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Posted by Philip on 6 February 2013, 11:32 am in , , ,

Of treaties, gay marriage, belonging and other fitting things

Many years ago I had an inkling that I didn't fit in. Nonetheless, for years after, I kept trying. The disabled community, the Youthline community, the gay community, even the comedian scene (it's not really a community) — in each I tried to find a common thread, a sense of belonging or, as Seth Godin might say, my tribe.

Alas, each time I threw myself with open arms into these groups — whom I thought would surely embrace me and with whom, in return, I would live happily ever after — I emerged feeling disappointed, rejected, irritated or just reluctantly affirmed: I didn't fit in.

Brené Brown has made an important distinction – in her work on shame, vulnerability and wholeheartedness –between fitting in and belonging. Fitting in, she says, is not belonging. Fitting in is changing yourself to be like the people with whom you want to feel a sense of belonging. True belonging, by contrast, is being accepted for who you are, fully and without exception, by that group of people.

When you don that lens it becomes clear that there's a lot of fitting in that goes on in our world. True belonging, it would seem, is more rare.

Today is Waitangi Day in New Zealand. To explain, for those reading overseas (and perhaps some who actually live here), it is a day to comemorate the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 Feb 1840. The document was an agreement between the many tribes (iwi) of Maori and the Crown on behalf of colonial settlors from Britain. I'm not an expert on the Treaty but you have to be in order to speak with any authority, because the document has been, at worst, the cause and, at best, the focus, of many injustices and grievances between Maori and non-Maori. So I'll not speak with authority.

The Treaty is the backdrop to a complex situation due to the fact that the English and translated Maori versions mean different things. Very coarsely (and unauthoratatively), the English version gives the Crown sovereignity over such things as land, water and law-making. The Maori version leaves this sovereignity with Maori.


Historian Paul Moon will tell you that the Treaty was written in 15 minutes by a representative of the Queen, suffering and delirious as a result of syphilis; and was translated into Maori by another guy who didn't really know how to speak Maori. In 1840, when it was signed by the parties, its intended purpose was to grant settlement rights to the English in return for trading rights in Australia under the UK flag for Maori. (Disclaimer: I'm remembering a talk by Dr Moon nearly a year ago. Some facts may have escaped me.) But you get the picture: it's a document whose origins are somewhat fraught.

Who then would have foreseen that, 172 years later, arguments, protests and settlements over the Treaty would still be a key political and cultural blot on the social landscape of this country, the crux of which comes down to this: a disagreement about whether Maori should fit in to European ways of doing things, or whether there could be two or more ways to belong in New Zealand society.

Segue. A few weeks ago, I saw a news story where Family First leader Bob McCoskrie argued that the Marriage Act should not be changed to allow gay marriage because the Act has as much historical significance as the Treaty of Waitangi, which we would not change (I can't find a reference to this so you'll have to take my word for it). I think he was wrong on three counts:

  1. The Act and the Treaty have fundamentally different statuses in law;
  2. The Act is exclusive in its purpose, while the Treaty is inclusive; and
  3. Since hearing Paul Moon's version of events I've not been sure that the Treaty shouldn't be revised to clarify its meaning today.

Family First's bogus comparisons aside, I have problems with marriage as an institution. While I support gay marriage lobbyists from an equality standpoint, it's not something I am prepared to actively support, because, on several fronts, I believe marriage — gay or straight — confuses fitting in and belonging.

Marriage is portrayed as a way for two people to legally, economically and spiritually belong to a recognised union. In actual fact, it requires people to fit into legal, social and moral conventions, such as shared property entitlements, idealised lifestyles (house, kids, dog etc) and, the most insidious and unspoken of moral constructions, monogamy.

Meanwhile, the gay marriage lobby seeks to feel a greater sense of belonging in society by sharing the right to marry. But really, isn't it just an attempt to fit in with heterosexual notions of legitimate relationships? Athough divorce rates appear to be falling, marriage has hardly proven itself to be a utopia of relationship security and stability.

So, to conclude my rather wide range of political and philosophical musings, when I finally stopped trying to fit in, I had the time and openness to notice where I actually belonged. It wasn't in those groups I listed earlier. To this day, where I belong is among the group of friends, family and colleagues that surround me. I say that not to imply the world revolves around me; I say it to acknowledge that there are many worlds in society that we label, categorise and represent as diversity, but these are not places to belong; they are places to mould ourselves on others, in an attempt to fit in.

At Te Tii Marae today, in Waitangi, the place after which a 172-year-old agreement was signed, there will be talk and protest about who belongs in this country, as there have been for years, decades and centuries. But in reality people will be trying to fit in — or trying to make others fit in — to a unified way of organising people into social, political and economic order.

And no doubt today people will marry in an attempt to belong, not noticing that they are about to start trying and failing to fit into each other's notion of what it means to be a married couple.

Adam Kahane would say we need a long difficult conversation about this stuff. I agree. But I suspect that won't happen until more people start having a long hard think about it.