Arguments are raging about how to respond to the election of the divisive anti-Islam senator elect Pauline Hanson[i].
On one hand we are being urged to “listen [to,] not lampoon” Hanson and her voters[ii]. We are told that although ‘Hanson’s policies are misconceived’ we must empathise with the economic pain of Hanson’s rural supporters and accept that their “fears are natural, and understandable”.
On the other hand, there are very real fears that giving credence to bigotry will have devastating effects. Jarni Blakkarly wrote after the election of Hanson: “A lot of my friends who are people of colour and particularly Muslims are genuinely afraid at the moment[iii]”. Last time Hanson was in Parliament she made offensive comments about Aboriginal people and there was an increase in racist incidents in her state to the extent where Aboriginal people reported being afraid to travel on buses. A similar effect is currently being felt on the streets of the UK, as a result of the toxic Brexit rhetoric. Tim Soutphommasane correctly asserted that “We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities[iv]”.
In answer to these two competing perspectives, I suggested on twitter that ‘dialogue with fearful, resentful people must sit alongside ensuring that bigotry is not made respectable’. While we should endeavour never to allow bigoted views to be seen as legitimate, we also cannot afford to ignore them or brush them aside by insulting those who hold them. Ridicule of Hansonism and of Hanson as a public figure representing offensive views is an appropriate and legitimate part of the battle of ideas. However, ridiculing or lecturing Hanson voters, or those who hold racist views, is not helpful.
Research has found that “…it is more effective to have participants in anti-racism strategies engage in dialogue, rather than just being lectured at[v]” and it is this principal that guides our approach in Together For Humanity to responding to students if they espouse such views during our school programs. Instead of shouting down these students and labelling them as bigots, we ask follow up questions in order to engage them in a conversation. Instead we will ask for other students’ opinions on the matter, which usually yields a diversity of ideas, many of which oppose that of the original student. As this exchange is seen as a respectful conversation, rather than a judgemental reprimand, students are far more likely to reconsider their original statement.
In much the same way, there is undoubtedly value in engaging in dialogue with Hanson’s voters, but in a way that does not amplify their voices. One way of doing this is to acknowledge these voices while making them and others aware that racist views are the minority and that the vast majority of Australians (86%)[vi] support a multicultural Australia. This approach is known as the ‘consensus approach’ and has proven to be extremely effective. Those holding racist views usually believe themselves to be in the majority and are often very surprised to learn that they are in fact the minority. This is seen in instances of public racism where the majority stand up to the perpetrator, who will otherwise assume that those around them condone their actions.[vii] Once the perpetrators of racism realise that others do not agree with them, they are more likely to let go of their bigotry[viii].
In many ways, Hanson’s voters are people like you and me. Many of them are suffering and have genuine concerns about the future of our country. They also have unacceptable and harmful views that need to be challenged. But the best way to do that is to engage with them in an appropriate way without causing further harm to our society. This means invoking a respectful dialogue rather than on name-calling and belittling. There is a struggle for the hearts and minds of Australians and the direction we will take in negotiating differences in our society is being decided. Let us fight hard, compassionately and wisely.
[i] Hanson is a divisive Australian politician notorious for her antagonism to Islam and warnings several years ago that Australia risked being “swamped by Asians”.
[v] Pedersen A, Walker I, Wise M (2005), ‘Talk does not cook rice’ : Beyond anti-racism to strategies for social action, The Australian Psychologist, 40, 20-30.
[vi] Tim Soutphommasane (2016), ‘Pauline Hanson might be back, but Australia has moved on’, http://www.smh.com.au/comment/pauline-hanson-might-be-back-but-australia-has-moved-on-20160705-gpypdt.html#ixzz4DgfRuLfY
[vii] Tim Soutphommasane (2016), Racism in public: why the majority will be silent no longer. http://theconversation.com/racism-in-public-why-the-majority-will-be-silent-no-longer-13484
[viii] Stangor, Sechrist, & Jost, cited in Pedersen A, Walker I, Wise M (2005),