Rangatiratanga in the Age of Misinformation

As the vaccination efforts for our people progress, and access to vaccines for those who want them improves – the discussions are shifting, on all sides of the vaccination debate – and to be honest, I think they probably need to.

In some ways, those shifts are problematic. Certainly we are seeing the debate become increasingly dangerous and heated. The government’s shift to the language of “personal responsibility” is troubling and understandably many feel that this is merely the government seeking to recuse themselves of accountability for a vaccine sequence that placed the majority of the Maori population in Group 4, initiated at the national level with mainstream messaging, was infrastructurally designed to privilege mainstream health providers, and so unsurprisingly delivered first and foremost to mainstream populations.

Before you come at me with the “Maori have always had access and the messaging has always been there for Maori” (as indeed the language of personal responsibility implies) – no we have not, and we still do not. There are still pockets of the country where people have to travel extraordinary distances, past clinics who don’t vaccinate, in order to access these services. There are still services who are struggling to get through the complex vaccine accreditation system in order to be able to do this work, and many DHBs are clunky, ineffective machines for being able to adapt to support these services. Maori messaging about vaccinations (including ours) have made inroads but have also, at a national level, come too late and are uni-directional. They generally don’t allow for conversations or one-to-one questions. Too often whanau are told “go and ask your GP” but for isolated communities, you might not have a GP available for weeks at a time, and then they’re only available when you are at work – and the boss will hardly give you a day off just to go and talk with a GP when there’s nothing wrong with you. This is also assuming that you have $35 spare to talk with a GP. Maori specific risk was not highlighted from the beginning, because Maori specific statistics were not provided from the beginning. We relied upon the likes of Dr Rawiri Taonui to carry out a lot of that analysis (which he has done so voluntarily and diligently since the first lockdown in 2020). Maori MPs have rarely fronted the pressers. Maori medical professionals have been either sidelined or their expertise ignored. I could go on but there are a myriad of ways in which the specific risk to Maori populations has not been met with adequate policies.

So in the face of that kind of inequity, languaging of personal responsibility is deeply problematic. It seeks to set a context for where some will, actually, be left behind. It assumes that those who still have questions, or have been exposed to either poorly held conversations (ie good information but presented in a way that is blaming, shaming or condemning) or misinformation (wrong information but without bad intentions) or indeed disinformation (deliberately wrong information) – are all in the same boat, and that all that could have been done to support their journey, has been done.

This is simply not the case, and it’s being demonstrated as such in many places around the country.

What we have seen in our small clinics that we have run is that when whanau are able to come in, without pressure of being vaccinated, but can ask a Maori health professional directly about the facts, that they will often carry on to get vaccinated. This week, in Taneatua, Marama Stewart held an inspiration “Cool to Kōrero” session which brought in Māori doctors to have free, accessible one on one sessions with whānau to ask their questions in a private setting – and it was incredibly effective.

The sequencing of the vaccine rollout means that our people have been exposed to misinformation and disinformation for much longer, and in a context (pre-vaccine access) that contributes to their vaccine uptake decisions. Now reconsider what “personal responsibility” means. We have to do a lot of work now to combat misinformation – and we are getting very little support while we are at it. In nations overseas, misinformation education is embedded in the curriculum from a very young age. In Aotearoa – we have to pretty much find our own way through this mess, and it’s dividing communities.

There are many implications for that, in addition to the whanau who are at increased health risk from being influenced by misinformation. It means Maori have to work twice as hard, and be twice as visible, to combat the issue. That means Maori who are working to protect their communities from covid, and those who are also combatting misinformation or even basic sovereignty that doesn’t align with the misinformation movement – are being subjected to threats, harassment, abuse, and acts of violence. It also means relationships within Maori communities are being increasingly strained, and in some cases, snapped. Right now across the motu heartwrenching discussions are taking place within hapu, iwi, marae, and whanau about how to navigate spaces safely with unvaccinated and vaccinated relations. Whakapapa is everything. The thought that it could be placed at risk by infection upon the marae is untenable. The thought that it could be impacted by turning whanau away who have chosen not to vaccinate, is also untenable. We must protect our communities, yes, but we must also, in all of this, strive to protect our relationships.

