Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Is modesty at risk of extinction?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, October 12.)

MODESTY is a word rarely heard these days. If it’s mentioned at all, it’s usually in the context of someone’s achievements. We might say, for example, that Ed Hillary was noted for his modesty – in other words, that he wasn’t encumbered by a big ego.

But there are other shades of meaning to the word “modesty”. My dictionary offers the definition “decorous in manner and conduct” or, alternatively, “moderate or restrained”.

These definitions convey a range of nuanced meanings that imply a way of behaving that is dignified and protective of one’s privacy. Modest people don’t draw attention to themselves or volunteer information about their personal life that is no one else’s business. In essence, modesty can be seen as a form of self-respect.

It is in this sense that the word risks becoming extinct, because the old-fashioned concept of modesty collides head-on with the public’s desire to be entertained by revelations about aspects of people’s lives that were once thought better kept to oneself.

We are encouraged to lay bare the most intimate details of our private lives. Popular culture demands it, whether it’s a Hollywood star talking on Oprah about a drug problem, a grossly obese person taking part in a humiliating TV documentary or a former All Black making a grovelling public apology for a sexual indiscretion.

The latest manifestations of modesty’s decline are Facebook – aptly described by a British commentator as the invasion of one’s own privacy – and Twitter, which encourages its followers to broadcast their every thought and action, no matter how banal or personal, to whatever tragic souls might be interested.

In a world where legislators busy themselves devising new privacy laws, it has paradoxically become the fashion to keep nothing secret. We live in a confessional culture in which nothing is concealed, no matter how shameful or degrading.

In the Catholic Church, confession of one’s sins – in private – is followed by repentance and absolution. But in modern, secular society, confession is absolution, provided it’s done in public. As long as the sinner entertains a voyeuristic audience with a full and frank admission of guilt (the more detailed the better), the reward is forgiveness.

The problem is that once modesty has gone, the concept of shame will soon follow. And shame is – or used to be – one of our most effective checks on bad behaviour.

* * *

THERE are people who regard Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, formerly chief executive of Women’s Refuge, as a flake. But Ms Raukawa-Tait was right on the nail recently when she called on Maori leaders to “get out of the Koru Lounge” – what an apt phrase – and do more about child abuse within Maoridom.

Her comment, at an inquest into the violent death of Rotorua toddler Nia Glassie, echoed Social Development Minister Paula Bennett’s blunt message two months ago when she confronted tribal leaders with lists of abused children from each of their iwi and suggested that tribes pay for their care rather than expect the state to continue doing it.

At last, it seems people are starting to put pressure on Maoridom’s elite to take some responsibility for the shamefully high incidence of abuse and violence in Maori families. For too long this issue has been the taniwha in the whare – a baleful presence that the iwi powerbrokers apparently prefer to ignore. They would rather spend their time reminding Pakeha of their record as colonial oppressors and demanding redress for the many historical ills and humiliations, real or imagined, that Maori have suffered.

This is far more rewarding than grappling with the ugly reality of Maori violence (and a lot easier too, given the eagerness of guilt-ridden white politicians to humour their demands).

How much money from the Treaty settlements, I wonder, filters down to grassroots Maori organisations struggling to deal with the epidemic of family abuse? Or do Koru Club membership fees take priority?

I eagerly await the day when Waatea News, the Maori news bulletin on Radio New Zealand, carries as many statements by Maori leaders deploring Maori family violence as it does news items about Treaty grievances. But I’m not holding my breath.

* * *

ONE largely overlooked aspect of the continuing controversy over The Hobbit is that by the time it finally gets made, this film is going to be weighed down by a huge burden of expectation. Even by Hollywood standards, few movies in history have received as much publicity before the first scene was shot.

Endless uncertainty about funding, feverish speculation over casting, the resignation of the exasperated director and the furore over actors’ contracts mean the project has escalated from what should have been a relatively modest undertaking to a magnum opus that the whole world is watching every step of the way.

Will it live up to the attention? The pressure on Peter Jackson to deliver, after all this controversy, must be immense. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes.

Footnote: In the same week this column was published, talkback host and former Wanganui mayor Michael Laws' estranged partner Leonie Brookhammer was revealing (in Woman's Day) explicit details about the breakup of their relationship - details that must be painful and humiliating to both of them. I felt like a voyeur reading excerpts in The New Zealand Herald. While it's gratifying to have my comments about modesty and privacy (or more precisely, the fashionable willingness to relinquish it) confirmed so promptly, I can't think who - other than Woman's Day shareholders - benefits from this sort of exposure.

No comments: