Taniwha and belief

In a curiously timed release, the National Party has let us know that Labour Party leader David Shearer thinks that taniwha ought to be respected. Oh ha ha ha, isn’t he silly, etc.

The usual suspects are coming up with two lines of criticism. First, it’s absurd to believe in taniwha, and second, how come we aren’t allowed to be rude about belief in taniwha when we ridicule Christian belief all the time.

The fist criticism conflates two sets of attitudes about taniwha. One can believe in taniwha, or one can respect, or at least tolerate, other people’s belief in taniwha. Personally, I don’t believe in taniwha, or elves, or the Norse gods, or the Christian god, or all sorts of other things, but I can see that other people believe in these entities, and even more than that, that they order their lives by reference to their beliefs. So while I may not believe their belief, I’m prepared to tolerate it, to the extent that it doesn’t cause harm. That’s a fairly standard move in liberal thinking.

I’ll even go a step further than that. When it comes to many indigenous beliefs, I’ll take the view that if there is a legend or a belief about spirits, or monsters, or blessings, or whatever, then it may actually encode other important knowledge, such as hidden water currents, or seasons of the year, or degrees of genetic relationship that lead to appalling birth defects, or whatever. So there is good reason for the belief, even if the way that the reason is communicated can seem very odd to someone from a different cultural background.

Or those beliefs may encode important information about who has guardianship duties, or property rights, or ethical duties, within a particular land area, or cultural grouping, or whatever. The beliefs are a way of structuring lives. And as such, they need to be respected.

So when David Shearer says that he respects belief in taniwha, he is doing exactly what a clear thinking liberal ought to do – acknowledging the reality of the belief, and its importance, even though it may not be a belief he holds himself. It’s a straightforward difference between believing a belief, and respecting a belief, and any liberal thinker, or indeed any thinking person ought to be able to grasp the difference.

So much for the first claim.

But what about the second claim, that Maori beliefs are sacrosanct, while Christian beliefs are ridiculed?

This is simply not true. Maori beliefs are routinely trampled over in this country. Witness the current furore over taniwha.

And we pay a huge amount of respect to Christian beliefs. Christian leaders are invited to pray at our festivals, such as at Anzac Day ceremonies, we structure our work week around the Christian holy day (Sunday), we have public holidays for the two major Christian festivals of Christmas and Easter, our parliamentary sessions open with a prayer to the Christian god. If this is not respect for Christian beliefs, I don’t know what is.

David Shearer has got this one exactly right.


10 comments on “Taniwha and belief

  1. robertguyton says:

    Yours is the reasonable response to this insubstantial beat-up. Homepaddock, Keeping Stock and Cactus Kate, all of whom are running this tripe, should sit down and have a wee think about how trite them seem. It could be that they believe their own pish, but really, that’s even more reason for them to reflect on their position.

  2. Mindy says:

    Beautifully said.

  3. Very well said Deborah, Hope those usual suspects take a moment to reflect on this.

  4. Every time there is controversy about a taniwha, I think of the minor fracas that broke out in Scotland over the fairies of St. Fillans (and since appears to have been resolved with some concessions to the fairies):


    As I also learnt from my students, the Scottish landscape is also strewn with “clootie wells” where people still go and tie bits of clothing (everything from rags to bras) in trees around bodies of water (some barely distinguishable from puddles) and make wishes. It’s unclear whether fairies or saints are involved here, but clootie wells are much more popular than you might imagine.

    NZ media always tell development vs. taniwha stories in terms of an implicit conflict between backward Maori and Pakeha modernity. In fact I suspect they tell us a lot more about the general impoverishment of Pakeha culture.

  5. Cactus Kate says:

    It’s not a test of being a liberal to allow adults to spout beliefs in the above, it’s a test of common sense to entertain them in modern laws when they are just superstitions and myth.
    If I met an adult who believed Poppa Smurf or Santa existed I would call them on it too. I wouldn’t respect their crazy belief.
    That I don’t about God with Christians is just a matter of there being 24 hours in a day and I cannot spend it all arguing with people about a topic that does not really matter. If they were asserting rights hiding behind their God in 2012 I would say the exact same thing as I did about Taniwha.

  6. Craig says:

    That bit about calling out Santa-believers is not really true, is it Kate? How many Catholics do you call on their faith in the Holy Ghost? That’s not the same as arguing God with Christians. They certainly assert their rights, in that we recognise Christmas and Easter in law (in ways that have no equivalent in recognition of taniwha.

    Yet Deborah is naive too. It goes too far to say a liberal ‘respects’ mythology. A liberal surely is interested in enlightenment, in truth. Even if some values exist outside logic and deduction (love, beauty, goodness, evil, for example), an enlightened liberal should not pretend that illogical statements are of equal value to logic and truth.

    Of course, we can see mythology as a pathway to enlightenment – which is what I read Shearer as saying (i.e. some people explain the world by telling astory. That is unobjectionable and consistent and with liberalism.)

    We can also acknowledge the reality of people’s beliefs – People DO believe in Christmas, it is in law and shops, so it’s perverse to ignore it (also what Shearer is saying). If we write clearly, we even capitalise ‘Christmas’ and ‘God’, so we apply these believes regidly in fields far beyond the formal law.

