Pauline Hanson

On Monday, veteran commentator Margo Kingston urged her fellow “elites” to tolerate supporters of One Nation. It was wrong, said Kingston, to sneer at these voters and “counterproductive” to mock their personification, Pauline.

OK, sure. We can say that Kingston, whose song to reasonable speech echoes one that is quite generally heard, is right about the sneering. (I’m going to find it hard to stop, though.) We can also say that harassment by the “elites” of a purported underclass will serve only to intensify their rage, see also Trump, UKIP, 1933. We can also say, although Kingston doesn’t, that life and logic in Queensland hardens as commodity prices soften and that these racists (please, they’re racists) could be reformed with some we’re-all-in-this-economy-together kumbaya.

Nah. While Kingston’s advice not to taunt the bear, or the bush turkey or whatever, is OK, her claim that Hanson’s re-emergence in Parliament will “bring [us] together” in cross-class hymn is optimistic bunkum. Hanson is irredeemable. Her supporters are irredeemable. Forget them, even if many of them may have had a lifetime of being forgotten.

This is mean. I don’t like saying this. And I say it as a fairly bog material-leftist who still sometimes believes that once people learn that an ugly phenomenon, like racism, “is made necessary by circumstances”, they will rise, change circumstances and unlearn that phenomenon.

However, there’s just no changing some people. Racism isn’t an innate or irreversible ill, but it’s a pretty complex one. Certainly, too complex to be cured by Marx’s scientific consciousness, let alone a six-year dose of the simple Senator. She will not bring us together.

Shakira Hussein’s good work in Crikey yesterday reminded us that the sickness of racism is the product of more than “the economy, stupid”. Perhaps, medicine’s biopsychosocial model is a better way to understand how the disease plays out in the individual mind. Whatever the case, Kingston’s diagnosis — those who support Hanson are always oppressed and those who oppose her are always “elites” — is of limited help in treating this disorder.

Even as a regular nursing aide to Dr Marx, I largely dismiss this class diagnosis. There are many “elites” who love the hell out of Hanson — bourgeois New Atheists among them. And, despite Kingston’s curious claim that the politician is “LIKED by most ‘ordinary’ Australians”, there must be just as many “ordinary”, by which we presumably mean white, Australians ashamed to be represented by one to whom English, a language she claims to endorse, remains a puzzle.

And no, I’m not mocking Hanson here. I am merely declaring a truth. The woman can’t talk. While there are likely those who feel well-represented by her catastrophic speech and, perhaps, those who feel maligned by my “elite” statement of the obvious, what will these things matter? Big deal. She claims to be oppressed? Well, so does nearly everyone. We are speaking in an era where political and media careers are built on the basis they are being silenced by some powerful force. Richard Dawkins. Andrew Bolt. Any popular feminist who was paid to write about the time she was called a slut by a man on Twitter. Heavens, even Rupert Murdoch talks about the “elites” to prove himself, and his publications, of the people.

To ask, as Kingston nobly does, “So what to do?” on the matter of dialogue with Hanson supporters is also to ask what to do about this wider tendency to employ oppression as a tactic; to weaponise one’s ordinariness. This is not to say, of course, that the ordinary oppression is not always real — men do call women sluts, Crikey writers do call One Nation voters incurably stupid and racism is an ugly fact. It is to say, however, that we must resign all hope for this sort of dialogue.

“So what to do?”

For a start, we all might want to quit claiming to know the “ordinary” Australian. Particularly journalists, Margo. No journalist can remember what an “ordinary” Australian looks like, which is something we media people tell each other all the time but can never admit about ourselves. But, between you and me, I have no fucking clue. The information we collect, whether from a data provider or from lived or field experience, is no prophylactic against the “elite” conditions of our profession. Let’s stop pretending so publicly to know the real Australia.

Second, as aforementioned, we need triage. Give up on the dead thought of One Nation.  It’s not “elite” to pass by a lost cause, such as the individual who can be swayed to vote for a party that offers cultural purity as a solution to everything. We can certainly, and must certainly, aim for a future that outruns the economic and social conditions likely to provoke such an illness. But no volume of awareness campaigns or patient speech in The Guardian will cure it.

Third, we might more generally question the usefulness of humanism when it comes to the mass culture. And not just Margo but anyone who holds that if we were only nicer and more prepared to listen to others, everything would be better. While egalitarian understanding is useful, and actually necessary, to intimate interaction, it just doesn’t always scale up very nicely. The “if only we saw each other as we really are, things would run more smoothly” view can only produce a result in very limited contexts; it is completely useless, for example, in peak hour. And anyhow. If someone brown, however “elite”, feels the urge to scream at a One Nation voter, it’s really not much use to urge for their humanist understanding. This is an inevitable pile-up. Don’t change the driver, change the road.

Finally, we might actually pause to think about the “values” we are fighting for if we are to overcome this problem, and problems even more monumental than how to speak to One Nation. What we are bound to read and hear more of in coming weeks is “values”. Hanson talks in quarter sentences about Strayan values. Her opponents talk in paragraphs about multicultural values. Kingston talks sketchily of the value of ordinariness. What everyone is really talking about, however, is not what their own values are, but what they are not.

That is un-Australian. I am anti-racist. I am opposed to the “elites”. None of these statements describe what they are, but only what they are not. No wonder there is a frustrating quality to our dialogue; we are uttering the values that we don’t have, often also claiming that the values that we do have are the ones that the “elites” or the oppressors despise.

There is an absence at the centre of our dialogue. And it is not one caused by the “regressive left” failure to fear Islam any more than it is by the failure to sympathise with “ordinary” or less “ordinary” Australians. It is caused by a fight for “values” that we cannot utter or even recognise unless they are defined in terms of what they are not.

“So what to do?”

Fight for values. But take a minute, or a decade, and try to work out what those values are. And whether or not they retain any practical function. Humanism, I believe, ceased to have a practical function shortly after it was created in the very tiny world of 18th-century Europe. But you know, you can talk about that. Fight for humanism if that’s the sum of your values, but address those values fully, and remember that saying that other people are not humanist is not anything like a thorough address.

Fight for multiculturalism. But think about what that means. I would say that it means very little, but once you can convince me that it means a lot more than “what Pauline Hanson doesn’t want”, I might change my mind.

I can only change my mind and you can only change yours if the dialogue we have goes beyond absence. And you can call me an “elite” or an “ordinary” writer. And you can say that I am “racist” or an “Islam apologist”. You probably will. But, dude, you’d still be talking, as everyone is, about nothing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey