Peoples’ passion – wairua, affect and national days

Tim McCreanor

In a world gripped by a rising tide of populist nationalism, high emotion and desperate passions often seem to drive global movements, tensions between countries and policies. Politicians feed off the outpourings of rage, resentment, fear and sorrow while social media magnify the most extreme voices to fever pitch.  

We don’t talk a lot about emotion and feeling in this country. New Zealanders have even been dubbed “passionless” by critics, yet it is clear that, aside from fascination with sport, there are still plenty of live issues that can polarise the nation. There is a mix of pride, defensiveness and denial arising in discussions, challenges and conflict over questions of national identity. This is very clear on the two main national days that New Zealand observes – Waitangi Day and Anzac Day – which are powerful moments in the life of the nation.

Curiosity around these tensions inspired our research team to study the role of affect (emotions and feelings) and wairua at play among those that attend (and some who don’t) events such as dawn services at key memorials. We are interested in how wairua and affect arise in acts of commemoration and celebration and how this influences identity, community relations and national life. National days, even in small communities, bring together many threads of histories, tensions and futures, allowing us to see some of the ways New Zealanders feel, talk about and experience our national identities.

WW1 memorial, Mesopotamia Station, Rangitata Valley, Canterbury.

All around the country people gather, often at monuments, pou, buildings, carvings and statuary to participate in events that include speeches, religious elements, songs, flags, military presence, cultural displays and public activities. Many feelings may be evoked - affect and wairua - that can be seen in how people think about themselves and others. This includes how we see the nation, our place in it and our sense of community. We may talk about difference and disagree as to how we should think about ourselves and how we should mark these days. Events might be organised to manage these differences, to bring them out or to bury them. National days remind us of our coming together and coming apart as a nation.

 
 

Memorial at Kohukohu, Hokianga, Northland

Over the last few years our project has collected multiple forms of data; individual and group interviews as well as video recordings as people experience events. We have looked at the ways in which what we experience is created at these events and how these activities influence the ways we are ‘moved’ at national commemorative events. Participants share with us their fear, rage, hope, joy, despair, frustration and excitement as they reflect on or participate on Waitangi Day or Anzac Day. What emerges are rich, diverse, challenging and passionate accounts of what the events mean to ordinary citizens and how affect and wairua play out in their relationships, identities and community life.

 
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Waitangi Day at Waitangi

We see bodies, brains, spirit and meaning as entirely entangled. We are interested in complex mixes and patterns of affect and wairua across people and groups over time; it is clear to us that this has social implications.

We approach these patterns through the application of Margie Wetherell’s notion of social practice and Helen Moewaka Barnes' wairua approach – this means we look not only at what people say but at what they feel.

 
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Anzac Day, Ataturk Memorial, Wellington Heads.

How New Zealanders position ourselves and others in national life, both reflects and drives everyday nationalism, outlining what belonging to the nation means to people and what the nation can mean to its citizens. Feelings are not often talked about in research or, when they are, we might see them as something we experience for a moment and then they are gone. Wairua may be seen as important but too difficult to include as a focus of research. Our team is interested in how these experiences play out, how they work as drivers of everyday nationalism. Our research is enabling us to look at the implications of the many ways we experience and feel about these days; the nature of social relations between Māori and Tauiwi, our attitudes towards war, ideas of our country that we feel comfortable with and those we want silenced.

 
 

Waitangi Day with whanau at Milford Domain, Takapuna

Waitangi Day 2017 has come and gone with the usual deep uncertainty about social justice in the nation.  For Māori the anguish of the history of loss and current disparities seem clear. Expressions of this distress are often seen as that of a few ‘angry activitists’; however our research shows many layers of feelings and experiences as individual Māori, whānau and hapū mark the day. For Pākehā we see a broad mix, from irritation and anger at being reminded of our injustice, and defensiveness over differences in Māori and non-Māori positions in this country, to a determination to work for social justice.

 
 

Anzac dawn service, Fielding

Anzac Day lies ahead with its utopian vision of national unity. While our research sees a common understanding of Anzac Day as a solemn time of respectful remembrance it also points to much diversity.  While we might see the day as a series of commemorations where we are bound together with a shared sense of grief and loss, this is not felt in the same way across citizens, families and communities. Our differences of culture, class, gender, age and life experience contribute to varied meanings and responses from proud adherence to ‘birth of the nation’ and the necessity of war in order to obtain peace to troubled thoughts over the futility and waste of war. The current focus on Gallipoli acknowledges the extreme losses and suffering of families but, it has given rise to the comparative silence on other key times in our history, notably the New Zealand Wars that only finally ended in 1916 with the attack on the Tūhoe community of Rua Kenana. We pick and choose what we remember and too often ignore the memories and moments that might challenge us to think and act differently, the memories we might learn from and build a better future on.