Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Antipodean Pain: The Psychopathology of Don Brash

Thus the ego…repulsed by reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony among the forces working in and upon it; and we can understand how it is that so often we cannot suppress a cry: ‘Life is not easy!’ If the ego is obliged to admit its weakness, it breaks out in anxiety – realistic anxiety regarding the external world, moral anxiety regarding the super-ego and neurotic anxiety regarding the strength of passions in the id.

Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis


This is going to hurt. Over the last few weeks, it’s been getting easier to see how pathological much of Don Brash’s Orewa speech and the reaction to it has been. By pathological, I mean a mental disturbance, a condition that has thrown up delusion and fantasy on to the screen of New Zealand’s political life. If I am right, this disturbance is related to a widespread feeling of psychic pain, and the episode of Brash’s speech is nothing but a symptom of this pain. All people and all societies experience psychic pain, but perhaps New Zealand’s particular circumstances have given rise to a kind of pain that is, for various reasons, closer to the surface than in other, comparable societies. Analysing this current of psychic pain gives us some insight into the politics of Maori, Pakeha and New Zealand’s cultural identity.

The idea that the event of the Orewa speech is symptomatic of psychic disturbance is suggested by the most striking aspect of Brash’s speech and its aftermath: the insistence that Maori enjoy both privilege and special legal rights. Brash articulated this fantasy of special privilege and legal rights for Maori in two key passages of the Orewa speech. The first invoked the imaginary of Maori privilege, while the second fantasized about greater legal rights for tangata whenua:

1. "There can be no basis for special privileges for any race, no basis for government funding based on race, no basis for introducing Maori wards in local authority elections, and no obligation for local governments to consult Maori in preference to other New Zealanders."

2. "One principle above all others guides my thinking: The Treaty of Waitangi should not be used as the basis for giving greater civil, political or democratic rights to any particular ethnic group…"


It is insufficient merely to dismiss the fictions of Maori privilege and special rights as deliberate falsifications. Insufficient because to see Brash’s speech as just a cynical manipulation of public opinion would be to ignore the extent to which the fictions of Maori privilege and special rights were readily believed by many Pakeha New Zealanders in the face of the facts.

We should look quickly at some of these facts, bearing in mind that the present political and cultural circumstances require a more thorough analysis of Maori deprivation and exclusion relative to Pakeha than I can offer here. Provisionally, the spectre of Maori privilege can be dismissed by trolling through a few socio-economic indicators courtesy of Geoff Cumming in The Herald:

Unemployment: in the past six years, Maori unemployment has fallen from 19% to 10%. Meanwhile, Pakeha unemployment went from 8% in 1991 to just 3.3%.

Incomes: Maori remain concentrated in low-income occupations. Median incomes for Maori stand at $37,700 compared to Pakeha at 39,600. Meanwhile, Te Puni Kokiri states that Maori are significantly underepresented in the top 20% income bracket.

Living standards: three years ago, 39% of Maori families lived in low-income households compared with just 22% of the general population.

Education: only 6% of Maori have a tertiary degree compared to 14% among Pakeha…


And the list goes on. Colin James, in his article The indigenisation of Aotearoa-New Zealand: the politics of the Treaty of Waitangi underlines the importance of this dislocation and exclusion to New Zealand’s society as a whole:

"New Zealand has to get it right. Maori are around 15 per cent of the population and increasing. They underperform on all social and economic indicators. The coherence of this society and its economic wellbeing require Maori to feel wholly part of this society and be full participants in an internationally competitive economy."

The figment of special rights appears more complicated by the presence of the Treaty of Waitangi, which floats in Brash’s nightmares as a document which has been twisted out of its original context in order to establish a special legal and juridical order for Maori. In reality, both the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori rights to customary property form the basis of New Zealand’s legal foundation under the common law tradition. That tradition is a body of jurisprudence that is by definition one law for all.

Most of the writing about the Don Brash’s Orewa speech and the response to it have either credited or criticised Brash with having tapped into something underneath the surface of New Zealand’s society. Some have called it frustration, some have called it anger, while others have called it racism. I think Brash’s speech event has revealed all of these things. What is more interesting to me is the source of these feelings. The question is: what accounts for the mass fantasy among Pakeha of Maori privilege and special rights?

A few months ago I came across a paper by the Australian psychoanalyst Craig San Roque called Coming to Terms with the Country. The paper is a careful self analysis, both of himself and his culture in the context of the aboriginal presence in Australia. As Roque puts it, his essay is an attempt “to come to terms with living and working together in a country which is impregnated with Aboriginal mind, experience and consciousness.”

