• Why does bigotry emerge? (image:studio tdes)
Harsh conditions produce harsh reactions in people.
Helen Razer

24 Aug 2016 - 3:10 PM  UPDATED 24 Aug 2016 - 3:10 PM

Watching news footage last night of Pauline Hanson’s first day as a senator, three questions were produced by my useless mind. Well, only two if we don’t count, “Why do you watch the news, Helen, when you know it only gives you anxious constipation?”. One of these was, “Has anyone ever told Pauline that her hair is the exact shade of a Buddhist monk’s robe?” and the other was, “How did half a million of my fellows vote for that toilet of a party?”

Plenty of minds more decent than mine have asked that last question, and generally, they produce a single answer: bigotry.  

My foolish hope is to go beyond that and ask why bigotry of the One Nation type emerges; why so many folks see certain other folks as the cause of their problems. And, why this bigotry tends to happen at certain times.

I think often these days about the multicultural ‘70s street in which I was raised. Hungarian, Greek, Chinese, Italian, Skip, Sikh, Muslim and Catholic families got on with each other and their lives. Of course, I am a white person and, therefore, underqualified to assess just how much racism there really was those decades ago. But, I can say it never occurred to me for the first nine years of my life to think of any of these families as inferior, dangerous or somehow more or less persecuted than I was.

I’m not saying that little crescent was a joyful diversity celebration, or even that I was an especially nice child. I really wasn’t. It’s quite possible I said, “pong, your lunch smells” to a brown kid. It’s quite possible that Kuskim, the Indian lady from across the road, didn’t come to mum’s Tupperware parties because she suspected that I was just this sort of child. But, heck. The people in this street—one full of decent subsidised housing, adjacent to a decent state school and a short bus ride from a good library—didn’t hate or blame each other. Difference was, in my young view, just something that happened. It wasn’t the cause of anyone’s problem.

Harsh conditions produce harsh reactions in people. And in Australia, things are currently a little harsh.

Then, one day at school, I heard a white kid call a brown kid a horrible name. At home, I asked my dad what it meant, he said, “It means that the kid that said the bad name comes from a poor family”.

That’s still what it means. Now, we have more poor families than we had in the 1970s, a decade in which we had begun, I believe, to show bigotry the door.

Harsh conditions produce harsh reactions in people. And in Australia, things are currently a little harsh. Wages are stagnant. Our hope of owning a home is vastly diminished. Our chances of upward mobility have been dramatically decreased and nowhere is this more painfully true than in those places where One Nation enjoys its greatest support. When the commodity prices in Queensland soften, so do voters’ heads. And these days, there are fewer decent libraries, good schools and handy, government-subsidised bus routes to get people to the places where they might learn some good lessons. Such as “don’t blame other people’s difference for your problems”.

And. No. I’m not recommending that you pity individual bigots or invite them in for a glorious diversity feast. I’m just asking you to think about the conditions in which bigotry is likely to prosper. Bigotry is about a bit more than simply being a dickhead.

Many of us can easily understand, say, how dickhead extremism in the Middle East was created by decades of war and sanctions. A reasonable person can look at a map and see how ISIS seizes power and minds in places where people have been bombed and starved. This doesn’t mean you endorse ISIS. This doesn’t mean you think ISIS is a movement that expresses the real will of those people who have been bombed and starved. You think ISIS is an opportunistic ruling force that takes advantage of desperate individuals, right?  Well, if we turn down the volume on this analogy a bit, we might begin to understand One Nation voters and other bigots.

Without a good life, there is diminished opportunity for good thinking.

Again, I’m not asking you to get out the finest cups and waste your best tea leaf on intolerance. I’m just suggesting that you look at a map of Queensland. You’ll see that in those places income and jobs have disappeared, bigotry has emerged to fill the vacuum.

Of course, political bigots have no answer to wage stagnation and homelessness more complex than, “I don’t like it”. The solution of out-and-out bigotry just won’t work—it’s not Muslims fouling “our” society and it’s not Aboriginal people stealing “our” land. Obviously, “we” stole Aboriginal land. Less obviously, we fouled our own society. And we did it by starving people of a good life. Without a good life, there is diminished opportunity for good thinking. And so, you come up with a bad solution like “boat people are taking my money!”

I do know there are reasons for bigotry beyond poverty. But, to continue to ignore social and economic poverty as a key factor, to simply say “these people are terrible bigots”, is to permit the bigotry to continue for generations.  And, it’s to endorse the pointless conflict between poor white families and poor brown ones.  If we fail to see how we are, increasingly, united by poverty, we will remain divided by bigotry.  And, we’ll always feel anxious when we see the colour orange on the news.

Orange was very popular in the ‘70s of my childhood. And so was a society that guaranteed good homes, wages and social services for all.

Image courtesy of Flickr/ The Daily English Show

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