Racist rant caught on video,” ran the headline this week in News Corp, as though racist rants occur infrequently enough to report and are not, in fact, a fairly reliable feature of the company’s publications. When the Tele offers an account of racism, I am reminded of the women’s magazines of the 1990s, which so dependably condemned the blight of “bad body image”. You tell women they’re hideous beanbags filled with reeking lard for a hundred pages, then redeem yourself with a little false female empowerment. You spend decades concocting Somali gangs, Muslim “ideology”, Aboriginal indolence and Chinese avarice, then decry a woman on a bus for buying the fear that you sold.

The incident in Mona Vale, in which a garrulous lass of seeming middle-age made her best efforts to translate the views of Sam Harris into Strine — “everyone who is Muslim has a chance to be radicalised” — was not only reported in the Tele, but in the Daily Mail and over at Yahoo7, the latter outlet urging anyone with information to “call Crime Stoppers”. It may be true that the “ranter” was a public nuisance who unsettled her fellows to a criminal extent. Then again, the same could be potentially said of Pauline Hanson, Andrew Bolt or Cory Bernardi, who each enjoy audience and influence well beyond a single bus route.

To declare in print, to a vast readership, that Islam conceals a toxic core of hatred is, apparently, fine. To say it on public transport is aberrant, and not the sort of thing that those courageous advocates for free speech over at News Corp are likely to defend. Speech can only truly be free, it seems, when it is paid for and uttered by Chris Kenny. Further, on a bus, Islam can become a race. Islamophobia, we are reminded by Andrew Bolt, is not racism. But if it unfolds on the 185, that’s what you call it. The hypocrisy of the Tele is so very stark. 

Less visible, however, is the damage done by more progressive voices, so eager so often to expose moments of public verbal attack. In the era of the “call out”, there is a very sincere delusion that naming, shaming — possibly even criminalising — bigoted private citizens will purge prejudice from the culture.

Even leaving aside the possible harm that a widely shared video portrayal of violence can cause — US studies indicate that some anti-violence campaigns have the unintended result of making the violence depicted appear normal and everyday, therefore more acceptable — the fixation on public transport “rants” is curious. It seems to me that there’s an idealist urge to locate the source of the disease in individuals with bad accents, suspended licences and, it would seem to me, possibly diagnosable problems with impulsivity. These acts are rarely discussed as symptoms of broader social sicknesses (which would include a tiny budget envelope for mental health services) but are represented as the ailment itself.

A satirical piece this week on the SBS website meant very well when it offered a review of “the best transport to go on a racist rant”, but I suspect that the effect even of such humorous labour is to depict the powerless as the generals, not the foot soldiers, of racism.

This is not to absolve individuals of all social responsibility and declare, “They can’t help it! The system did it!” like some brutal materialist. It is, however, to suggest that there are other places to look for racism than effing public transport.

Despite the best efforts of advertisers to make our metropolitan services look like well-ventilated places stuffed with finance sector guys in suits, PT often smells of wee and human despair. I do not drive and I have held a pass for decades to a world full of people with problems. Some of them bang on about god, others about the lizard people who control the banks. Some of them just sing Pearl Jam songs from the depth of their hearts and, last Tuesday, I had a conversation on the Frankston line with a lady who believed herself to be wed to Robbie Williams—actually, the most pleasant delusion to which I have borne witness on a train. On these networks, especially out of peak hours, there is a high proportion of low-income earners.

Some of these people, certainly, will sometimes wield the weapon of racism. But, to paraphrase Lenin, in the battleground of the everyday, racism is a weapon with a worker at both ends. With such a relentless focus in media on redeeming individuals, on “calling them out” for daring to high-five a fellow, what we obfuscate is the manufacture of that weapon.

Again, this is not let individuals off the hook. I have myself loudly tut-tutted at the bigots of PT, and will likely do so again. But I am not particularly persuaded that my lectures on the Frankston line do much to change anything beyond the condition of the carriage — I am usually so tedious in my approach to the history of racism, commuters begin to hate me more than the assailant.

What the “call out” of the individual — now so popular in all shades of news media — does permit is the continued and benighted view that all we need to do to make the world a better place is shame the relatively powerless. Perhaps if we investigated those complexes that reproduce the racist relation with a fraction of the enthusiasm we malign men who elect not to crush their testicles or women who may need psychiatric care a little more urgently than a public shaming, we’d get somewhere.

Peter Fray

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