You Can’t Sit With Us

“We can’t express in words to you, what Gordon means to us. Gordon, you have left this world better than the way you found it.” This sentiment of respect and gratefulness was expressed countless times over the course of Gordon Stephenson’s tangi, illustrating just how far his influence had reached during his lifetime. From orphan, to S.A.S. soldier, to family man, to farmer, to award-winning environmentalist, Gordon Stephenson lived an extraordinary life, and one we could all learn something from.

During the holidays I attended the tangi and funeral of a man who knew how to improve the world. Dr Gordon Stephenson was a farmer and environmentalist (turns out the two are not mutually exclusive), who dedicated his life to creating a better future for everyone. By encouraging communication and bridging gaps between diverse groups of people, he was able to find solutions that benefited the maximum number of people. Upon emigrating from England to New Zealand, Gordon became involved in various conservation initiatives in the South Waikato where he lived on a farm. These included creating the Ecological Island Maungatautiri, establishing the Farm Environment Awards, forming the QEII National Trust, and much more. None of this would have been possible without the relationships he developed with those he came across in his work; the local Raukawa iwi, council, farmers, environmentalists, and academics. He treated the world like the eco-system it is, where each part relies on the others, and not one is more or less important than the other.

The harsh reality is that not everyone sees the world through Gordon’s optimistic lenses. In particular, there is a worrying trend of social justice groups at universities that have seemingly forgotten the value of communication, and prioritise certain voices over others. Typically justified by the “more oppressed than thou” mantra, there is a clear pecking order in whose opinion counts within these groups. The original concept of supporting minorities and creating social change was a well-intentioned one. Unfortunately, this has metastasized into a meta-circle-jerk of sociology majors who aren’t actually interested in changing anything except for endless calling out of ‘micro-aggressions’, and discussing their ever-expanding issues. I feel that I owe it to Gordon and the work he did, to contrast these two forms of activism.

A common theme surrounding the discussion of Gordon’s life was his keenness to work with anybody. On the local Pikitu Marae, for example, his attitude had profound effects. Unlike some other, presumptuous Pākehā, who had historically tried to implement their way of doing things on the marae, Gordon listened, and then helped. He learned what was important to the community, of which kaitiakitanga (sustainability) played a large part. This common goal of theirs led to tree planting, education, and preservation of the land for future generations; all in line with Tikanga Māori values. For his hard work alongside Pikitu Marae, Gordon was honoured as a kaumatua, or chief of the Te Huri hapu. So it was no surprise that when he passed away, Gordon laid in state on the marae for a day and a night prior to the final celebration of his life at Waikato University.

One of the first marae to welcome a Pākehā onto its grounds, Pikitu Marae has long been a bastion of bicultural relations in New Zealand. This welcoming nature was on display during our stay on the marae, as the predominantly Pākehā family group was gently walked through not only the protocol, but the spiritual and cultural reasons it was there. It was explained to us that anybody who walked through the doors of the marae would be embraced by the Pikitu ancestors, and in doing so became part of the tribe. On leaving, we were told that we were welcome, even expected, to visit again in the future, as we were now whānau. Among the children present, a common sentiment was that it was a vastly different experience from school trips where they visited marae like tourists; this time, they felt as if they belonged.

Now, I want to contrast this experience with my involvement in a type of group that I touched on earlier; exclusionary social justice groups (ExSocJus Groups). These groups exclude based on any of the following; gender, ethnicity, sexuality, diet, political leaning, and so on. The basic premise of these groups is to provide a “safe space” for minority groups that experience discrimination and/or oppression in their daily lives. An example of such a space that many of you will be familiar with is womenspace; a place for women; whether cis or transgender, to be away from men. The idea behind this is that the whole world is a “men’s space”, and it is helpful for women to have a place just for them. This is a mild form of ExSocJus groups, and in no way excludes men from taking part in the women’s rights movement. In fact, many meetings and events in womenspace are inclusive of men when discussing women’s rights issues, acknowledging men as valuable allies.

