Commissioner examines populism, anxiety and race

Tuesday 26 September 2017

What is the best response to the anxiety, anger and hatred present in public discussions and political debates?

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane addressed this question in his keynote speech to the Australian Political Studies Association conference in Melbourne on 25 September 2017.

Dr Soutphommasane reflected on debates about ‘identity politics’ and political correctness.

“I believe we should be listening to our debates more closely, but that includes listening to those who cop the brunt of any racism or bigotry.

“We should avoid making a false equivalence between those who have sympathy for racism and those who oppose racism.

“There are not two morally equal sides when it concerns racism in a liberal democracy. A forthright liberalism and a just democracy must stand firm in repudiating racism and bigotry. It isn’t enough for our society to be non-racist; it must be anti-racist.”

The Commissioner said being anti-racist does not mean being oblivious to people’s concerns and resentments.

“In fact, you need to understand the roots of racism in order to counter it. There has been a tendency to regard racism as too much of an antiquated feature of the past – as reflecting some repugnant doctrinal commitment to racial superiority or purity – when the modern reality is that it is more often than not something that emerges from cultural anxiety.

“This isn’t to say that easing cultural anxiety is easy. It is not easy. And that’s because it implicates the way people understand the world and their place in it.

“Anxiety isn’t felt by those who believe they enjoy power or privilege. It is felt by those who believe they are losing their place in society’s hierarchy.

“But how we talk about race says a lot about the health of any liberal democracy. Of late, you get the impression that people are more outraged by racism being called out, than by racism being perpetrated.”

The Commissioner said the tone of some public debate suggests people are more inclined to see the rejection of racism as an expression of political correctness rather than a necessary rejection of injustice and exclusion.

“In the face of rising populism, I believe it has become even more urgent and important that our society can be steadfast in rejecting prejudice and discrimination.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but we must be prepared to say that if people don’t wish to be called racists or bigots, they shouldn’t blame others; they should begin by not doing things that involve racism or bigotry.”

Read Dr Tim Soutphommasane’s keynote speech, Populism, anxiety and race.