2016 is like one of those annoying telemarketers who keeps calling you, trying to sell you products that you don’t want in a rhetoric that makes you want to kill yourself. The entire globe seems to have succumbed to populist demagogues of one sort or another. Whether it’s Donald Trump wanting to emulate Emperor Qin Shi Huang along the banks of the Rio Grande or Rodrigo Duterte’s concerted effort to cleanse the Philippines of drug dealers, dictators and self-abasement to them seem to be back in style.
There are essentially two sides to this hyper-nationalistic and fact-free rhetoric: on the one hand there are people like Trump and Duterte, who are legitimately terrifying for brewing a potent concoction of populist rhetoric and state-sanctioned violence respectively; on the other hand, you have people like Pauline Hanson and Nigel Farage. This is the softer, more approachable side of fascistic nationalism, driven by notions of xenophobia and trade protectionism. Given that one of us is Australian, Pauline Hanson is the most relevant manifestation of the above phenomenon, and thus we shall focus on her exploits.
Hanson is an Australian politician who often garners criticism as being racist, xenophobic, and anti-Muslim. She has denied all of these allegations at every turn. Indeed, she has had legal action taken against her and been convicted of electoral fraud by the District Court of Queensland. She was convicted along with David Etteridge, an Australian businessman, and was sentenced to 3 years in prison. After 11 weeks, both Etteridge and Hanson were released due to the Court’s conclusion not being sufficiently supported by the evidence. With such controversies in her past, it seemed inevitable that Pauline would be noticed again.
Pauline deservedly receives a lot of criticism for her diverse views on everything from Asian immigration to Muslim immigration (in retrospect, her areas of interest could use a little broadening). Unfortunately, for those who prefer their political attacks to avoid crippling logical fallacies, most of this criticism has come in the form of ad hominem attacks. As noted, she’s a bigot. She’s a racist. She’s a xenophobe. While these things might be true, they don’t cut to the heart of the argument. They don’t do justice to proper argument and logical critique. In fact, that poor, vulgar form of argumentation prevents logical argument and dismisses real arguments already present. Consider the most recent example of her errant opinion finding its way onto national news: her advocacy for a ban on Muslim immigration.
This sounds like a terrible idea, and it is, but not for the reasons you might assume. She was pilloried in the press as a racist. This is a nonsensical accusation, considering that Islam is a religion, not a race. If the critics throwing this poisonous and barbed attack had any intellectual honesty and forethought, they could acknowledge the difference between criticism of immigration policies, religious doctrine, and individuals. Then we could take them seriously. But no, they hurl insults before an argument. Indeed, if the critics don’t want to appear racist themselves by throwing the term racist out into the whirlwind, they might want to reflect that individuals from religions come from from all ethnic backgrounds.
That is, her criticism presumably applied to Susan Carland as much as it did to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the public at large isn’t necessarily disposed to examine a nuanced argument about the merits, or lack thereof, of her proposed policy. So the old trope of racist was trotted out once again. This is going to become a real issue when a real racist presents themselves in the Australian political landscape, and no-one believes the label anymore, but that is a conversation for another time.
The real point is that Pauline had a point. Islam, in its most conservative and literal form, is a religious ideology completely anathema to a liberal democracy. Her suggestion that Muslim immigrants be banned was simply a response to the fact that many people have seen the European Migrant Crisis and don’t want the same social upheaval visited on its shores. You can attack the method, but her core position – namely, concerns relevant to islamism – is solid. We want to make it clear that we am not defending everything that Pauline has ever said. We find her views on most subjects distasteful.
On the other subjects where she has something to contribute, she is hamstrung by an almost total inability to articulate anything but confusion and misunderstanding. Her rise is attributable to a public discourse drowning in the quicksand of political correctness. The extreme avoidance of terms or invention of new ones to avoid, at all possible costs, harms to individuals that might claim personal insult or harm. We can already hear the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth that inevitably accompany any statement lamenting political correctness, so allow us to elaborate. By political correctness, we mean the inability of people to speak honestly and openly about issues for fear of being branded a racist or a bigot. We mean the disinclination of people, usually on the Left, to engage with facts and controversial ideas with direct language, and instead preferring to smear and slander the character of the person uttering unpalatable truths.
We mean the extraordinary propensity for assuming you have found an interlocutor’s only motivation, when you have identified their lowest one. Even further, it is the assertions about knowledge of an individual’s character without asking them what they mean by what they said, and so stopping any direct, honest, frank conversation through the imbuing of character and the spinning of canards and yarns. Respectful and constructive dialogue is one of the pillars of our democracy; the marketplace of ideas doesn’t function if people aren’t free to trade. But political correctness does nothing to enhance this. In fact, it buries talking points under layers of irrelevant rejoinders and unjustified social costs. This is why Pauline Hanson and her ilk exist. The principle of suppression is best illustrated with respect to the Spanish Civil War during the 1930’s.
Spain had a Catholic Church that did everything it could to ban and suppress anything that contradicted its teachings. When this grip on control lapsed during the civil war, atheists and other persecuted citizens reacted with a savagery born of intellectual infantilising and ideological suppression. We aren’t facing the same consequences in Australia, but the principles hold. We should uphold our values and stand firm in them because they are universals. We need open dialogue to prevent a swing to the far-right or the far-left. Feelings of disenfranchisement and disillusionment with the political system are a veritable breeding ground for extreme political ideologies, and we all have a responsibility to allow discussion of ideas, not silence those with whom we disagree.
Tom is a blogger and academic based in Australia. He is currently working to be admitted as a lawyer and wants to travel and write about his interest areas of politics, philosophy and science.