In addition to this quandry, we have the very urgent planning right now for covid in the community. We need to provide for our whanau who are going to get very sick. The realities we have been seeing on the news in other countries, will soon be in our own communities, and if our whanau are very sick in their homes, and cannot access a hospital, then we will need to care for them – vaccinated or unvaccinated. In fact, what the science and experience is showing us, those who will need support the most, when the hospitals can take no more, will be those who are unvaccinated and potentially, feeling the least like they can now reach out for help.

We can’t have that happen. We need to work hard on some tools that can help us to protect our relationships and our sense of community so that we can truly protect our actual communities – I consider all of these to be critical tools for rangatiratanga.

FORGIVENESS

I don’t have all the answers, and in fact all of us are learning as we go, getting frustrated with each  other, needing to step back and then step back into our relationships again. Much of it is new ground for us all to navigate so I guess the first thing I want to say is… we really need to exercise our forgiveness muscle. Not just of each other, but of ourselves too. This isn’t something we have had to deal with in our lifetimes – it was never, ever going to be an easy journey. No matter where your opinion lies, the stakes are huge, and that’s why people feel so strongly. Without getting into the relative morals of whether it’s justifiable to hold an unvaccinated, unmasked protest in a pandemic, or whether it’s ok to call people who do that (as a response to colonial trauma) stupid or uncaring – we need to be ready to forgive ourselves for the things we might say, and forgive each other for the things we say, in what is essentially a long, drawn out, and increasingly heated argument.

GRACE

If you want someone to really consider what you are saying, and have a change of heart, you need to try and create the context for them to do that. It’s ok to have different opinions of course – but when people feel attacked or threatened, they are much more likely to simply entrench their position, and identify you as an enemy. All of our whanau need space to be able to reconsider how they feel about something, and this happens a lot more when you allow them the space to do that.  This doesn’t mean you have to accept acts that are harmful, in fact its right to point out the harm of someone’s actions. But we need to try and be mindful of how we do that, and mindful of whether we are making it more, or less likely for that person to feel like there is a pathway back for them from the position they have taken. We must accept that those who decide to get vaccinated, and want others to, are not necessarily our enemy who endorses the state, but are just doing what they think is the best thing to keep the people they love, alive. Similarly, those who do not want to be vaccinated may well be operating from a space of genuine concern for their own wellbeing, and genuine concern for the wellbeing of the community and the erosion of community rights. If we can at least accept that it’s not simply a case of us being each others enemies, but rather different ideas of what love and concern for ourselves and our community look like, we are on much better footing.

SELF DETERMINATION (binaries are fake)

Arguably forgiveness and grace could both sit under this theme as characteristics of rangatiratanga anyway, but there is another distinct aspect of rangatiratanga that I want to address: that of self-determination.

Increasingly, this discussion is becoming polarized, and turned into a binary argument.

If you are pro-vaxx, you must be pro-government

If you are anti-vaxx, you must be anti-community

If you are pro-mandate, you must be anti-choice

If you are not pro-choice, you must be anti-human rights

In fact none of these are necessarily true and we have to be very wary of black and white arguments that suggest “if you are A then you must also be B”.

This is an excellent articulation around mandates that demonstrates that those who support mandates are not necessarily in opposition to human rights, quite the opposite they are merely concerned about the rights of those who cannot choose to be vaccinated, and are seeking trust in services.

