Culture and Wellbeing: Towards a Humanistic Public Policy?

McCahon Elias, New Zealand Culture and Wellbeing Moore-Jones
Colin McCahon, Elias (1959). Private collection.

The search for a language of human value in public policy has been ongoing for some time, especially in New Zealand, with many shuffling towards it and trying to speak about it directly. Max Harris’ “politics of love” in his The New Zealand Project (BWB, 2016) is one attempt at this. Treasury’s Living Standards Framework is another. Robert Gregory and Kristen Maynards’ argument in Policy Quarterly that the Māori idea of wairua can enable a “more humane public service” is one more. The theme was dealt with by Minister of Finance Bill English in his social investment budgets, and it is being dealt with now by Minister of Finance Grant Robertson in his wellbeing budgets. Are we all grasping towards a humanistic public policy?

The language of policy as it has developed as a social science from Weber onwards is generally positivist to the extreme: footnotes aplenty, no first-person, and certainly no place for art, culture or literature. But if we’re looking for a “humane” public service, might these things be a way of communicating directly? Perhaps the era of positivist public policy is drawing to a close—and what we need more than ever is a new language of policy that puts human values at its very centre.

Here I want to say that culture is itself a language of humanity—something we sorely need when concerned with living standards and human wellbeing.

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The Labour Government’s Wellbeing Budget had this to say about wellbeing: “Wellbeing is when people are able to lead fulfilling lives with purpose, balance and meaning to them. Giving more New Zealanders capabilities to enjoy good wellbeing requires tackling the long-term challenges we face as a country, like the mental health crisis, child poverty and domestic violence. It means improving the state of our environment, the strength of our communities and the performance of our economy.”

The problem is that wellbeing is ephemeral, as indicated by phrases like “purpose, balance and meaning.” American political commentator David Brooks once wrote that “meaning” as it is used in public today is “flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life… Meaningfulness is pure and self-regarding feeling, the Nutrasweet of the inner life”—giving a sense of its ephemerality and intangibility, to put it mildly.

What is of interest is that government has mentioned “meaning” in the first place, something that indicates the search for a language of human value. The problem is it also indicates public policy’s general muteness when it comes to explaining what those human values are, or how they might be achieved.

At the same time as the “humanities” have been maligned and neglected in our universities and culture at large, they’ve never been more needed in public life. The term itself gives a sense of their significance—the humanities being those things that deal with our humanity, with what makes our societies unique. They give depth and meaning to the concept of wellbeing. One book alone won’t do it, but the collective knowledge of and education in the humanities gives a literal common language of humanity.

The most common arguments given for why nations should care about the humanities are (and I adapt these from Helen Small’s wonderful book The Value of the Humanities):

1. The argument for economic growth (national culture becomes one of the greatest tourism drawcards, and can be a significant export industry—imagine Book of Kells and James Joyce tours in Dublin)

2. The argument for intrinsic value (culture is valuable for its own sake, and to justify it is to reduce it)

3. The argument for democracy (culture teaches us empathy and allows us to see different perspectives; it also teaches skills like critical thinking, which are essential to a functioning democracy)

4. The argument for individual happiness (culture embeds us in layers of meaning and significance that are essential to happiness)

5. The argument for non-economic values (after neoliberalism, culture alone gives society a way to see values that do not have numbers before them)

Arguments one and two appear significant, and correct, but ultimately they get caught in their own logical knots—or at the very least undermine the other arguments. Instead, I think arguments 3, 4 and 5 above present an overwhelmingly strong case for why we today need culture and the humanities to re-enter the language of public policy. Culture alone teaches us about human values, and about what’s worth valuing in life; culture strengthens democracy, by teaching us about perspectives and conditions we may otherwise never understand; and culture increases happiness by embedding citizens in history and networks of meaning.

These arguments are not unique. They’re as old, in many ways, as culture itself. But what is unique is making them in this particular combination at a time when New Zealand, and many countries in the developed world, grasp for a new, human-centric way of conducting public policy. In Aotearoa, the emphasis on wellbeing seems an attempt to acknowledge that human life and happiness are at the ends of policy—things we’ve grown unaccustomed to talking about, seeing them fluffy and imprecise.

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What does this mean, practically speaking? These thoughts still need to be explored and developed, but some early suggestions:

  • Politicians and public policy practitioners must learn to be more comfortable with speaking in metaphor and cultural example—with letting go of certainty, in other words, because certainties are impossible in our age of complexity.
  • There must be increased funding of culture and of cultural education. As a language for governments and citizens to communicate with one another about the most important things, it deserves emphasis. (It is a central irony that cultural services are being cut and abolished at precisely the point that they’ve never been more urgent).
  • Businesses, too, should emphasise cultural education as a way to begin speaking about human values. Culture is a way for businesses to become truly human-centric, serving humans everywhere.
  • When politics is being fractured by a regression into unchangeable identity characteristics, emphasising human values is one way of bridging divides and creating cohesiveness.

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The painting at the top of this essay is by New Zealand’s great painter Colin McCahon. His paintings are often difficult to understand at the best of times, but his Elias series, of which this is one, are perhaps most difficult of all. Some canvases are large, others small; some dark, some light, and some nearing apocalyptic; what they share in common is the word “Elias” scrawled and etched across their surface. “ELIAS will he come, come to save him?” “Will ELIAS save him?” “ELIAS cannot save him.”

McCahon struggled his whole life with the public incomprehension and derision of his art. His Elias paintings were an attempt to communicate about human comprehension itself, to struggle through the incomprehension and find a way to mutual understanding. They abstractly depict—in words, because these paintings are about language itself—a moment when Jesus, crucified on the cross, calls out to “Eli”, his God, to come to help him. Bystanders, however, mishear him in his moment of need. They hear him calling for “Elias”. In misunderstanding they call out, again and again and again across McCahon’s many paintings. Elias, Elias, ELIAS—but it is too late. Words and communication failed to reach across the void.

At a time when the public understanding of and trust in government is at an all-time low in many nations around the world, now seems a time for us to think like McCahon. How can governments communicate with citizens to increase belief and trust? How can government departments talk about humanity itself? How can we re-think our tools, just as McCahon re-thought the nature of painting itself, to say what we need to say?

In this task, culture offers governments a language with which to make wellbeing mean something.