I have been processing so much (as surely we all have) since the terrible tragedy of 15 March. It feels like paralysis. What do you say these days when a friend or colleague asks how you are? Do you answer bravely that you’re well, not wanting to infect someone with your own grief? Or do you choose the direct route and dive straight into the existential trauma that you are experiencing? How do we make sense of life after this?
When shocks happen I have observed that my own reaction – sometimes conscious, often not – is to strive to return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible.
I wonder if as a nation we are all trying to do that right now. Except the old normal isn’t going to work. When these things happen they often require us to re-evaluate our lives at the most fundamental level, if we are to truly heal and move forward.
As Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said a few days after the attack: We are a nation of over 200 ethnicities and 160 languages. We see ourselves as peaceful and inclusive. The act of the terrorist was counter to this view of ourselves. Our response was not. We responded with aroha.
We would like to think that what happened was the opposite of how we are in Aotearoa. But it is not as simple as that.
As Jacinda also said, 15 March was not an act by a New Zealand citizen, but that does not mean there are not things here that we need to address. As Lizzie Marvelly said a week after the attacks, this did not just happen in a void.
Things need to start making sense again, but for that to happen, we need to do the work.
It can be helpful at times like these to use models and frameworks. The systems thinking model suggests that violence and hate like we saw in Christchurch actually represent the tip of the iceberg.
Depressing, I know, but only for those who sit too comfortably, perhaps, with our own privilege to begin with.
The model suggests that underlying mental models – attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and values – allow structures of power to continue functioning as they are. These are the beliefs that we often learn subconsciously from our society or family and may well be unaware of.
Mental models form the foundations of structures of power that enable misuse of power and wrongdoing to continue to occur – whether it be the abuse of interns at Russell McVeagh, the many forms of discrimination, including on the basis of race, that continue to happen in the workplace, the policies which have enabled hundreds of thousands of Māori kids to be removed from their whānau since the 1950s, or a justice system that overall, provides very little justice for survivors of sexual abuse. Structures of power enable habitual behaviours that become so ingrained they become unconscious.
This in turn leads to observable patterns. We begin to notice the same stories and trends. Think about the way #metoo exploded onto the scene, and the many stories that continue to emerge about sexual abuse by the powerful of those less powerful. Yet the system of power that allowed these things to happen in the first place had been operating for eons.
Finally this leads us to the event level. The tip of the iceberg. The shock we experience when something unimaginable, like Christchurch, happens. It was not just the behaviour of one individual that enabled such tragedy to occur.
It is important but it is not enough for each of us to grieve the terrible loss of 50 lives in Christchurch. We also have an opportunity as a nation to question the fundamentals of how power and privilege play out in Aotearoa and change some things that have needed fixing for a long time.
If we are to make meaning of Christchurch, to draw some good from such a terrible event, we must look inside ourselves.
We need to explore our mental models – whether they be around race, religion, women, gender – that enable current power structures to stay in place. In the case of sexual abuse these mental models enable rape and victim blaming to keep on happening. Similar mental models keep so many of our Māori and Pacific whānau poor, unemployed or in prison. In the case of the Christchurch attacks it was a mental model that enabled racism to take seed so strongly and let one man take so much.
For those of us that sit with privilege we have to fundamentally question our own values, beliefs and behaviour at every level: who we choose to include or exclude in our communities, how we treat each other in the workplace, and how we behave in our personal relationships – right down to the words we use.
As Lizzie Marvelly has said, it’s time for us all to take responsibility. We must champion respectful discourse, and utterly reject intolerance, bigotry and discrimination:
“The flipside of all this is that our words are imbued not only with terrible, but also beautiful power - should we choose to use it. Let's use our freedom of speech to speak powerful words of love. And let's never forget that with great power comes great responsibility.
We are still a nation in shock. We need time to grieve. But as Jacinda Ardern has also said, there is work to do to become the nation we believe ourselves to be. Let’s do that mahi.