Vicious nostalgia: Te Reo, climate, Palestine and social work

A guest post from Dr David Kenkel

A dictionary definition describes nostalgia as  “A wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to, or of, some past period or irrecoverable condition” ( Dictionary, 2024). Nostalgia can be vicious; it is often a great deal more than the wistful yearnings for earlier remembered paradises.


As Hyslop (2022, and 2022) reminds us, social work is not – and never has been – a politically neutral profession. Social Work has always had an activist strand that stands against oppression, and this should be celebrated.  We have also been guilty as a profession of appalling atrocities against indigenous peoples, and others who did not fit the bland descriptions of how families should function.

It only takes a little scratching at the surface of history to remember the uplift of Māori children in the multiple thousands, the contempt and shaming of unwed mothers and the enforced categorization of non-cisgender peoples as criminal and sick. Social Work was there every step of the way and seemed perfectly willing to enforce the rosy illusion of ‘normal’ society promoted by our political masters. 

Nasty Nostalgias:

In my experience of Facebook and other media, occasionally a meme arrives lamenting the loss of the 1960/70s days when Aotearoa’s worst criminal problems were milk-bar cowboys, where all children grew up in happy (English speaking) homes with married male and female (heterosexual) parents – and were free to roam the streets and play outside without the distraction of electronic devices.

Apparently in those days there was no racism in New Zealand. Homosexuality was a (nasty) word in the dictionary, beaches and rivers were glorious places of fun and fishing for all, and our beauteous ‘godzone’ egalitarian paradise was an example to the world. Pollution meant broken glass at the beach (shock horror).  This was also a time where adventurous young Kiwis on their OE’s could venture to Israel and have a great time working in a kibbutz and enjoying the pleasures of this new country of the free and brave.

Well, sorry:

This was and is a crap story.  In reality, those were times of profound cultural, linguistic and geographical oppression of Māori. It was hell on earth if you did not fit the hetero-normative story. Child abuse within families was swept under the carpet (if acknowledged at all). And the brutality of domestic violence was micro-minimised as the occasional ‘domestic’ (usually caused by a woman ‘nagging’ too much).

The world order was seen as a settled thing with America the benevolent keepers of the peace. Countries like Israel were understood as heroic in carving out a new nation state on (apparently) empty land. Pollution was a matter of getting people to do better with their rubbish and the contribution of growth-driven global overuse of fossil fuels was not even a faint cloud on future horizons.

About nostalgia and its political usage:

All nostalgia operates as a device to shadow and hide inconvenient historic truths and current lived realities. Nostalgia labels / narrates as ‘nonsense’ or ‘whining’, the stories of those that are and were oppressed and other dissenting opinions that do not slot neatly into the happy historic story.

Generally, harping back to the good old days works best for those who were best served by the imposed truths of those days. In New Zealand’s instance, middle-class Pākehā who have done well in the intervening years between the late 1970s and today.

If nostalgia was simply a matter of the old remembering pleasant times, then it would not be problematic. Where it becomes problematic is when nostalgia becomes a tool for the contempoary imposition of a historic story that was never true. Nostalgia, in our current epoch can become a device for the implementation of the cruelest of policies.

We are seeing this in the emboldened voices within Aotearoa’s new government, testing its oats with statements such as not being swayed by ‘climate crisis hysteria’, and a commitment to reversing the use of Te Reo in public / departmental discourse. Predictably we will hear more such rhetoric and it is likely to be enforced.


The climate crisis is deserving of an activist ‘hysteria’ with reputable scientific bodies suggesting we are up multiple shit-creeks in the next 15 years, both globally and in New Zealand (Kenkel, 2023). As Weaver (2002) also makes clear, language sits at the heart of indigenous cultures maintaining and regaining their integrity and mana. The current Government’s minimalizing of the realities of climate change and the central role of Te Reo in a future Aotearoa are a vicious example of a nostalgic imposition of ‘one language for all’ and ‘she’ll be right’.

