Thursday, September 22, 2022

Dr David Lillis: Reflections on Reading of the Passing of Queen Elizabeth

The Legacies of Colonialism

Recently Dr. Don Brash (former New Zealand politician, former Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the New Zealand National Party, former Leader of ACT New Zealand and former Governor of the Reserve Bank) wrote an interesting piece on the passing of Queen Elizabeth, published in Breaking Views on 17 September (Brash, 2022). In his article Dr. Brash spoke positively of the Queen and of his interactions some years ago with Prince Charles, now King Charles III. 

On reflection (and, admittedly, not having met any of the Royal Family in person – like most of us!), I tend to agree with the positive views of Dr. Brash expressed within that article. I also agree with Dr. Brash that colonialism perpetrated some negatives to indigenous peoples but most of that lies centuries into the past and there were very significant positives too.

A popular trend of today is to blame colonialism for much of the world's ills and for certain of New Zealand’s inequities and, indeed, colonialism has most probably left a residue of inequity and cultural damage. However, Dr. Brash reminds us of the benefits that were brought from the United Kingdom and other places, including education, law, medicine, science and technology. The world is now different from the world of previous centuries and attitudes have reoriented towards greater tolerance and inclusion.

Today, western societies are working harder than ever before to lift the educational, economic and health outcomes of minorities and other disadvantaged groups. Today there is much talk of diversity, equity and inclusion, but it is not clear if policies in various jurisdictions, such as within the UK and the US, to achieve diversity, equity and inclusion in workplaces and other environments will lead to net positive outcomes if the best people are passed over routinely in favour of others. In addition, if we adopt the same duty of care in examining the cultures of minorities and non-western societies as we appear to exercise in examining very critically our own Western culture, we see elements within many of them that share similar levels of narrow-mindedness as we detect in certain white communities within the West. Indeed, Europeans have demonstrated their capacity for colonialism and theft of others’ resources, but it is not only Europeans who are capable of violence, prejudice or greed. Over historic time, almost every cultural group, religion and ethnicity has demonstrated itself capable of such behaviours.

New Zealand after the Queen’s Passing

The path we tread in New Zealand today is very questionable indeed. For example, attempts to empower Māori through initiatives such as Three Waters and He Puapua, may be well-intended but run counter to the fundamental principles of democracy. Further, mindless intrusion of traditional knowledge into our science curriculum is retrograde and will cause damage at a time when we must deliver nothing less than the highest possible quality of education to our young people.

As in other countries, particularly in the US, we are on a very unhelpful course where we see racism everywhere, especially where it may not exist at all or else exists to a very minor extent. Certainly, a degree of residual racism exists in New Zealand and elsewhere, as does reverse racism, despite loud protestations to the contrary, but racism has become today’s Black Cat. Lavrentiy Beria, head of Joseph Stalin’s NKVD (the Soviet Secret Police) and equally as nasty as Stalin, was fond of saying that he will find the Black Cat (in his case, dissent towards the Communist Party) in a dark room, even if it isn’t there. So, where is the evidence of systemic racism in education, health or employment within the sciences?

We should acknowledge, for example, assertions that systemic racism exists on the basis of disparities in education and health outcomes and in rates of minority representation in science by comparison with outcomes and representation of other demographic groups. We should also acknowledge anecdotal reporting of minority experiences of racism in education, health and academia; for example, Ngata (2021). However, the extent of systemic racism or sexism within these domains is difficult to determine objectively. To quote an earlier article - though bias in the past has led to inequities today, not every disparity reflects racial bias in the present (Lillis and Schwerdtfeger, 2022).

Everyone Knows . . .

Much objective research seems to demonstrate that commonly-held beliefs, such as discrimination against women and minorities in employment within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), hold much less truth these days than they once did. Discrimination was manifest and pernicious, but that was decades ago. Indeed, discrimination does occur today, but possibly as much in favour of women and minorities as against them.

Tara McAllister argues that racism against minorities exists in the sciences here in New Zealand (McAllister, T., 2021). She goes on to assert that a stronger emphasis on mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and the colonial history of science in the curriculum is necessary to ensure that future generations of scientists are equipped with the knowledge and understanding that scientific frameworks of thinking exist beyond the discipline of colonial science. She declares that our science system will never reach its full potential without Māori.

Not everyone will agree that such a thing as colonial science exists at all and I am not yet aware of credible scientific frameworks that exist beyond the framework of colonial science. However, possibly her assertion of discrimination against Māori is true, but is not easy to prove and may in fact be quite wrong.

