No, we shouldn’t ‘listen’ to Hanson (or Trump) voters and stop calling them names.
It is a significant strength of progressive politics that its practitioners are self reflective and self critical. We want to make the the world better, and so we ask (a lot) how we can make ourselves and our message better.
One anxiety that many of us seem to harbour is that we’re disconnected with the people whose votes really sway elections. That we’re members of a disconnected cosmopolitan global elite that is cut off from real people. These are not bad questions to ask sometimes, but there is a line.
Openly racist (or sexist, or homophobic) politicians, and the people who support them, cross that line. I, at least, think there are moral bright lines in this world. And I’ll be dammed if appearing like an out of touch elitist will stop me from calling them out (for instance, I think it is unacceptable to vote for a party that supports the abuse of asylum seekers).
This brings me to Pauline Hanson and her voters (about 4% of Australians, by the most recent figures). Pauline Hanson, in her roughly 20 years in Australian public life, has shown herself to be an unrepentant racist. Not only that, but in her latest iteration, she’s now and Islamophobe as well. (You can substitute Donald Trump into much of this, though he is both part of a much larger movement, and has a much shorter history of open racism).
But I don’t think calling Hanson, and the act of voting for her racist is just morally right, I also think it’s the best way to defeat her ideas. I do not accept the argument that Hanson’s voters must be listened to. That progressives must empathize with their feeling of disconnection from the elites, with their ‘economic anxiety’.
Here’s why: calling out the expression of unacceptable ideas as racist (or sexist or homophobic) has a great track record in stopping the spread of those ideas. Just look at how much more rare it is today for public figures to say racist, sexist or homophobic things in public. It used to be really common. Lots of advertisements used to be openly sexist. As recently as 20 years ago, many prominent elected Republicans frequently used disgusting slurs against LGBT people. Indeed, Pauline Hanson’s political movement collapsed early this century when most of Australia’s media and political elites savaged and mocked her and her ideas. Calling out racism works for two reasons.
1. Even the racists don’t want to be called racist.
The number of racist people who don’t consider themselves racist, and don’t want to be called racist is far larger than the number of proud racists. This is important, because many of these racists care about the labels applied to them. When they say racist things, and are called racists, they often stop saying those things, to avoid being called racists.
Yes, the do often get upset. It often leads them to complain about ‘political correctness gone mad’. It probably doesn’t make them any less racist at that moment, either. But, a lot of the time, it does stop them saying the racist things in public.
This leads to reason number two.
2. If fewer people say racist things in public, there will be less racism
Imagine the first lunch you eat with some new co-workers. Everyone is on their best behaviour. Everyone wants to make a good impression. The subject of music comes up. You don’t want to seem outside of the crowd, so you offer a reasonable opinion. ‘Sure,’ you say, ‘I don’t mind Coldplay, but they’re not my favourite band.’ Actually, you hate Coldplay. But you know that in this setting, among relative strangers, it’s not appropriate to express really strong opinions that might offend people.
This is also true for racism. Many racists don’t just walk around with their racism dial turned up to 11 at all times. They know that many of their opinions are ‘controversial’ (or ‘not politically correct’). And they know that venturing them in public could lead to negative repercussions. They already move through the world constantly self-regulating, turning their racism dial up and down as needed.
Making them feel they need to keep their racism dial turned down more often, will reduce the amont of racism in the world. Not necessarily as measured by people’s thoughts, which we can’t measure, but as measured by their words and actions.
On top of reducing the amount of racism in the world, from this one person, turning down their dial also makes other people less racist.
Snap back to lunch. The person sitting next to you unleashes on Coldplay. “Chris Martin,” he says, “just doesn’t understand my way of life. I don’t necessarily have anything against him as a bloke, but he just comes here and puts on his shows knowing how bad they are… he’s actually proud of it.” It’s like you’ve just seen your lover fart in front of you for the first time. Relief washes over you. You dive in and rattle of your favourite grievances.
See, public racism feeds public racism. Seeing one person be openly Islamophobic (say, a federal senator-elect), makes other people feel their views are part of the acceptable political discourse. They raise them more.
When more people are racist, not only are other racists more racist in public, but more people are exposed to racist ideas. As we know, some people who are not racist right now will come to be racist if exposed to racist ideas (for example, children).
If, on the other hand, there is less public racism, fewer people will be exposed to racism. And on top of that, we know that even people who are raised surrounded by racism can, when no longer exposed to constant racism, learn that racism is bad and stop being racist (for example, adults who were the children of racists).
Indeed I think the racists themselves will often become less racist if they stop saying racist things in public as often. Just look at the huge sea change in attitudes toward gay marriage. Opinion changed so comprehensively that not only did undecideds come to support gay marriage, surely some people who were once openly homophobic came to support equal marriage. The first step in that effort was policing public, overt homophobia.
Is my evidence here shakey? Yes. So is the evidence of the people that keep asserting we need to listen to and play nice with the racists. But I think my reasoning about why calling this out works is solid. And it has the advantage of also being the right thing to do.