The year of quiet social revolutions and more strikes
It’s that time of the year again when we look back to see if we can see any patterns that distinguish the year from previous ones. Usually, the exercise is doomed, as discerning important social trends over 12 months is well nigh impossible, as they gather steam so slowly. More often than not, the year looks like a mishmash of the good and the bad, with no defining themes or consistent ideas emerging.
Encapsulating the flavour of this year, however, is unusually easy, as we have experienced a quiet revolution.
In the past, the world has seen calamitous class or independence revolutions where the yoke of the oppressor is thrown off with blood in the streets. New Zealand escaped most of those upheavals – although let us not forget the Ma¯ ori wars – but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t shared in the more recent social revolutions.
As the world has moved from class politics, where your economic status and background defined you and your political allegiances, today, and especially in 2018, we saw the culmination of identity politics as its champions breached the walls and took over the citadels.
Although feminism and its causes have a long history, 2018 is remarkable for their renewed prominence. Even taking account of the anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, I can’t recall any other year in the past 20 or so when public discussion about women’s concerns has been so much to the fore.
The old battles of suffrage, abortion and property rights have been won but equal pay, boardroom representation and freedom from harassment have been powerful issues often traversed and debated over the year. The #MeToo movement has opened up a new battlefield and gained momentum so quickly it had perpetrators on the run and all men rethinking their attitudes.
It’s not that these issues have made no progress in previous years. It’s more that they reached a tipping point in 2018.
The year will also be remembered as a tipping point for Ma¯ ori, especially for te reo. The goodwill towards the language seen this year has been unprecedented, and suddenly it feels like New Zealand is headed towards bilingualism of a sort. Te Wiki o te Reo Ma¯ ori prompted much more than the usual token effort, and other moves, such as Radio New Zealand’s emphasis on te reo and Crown Law Office lawyers introducing themselves to the court in Ma¯ ori, signal a solid future for the language. The question of how much of Ma¯ ori culture should be regarded as sacrosanct and nonnegotiable has yet to be decided, but at least the future of te reo looks more secure.
Of course, plenty of resistance, some of it ugly, to the headway made on the issues mentioned can be expected. Not all of it will be redneck in origin. It can be argued that cultural fluency is all very well but it doesn’t put food on the table. However, the battle for the moral high ground has been won, and it is pointless and increasingly churlish to resist.
Another word that has often dominated the national conversation this year is equality (rather than poverty). Despite low unemployment and a generally buoyant economy that requires mass injections of immigrant labour, the gaps between rich and poor have drawn a lot of attention.
It hasn’t helped that this year has also been the year of the strikes, although none of the usual ones disrupting the ferries, the freezing works and the wharves. Over the last two decades, many people’s wages have hardly kept pace with inflation, and this year is catch-up time. Ironically, it is the very party that many of the strikers voted for that is having to deal with the unrest.
Talk about income equality brings us back to the class debate, but often this year the argument has been about privilege, another word of 2018. You heard commentators preface their remarks by saying they were talking from a position of privilege. I never saw myself as a particularly privileged person, but apparently, as an old white male, I am in the top echelon, with no excuses for my lowly position.
Privilege also carries overtones of unearned benefit. This will be resented by people who have worked hard and made sacrifices to earn their often precarious standard of living. Perhaps the focus on privilege is a recognition that in our income-earning ability, we are at the mercy of the nature and nurture of our backgrounds.
We will need to ensure there is always a financial reward for skill and effort, but 2018 has been unusual in an increasing acceptance that more resources, deserved or not, will have to go to the bottom 20 per cent. That will mean higher taxes.
And this has been the year of Jacinda Ardern, who took her baby to the United Nations and told the gathered states, many of them basket cases, that a good starting point in the face of isolationism, protectionism and racism was kindness and collectivism.
Maybe 2018 will be seen as the year of naivety and misguided hope. But maybe it marks a small step to a better society.
We saw the culmination of identity politics as its champions breached the walls and took over the citadels.
Nurses striking for better pay and conditions. Equality has been a buzzword this year.