Read, for example, Stewart-Williams and Halsey (2021). They find that discussions of the relative dearth of women within STEM fields should consider human sex differences. They say that, if we assume that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable, then disparities between the sexes within STEM will be perceived as discrimination. Similarly, if it is assumed that psychological sex differences are due to non-biological causes, then gender disparities will be perceived as arbitrary and sexist cultural conditioning. However, they also say that such perceptions are almost certainly false and established research finds that:

1. Men and women differ, on average, in their occupational preferences, aptitudes and levels of within-sex variability

2. These differences are not due to sociocultural factors only, but also embody a substantial heritable component

3. Such differences, in addition to the demands of childbirth and rearing children, are the main source of gender disparities that exist within STEM today.

They state that discrimination appears to play a smaller role and, in some cases, may favour women, rather than disadvantaging them. They assert that these conclusions have important implications for how academics and policy makers should address gender employment gaps within STEM. They suggest that we should strive for equality of opportunity, but then to respect men’s and women’s decisions in relation to their own lives and careers, even if doing so does not result in gender parity across all fields.

The lesson here is that it does not follow automatically that disparities in outcomes across diverse groups flow directly from bias or racism and that ‘common knowledge’, however impassioned it may be and however earnest its advocates, is often misguided. Stalin himself was fond of asserting “Everyone knows. . .” Thus, today, “everyone knows” that colonialism and systemic racism are the major and unquestioned causes of inequities today. But such ‘common knowledge’ is not necessarily true and often does not stack up against the objective scrutiny of research. From my own research I know that unequal outcomes in education and in health here in New Zealand have much to do with socioeconomics, rather than with systemic bias or racism.

White males have held political and economic power for centuries. Not all of them were or are people of integrity, and today we see much greater inclusion of women and minorities in positions of authority and influence. We must listen when women speak up against sexism and bias, because in certain places these things are all too real, and we should also listen when minority people speak up against racism. Do we not have duty of care to take corrective action where necessary and possible? However, when it comes to leadership and influencing opinion, simply being female, a person of colour or deriving from a minority religion (or all three), does not bring greater integrity automatically; nor does it make a person’s judgements or political leadership especially trustworthy.

Lessons from a Trip to the Kakadu

Nothing is simple or straightforward and even ancient traditional knowledge has much to teach us! A few years ago I took my then ten-year-old son on a short holiday to Arnhem Land and Kakadu in the Northern Territories of Australia. We were shown around parts of the outback by Aboriginal guides and it was truly a memorable visit. Aboriginal people have lived for tens of thousands of years in this remarkably inhospitable land and, evidently, had already acquired profound knowledge of their world millennia ago. Such intimate knowledge of their environment and its resources was crucial to their survival and we can only conjecture how long a group of theoretical physicists would last if helicoptered into those vast wastelands and left to their own devices!

Of course, the traditional knowledge of Aboriginals, passed down through the generations over tens of thousands of years, enabled them to survive in that harsh environment. Some of that knowledge embodies scientific elements and probably even their mythology served a purpose - perhaps to sustain courage and hope and maybe in forging and reinforcing common bonds within and across groups. Surely, the same is true of Māori traditional knowledge and the preserved ancient knowledge of other indigenous people. Possibly, there was even a degree of evolutionary advantage for some groups in sustaining those myths and legends over millennia.

A Sensible Balance for Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori?

Of course, today we don't take those myths and legends as truth but we should recognize that they are important for the descendants of those people and are part of the great history of mankind. Surely, here in New Zealand, there is no harm in, and only good can come of, teaching our schoolchildren to respect the views of others. Some class time devoted to Te Reo and Māori culture and history is not too much to ask and will give all New Zealanders a greater appreciation of Māori culture. Both Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori should be treasured and preserved. However, imposing large proportions of class time to Te Reo and Mātauranga Māori to all learners would meet with justified opposition, given other demands on children's lives and given a noticeable decline in New Zealand’s recent academic rankings relative to those of other nations (see, for example, Long and Te, 2019). Our children must acquire, not only qualifications, but the skills and knowledge that are obligatory if they are to compete in today’s New Zealand and international marketplaces.

