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Keith Rankin: Exit, Voice and Men

Keith Rankin's Thursday Column
Exit, Voice and Men
3 August 2000

The recent news has been dominated by the trials and tribulations of three men: Mark Todd, Dover Samuels, John Tamihere. And by two two-year old Maori girls who were beaten to death or near-death in family environments characterised by the absence of their fathers.

My thoughts turned to another man. Raymond Ratima murdered seven members of his family in 1992. His story may hold a clue to the problems that New Zealand men in general and Maori men in particular are facing.

The problem, in my view, is the social 'exit' imposed upon "guilty" men. To be 'exited' means to become an outcast while still physically present. Exit may be imposed by, for example, the criminal-justice system, or by mothers dispensing with fathers who have been unfaithful, violent or indigent. The fear of being 'exited' prevents many men from fessing up to their misdeeds. When knowledge of men's misdeeds becomes public, the pressures on their women to dispose of them increases.

Self-exit also is not uncommon. New Zealand indeed had a reputation for male self-exit during the long depression of the 1880s. Indigent men were generally regarded as feckless; as undeserving. While wife deserters were regarded as even more undeserving than the unemployed, deserted wives, as victims, did qualify for charitable aid. So unemployed husbands scarpered off to "Marvellous Melbourne", to the Northland gumfields, or took to the highways and byways as tramps. The wives got some charity and had one less mouth to fill. Some of those children, without fathers contributing to their welfare, must have got a few hidings and worse.

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Men leave their partners and children for similar reasons today. No stable job, insufficient contribution, loss of face. Further, families get a much higher benefit amount per person when Dad leaves. If anyone in the mother's extended family becomes economically supportive of the mother, the mother continues to qualify for the higher benefit. The welfare system favours a big role for aunties, uncles and grandparents, and a diminished role for fathers. Extended families can pool their unabated benefits.

As in the 1880s, the benefit/charity today system "signals" (as economists like to say), to men, the exit door. Many of the worst problems of this type exist in towns where a freezing works has closed. The closure of the Waingawa Freezing Works between Masterton and Carterton was a catalyst for many of the social problems suffered in the Wairarapa in the 1990s.

Raymond Ratima had been exited from his family, from the social context that defined his identity. He had been separated from his family for a reason. He had committed acts of violence. No question. But did having done some bad things make him an intrinsically bad person; a person deserving only humiliation and rejection? He found himself isolated, in desperate need of help. He was a guilty man walking, an outcast who was somehow expected to just disappear. The agencies were there to help victims, not persona non grata. What is surprising is that so few men in Ratima's situation act in the extreme way that Ratima did. What is not surprising, given the cultural clash between Maori men and the pakeha institutions which exit them, is the high rate of mental illness among male Maori.

Mark Todd is a world away from Raymond Ratima. Yet he, like Ratima, risks losing all that is near and dear to him. Let's assume, as most of us do, that he did do what he has been accused of doing. From the point of view of someone who did something really stupid and got caught (in the Mirror if not by the law), he is under huge pressure to deny his wrongdoing. A man with a guilty conscience can save himself by lying, but feels a moral obligation to not lie. [That's certainly how I read Todd's situation.] If he tells the truth, he's flushed down the public toilet, with everything to lose. We, the New Zealand public, need to offer him a way to tell the truth without making the price of honesty too high.

Dover Samuels has got a past; quite a past. Yet he's not a bad person, deserving of exit. He had enough positive qualities to be selected at position three on the Labour Party list in 1996. He has always correctly understood that, given the chance, the public generally (and the media in particular) dwell on the few bad things in a person's past, while ignoring the many good things.

Herald reporter Audrey Young said yesterday that "some believe that if Mr Samuels had confessed to his criminal record years ago instead of yesterday he would not have been sacked from the cabinet. Mr Samuels disagrees: ... 'My experience in my youth is that when [convictions] were disclosed I was discriminated against'." Of course Samuels is right. Had his criminal record been public knowledge, he would not have become an MP, let alone a Cabinet Minister.