These ideas may suit the privileged and complacent but they gas-light and oppress the current and historical experience of many. If Neale (2019) is to be believed, nation states become more vicious in the face of troubling times (and these are very troubling times indeed). The intent of the state will become (I suspect) more sternly apparent in its instruction of how Social Work is to be performed.

Silence on Palestine:

The nostalgic story of Israel as a society of brave pioneers carving out a new nation is now being revealed as a fiction created at the cost of the Palestinian people currently suffering near-genocidal attack. What is also apparent is the influence and support of the United States of America and many other Western Nations in propping up this no doubt profitable nostalgic fiction. The absence of condemnation by Social Work’s International bodies is a stark reminder that when push comes to shove their loyalties are with a global capitalist status quo, despite pretty words on paper about challenging oppression.

In Aotearoa I have wondered if we made a professional mistake 20 years ago in accepting the creation of the SWRB as a government directed registration and policing body? This body has no mandate to critique and no mandate to shout ‘hell no’! I suspect if someone senior from SWRB expressed public outrage about Palestine and the current attack on Te Reo they would be quietly shuffled aside and replaced with a more biddable candidate.


Many of us thought that the social struggles of recent decades had exposed this nostalgic narrative for the white-washing that it is. Not so, it seems – it is game on again for those who hold to progressive visions of social development and economic justice. Where hope for Social Work as a truly activist profession may reside is in Fritz’s (1996) assertion that communities under threat find solidarity and connection with each other. To keep our integrity we, as individual Social Workers and as a profession, need to be loudly part of that solidarity as and when we can. We must refuse to collude with the enforcement of a dangerous and oppressive nostalgia.

Image credit: tgidenver


Fritz, C.  (1996). Disasters and mental health: Therapeutic principles drawn from disaster studies.  Historical and comparative disaster series #10. University of Delaware Disaster Research Centre. 

Hyslop, I. (2022). A Political History of Child Protection – Lessons for Reform from Aotearoa New Zealand. Bristol: Bristol University Press.

Kenkel, D, J. (2023). Placing People in Time. Doctoral Dissertation. Universitat Blanquerna Ramon-Hull. Barcelona.

Neale, J. (2019). Social collapse and climate breakdown. Ecologist: The Journal of the Post Industrial Age.

“Nostalgia.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, 2024.

Weaver, H, N.  (Ed). (2022). The Routledge International Handbook of Indigenous Resilience. ISBN 9780367499853

3 replies on “Vicious nostalgia: Te Reo, climate, Palestine and social work”

Kia ora David, Great post and thank you for reminding those of in the profession that they can not (and must not) stand by while injustices (of any sort) are continuing.

Thanks Luis,
Yes we are a vexed profession! with a strange history of 2 now very entwined strands:
One: the activist tradition drawing on not just a critical theory perspective but also a burning heart-felt recognition of the injustices of the world and a solidarity with those harmingfully positioned by inequitous social / political structures.
Two: a compliant role obedient to the policies and norms of the day and taking the ‘kind’ face of enforcing those norms.
In many ways these oil and water strands do not and perhaps never can be blended into one paradigm.
The various profesional bodies we have tend to try and manage these two inherently different strands by pouring social justice rhetoric into our guidleines of how we be that ‘kind’ enforcement strand without actually ever addressing the fundamental conflict.
What is critical is to keep that burning sense of injustice alive! – particularly in troubled times when state strictures become bolder and harsher. Tricky stuff!!

Thanks David

And this is where I don’t make any friends in the profession – there may be other reasons as well mind you 🙂

Anyone that calls themselves a social worker and is compliant / silent / stands by while the injustice is perpetrated should not – in my eyes – call themselves a social worker.

Harsh as that may sound I believe it. I would assume that most of us got into this profession to make a difference / fight injustices / stand up to the bully.

If you’re just here to get a pay slip every week then bugger off and make room for those that should be here.

Hasta la victoria siempre


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