Again, we remember that many indigenous people lost their lands and their freedom to western colonisation and, nowadays the Western world has demonstrated its willingness to recognise and face up to this fact. However, we must also recognise that indigenous people were not always kind to each other or to their environments, and that many have derived great advantage from education, medical and health care and from legal structures that offer greater protections than ever before. In New Zealand we recognise the historic negative experiences of Māori and that's why, in the view of many people, we should assist them and other disadvantaged groups to achieve more positive outcomes - educationally, socio-economically and in their health and wellbeing. Such assistance ideally would be proportioned on the basis of individual or family need rather than on the basis of some demographic or ethnicity-based classification.

Bias in our Health Sector?

Knight (2022) reported a prevalent view that primary contributing factors toward Māori ill-health include systemic racism, white privilege and unconscious bias within New Zealand’s health system. He discussed a related perception that non-Māori are not affected by inequitable health provision and services. After due consideration of the available statistical evidence, Dr. Knight concluded that racism and bias are not present in our health system to any significant extent. Dr. Bryce Wilkinson seems to agree (Wilkinson, 2022). Wilkinson challenge perceptions that racism is a significant cause of unequal outcomes and that overt racial preferences for staffing and delivery should form part of the remedy.

Recently I attended an online meeting of people interested in social and political issues pertaining to New Zealand. The discussion moved to systemic racism in education and health. I was myself accused of racism very angrily by three attendees when I said that I doubted the existence of systemic racism in education. Having worked in education as a high school teacher in the 1980s, as an education researcher and statistician and as an academic manager in a tertiary degree-granting institution, I never noticed anything that looked even remotely like racism. As a white male, it can be argued that I could not detect bias or racism in either education or health delivery or policy. However, I suspect that Dr. Knight and Dr. Wilkinson are correct, at least in respect of New Zealand’s health sector, and that, rather than focusing on racism and bias, it would be more productive to examine other factors if we are to close the existing gaps in outcomes between demographic groups.

Reviewing the statistics on health and wellbeing in New Zealand, we see that Pacific people are even more disadvantaged than Māori on certain indices. Perhaps a review is needed if we are to identify systemic bias and racism in New Zealand’s health sector and, if present, the extent and how best to address bias and racism. However, quite possibly we would find little or no evidence of either bias or racism. Possibly, we would find no evidence of bias or racism in education either, nor in employment within the sciences.

Listening to Christopher Hitchens

On the question of respect – possibly, some leading scientists and other thinkers respect indigenous knowledge, cultural knowledge and religion for what they are, without taking all of it at face value. Of course, denigrating the world views and cultural and religious beliefs of others serves no useful purpose and can only cause division. For example, many people, including myself, enjoy listening to the Christopher Hitchens of ten or twenty years ago. We can admire his wit and articulation (as I do) and even agree with most of his opinions (as I do). However, sometimes we are prompted to feel that stamping on the feelings of others and scoffing at their cultural or religious beliefs was not the most effective way of convincing them to one’s own point of view.

On occasion, here and there, we see Hitchens deliver a public rebuttal that most probably left the other party feeling just a little annoyed. A decade or two later we can smile at his humour, but those on the receiving end smiled very rarely. Did he succeed in changing their opinions? Well - the jury's out on that one, but we may suspect that the safer bet is that he did not. Anyway, we can indeed love his humour and his insight - as I do!

Equally, it should be possible for us to respect the world views of religious and ethnic minorities, even if we disagree with them, and accede to those minorities their right to hold those views. However, in the end, for indigenous people and other minorities and indeed for all people, true social and economic progress is to be found in education, and that includes education in the sciences and technology; in encouraging people to want to contribute to the wider society rather than exclusively to their own group, and to think for themselves.

The Danger of Labels

Māori and other indigenous peoples indeed experienced oppression and suppression of their languages. Unfortunately, the inter-generational effects are felt even now. These effects have not yet been addressed in full but, just as science and technology are universal, so too conquest and oppression were commonplace throughout the history of our species. Historically, everyone was into conquest and belligerence at some point, including the indigenous Irish, indigenous Europeans, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, indigenous English and also Māori.

Probably, racist thinking, prejudice and misogyny persist in pockets within certain institutions in New Zealand. From direct observation, on far too many occasions, I know that bullying certainly is to be found in workplaces here and I have grave doubts about the cultures and working environments of certain of our public sector institutions (Lillis, 2021 and 2022). However, labels such as racism, systemic bias, conscious and unconscious bias and colonialism not only may be applied without much justification, but possibly detract from our efforts to address the real causes. The true agents of disparity, principally socioeconomic in nature, may lie largely outside of the jurisdictions of education, health and science. Finally, conferring special privilege to one particular group will not fix inequality; nor will consuming scarce resources to address structural racism and bias if these factors are small, or no longer present, and if the core structural and systemic problems lie elsewhere.

