Sunday Star Times writer Rosemary McLeod’s latest opinion piece illustrates some of the pitfalls with the genre. She’s a Pakeha writer, and in a piece I think is trying to be ironic, begins:
WHAT ARE Maori doing in our country? I’ve never had a satisfactory answer.
This would be paradise without them. There’d be no crime to speak of, people would be nicer to their kids, nobody would fail at school, there’d be no pesky Polynesian greetings for foreign dignitaries, and life would be real high-toned.
The piece repeats many stereotypes about Maori which inform much media coverage here in Aotearoa.
The problem, for me anyway, is that I find the columnist Rosemary McLeod so inconsistent that I spent half my time reading this piece not sure if it was serious.
That brings me to my first point. When you write opinion columns, there is a thin line to tread between being consistent and being predictable. Consistent, and your arguments will make sense when measured against each other. Predictable, and your pieces may solely be polemic without any attempt at balance.
These attributes may be positive or negative, depending on what the reader wants – to be informed, to be challenged, to be outraged. Many people, perhaps even most, tend to read columnists who agree with their own viewpoints, to reinforce their own world-view. Others may read a wider variety, wishing to be able to understand complex social issues from wider range of evidence.
Rosemary McLeod is probably the most prominent ‘feminist’ writer in New Zealand today – but her claim to feminism is perhaps mostly historical, from her involvement in Broadsheet. She is also a very longstanding journo, having written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, often using humour to make her point.
The difficulty for me is that her points often seem to contradict each other from column to column – and so as a writer I find her confusing and often infuriating – even while the craft of her writing itself is superb.
In this column, I have a second difficulty – I’m just not sure I am ready to read a Pakeha talking about Maori in such stereotyped ways – when we are ‘supposed’, as the reader, to know this is irony. I feel some kind of complicity, as a Pakeha, with this piece – it’s racism *wink*….yeah, right.
We have other examples of this type of humour working well in Aotearoa. Billy T James was an adored Maori comedian whose humour arguably worked two decades ago (though appears dated now) because he mocked the very stereotypes he was playing:
And more recently, the Naked Samoans have viciously delved into race relations in New Zealand in Bro’Town, making jokes which offend and leave me at least, cringing in my seat. Because we all know they are based on how some people really feel.
If Rosemary McLeod’s article had been written by a columnist who I trusted more, perhaps this piece would have worked for me. But I don’t think so – I’d rather see Pakeha who want to challenge racism use irony to lampoon white racists – rather than repeat the attitudes that sustain them.