Waleed Aly’s call for empathy was noble but misguided, as the gaps in understanding are far deeper than he claims.
Two nights ago, Waleed Aly presented a segment entitled Send Forgiveness Viral.
The segment was, in part, a response to Sonia Kruger’s call to immediately suspend Muslim immigration into Australia, as well as One Nation’s strong showing at the last election.
In it, Aly focused on the theme of fear: on how both the bigotry of the ignorant and abusive response to expressions of ignorance, are part of the same cycle.
Importantly, he outlined that when faced with expressions of bigotry, we are faced with two paths of action: to respond reflexively with anger or abuse and without critical thought, or to engage constructively, with empathy and understanding.
Public response to the segment has been polarised. Many people are dismayed that Aly spent his time questioning the usefulness of expressions of anger in response to Sonia Kruger’s statements, rather than criticising the statements themselves.
I can understand the negative response: Aly’s aim in the segment was highly ambitious, and his performance was not quite articulate enough to navigate these emotionally-charged waters.
In particular, his explanation of a more “constructive” path forward was quite poor, emphasising that those who feel offence should “assume the best in people, (and show) others radical generosity in the face of hostility – even when it hurts”. Many people who have experienced discrimination have taken this statement as shifting the onus for addressing racism from the perpetrators to the victims – which I believe is at least a partial misunderstanding, further hampered by Aly’s unclear language.
The explication of this idea requires greater nuance, which I intend to give it – but first I’d like to give some background.
Over the last few decades, we have seen an increasing fragmentation of the political spectrum in “Western” countries. At the same time, political discourse has tended towards polarisation, to the point where the idea of a non-partisan political project in the United States would be considered absurd. Deep rifts are appearing at a social level, creating fear and instability.
Gladly, we are seeing people from “minority groups” (apologies, I do hate that term) stand strongly against discrimination on both a personal and structural level. These voices are calling for the dismantling of discriminatory structures, and the rebuilding of outdated notions of race, sexuality, gender and national and personal identity.
We are seeing censorship presented as a valid alternative to intellectual debate…If we merely demonise anyone who expresses an ignorant view, we have missed an opportunity to engage (“we” refers to opponents of bigotry, rather than victims of discrimination).
As part of this process, individuals who experience discrimination are publicly speaking out about their experiences while also expressing their personal anger and frustration.
Now, it is absolutely reasonable that people who have experienced hurt from racism, sexism, or any other form of bigotry feel anger. Expressing or purging that anger in a healthy way is important to psychological health. Holding onto it can have destructive consequences, from the development of neurosis to the misdirection of anger back onto oneself.
Similarly, it’s also important that under-represented groups assert their right to be heard, and establish confidence across their movement.
But in parallel, we are seeing the rise of what has disparagingly been called “victimhood culture”, wherein people demand to be shielded from ideas that they find personally offensive. When individuals are offended, they become outraged and express anger. This becomes a sort of reflexive mechanism such that both the tendency to be outraged, and the projection of anger increase over time.
As a result, we are increasingly seeing censorship presented as a valid alternative to intellectual debate – but if we are not able to change minds and merely refuse to acknowledge that bigoted views exist, then we are failing to address the root of the problem: people’s attitudes and beliefs.
If we merely demonise anyone who expresses an ignorant view, then we have missed an important opportunity to engage (and please note, the “we” here refers to opponents of bigotry, rather than victims of discrimination).
For example, let’s consider Sonia Kruger’s call for all Muslim immigration to be immediately suspended. My initial reaction was one of deep sadness (as an individual who dabbles with aspects of Buddhism, I have developed a general aversion to anger), but after calming down I re-watched the segment several times with a more critical eye.
I considered the public reaction against her. By expressing a bigoted opinion, our polarised discourse has it that Kruger is automatically an abhorrent person, worthy of anger, scorn and possibly even abuse – but I do not think Kruger is an evil person. She is not some hardened politician manipulating people to her own end. Her expression of bigotry comes from a place of fear and ignorance, and therefore represents the perfect opportunity for dispassionate, constructive and critical engagement.
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That isn’t to say that her views aren’t hurtful or dangerous – on the contrary, this is precisely why it’s so important that we address them in the most effective way possible.
There are many such people who express hurtful or bigoted views. Sometimes their motives are pure, but their logic is flawed. Their fear might lead them to latch onto the populist policies of dangerous individuals like Donald Trump, who offers simple solutions to highly complex problems (Andrew Bolt’s ridiculous proposal to cease all Muslim immigration falls into the same category).
I call these people the “bigoted middle-ground”, and it is absolutely vital that we reclaim them through engagement and conversation. If we want to work towards the end-goal of a more humane, caring, and fairer society, there is no other option. Merely blacking them out through no-platforming and call-outs runs the risk of hardening and reinforcing their views.
Attempting to understand what drives the bigotry of such people does not equate to excusing it: it is a matter of constructing the most effective strategy for neutralising and reducing bigoted arguments. If ideas are like memes or a virus, then inoculation can only come in the form of counter-argument.
Now I acknowledge that for some, the pain and hurt may be too much to overcome. I also knowledge that there are some individuals with whom there is no reasonable discussion to be had (I’m not about to start reaching out to neo-Nazi gang members, for instance) – but this is work that still needs to be done.
If we continue down a path of merely demonising and ostracising our enemies, then it must be said that we too are building walls.
As a final note, I found it rather incredible this week that in the face of abuse from Gulf Aboriginal leader Murrandoo Yanner, Pauline Hanson responded with an offer of engagement.
I was similarly stunned with her appearance on Q&A, where she seemed to accept an invitation to dinner from Muslim audience member Mohammed Attai and his family.
While Hanson’s past should no doubt temper any optimism, it is attempts like these to bridge gaps between us and our enemies that will help bring us towards a place of mutual respect and understanding.
For that, I applaud Mr Attai, and hope that we might have the strength and patience for following his example.