    Neither of these examples, though, should prevent us from challenging nonsense. There is no Holy Ghost, there was no single prophet Jesus who was the Son of God, Muhammed did not receive revelations from the Archangel, and there is no taniwha. Therefore morality that is not intrinsically justified cannot be justified by reference to those ‘authorities’ – even if I understand that one of these myths is the source of your view, and even if that flawed source leads you to an actual truth. That is how the liberal enlightenment works.

    Therefore, there’s a problem with using the expression ‘respect’ of these views if by that you mean that they should go unchallenged.

    Nevertheless, the challenge to Shearer mounted by right wing bloggers demonstrates their unfamiliarity with the principles of the liberal enlightenment – even though they think that is the logic they are championing. How self-humiliating that they don’t understand the very value they imply guides them! They fail to see the rather stark way Shearer applied logic to explore the relevance of non-logical views. Descartes would recognise his method. Their depressing response is to wield tools of enlightenment as if they were tools of bigotry, and misreprest Shearer’s logic, rather than seek understanding.

    • Ben says:

      @Craig – It doesn’t go to far to say that a liberal respects mythology as long as you define which use of the word respect you are using. If you’re using it in the sense of acceptance/courtesy/acknowledgement, then the liberal I think, should respect mythology. If however you are using it in the sense of esteem or excellence, then no.

      An annoying word respect. Using it in the first sense, does not, I think, preclude challenging it.

      In the case of taniwha, I’m not sure it should though. The original argument in this piece was, if I’m not mistaken, that taniwha are essentially being used as tools for communication, i.e. the identification and transmission of knowledge about things like hidden water currents or boggy ground etc. As a tool for communcation, the taniwha may have been surpasssed, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. We don’t ignore letters in the post because we have email.

    • Craig’s comments are interesting.

      Before engaging with them, however, as this is my first post to Deborah’s blog (just found it), for clarity (honesty) I shall ‘out’ myself as she did in her welfare article some weeks ago:

      Name: Mark Hubbard
      Philosophy: Objectivist (‘largely’)
      Politics: Classical liberal / Libertarian
      Economics: Laissez faire capitalist

      I just have one line of thought regarding this thread. Craig stated, quote:

      “Yet Deborah is naive too. It goes too far to say a liberal ‘respects’ mythology. A liberal surely is interested in enlightenment, in truth. Even if some values exist outside logic and deduction (love, beauty, goodness, evil, for example), an enlightened liberal should not pretend that illogical statements are of equal value to logic and truth.”

      Because via the taniwha we are dealing with a cultural artifact, my bead on Shearer, and Deborah, comes from my thinking around the man I see as the originator of modern thought on multi-culturalism, namely, Montesquieu; particularly in his 1748 ‘The Spirit of Laws’ – thinking, note, that has been undermined by Left politics, with serious consequences. Namely, while Montesquieu professed a delight in cultural diversity, he always held that while all cultures might be equally valuable, they were not equally good, thus underlying any celebration of cultural diversity, there was (is) a justice that is eternal. Off the top of my head, I think he called it the ‘eternal flame’, but don’t hold me to that.

      Anyway, interpreting that within my opening trinity, which takes me to absolutes over relativism, ‘respect’ for belief in a taniwha while part of that ‘delight in diversity’ – and I don’t think ‘respect’ is quite that, but regardless – can have no part of the politick for a ‘free’, classical liberal society: that is, such mythology, must not be referenced vis a vis the rule of law (most certainly, because that leads to the worst sort of moral relativism), nor of property rights, et al. And for me, obviously, taniwha can be interchanged with both Judeo-Christian Law (more precisely morality), and with Sharia Law. So Shearer expressing ‘respect’ for belief in the taniwha doesn’t concern me: where it does, however, is if he carries this over to influencing the politick and policy making of a Labour Government, and on a Labour MP’s ability to make that distinction, I’m pretty cynical. That’s where my problem would lie (well, that and Left policy making 😉 .

      Final note: regarding the ‘eternal flame’ I have little in common with Deborah: for me that is the non-initiation of force principle and via a minarchy, constitutionally protecting that smallest minority in a society, the individual, and the rights thereof, whereas, I suspect for Deborah, it is the state as centre-piece, which makes her absolutely wrong 🙂 And so to declare a further interest in this blog, I have on my own blog made an initial ‘sortie’ – and sheer fluff at this stage – against Deborah, as a precursor to a much longer piece regarding the Dominion Welfare article, in which, for me to write, looking through this blog, I shall need to be much more respectful of getting my own thoughts down clearly to rebut it adequately. Deborah’s definition of ‘free’, is from quite a different dictionary to what I use. The initial sorty was ‘Feeling Our Way to the Police State, Without Thinking.

  7. robertguyton says:

    Nicely expressed, Craig.
    Logic, eh!
    Befuddles so many, so easily.

  8. Fae says:

    A little bit of a respect goes a long way, something so many people seem to forget nowadays.

    Also critical discussion does not equal lack of respect, contrary the protests of some privilege denying members of Christianity.

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