Why Accommodating Racists Like Pauline Hanson Is Dangerous And Stupid

Muslims and minorities don't have the luxury of fighting a "battle of ideas" about racism.

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After 18 years, Pauline Hanson is back in our federal parliament.  After last Saturday’s election she has gained at least one, potentially more, seats for One Nation in the Senate.

Since then the internet has lit up in dismay and anger at Hanson’s return to Canberra. However, as writer and academic Shakira Hussein eloquently put it, “Anyone surprised by Pauline Hanson’s return has not been paying attention”.

Hanson’s comeback isn’t surprising, not because the polls predicted her high primary vote in Queensland, but because anti-Islamic sentiment has only been growing in recent years. While a separate political party in our parliament with an overtly racist party platform may shock some people, many of Hanson’s polices aren’t that unfamiliar to the political sphere.

After all, it was Attorney-General George Brandis who spear-headed the attempt to eliminate section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2014, which makes it illegal to insult on the basis of race.  And it was Tony Abbott that gave Cory Bernardi his Royal Commission into Halal Certification, dressed up with the politically correct disguise of an inquiry into ‘food labelling’.

But what’s more surprising about the response to Hanson’s election has been the argument that her newly elected status as a Senator gives her a legitimate right to be given a platform to preach her views, hate speech or not.

The Luxury Of Having A ‘Battle Of Ideas’

On Monday, Guardian Australian ran an opinion article by political journalist Margo Kingston who said while she may disagree with Hanson’s policies, “The fears [of Islam] are natural, and understandable.”

“Western democracies are splitting up into warring tribes. I think Hanson’s return to parliament is a chance to bring ours together a little bit. If we try,” Kingston writes.

The argument that we should seek to find common ground through dialogue with Hanson is dangerous.  Only last month Hanson used the wake of the shooting at a gay night club in Orlando to call for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and likened them to dangerous dogs who should be put down.

While it’s true that Hanson garners support from working class people affected by the same economic insecurities felt by those who have reaped few rewards from neoliberal globalisation the world over, that doesn’t mean her inciting of racial violence any less dangerous. If we can identify and condemn blatant racism and obvious attempts to blame migrants for unrelated economic issues in the rantings of Donald Trump in the United States and in Nigel Farage in England, why does it suddenly become a nuanced argument at home?

Kingston also notes Hanson and her supporters are ‘nice people’, which is a bit of a redundant thing to say seeing as she is a successful politician. The difference in the appeal of One Nation compared to far-right groups like United Patriots Front is precisely their niceness.  However the charisma of Hanson doesn’t make her message of hate any less despicable. When we legitimise hate speech as a political discourse, where does that take us?

Wendy Harmer, the host of ABC Sydney’s 702 Morning program, took to Twitter after Hanson’s election to say that we shouldn’t “Blame, sulk, insult. [Instead] Regroup and see it as an opportunity to win in the battle of ideas”.

But the problem is that this isn’t an argument that remains only in the intellectual sphere. Organisations like Islamophobia Watch, who collect reports of harassment and abuse of Muslims in public, have said in the past that spikes in physical and verbal attacks, predominantly on hijabi women, coincide with periods of negative discourse around Islam in the media. For those not on the receiving end of bigotry to lecture those it actually affects on how they should respond to it is patronising, as well as insulting.

‘Freedom Of Speech’ Vs. The Right To Safety

Despite Harmer’s enthusiasm for some verbal jousting, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane didn’t seem to be jumping with joy at the opportunity of a good old debate either.

“We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities,” Dr Soutphommasane told the ABC on Tuesday.

It’s also strange to see so many commentators come out in defence of Hanson’s ‘right’ to voice her anti-Islam and anti-migrant views. Unlike the U.S we don’t have a long history of ‘freedom of speech at all costs’ here in Australia. In fact we have laws preventing racial hate speech, because our government acknowledges that hate speech can lead to violence. Just last month, a mosque and Islamic college in Perth was targeted in an Islamophobic terror attack.

Those laws will likely come under attack in the coming parliamentary sitting and, seeing the willingness of influential commentators like Harmer to abandon them in favour of a ‘free speech at all costs’ approach, doesn’t bode well for the future of that legislation.

After recent revelations that Hanson was paid to regularly appear on Channel 7’s Sunrise program, media organisations also need to ask serious questions of themselves about giving Hanson’s views platform.

There are parallels with the recent announcement that Andrew Bolt was controversially invited to speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, a Sydney festival known for provoking challenging and sensitive conversations.  It was, of course, Bolt being found guilty of attacking individuals based on their race under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that prompted the Liberals’ attempt to remove the legislation in 2014.

It’s true that no matter how much we would like, Hanson can’t be ignored. But when she calls for the banning of mosques, when she says Asians are “swamping” our suburbs, we don’t need more apologists for her views — they need to be called out for what they are.

Beneath all the Twitter bravado, a lot of my friends who are people of colour and particularly Muslims are genuinely afraid at the moment. It is scary where this country is going.

For white progressives who believe in immigration, what’s about to come is an intellectual argument — a battle of ideas about what it means to be ‘Australian’ and what our national identity in the 21st century is going to be. And while you should fight that fight, it needs to be acknowledged that for us it’s more than a debate. It’s a question as to whether we are allowed to feel safe in our own country.

Jarni Blakkarly is a freelance journalist, radio producer and writer. He has contributed for organisations such as Al Jazeera, ABC Radio National and the Griffith Review. You can follow him on Twitter @jarniblakkarly.