to and deal with.
Thankfully, mass murder is rare in New Zealand, but suicide is a national shame, and isolation from people who can provide stability and support is likely to be a cause in a variety of forms of harm. I know as a young person, I felt isolated moving away from home in Blenheim to university where the student population alone was bigger than the entire population of Blenheim. I had some pretty negative thoughts at times, and in the vastness of university, I felt pretty anonymous and unimportant, but connecting to a church community helped in my case. Whether it's a marae, a church, a mosque, a sports club, people need to be connected, not in the kind of ephemeral 'virtual' form of social media which tends to put people into silos that are echo chambers of their own views, but in face to face contact with other people, with leaders who act responsibly and encourage their members to act respectfully towards people with different views. It's a lot harder to hold extremist views against someone else you've spent time doing life with than someone who is simply a faceless stereotype you've read about on the internet.
If you've explored much of this website, you've probably worked out that I'm an enthusiastic photographer. One of my favourite photographic projects is New Yorker Bradley Stanton's 'Humans of New York', where the photographer has photographed ordinary people from all walks of life, originally in New York, but eventually in a variety of nations, allowing them to share a part of their life story in their own words. The result is a remarkable snapshot of humanity revealing the good, the bad, and the ugly in a non-judgemental form, that shows the common humanity in diversity.
I wonder, do we need a 'Humans of Marlborough'? I'm a shy person, so approaching total strangers to take their photo isn't as appealing as photographing landscapes, however if telling the stories of our people can help build greater empathy and community connection, it's something I'd be prepared to try.