May 11, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Walk on by? Maori and the Compassion Gap

6 min read
I dont actually know what other people think when they walk the same route, and I cant presume. What I dosuspectis that my internal decision-making process, springing from my own personal discretion, and formed by my internal values, is not dissimilar to thousands of decisions being made all around the country by charity and government workers springing from their own official or informal discretion.Rules and regulations abound, but at the heart of government welfare and charities are individuals making discretionary choices: help or not? Deserving or not? Right or wrong?Another factor in decision-making may well be thenature of thedistance between the decision-maker/observer and the person asking for help. Received wisdom holds that we are more likely to extend compassion to those most like us. Sometimes evidence suggests the poor are more likely to give to the poor, than the rich are, for example;( I dislike the counterproductive demonisation of wealthy people).Arguably its easier to feel empathy for those who somehow seem reachable across a divide. On the other hand, it might actually be easier to feel compassion for largely anonymous people half a world away, and have a picture of an African sponsored child on your fridge and walk past local supplicants every day (and yes, I speak from experience on that too).

An interesting tweet caught my eye the other day, from Sue Bradford. She was rueing the results of the Stuff/Ipsos Poll released on 20 June 2014showing that over the course of the last two years increasing numbers of respondents have said they think New Zealand is heading in the right direction, while decreasing numbers thought us to be heading in the wrong direction. She tweeted;

This poll 63% think NZ on right track shows again the compassion-gap for so many, homeless & poor dont

This term compassion gap is interesting. It has figured a bit lately in New Zealand and overseas on the Net largely in the wake of a recent New York Times opinion piece byNicholas Kristofin which he noted an interesting phenomenon in readers responses to an article he wrote about a three year old boy with a hearing impairment who had missed out on much needed intervention. Instead of readers focusing on the child, they directed harsh judgement against his mother who was poor, overweight andadornedwith tattoos. Why, the readers asked, did this boy miss out on the help he needed when his mother was so clearly self indulgent? She, not the American public, was to blame for her sons predicament. Kristof observed:

In that trailer in Appalachia, I dont see a fat woman with tattoos; I see a loving mom who encapsulates any parents dreams for a child.

Johnny shouldnt be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, lets start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping

In New Zealand this equivalent phenomenon can be easily seen, often with Maori faces providing an instantly recognisable target to illustrate the gap between those deserving of our compassion and those patently not. Cartoonist Al Nisbet captures (and many would say embodies) this understanding of Maori as the main group in the gap. Remember this charmer?

Al Nisbet Cartoon


The notion of a compassion gap towards poor Maori (deserving or undeserving) is not difficult to grasp or see, particularly when it is fed by mainstream notions of Maori (and especially poor Maori) being an identifiable and passive group at the bottom of the statistical heap separated from ordinary New Zealand, without agency orvariety (except for that distinction between deserving and undeserving, of course).

Yeah. Well. Real life isnt really so neatly dualistic. Im interested in how Maori also exercise personal and collective discretion in determining who to extend aid to, and who to refuse. As the Treaty settlement process rolls on and more iwi are exercising a higher degree of decision making in social programmes for Maori are there likely to be more instances brought to public attention of the fruits of such decisions?

Another headline caught my eye, a couple of days after Sue Bradfords aforementioned compassion gap tweet: Eviction painful but our right marae, a story about a Marae committees decision to evict an elderly couple from their kaumatua flat on the basis of the husbands abusive behaviour:

I know way too little to critique the decision, but I am interested to see how this public narrative develops, as Maori are increasingly seen as the decision-makers who can give or withhold aid based on an exercise of discretion. Of course, Maori have always exercised some level of such decision-making within Maori social organisation and Maori entities, but the idea of the Maori Brown table, the Maori corporate elite separated off from ordinary Maori has really only emerged with the first major treaty settlements (to my understanding at least) in the late 1990s. The recent Tuhoe settlement includes a social services management plan whereby the iwi works in partnership with Crown agencies to deliver better social services to Ngai Tuhoe. Interestingly, Tamati Kruger made the following statement in April:

under mana motuhake, the iwi plans to take responsibility for the estimated $9 million of benefit money distributed to Tuhoe annually. As part of the 40-year plan, the tribe will take state funding and use it change the dependency culture.

Kruger said: We want to work with the Ministry of Social Development in utilising the $9 million of benefits to use some of that for job creation, and also changing a mindset in Tuhoe around being beneficiaries of the state.

