Truth v Trauma


Recently, we published an article which questioned the claims being made in narratives around inherited colonial trauma. We knew it would spark some interest. After all, that’s what happens when you challenge a relatively widely popular discourse, particularly one that some academics have built their ‘careers’ on, and that is fundamentally ideological rather than truly critical. However, our argument was robust, our theoretical framework solid, and academic conventions were adhered to. The article was blind peer-reviewed by two New Zealand and two international reviewers. We were ready to welcome debate. As the Czech theologian and philosopher, Jan Hus, said: “Love the truth. Let others have their truth, and the truth shall prevail.”

Jan Hus, 1369-1415

We shared the article in a page on social media designed to showcase new research. The response from members of this group was disturbing but sadly predictable. Their actions included:

  1. Removing the article from the page twice, not because of its content but rather because of the ethnicity and gender of one of the authors. Apparently, this group does not welcome research written by “Pākehā men”, although in making this racist assertion, ignores the fact that much of their own research is derived from the work of Pākehā men. One member of the group explained that removing the article was an “act of resistance” (against what we do not know). Oddly, for a group intent on showcasing research involving Māori, the ethnicity of the co-author was ignored, and her contributions to the article erased. This sort of reaction points to significant cultural insecurity among those engaging in such censorship. People who are confident in their cultures do not fear engaging with alternative perspectives.
  2. Instead of addressing specifics in the article, the preferred approach of the group was to make personal attacks against the authors, which ranged from accusations of racism, white supremacy, colonised thinking, causing harm to “our people”, and substandard scholarship.  Resorting in some instances to hate speech to reject an article is unbecoming of any academic but seemingly acceptable to some members of this group.
  3. Not one person pointed out exactly what the supposed flaws in the article were, which is a rather unusual response from people who identify as ‘academics’. What was evident from the misleading generalisations that were made was that those criticising the article had manifestly failed to read it.
  4. Only two people admitted to reading the article, one of whom said it was a little above her. Why? Because she’s “not a privileged white male”. The racist implications of that statement are plain, and embarrassing if this is the best critique that this person was capable of mustering.

The saga ended with the administrator of the page removing the article for a final time, due to the fact “publications by Pākehā men, even written with Māori… are not appropriate on this page”, then closing the thread. Sadly, rigorous and respectful debate, which is a cornerstone of the academy, was no match for ideological, culturally insecure group-think.

With regard to the inherited colonial trauma narrative, there are some crucial questions which remain unanswered by its advocates.  These include:

  1. If the arguments presented in the article were so flawed, isn’t the obvious response to identify the deficiencies rather than resort to personal attacks? Simply hurling accusations against the authors is a blatant sign of intellectual impotence.
  2. If inherited colonial trauma is so bad and damaging, why would its advocates refuse to consider an alternative theory? Why are they clinging to the trauma, despite the fact there is no clinical and little historical evidence to back up their theory, and who benefits from this?
  3. How can people with no clinical training in the area of trauma apply a mass diagnosis to a whole ethnic group without having met with the vast majority of people in that group (or indeed, possibly anyone at all)? In medical terms, this is malpractice. In general terms, it’s fraud.
  4. The Māori response to British settlers ranged from resistance to indifference to collaboration. For those in the third group, if they did not suffer during and after the colonial period (and we quickly found several whānau who identified as being in this group) what is the source of their trauma?
  5. If colonisation traumatised all Māori, why doesn’t that trauma present in all Māori today? Notwithstanding the fact there were horrific events in New Zealand’s colonial past, why isn’t every Māori suffering from inherited colonial trauma?
  6. Would any Māori tell their child on a daily basis that that child, by virtue solely of their ethnicity, is traumatised? And if not, why not? We know, based on the literature, how damaging that would be to a child’s psyche, so what is the inherited colonial trauma narrative doing to the collective Māori psyche?
  7. Other peoples in the last two centuries have experienced trauma en masse that was long in duration and severe in scale, yet do not manifest the traits that some of those who criticised our article claim derive from inherited colonial trauma.
  8. If trauma is a response to historical violence, why don’t proponents of the inherited colonial trauma narrative offer any consideration to the biggest act of violence against Māori in the 19th century? That act, of course, was intertribal warfare at the beginning of the 19th century, which killed a staggering one fifth of the Māori population.

Interestingly, when we put the idea of inherited colonial trauma to a number of Māori from a variety of backgrounds and regions, the vast majority found the idea they were suffering from inherited colonial trauma ridiculous.

Māori Graduation, Massey University

The inherited colonial trauma narrative necessarily reshapes history to fit a preconceived pseudo-psychological construct. It can only function in the absence of any critique or consideration of historical nuances, has no clinical basis whatsoever, and, most concerningly, traps proponents of this narrative in a struggle without end. What’s more, this narrative is a lazy response to some of the challenges facing some Māori, where the idea that colonisation and the supposed resulting inherited colonial trauma are the sole reasons for certain outcomes means one does not need to consider any other possible explanation, of which there are many. How will we solve some of these issues if we’re looking in the wrong direction? Ultimately, the inherited colonial trauma narrative is historically inaccurate, fundamentally racist, denigrates tino rangatiratanga, has no clinical basis, and is extremely anti-Māori. Debate welcomed.