Media Commentary on Colonialism and The Royal Family

Everyone with an opinion weighs in on colonialism and the Royal Family and I guess that I’m doing it myself right now! For example, James Nokise has commented on ditching the Queen and more recently on her funeral (Nokise, 2022). Donna Miles, a Muslim woman from Iran, writes interesting pieces for Stuff which, in general, I like and which I feel deserve consideration. She reminds us that her home country of Iran is among the long list of countries affected by British imperialism (Miles, 2022). She states that on the first anniversary of Elizabeth II's reign, a joint British and US-orchestrated coup d'état robbed Iran of its only democratically-elected prime minister, setting an historic course that has led to today’s ongoing upheaval in the Middle East.

Donna’s opinion is to be considered and probably there is much truth here. Reviewing various material on this event, it appears to me that the behaviour of the United States and the United Kingdom, in using the CIA to overthrow a democratically-elected, civil government, was self-serving and unjustified. Indeed, the 1953 coup may have paved the way for the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But it seems to me that Donna’s opinion is not the whole truth and was imperialism really the exclusive cause of all of the problems of the Middle East, then and now? Surely, the belligerence and anti-Semitism of Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab nations played a significant role too. Donna reminds us that the Queen was a symbol of an imperial power whose riches were pillaged from the countries that the UK devastated through colonisation or other means. But were these counties truly devastated and did colonisation not bring positives too? Were not some of these countries themselves engaged at various times in inter-tribal warfare, conquest, theft and fundamentalist religious intolerance?

Agendas within the Media

It would be quite understandable if Donna and others harbour loyalty to their own cultural and religious groups and to people who indeed experienced colonialism or imperialism. It would also be understandable if she and other observers were to embrace somewhat anti-West and anti-Royal sentiments. We cannot see into Donna’s mind, or anyone else’s, but such is my impression after reading many of her articles which indeed, to be fair, contain thought-provoking material and offer us the divergent perspectives of a woman from another culture and religious background. But I feel that her opinions are not quite balanced and that this is true of many others, including right-wing white observers.

All too often, rather than present a balanced and factual picture, journalists and other observers present their own agenda, which is to influence public opinion in favour of their own community and against another. We must remember the power of journalism to influence public opinion, that most often there are different and equally valid perspectives on a given social or political issue, and finally that it is possible, very easy in fact, to vilify a person or group or nation through the power of the written word. It is also possible to denigrate a system, such as New Zealand’s health or education systems, though impassioned and often very convincing, but ultimately unfair, censure.

The media playing-field that once was stacked in favour of European colonialists and ‘white society’ is now stacked the other way. Thus, we can all laugh at the notion of a privileged white woman, possibly not terribly bright, maybe harbouring a degree of racism and giving off an odour of entitlement. We read stories of such women (‘Karens’, we call them) in our media from time to time. Karens are real and all of us have met them. But imagine the reaction if a journalist coined an equivalent descriptor for minority women. Writing media stories about Karens, predatory white businessmen and white supremacists is well intended and rightly exposes deficiencies in our culture, but the media narratives are endless and seemingly inescapable.

Thomas Sowell, American person of colour and author, economist, political commentator and senior fellow at Stanford University, years ago pointed out the issues that characterise Black Lives Matter and other movements - pursuing symbolic results rather than real ones, choosing White guilt over Black advancement, and seeking special treatment instead of equal chances. Sowell has acknowledged that racism exists to this day but does not blame the gaps in social outcomes on white supremacy, preferring to examine the ways in which history shapes both group cultures and individual choices. Perhaps he underestimates the pernicious residue of oppression and the legacy of Jim Crow, but one suspects that Sowell has a point. Perhaps the most important corollary is that all of us are in this world together and that we must work collaboratively towards a better future rather than becoming mired in the trap of blaming everyone else for our own social and economic problems.

Calling out the Black Cat

In the Middle East, none of the competing factions are either exclusively to blame or exclusively innocent. Possibly this point is true for many conflicts and environments where there is enmity, but adopting a default position in support of your own group may be both unfair and ultimately unhelpful in bringing about resolution. Anti-colonialism, anti-UK and anti-US invective are to be found in abundance in our media every day and, given a very chequered history, we can understand exactly why. But everyone else is off limits, especially people of colour and minorities. Understandable, perhaps, but none of this helps us to move forward, either here, in the US or the United Kingdom, particularly where we call out very loudly the Black Cat of bigotry and racism when in truth it is not there.

