This is probably a very ill considered post. I do feel compelled to write something on this subject however.

Today in the NZ Herald Kepa Morgan has a piece relating why we should listen when Maori raise concerns regarding respect for the traditional dwelling places of Taniwha. I think he raises a very good point that the imagery of Taniwha may be used in place of real and complex issues that may impact any proposed civil engineering project. Unfortunately I disagree that this means that any concerns must therefore be automatically be taken seriously and addressed.

Mr Morgan raises valid points about subsequent real damage that might have afflicted the State Highway that was re-routed due to a Taniwha and actual damage sustained by the Ngawha Prison complex. In each case though this is post hoc reasoning – in hindsight we should have listened to these concerns because something bad happened after we did or didn’t.

This has no bearing in the legitimacy of the claims as they were stated at the time, or in the current case. Yes, the Taniwha may represent potential material issues that affect building projects but framing the issues in this way adds absolutely nothing to the discussion. We could substitute any number of supernatural beings into the claim, such as fairies  or leprechauns or even gremlins[1] and the informational content would remain unchanged.

Were the claims to be brought forward in terms that civil engineers could understand and address then we could engage in a ration discussion about the pros and cons of proceeding as planed. As it stands, this is impossible. We can either accept the claims at face value and bow to, at best, poorly articulated real concerns and at worst blind superstition. Or we can carry on oblivious and be labelled culturally insensitive.

Neither of these options appear particularly enticing to me.

Kepa observes:

“If the initiative had allowed a more thorough investigation of tangata whenua concerns, it is possible the current situation may have been avoided. “

I agree, in theory. In practice though how much effort should be expended investigating these concerns from every possible angle without any supporting evidence or even any suggestion of where we should focus our attention?

Further he notes:

“…in most cases the information that engineers are relying on to make decisions is incomplete and fallible.

Therefore it is prudent to take into account all sources of knowledge, rather than assuming that a poorly informed mono-cultural understanding of an issue is the only one that really matters. “

Again, agreed – but how do vague concerns about a mythical creature increase the amount of knowledge engineers have to work with?

Cultural sensitivity is not my strong suit[2], but it seems to me such issues need to be moved past before a truly productive and mutually respectful dialogue can take place.

Or I could be wrong.[3]

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1. Where’s William Shatner when you need him?

2. Heck, I don’t even care about my “own” culture, whatever that is.

3. Please school me, I readily admit these things often pass me by.

[Edit: Just noticed that the wrong link was put in, the wordpress link dialog has been causing  me issues. Apologies]