Unfortunately, not all ExSoJus Groups work like this. In fact, some aim to exclude non-minorities altogether. Another on-campus group I have been involved in from a distance recently banned non-minorities from its Facebook group and future meeting sessions. To avoid naming the group, as well as repeating non-minorities/minorities endlessly, I’ll label the minorities ‘circles’ and non-minorities ‘squares’. Shortly after I returned from the tangi, this particular circle-focused group decided that that the Facebook group was spending too much energy on educating squares, and needed to be more of a support system for circles. Fair enough, except that it already was. Before being accepted into the circle Facebook group, everyone who requested to join was told that it would be first and foremost a space for circles, and that while squares could participate in discussion, they should not dominate the conversation. After scrolling extensively through the group, I could see no instances of this happening. Academic articles were shared and salient news and circle-organised events were discussed. However, that wasn’t good enough. Squares couldn’t just silently stand by, learning about these interesting issues and sharing them with their networks in turn – they had to be excluded altogether. Only separate ‘square inclusive’ events advertised through a different group would allow them to participate in the circle empowering movement, albeit from a distance that allowed no room for real communication.

Having just come from Pikitu Marae, where I’d learnt about Gordon’s legacy of working together with people of all different backgrounds to create positive change, this seemed like a misguided step in the wrong direction. Dale Carnegie’s best-selling book is called “How to Win Friends AND Influence People”, because the two ideas are inherently correlated. So, foolishly, I said something, despite knowing it would have zero impact on the decision. I pointed out the breakdown of communication and consequently effectiveness that this would have, and the pointlessness of excluding squares who genuinely only wanted to help. As the group was already a support space with extremely limited input from squares, why did it need to take a turn towards segregation? Unsurprisingly, I was bombarded with responses based on the P.C. school of thought that claims circles are entitled to their safe spaces, and they have the right to exclude anyone who could potentially endanger this. I was hit with the predictable “we shouldn’t have to educate you/defend ourselves/the whole world is a square safe space why can’t we have this one.” Essentially, any squares who protested this were painted as whiny and uneducated (by now I’m sure you’ve got the gist of what I’m on about). Although square allies are appreciated (but not prioritised), it seems their concerns fall flat against circle ears, who are so set on isolating themselves from the world they forget that they should be trying to change it.

In stark contrast, international organisations such as the UN, Amnesty International and UNICEF are stellar examples of how working together can lead to worldwide change. Peacekeeping, human development, security and human rights in the 193 member countries of the United Nations have all benefited from this diverse group of experts and leaders cooperating towards a common goal. Every member country’s opinion is heard and taken into account, no matter how much it varies from the majority consensus. This variety of outlooks is extremely valuable in creating solutions that benefit the maximum number of people. Admittedly there are problems with the organisation, with many political scientists labelling it a slow-moving giant which struggles to reach decisions. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the UN has resulted in massive improvements in millions of people’s lives.

Coming back to ExSocJus groups, an international example occurred at Goldsmith University where Bahar Mustafa, the Diversity and Welfare Officer for students, facilitated an event explicitly excluding white, cis men. Her response to being called racist was that because she was a p.o.c. (person of colour), it was impossible for her to be racist because of the ‘privilege + prejudice = racism’ formula. She didn’t have white privilege and therefore her prejudice could not be called racism. In the lengthy discussion about square-exclusion on the circle group, I was told by circle group members that “the impression we make on squares is not our priority, and online resources are available for squares to educate themselves”. Cool. At the end of the day, people can justify and over-intellectualise anything they like, but it won’t change anything. Alienating supporters who want nothing more than to learn and be part of a movement is plain ridiculous.

For a long time I wasn’t sure what to think about these groups; their points about creating safe spaces and solidarity made sense, but it still felt decisively hurtful to be left out. This conversation on the circle Facebook page, contrasted with Gordon’s tangi confirmed my gut feeling that exclusionary groups do not bring about social justice. History and research also show this, as having more people on board with a cause is almost always beneficial to a movement (see UN, Amnesty Int., etc). First and foremost, people are people, and nobody reacts well to hostility, which ExSocJus groups have a reputation of portraying. This is especially ironic given that such groups were formed in opposition to such attitudes.

When Gordon’s advice on how to influence people were read out at his funeral, forming relationships and leading by example topped the list, while negativity was the key thing to avoid. Fundamentally, exclusionary “social justice” groups focus on negating certain groups of people, and therefore cannot contribute towards positive change. For the whole of society to change – in whatever aspect, the whole of society must be involved.

The concept of exclusion doesn’t belong anywhere in there.



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