We need people in public life who've come from the wrong side of the tracks; people who've conceded a few own goals. All we should ask of our heroes and role-models is that their achievements and/or virtues outweigh their failings of deed and character. It was probably right that Samuels should have been stood down as Minister of Maori Affairs, given the public distractions surrounding the case. But it will be an injustice if Samuels, with many skills and virtues, should be prevented from making an ongoing contribution - to New Zealand, to Maoridom, to Nga Puhi - by being consigned to the exit bin of life. We need truth, restitution and reconciliation. We will not get truth if the consequence of being truthful is to become human flotsam.

It has therefore been refreshing that Helen Clark has taken a strong stand in favour of John Tamihere. She has openly said that his achievements significantly outweigh his past misdeeds. Her leadership paves the way for us to find an alternative to this mainly pakeha philosophy of 'exit' as a way of dealing with the misdeeds of, in particular, Maori men. We need to regulate ourselves through 'voice', not 'exit'.

John Tamihere has himself taken a lead, noting on Tuesday that Maori men have none of the support systems available to female and child victims of unemployment, alcohol abuse and violence. The pressures to resolve a problem through exit - pressures implicit in the structures of the welfare system, the Child Support Act, and the criminal justice system - are huge. The voices for 'reconciliation through truth' are barely heard.

So what do we really mean by 'exit' and 'voice'. There is in fact an extensive body of theory that goes back to the work of Albert Hirschman, one of the most brilliant (though least acknowledged) political economists of the 20th century. (Hirschman is under-acknowledged because of his overt iconoclasm.) The seminal book on the topic - Exit, Voice and Loyalty (1970) - has formed the conceptual basis for many articles and PhD theses in politics, sociology and public policy.

The pure market economy is fully regulated by the "exit" principle. If a particular product does not satisfy, you buy another brand next time (ie you exit the original supplier). Or you buy another product. That's market forces.

The exit principle has taken over education, health and indeed relationships. If we face conflict with the other parent of our child, its so easy for one parent to exit and so hard for the other to do anything else. If we don't like the local school, we drive our children to another one. Instead of voicing and then fixing the problem at the local school, falling enrolments serve as signals that the school is not seen as a "good school". Lacking information in addition to these exit signals, the problem is difficult to diagnose, and, given the reduced access to resources that the "loser" school suffers from, is very difficult to fix.

Men suffer both from exit, and from the fear of exit. That's why men don't like to talk openly and honestly about their problems. The fear, as Samuels noted, is usually grounded in reality rather than paranoia. Maori men probably suffer far more, because the culture of exit is, for them, a foreign culture. So the process of exit, once begun, is much more likely to aggravate the humiliation of Maori than of pakeha. Pakeha, more attuned to individualism, are better equipped to make a clean break from past ties, and to start their lives afresh.

So how do we make our families safe? The problems faced by, in particular, Maori families are linked to both male violence and male absence. If we could deal with these issues through a process of voice rather than exit - though truth and reconciliation rather than through ejection and separation - then men could be there for their children. Children who are cared for mainly by their own parents, and whose parents choose to maintain a friendship with each other, are rarely abused children.

The inclusive 'voice' solution requires more than parental cooperation and commitment. It also requires a commitment to employ everyone who wants to make an economic contribution. By our very nature, so long as we are not outcasts, then our identity and our sense of belonging depends in large part on our economic contribution.

That contribution doesn't have to be killing sheep in places like Waingawa. It doesn't even have to be a "real job" (meaning fulltime paid work). It simply has to be an economic contribution that gives individual and social meaning to our lives. And that contribution must be accompanied by an ability to put food on our families' tables. That means that benefits must be paid as a form of income rather than as charity. After all, the economy really is a blend of paid and unpaid - market and gift - contributions.

When oxygen masks appear in an aeroplane, parents must put their own on first. If we want to make our children safe, we need to our men to be inside the tent, supported with social voice and economic oxygen.

© 2000 Keith Rankin

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