‘Ordinary’ is far from an innocent word

Is the "ordinary New Zealander" here? PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Is the "ordinary New Zealander" here? PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Just what does "ordinary" mean and what does using the word imply, Hugh Morrison writes.

Before last year’s election, I was out of New Zealand on study leave.

I spent a pleasant half hour or so casting my vote in London, along with others glad to hear a familiar accent and a chance to briefly chew the fat. Not surprisingly, rugby was the focus.

I was glad to be somewhere else during the pre-election bunfight — away from all the argy-bargying that goes on between individuals and parties.

And particularly pleased to not hear about the ubiquitous "everyday Kiwi" or the "average New Zealander", so beloved of politicians.

Who is this person?

Now that I am back, I hear another seemingly simple word frequently appearing in public rhetoric — the word "ordinary". Specifically, reference to yet another mysterious person — the "ordinary New Zealander".

I see or hear it in a range of contexts. The writers or speakers do not elaborate what they mean.

It seems so innocent. We all know what "ordinary" means, right?

But ... do we? Its context suggests otherwise — at present, mostly in relation to public discussion around a possible "Treaty Principles" Bill in Parliament.

This public discussion is taking many forms including: online and in other media, hikoi and protests, vigorous marae-based hui, newspaper editorials and special features. Many are calling for this to be a national or society-wide debate.

If so, then my schoolboy experience of interschool debating tells me that effective debaters need to robustly define and explain their key terms.

If there is to be meaningful debate then words like "ordinary" or "ordinary New Zealander", for example, need to be properly explained.

It is disingenuous (or perhaps just innocently ignorant) to brandish these in public discussion. As such they are a blunt weapon, of no use for the process of talking with each other in a way that brings deeper understanding.

My concern, here, is not to take sides so much as to prompt us to think about the words we use, why we might use them, to be honest about that, and to be open to a more informed approach.

Recent research that I have been involved in provides two examples that belie the apparent simplicity of the word "ordinary".

One is a history of children born to Scottish and New Zealand Presbyterian missionary families, whose childhoods were spent in places like Melanesia, India, China and southern Africa. I interviewed a number of older folk, who were children from the 1920s to the 1950s.

They were children whose lives were presented in magazines and newspapers, to other readers "back home", as being exotic and different. Yet, many described their own lives to me literally as "ordinary". They saw no difference in their childhoods from other Western children.

Some were bemused that I was interested in what they thought of as an ordinary life. However, their responses subverted that impression. They described complex, complicated lives marked by linguistic and cultural diversity, frequent moves, uncertain identities and long family separations (mostly for their education).

For some this was traumatic, with life-long impact. In the context of this current opinion piece, the take-home lesson, then, might be that the word "ordinary" is unhelpful. If accepted at face value, without elaboration, it hides or downplays complexity and diversity.

That surely is a danger in our own present context, as we attempt to understand the issues before us, complex and important as they are.

The second example is from current research on settler girls’ autobiographical school writing in 1930s and 1940s southern New Zealand.

Like the missionary children’s interviews, their writing was filled with the "ordinary" minutiae of family and school life.

They commented on current affairs, on more extraordinary events (like a school visit to the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington) and on the war.

For the most part, however, their writing was wholly framed by Western elements: the landscape of their hometown, school literature and the history they learnt, the people they knew.

They lived within a pākehā world, in which Māori were barely mentioned, unknown (relationally) but stereotypically "known" (educationally), who lived elsewhere.

This was a deep silence, in which the assumption was that settler New Zealanders were the norm ("ordinary"?) and Māori were other (or worse, non-existent).

I wonder if that silence is still a problem for us, for it seems to privilege some but denies the identities of others.

Canadian historian Laura Ishiguro writes about "the settler everyday" — the seemingly unremarkable narration of being a colonial settler that was largely mono-ethnic and which signified how the settler population took "for granted their power, prospects, comfort and belonging" over others.

Again, therefore, the take-home lesson here might be to also think carefully about how the words we use act to deny identity or to camouflage assumptions about who has power, why that might matter and why we might feel threatened. It is not easy, but it is necessary, perhaps.

Words are not neutral or simple. They carry great potential for human suffering. The newly released holocaust movie The Zone Of Interest manifestly illustrates the banality of evil — its rootedness in the seemingly ordinary and the purposeful use of euphemistic words to cover up or deny terrible intentions and acts.

The same is still true for those living through the hell of war in places like Ukraine, Palestine, Myanmar or Sudan.

Words can destroy, or at least drive irreconcilable wedges between peoples and communities.

My plea is that we think before we bandy about certain words, that we consider what we mean by certain words, that we choose not to use certain words, that we explain our words and, ultimately, that we choose to use words that are constructive and not destructive.

"Ordinary" is such an innocent word? Yeah, nah.

 - Hugh Morrison is an associate professor at the University of Otago College of Education, and writes on the histories of religion and of childhood/youth.