It is very, very easy to erase important aspects of someone’s argument and reduce it down to a simple wrong-right position, to suit your agenda. White supremacist movements have relied upon this tactic for a long time to recruit others onto their cause, and it’s working very effectively here in Aotearoa. Rangatiratanga calls upon us to recognize our own distinct pathway through a situation. Yes we oppose a colonial government whose very existence violates the Treaty upon which its very existence rests…. but rangatiratanga does not mean taking the opposite position of the government for the sake of it. That, perversely, still leaves our fate in the hands of government.

Rangatiratanga calls us to strategically assess each situation as it arises, and, utilizing our own experts and leaders that we have prepared for just these situations, consider our allies and responses accordingly, to meet our best interests. Particularly when we choose our allies, we must be strategic, for not everyone else who opposes government is our ally. There is a concept called entryism, where people of one movement adhere themselves to another movement, enter it, and then seek to use that movement for their own agenda – and again, white supremacists are excellent at this. They will enter a movement, create a binary opposition (“they are evil/corrupt, we are pure and good”), and seek to establish a situation that suggests either we are with them, or against them – and it is splitting communities and families apart. A clear red flag for this is the “divide and rule” line. Yes it is true that a people divided are easier to rule, however disagreement does not need to mean division, and it is very common now to hear people saying “you’re allowing them to divide us” when what is actually happening is a matter of disagreement. If we can try to exercise some grace in the conversation, and put the rhetoric of both government and other groups to the side, then we will be much more equipped to determine the course of action for ourselves, regardless of whether the government agrees with us or not.

CRITICAL ANALYSIS

While it’s easy to say “we have to make our own decisions based on our own best interests” – in the information age, it is very, very easy to be deliberately confused about what is in our best interests. Manipulative recruitment is an art that has been refined and sophisticated over time, and it has been supercharged by the internet. We are OFTEN hearing terms like “do your research” and “check the science” but the crucial research skills of critical analysis are sorely lacking. Now I’m the first to admit, science and academia are racist, elitist, colonial machines that have a lot of decolonization work within themselves to do (and it’s also true that they can produce an abundance of important, valid work as well). At the same time, our ancestors have always scrutinized, and analyzed, narratives to seek our own pathway and take our own independent positions. This brings us back to the fact that the skills of critical analysis to combat misinformation and disinformation are sorely under-resourced in Aotearoa. While our education system plays catch up, we can also develop our own, and I implore educators to do so.


Here are a few bilingual tools for critically analyzing information, created by myself alongside our local collective of Te Reo Māori and storytelling collective, Ngā Marae Kāinga o Matakāoa. They are not foolproof – but they are a simple surface level set of tools that can help us to interrogate and filter out potential misinformation. Everyone can use these tools, regardless of their political leaning, to help critically analyse information in front of them. The tool is called RATA, an acronym:

Māori: Rongonui, Arotau, Tika, Aromatawai
English: Reputable, Accurate, Timely, Accountable

In assessing the information in front of you, it’s important to ask questions like:
– Do I know who is even writing this article?
– Are they qualified to make the statements they are making?
– Does this work build upon and align to what the vast majority of research in this area says, and if it doesn’t then does it explain why it is so different in its findings?
– If it is experimental research, is it the most recent research available, or has it been cherrypicked from old research (that is no longer relevant). *nb this does not apply to deliberately historical research.
– If the person writing this article is spreading false information, is there any accountability for them? Do they belong to an organisation, or alliance, that guarantees a standard of practice/information?

Artwork by Wahapeka Ngātai-Melbourne, translations by Pōhatu Poutu.

Te Reo Māori full size downloads:

English version fullsize downloads:

These tools should ideally be used together, and can also be combined with other critical analysis skills like argument fallacies:
(Infographic developed by Artists For Education)

These are all very helpful skills to exercise when we are engaging in information being put in front of us – hopefully, with this mix of the very practical tools of analysing information, applied with grace, and forgiveness for ourselves and each other, we can navigate our pathway in a way that is truly self-determining. More importantly – I really hope, that in some way, these tools can also help us to recover some of the kotahitanga that we need to make it through this together.

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