For Roque, psychotherapeutic practise in Australia must come to understand the particular qualities of Australian psychic pain if it is to be effective at all. As he writes:

"We must study the Australian culture, its psychic history and its contemporary distress in order to arrive ( continually ) at diagnostic positions which recognise the specific nature of the ‘national psyche’ as well as the individual disorders of psyche. We have to attain a cultural meta-diagnosis; and re develop (perhaps) our practice methods accordingly. The psychological dynamics of Australian social systems are not simple. Many institutionalised assumptions about the causes and cures of contemporary psychic ills may require rethinking".

The starting point for such an analysis is to discover the origins of what Roque calls Antipodean psychic pain, the formation of which is related to the presence or absence of what he calls ‘potential space.’ Potential spaces are human spaces, areas of intimacy between oneself and an other. Critically, these spaces of intimacy and potential are key sites in the formation of self-identity.

"Potential space is a mysterious, invisible yet utterly palpable space of interaction between one human and another. In this space, play begins and continues until it is transformed into shared culture. People of a shared culture live within a mutually created and maintained ‘potential space.’ Its continuous existence forms us and informs us. The ‘potential space’ between intimate people is full of potency, imagination and psychological transformation".

But what happens when we are cut off from each other? What happens when the promise of an intimate potential space is denied or abandoned? For Roque, the answer is that we experience pain at the loss of something that we all desire: intimacy. Although we live everywhere with the potential of this intimacy, it is, in our present circumstances, always receding from us. We may have never experienced this intimacy, although we appear to share the same landscape with others with whom we desire a closer relation. In the face of this loss, we begin to fantasize about about ourselves and the our place in this world as a defense against the pain we feel. Germaine Greer has gone so far as to diagnose european Australia as psychotic in the way that it has tried to deny the pain of its dislocation from Aboriginal reality. Roque, I think, would agree:

"We have to ask ourselves about the nature of the ‘potential space’ which is being formed here, in Australia. There is an optimistic fantasy generated that, between us, we can create Australia as a place to play; with money and land, sun and sand, freedom and opportunity. But there is another dimension to the space we are making. In the dark matter of the Australian universe, there has been shaping itself, for the same number of years, a culture of psychic pain. Certainly, something less than promising has formed between the original inhabitants of this country’s spaces and those who are coming later. It has been stunningly difficult to construct a ‘potential space’ between the indigenous and non indigenous cultures".

It is important to see that this dynamic is not peculiar to Australia. In fact, what Roque calls Antipodean psychic pain is really only a subset of a larger experience of psychic pain that is shared by all societies with a history of settler colonialism. Although there are many differences in the way that Australia and New Zealand have shaped the spaces between europeans and those who came before, when we compare the socio-economic indicators of Maori and Pakeha it is clear that the conditions of our ‘potential space’ are unequal. It is obvious that the same dynamic of pain and dislocation exists here.

Dislocation and Identity

If it is true that Pakeha culture desires a greater intimacy with Tangata Whenua, we must ask why we have not been able to come together more closely. Looking at Don Brash’s ‘episode’ we could ask why there is, in fact, a resistance to being together. Why there is so much emotional resistance to policy processes that are designed to bring Maori and Pakeha together as equals? Why are these policy instruments actually represented by many as contributing to the separation of Maori and Pakeha?

I would like to suggest that much of the pain related to these resistances arises from feelings of guilt. This fundamental guilt is associated with the original transgressions of colonialism and the way in which the process of colonialism displaced Tangata Whenua from the land. The relationship between transgression and guilt, dislocation and pain circulates and grows. As a defense against these feelings of guilt, and as a defense for the obvious privilege that Pakeha now enjoy as a result of colonialism, many in the Pakeha community have come to feel that modern processes of redress and recompense threaten Pakeha identity. And to the extent that Pakeha identity is actually composed of the elements of pain, dislocation and privilege, this is probably true.

Psychotherapeutic practise shows that defenses against feelings of anxiety often involve the repetition of the very conditions which give rise to feelings of pain and anxiety. This repetition is a kind of trauma response that seeks to master anxiety by staging it over and over again. Such a response helps to explain the depth of the emotional resistance on the part of Pakeha community to the very processes that might contribute to the easing of our psychic pain. A striking example of this repetition and resistance can be found in the account of the Treaty of Waitangi given in Don Brash’s Orewa speech:

Today I want to speak about the threat which "the Treaty process" poses to the future of our country.

In Brash’s speech there is a fear of the Treaty as something that could be active, as something that might exercise any kind of effectivity in the present. The intellectual effort that has been expended to paint the Treaty as something that is no longer active, as something which should not be included in New Zealand's jurisprudence (as if that were possible and legal) shows us that the Treaty ‘process’ actually threatens to bring us together, not tear us apart. By denying the reality of the Treaty, could it be that we are actually trying to re-stage the conditions of our pain and anxiety as a defense against the threat that the Treaty as a process represents to our identity? And might it not be the case that New Zealand can only become culturally mature when we have ceased to re-stage our trauma and can accept the possibility of a future of justice and equality with Maori?