In working with a system of individual entitlement based on stringent eligibility criteria (as the benefit system is) Tuhoe are going to be engaged in deciding, in some way at least, who are deserving and who are not. How those decisions will be made and how tikanga will feature will be interesting to learn.

If we are to accept the notion of a compassion gap, we ought to be alert to it wherever it occurs, or could occur, in all parts of our society, and not make easy presumptions as to who resides on each side of the gap. And that includes my own decision making on my own uncomfortable walk to work every morning.

BTW: I’d be interested in your thoughts: do you agree there is a compassion gap in our society (generally speaking? Among Maori?)? How do you make your decisions on whether or not to help people?


uncropOtakiMamari Stephens is a Christchurch born and raised, Wellington-based writer and law lecturer whose marae (Wainui) is in Ahipara. Naturally. Typical post-urban migration confusion, then. She was lucky enough to find and marry Maynard Gilgen, and between them, they are raising three quite interesting tamariki, Te Rangihuia, Havelund and Jessica-Lee.

Political views? Centre left, with tinges of conservatism. Usefulness? Can make a mean rewena. He uri ia no Te Rarawa (Ngati Moetonga, Te Rokeka) me Ngati Pakeha. No te Hahi Mihinare hoki.


4 thoughts on “Walk on by? Maori and the Compassion Gap

  1. I applaued you for giving to the homeless on your way to your job next time do it with heart then you will find all your questions quips and queries are totally without merit especially the poor maori sermon,if you do not truly understand why they are living the way they do then fine don’t try and make excuses for them. Chances are that a lot of them choose to live where they are because where they sit is land where their ancestors or grandparents or even them and their parents grew up on. A lot of homeless people are homeless because the world as you know it left them that way. There is no such thing as a poor maori Maori are the wealthiest people of this entire nation so the next time you want to give do it without wondering weather they are going to use it for food or alcohol if that is how you think everytime you give a gift keep it as a koha from maori you may need it sooner than you think

  2. The African child on the fridge is pathetic to me. How much of the money reaches the child? How do we know? Is the magnet as a medal to stroke your ego? Or are you truly ‘compassionate’.

    ‘The compassion gap’ is born of ego, and political vernacular. Manipulation of the way we feel, conduct ourselves and relate. It”s somehow okay to build prisons in New Zealand, while reducing the mental health spend. It’s similarly okay to advertise NZ as 100 percent pure, and promote fossil fuel development. If the public are lead to believe that NZ is a caring and responsible society, then largely they will. And they will join the band and attribute blame on the marginalized. It’s the beggars fault for not getting off his arse and working. He/She is on the dole because it was his/her decision – ‘losers’ they cry. How many times have you heard this ‘repetition of verse’?

    It’s because it’s easy for the ‘elite’ to manage. Cheaper perhaps. The solution – incarcerate. Are they implementing the $500.00 fine for begging in Auckland? I read they were. That is plutocracy.

    One wonders if it will ever end. But, my opinion is that it will – and soon, with the implosion of the TPP and gathering worldwide contempt for the 2 percent.

    1. Mgaire, Kia ora for your comment..not sure what you are referring to about the ‘poor Maori sermon’, but kei te pai, one of my points was that Maori certainly are more than poor + victims, as you say.

      Robert, thanks to you also..$500 fine for begging in Aucklandcrazy, and i would have thought unworkable. I was interested in your sentence: If the public are lead to believe that NZ is a caring and responsible society, then largely they will.” Not sure what you meant to say, but I am interested in how our self-perception then feeds in to what we do in real life..if it ever does. As for the African child point, (assuming you are aiming this at me?) all good, happy to discuss how we can measure and recognise ‘true’ and ego-free compassion. Not sure there is really a set of objective criteria, though…

      1. Tena koe Mamari,
        Nga mihi ki a koe mo tou na tuhituhinga. I find your dissertation very interesting. Me like you are from Te Taitokerau and I am confronted by this very issue every day [teacher in the Northern Territory]. My own Maoriness tellsme kei hea to aroha ki te tangata [where is your compassion for the undeserving]. While I am located in another part of world Aborigines are no less deserving than Maori. Yet I am confronted with this imposition “the passion gap”. Yes I do exercise some form of discretion about who should I give to and who will I not.Compassion is something I feel not what I perceive. I was bought up to give, not ask questions or whether you got holy pants or not. Nga mihi.
        Tarewa Kingi
        No Ngapuhi ki Whangaroa

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