Political Mongrels

New Zealand politicians are a real pack of mongrels. Or at least, that’s what they’d like you to think. In any other country’s political context, the press congratulating an ascendant politician on having “a mongrel streak” or a party leader describing his communications director “a mongrel, like me” would be seen as bizarre, crass, and probably racist. In New Zealand, by contrast, “mongrelism” is celebrated in politicians and sports stars alike. But… why? And: what’s wrong with us?

Originally a vernacular term for a mixed breed dog, a mongrel was an accidental cross breed, a mutt of dubious provenance with a likely feral streak. In a short leap of racist logic, “mongrel” has historically also been used as an offensive term meaning “a person of mixed race”, with connotations of coarseness, vulgarity, and ugliness.

In New Zealand, of course, the term is synonymous with the Mongrel Mob street gang. According to Mob mythology, the name first came about as an insult hurled at young troublemakers by law enforcement. “Mongrel” became a point of pride as the gang solidified, signifying gang members’ wild and lawless behavior. The Mongrel Mob name stuck as gang membership became predominantly Māori and Polynesian, now doubly resonant as a reclamation of a racial slur and a retort to polite society. “Mongrel” retains its weight as an insult to this day, with violent criminals and heartless landlords alike tarred as irredeemable “mongrels” in the national media.

More recently, “mongrel” has also emerged as an admiring term for someone reckless and headstrong, with “a mongrel streak” or “a bit of mongrel” considered a necessary characteristic for a cutthroat politician or a rugby player. To be “a bit of a mongrel” is to be unpredictable, dogged, pugnacious, and hard charging. What could be more New Zealand than that?

Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Take a look at who gets to access the positive “mongrel” identity without fear of criminalisation or critique. It’s white men, mostly. Māori and Pacific Islanders get to be mongrels on the sports field, where “mongrelism” slots in with other racalised traits like physical prowess and imperviousness to pain. Off the field, though, “mongrel” traits in Māori and people of color are usually tied to criminality — and not only because of the literal association with the Mongrel Mob — or less-than-humanness. And while some women in politics are lauded for their “mongrel streaks”, you can bet that those same women are more often accused of being hardarses, bitches, and ball busters. More common are cases like the recent NZ Herald and Stuff.co.nz news stories where a politician like Jacinda Ardern is judged over her perceived lack of mongrel. This deficit is synonymous with other charges that plague women in leadership — being insufficiently tough, too emotional, or too weak to face fierce opposition.

So when Gareth Morgan applauds Sean Plunket for being “a mongrel, like me”, he’s tapping into a whole set of characteristics that are applauded in white men and criticized in anyone else. He’s a bit of a mongrel, while you’re a bitch or a thug.

Am I stretching the case here? Sure, maybe. Most good Kiwis would tell you that there’s no racial or gendered undertone to calling someone a mongrel in 2017. Then again, those same folks are the ones most likely to complain about “PC gone mad” when they hear that McDonalds might start allowing boys to choose a Frozen toy instead of a Transformer with their happy meal.

New Zealanders are often guilty of holding on to habits and turns of phrase that are well past their use by date, with proud dismissal of changing social standards. I get the appeal of mongrelism: it fits with the idea of the tenacious Kiwi battler, an underdog winning out despite the odds. But that shit gets old. I’d like to see us own up to the gendered, racially loaded connotations of “mongrelism” and find a new way to talk about our grit, our perseverance, and our strength of spirit.