Monday, June 29, 2020
Karl du Fresne: There goes my collection of Viking recordsLabels: Free speech, Karl du Fresne, Maori language activism, Political correctness gone mad
I bristled – boy, did I bristle! – when I read that the housing company G J Gardner had withdrawn a TV commercial after someone objected that the name “Taranaki” wasn’t correctly pronounced.
Te Waka McLeod reportedly complained to the company and suggested its staff attend a “cultural competency” course. G J Gardner initially rebuffed her, explaining that the people in the ad were not paid actors but real people, born and bred in Taranaki, and this was how they chose to pronounce the name. “It’s a personal choice, this keeps our ad authentic.”
It didn’t take a genius to see how this was going to play out. McLeod posted the company’s response on social media – as you do – and G J Gardner suddenly found itself fielding more complaints. The company was soon in reverse gear, acknowledging it was wrong and apologising. “We do not wish to offend any New Zealanders of any ethnicity, culture, religion or lifestyle,” said national franchise owner Grant Porteous, metaphorically beating his breast.
He confirmed the ad was no longer on air and said “we need to do better” across the country in terms of pronunciation of Maori. “We should support this movement and the desire of passionate Maori to have their culture and heritage re-generated across all New Zealand.”
McLeod was reported as saying she was happy to see the ad pulled – well, she would be – and hoped it was the beginning of “a wider conversation” about getting pronunciation right, including within corporate organisations.
So what was it about this affair that made me bristle? After all, I agree we should make an effort to pronounce Maori names and words more carefully, which is not something that comes easily to someone brought up in Waipukurau. Try overcoming the habit of a lifetime by pronouncing that name correctly. I do it, but it requires a conscious effort and still makes me feel slightly, er, woke. Suffice to say, most of the people I know who live in the town still pronounce the name the old way – which, incidentally, is how Maori pronounced it too when I was growing up there.
Here’s the thing. I believe there’s a gradual cultural evolution taking place in which the country is moving toward correct pronunciation of Maori and greater recognition of the Maori language in general, even to the extent of considering the substitution of Maori place names for English ones (which is fine as far as I’m concerned, just as long as it’s done by popular, informed consent after an open debate).
My Pakeha grandsons pronounce Maori words correctly and pull me up when I don’t. But generations of older New Zealanders have grown up pronouncing Maori in a particular way (just listen to long-term residents of Wonger-newie and Tau-wronger), and I think we should cut them some slack. As G J Gardner initially pointed out, before their risk-averse PR advisers presumably got in on the act, the people in the TV ad were pronouncing Taranaki the way they always have. I don’t believe for a moment that they intended to degrade the Maori language.
In fact I’d go further and say we should respect people’s right to get pronunciation wrong, just as we respect the right of people to express opinions that we think are crazy. After all, broadcasters and journalists get away with mangling spoken and written English day-in, day-out.
In a sense, it’s a freedom of speech issue. But there’s a distinct whiff of cultural totalitarianism in the way that Maori language activists, who have been given a fresh tail wind by the overwrought BLM protests, demand that others conform to their ideals – and use online gang-ups to achieve it.
That’s the other disturbing thing here: the speed with which G J Gardner capitulated. Of course it was their right to change their mind about the ad, and some people will applaud them. But what message does it send when companies collapse in a grovelling, mea-culpa heap at the first sign of controversy, as they so often do? It signals that capitalism lacks the guts and confidence to stick up for itself, which is all the encouragement the enemies of capitalism need.
Speaking of which, I see that Nestlé in Australia is renaming its Red Skins and Chicos lolly brands because “redskin” was once (a long time ago) a derogatory term for a Native American and “Chico” supposedly can be – can be – an offensive term for a Hispanic person. (It’s also the name of a Californian city where friends of ours live. Perhaps that’s racist too.)
No doubt greatly heartened by Nestlé’s decision, an Auckland activist – a UK-trained lawyer, one of the many who arrive here and immediately set about turning us into the culturally enlightened type of society they think we should be – is now urging that Eskimo lollies and even Afghan biscuits be rebranded.
Afghan biscuits? Good grief. Should I, then, be throwing out my old Viking records? Should we lay siege to the makers of Kiwi shoe polish and demand that hotel menus no longer refer to English breakfasts? And how the hell have Indian motorcycles (a brand currently enjoying a spirited revival) survived?
A rational person would ask a couple of simple questions: is the brand name demeaning? Is it degrading? To which the answer, in almost all cases, is no. But we’re not dealing here with rational people; we’re dealing with ideologues and zealots intent on reshaping the world.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.
at 7:59 AM