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Professor Paul Moon

Cannibalism too unpalatable for some

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There is currently a growing body of literature being produced by scholars in many parts of the world which suggests that traditional cannibalism – of the sort that was practiced by Maori in New Zealand – either never occurred at all, or that if it did, it was done to perform for Europeans, and was not a part of the true culture of those ‘performers’. This sort of historical revisionism seems to elevate the novelty of an academic position above what I have always considered to be the primary object of any historical endeavour: to try to move closer to what Gibbon termed ‘the naked, unblushing truth’ of the past.

Of course, the past is not fully recoverable, and unlike science, where an experiment can be repeated to allow more detailed observation, history tends to leave us with traces from which we can, at best, stitch together an approximation of what has gone before.

With this in mind, I embarked on an exhaustive study of traditional Maori cannibalism, with the resulting book – This Horrid Practice – being released at the beginning of August. Among the main findings were that cannibalism was a widespread feature of traditional Maori society, and that contrary to the popular suggestion that it was practiced to consume the mana of the dead person, it was more frequently a product of hostility (often in the immediate aftermath of a battle) in which the dead were eaten as a means of inflicting further humiliation on them, culminating in them being turned into excrement. Weary of the reception that I suspected these un-sanitised conclusions would receive, I applied exceptionally high evidentiary standards to all aspects of my work, and avoided the inclusion of even the slightest traces of what some people might interpret as being sensationalism. The result was a detailed autopsy on the practice of traditional Maori cannibalism – something that offers at the very least an insight into a topic that has received almost no attention from other scholars in the country.

“He is braver than I would be”, was Professor Margaret Mutu’s response to my decision to publish this work. The book was condemned by Professor Mutu primarily because it was written by a New Zealander of European origin. According to one newspaper, she said she “knew of no Pakeha historians who knew how to balance parts of the Maori culture they could not see an equivalent to in the English culture”, and argued that I did not “know how to interrogate it [cannibalism] from within the culture”. The fact that she admitted at the time to not having read a single sentence of the book in no way seemed to diminish her bravura in attacking it and its author. And I was left scratching my head as I tried to disentangle her comments and derive some sensible meaning from them.

But going back to her first statement, why should an historian have to be “brave” when choosing to write about a topic, and what does this comment say about the state of academic freedom in this country?

This year marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Nazi’s book-burning – a crude pogrom against any knowledge or ideas that the German Government considered ideologically unacceptable in 1933. Of course, all the condemned literature outlived the Nazi regime, but the wretched spectre of books being tossed onto blazing pyres remains one of the unforgettable images of that period.

The physical destruction of books now seems to belong to another, much less enlightened age, but not so the censorial urges that led to the practice – something that I have experienced first hand in the past few weeks.

I recall a fellow academic approaching me when I started writing the book, and warning me that I was putting my career in jeopardy by tackling this subject. At first, I dismissed the caution, but when others began making similar comments, I came around to the view that I would be risking my integrity as an historian by being bullied into silence.

Then the attacks came, and in several forms. I am sure many of the people who have complained about the book have yet to read it, but this has not stopped them rushing to judgement and making all sorts of shrill accusations about its contents.

First, there were the emails and often anonymous phone messages, accusing me of all sorts of sins for having researched and written about Maori cannibalism. This was followed by the Rawiri Taonui, a lecturer from Canterbury University , suggesting that I was “demonising” Maori, and that my book was a “return to Victorian values”. In the process, he ignored the vast amount scholarship and research that went to make the book, and instead descended to name-calling by way of a response to my arguments. It was all sound and fury signifying very little.

Then Human Rights Commission dipped its toe into this acrid pool and considered the merits of a letter of complaint made about the book. The Commission’s response was to suggest I enter into mediation. Like Kafka’s Josef K., I found myself being considered increasingly guilty, even though I do not know what precisely I am meant to be guilty of. In this instance, I politely refused the offer.

And here is where the book-burners come in. Although the methods are far more subtle, their aim – in this case to discredit a book they find unpalatable – amounts to exactly the same thing: censorship based on ideology. Although slightly melodramatic in this context, the principle of Orwell’s adage that ‘Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death’, metaphorically still holds true to some extent.

I would not presume to guess the sort of pompous thoughts that run through the minds of a few academics who like to see themselves as guardians of public morality. But they do not speak for the sort of New Zealand I grew up in, and neither, it seems, do they even speak for the communities they purport to represent. Yet, even before my book was released, they were in full chest-thumping mode, coming not to praise Paul Moon but to bury him.

So how should an author react to attempts at censorship? One response would be to yield to the critics and retreat into a form of academic hibernation – hoping that the chill rhetoric will eventually blow away. This would be to let the censors win though. It is crucial that writers in all disciplines take a more principled stand, regardless of whatever short-term irritations they might face.

If this was the United States , such freedoms of expression would be taken for granted, as they are embedded both in the constitution and in the fabric of American society. Perhaps it is little wonder, then, that the United States has long been the source of some of the most important developments in many academic disciplines. There, researchers have the luxury of inhaling in an academic environment that is much less inhibited by they type of strictures placed on writers in other parts of the world.

In New Zealand, with our population of just over four million people, there are too few historians as it is, and with no such absolute security of freedom of speech, there is a real risk that our past might end up being misrepresented because of the censorial forces at work. Some would go as far as to say aspects of it already have.

Those very few people intent on banning books and gagging knowledge rely on cultivating a climate of fear, in which publications have to be given the stamp of approval by some moral police or else face condemnation. The best weapon against this threat is open and frank discussion of the evidence. Surely we have nothing to fear from that?