Donna states that it’s not just the late Queen who generates anger among dissenters and that King Charles has, perhaps, even more detractors. Charles may not be everyone’s favourite personality and he gets bashed repeatedly by anti-Royal commentators, some of whom like to make fun of his facial appearance and his upper-class diction. He presents an easy target and there are no consequences for ridiculing him or any of the other Royals. But whenever have we heard him denigrating others or spouting either racist or misogynist talk? Most of us have never heard anything negative from him at all, and have only ever heard him speak with politeness, dignity and discretion. And, for that matter, the world has pronounced harsh judgement on another Royal and engaged enthusiastically in trial-by-media, but who of us can claim to know the whole truth about him and his alleged indiscretions?

New Zealand as a Republic?

New Zealand may be ready for a debate on retaining or terminating its association with the Royal Family and that’s a fair and timely debate. Not perfect, to be sure but, in the view of many, the Royal Family has done pretty well. Lives of privilege, as Donna and others assert? Perhaps so, but lives of very little privacy and where their hours are mapped out years in advance. Do they in reality hold ownership of those palaces, limousines and other riches? Who of us would swap our own freedoms for relentless intrusion and scrutiny, unceasing obligations and the negative judgements that they must endure at all times?


Brash, Don (2022). On the Passing of the Queen.

Knight, Lawrie (2022). Fact checking the Māori Health claims that have led to The Futures Health Bill.āori-health-claims-that-have-led-to-the-healthy-futures-bill/

Lillis, David and Schwerdtfeger, Peter (2021). The Mātauranga Māori – Science Debate

Lillis, David (2022). Workplace Bullying in New Zealand. BreakingViews.

Lillis, David (2022). Sorry - but “nga Mihi” isn’t good enough!

Long, Jessica and Te, Mandy (2019). New Zealand top-end in OECD's latest PISA report but drop in achievements 'worrying'

McAllister, Tara (2021). The underserving and under-representation of Māori scientists in New Zealand’s science system.

Miles, Donna (2022). The complex questions to be traversed when mourning a monarch.

Ngata, Tina (2021). Defence of Colonial Racism.

Nokise, James (2022). Step aside, indigenous stories, there's mourning to be done.

Stewart-Williams, S. and Halsey, L. G. (2021). Men, women and STEM: Why the differences and what should be done? European Journal of Personality, 2021, Vol. 35(1) 3–39.

Wilkinson, Bryce (2022). Every life is worth the same - The case for equal treatment

Dr David Lillis trained in physics and mathematics at Victoria University and Curtin University in Perth, working as a teacher, researcher, statistician and lecturer for most of his career. He has published many articles and scientific papers, as well as a book on graphing and statistics.


Anonymous said...

You said it man - all of it - almost. You left out Jesus - whose pointing out the folly of being obsessed about the mote in your brother's eye, while oblivious of the beam in your own, was spot on for all the whingers whose fault it never is! (Matt.7 3-5)
As I'm one who told Jesus in Sunday School that he didn't need to die for my sins, thank you - I'd be responsible for my own - I find the concept of blood sacrifice abhorrent, so do not follow the religion, but Jesus was a man of considerable wisdom. It's just not woke to quote him for the reasons that follow.

If the "white supremacists" as some insist on calling all Caucasians have one main fault (and of course we have many) it is that we have fallen over backwards recently to reverse the advice, and moan on about the planks in our eyes while assuring our "colonised'" brethren that they certainly don't need to be aware of their own specks (planks?) of isolation, warfare, slavery, cannibalism, sexism, arrogance...... (Are we confused here? Probably)

It is not doing a service to anyone to foster in them a sense of victimhood. It is demeaning and condescending and diminishing. It is through and through the fabric of 'the Western world' these days that 'you (non WS) are more sinned against than sinning' (Shakespeare not Jesus). And so many people believe it without question! In spite of the enormously clear and careful scholarship that is available (thank you)! So many people have no idea of history and trot out the same rubbish at every turn - as do many in the media - NO excuse.
Maybe all us hand-wringing apologists will allow ourselves to feel proud of our culture as we have witnessed the dignity of the Queen's funeral - the humility along with the pomp - the sheer perseverance of a thousand years of getting it wrong and keeping on trying to get it right.

Anonymous said...

Nz as a republic with a willie jackson type as head of state would be an absolute shambles. Those of us with british ancestry should be offered a uk passport if this ever comes to pass