Difference, Diversity, and Division: First Impressions on a Fulbright

April 4, 1967. In the soaring gothic cathedral of Riverside Church, New York City, one year to the day before those fatal shots rang out in the Memphis sky, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a fiery sermon on the state of humankind. “Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole”, King preached, “in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” 51 years later, and King’s words carry as much weight as they did in the spring of 1967, and his message needs to be heard now more than ever.

In a world where increasingly complex identity politics are rife, we seem to have an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with diversity, to the point that instead of creating a society of unity and inclusion, we are creating one where difference and division prevail. An ‘Us vs Them’ mentality is ubiquitous: ‘Right vs Left’, ‘White vs POC’, ‘Indigenous vs Coloniser’, ‘Bourgeois vs Proletariat’, ‘Religious vs Secular’, ‘Liberal vs Conservative’, ‘Oppressor vs Oppressed’, ‘Cisgender vs Transgender’, ‘West vs well, pretty much everyone else’, to name but a few. The list seems endless.

In these binary, over-simplified, and lacking-in-nuance notions of human identity, connection, and belonging, we are generally not seeing the “appreciation of diversity” that the popular discourse encourages. Rather, it seems we have created a recipe for division and discontent.

Stirring this ‘Us vs Them’ pot to boiling point are a few additional ingredients, including social media trolls from all political, social, cultural, gendered, and ethnic viewpoints; huge assumptions and sweeping generalisations about people, which are often based on gender and ethnicity; and moves towards a culture of censorship that increasingly prevents any dialogue whatsoever between groups, let alone robust and informed debate on key issues affecting humankind.

In 1967, King called for a “world-wide fellowship” – one that goes “beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation”. This, he believed, was an “absolute necessity to the survival of (hu)mankind”.

This past week, I witnessed King’s vision played out in reality. After arriving in the USA to take up a Fulbright scholarship, I spent five days with 51 other recipients from 35 different countries – from Lesotho to Lebanon, Indonesia to Iraq, Brazil to Belgium, and everywhere in between. We met one another over a Basque meal in the Nevada desert – jet-lagged, but bright-eyed, open-minded, and hopeful for the adventures that lay ahead.

We formed fast and firm bonds; we were inquisitive about each other’s country of origin, and curious about our cultural differences. However, what was overwhelmingly evident was how much we all had in common. Fundamentally, we were far more alike than we were different. Examples of our commonalities are abundant, and the following illustration of this is but one of many.

At breakfast one morning, I was sat at a table with seven newfound friends from Turkey, Australia, Egypt, Bolivia, Iraq, Belgium, and Jordan. We were discussing breakfast cuisine in our respective countries, before the conversation turned to which one of us had the ‘worst’ food (we voted unanimously for Egypt, and their dish called lahmet ras, meaning ‘head meat’ – a dish which contains the brain, eyes, and tongue of an animal, plus the cartilage for good measure).

Our conversation was cut short by a call to start a session on goal-setting and planning for our time in the USA. It was during this session that our similarities became abundantly clear. Essentially, we all hoped for the same things, we were all fearful of the same things, we all identified the same challenges, and we all wanted to make the same contributions to our countries – and most importantly, to the global community to which we all saw ourselves as belonging.

Image may contain: 23 people, including Tom Vos, Fady Alphons and Ahmed Elhossiny, people smiling, people standing, ocean, sky and outdoor
Friends for life, Lake Tahoe, California

Later in the day, as a team-building exercise, we were presented with 20 values – lofty ideals ranging from human dignity to preservation of cultural heritage, and from religious freedom to rule of law. We were asked to discard 17 of the 20 values, and to retain three values we could all agree would create the ‘best’ society. Considering the range of political, cultural, religious, and social beliefs in our group, this seemed like an impossible task. However, after rigorous debate, we were left with three values – all of which spoke to our collective commitment to each other as global citizens. We saw past religion, past politics, and past culture, to our own inherent humanness, and our right to be treated with dignity by virtue of that fact.

Now, it is important to stress that I am not advocating for cultural, political, social, or religious homogeneity. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about our differences this past week, but what I loved even more than marvelling at the diversity in our group was experiencing our unity.

And it got me thinking that embracing diversity on its own isn’t enough. We must be able to unite people of diverse backgrounds, where the shared vision is, as King called for, “an overwhelming commitment to (hu)mankind as a whole”. We must figure out a way to bridge the ever-increasing divide between polarising aspects of identity politics. We must find a way to talk to one another. We must work to find our common ground, and we must open our eyes so we may see our shared humanity. Perhaps then, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream will be realised at last.

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Fulbright Gateway Orientation, Reno, Nevada, August 2018

Melissa Derby is a Fulbright – Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga Graduate Award recipient.