Bring back Kumbaya
It's time to rediscover what we have in common
It was the 1980s. The flames leaped high, the damper smouldered and, of course, we sang Kumbaya, because we were Scouts and that’s what Scouts did back then. These days, Kumbaya is something much closer to an insult, invoked to accuse your opponents of being other-worldly, utopian, “milo-drinking”, and other egregious sins. That’s a little odd when you consider the song’s origins as “a soulful cry for divine intervention on behalf of oppressed people.” And it’s flat-out wrong that, in time when multiple forces are driving us apart, a plea for unity like Kumbaya has become the subject of such derision. In fact, it’s about time that we rediscovered some of the common ground it sought to inspire.
Competition and conflict are a necessary and even helpful part of life and politics. But when the contest between us dominates our imaginations, it becomes harder to see what we have in common. Take the Government’s proposed hate speech laws. The proposal is before us for desperately tragic reasons, and it should go without saying that hatred is an evil, and hatred inciting violence deserves to be a criminal offence. But whatever the proposal’s merits, if we focus on hatred, on the differences between various groups in society, and on whose rights will triumph over whose, the differences between us inevitably magnify and deepen.
It doesn’t help that identity politics has made giant in-roads in recent years, a philosophy that explains and organises the world by allocating us into mutually incompatible groups—male vs. female, Māori vs. Pakeha, religious vs. secular, local vs. immigrant, and on and on it goes. Combined with the partisanship and polarisation of public discourse, it makes a divisive mix. Unless we can discover and celebrate our unity as well as our variety, the forces of division will only splinter our society faster and more effectively.
Fortunately, there are multiple opportunities to remind ourselves of what we have in common, starting with social science. In 2019, researchers from Oxford University tested seven moral rules, based on co-operation, to see whether they are shared across 60 very different societies. From the Koreans to the Maasai to the Tarahumara, they found these rules were common to every culture they studied: “helping family members, helping group members, engaging in reciprocal cooperation, being brave, respecting your superiors, sharing or dividing a disputed resource, respecting others’ property.” These are norms that transcend national, ethnic, religious, and cultural boundaries.
The wellbeing approach to government policy provides another opportunity to see how similar we are. Take Treasury’s Living Standards Framework and its associated Dashboard, designed to help it give advice on how to improve wellbeing. The Dashboard includes wellbeing indicators like the ability to express your identity, having access to the natural environment, having enough money to meet everyday needs, your level of cognitive skills at age 15, and whether you have a sense of purpose in life. It’s a policy-maker’s recognition that there are many common experiences needed for wellbeing, regardless of who you are.
Our human rights laws are also based on this recognition of common humanity. That’s why the Bill of Rights Act upholds rights that every one of us possesses: for example, to refuse medical treatment, to vote when we reach adulthood, to gather freely and peacefully, and to express our thoughts and beliefs. We call these things rights because we believe they’re part of a good life for all people.
And then there are less austere sources than science, law and policy that remind us of what we share with others. When the poet TS Eliot writes, “In my beginning is my end,” he speaks to a universal human condition that we all recognise, and will all experience. In philosophy, natural law scholars point out that there are “basic goods” that we all need to live flourishing lives, like friendship, play, and beauty. In religion and spirituality, we recognise that all humans have a spiritual dimension, “taha wairua” to quote the Māori health model Te Whare Tapa Whā, and that we’re equally made by God in His image and have equal dignity and value, to reference the Christian view.
None of this means that we’re all the same, or that we should try to iron out all our differences. As a wise elder statesman said to me once, “Oneness is not sameness, and unity is not uniformity.” But even in the midst of our differences, we are bound together by the sheer fact of living side by side in the same nation at the same point in history, what the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron calls “an arms-length awareness of common interest and common destiny in this land.”
Perhaps you can’t bring yourself to sing Kumbaya, but at least we can stop disparaging its heartfelt elevation of our common humanity. We rightly celebrate the diversity that allows each of us to express our identity and our individuality. It’s time to celebrate our unity too.