The Paucity of Populism and Political Correctness
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. As I am an Australian, Pauline Hanson is the most relevant manifestation of the above phenomenon, and thus I shall focus on her exploits.
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. 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. Take the most recent example of her errant opinion finding its way on to the 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, and her criticism presumably applied to Susan Carland as much as it did to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the public at large isn’t 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 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 our shores. You can attack the method, but her core position is solid.
I want to make it clear that I am not defending everything that Pauline has ever said. I 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. I can already hear the rending of garments and gnashing of teeth that inevitably accompany any statement lamenting political correctness, so allow me to elaborate. By political correctness, I mean the inability of people to speak honestly and openly about issues for fear of being branded a racist or a bigot; I mean the disinclination of people, usually on the Left, to engage with uncomfortable facts, instead preferring to smear the character of the person uttering unpalatable truths; I mean the propensity for assuming you have found an interlocutor’s only motivation when you have identified their lowest one. 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 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.