Where does hatred come from? And how must we respond? These are questions many have been asking during the past week.
It’s not only Americans who are rattled by the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, and by President Donald Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn white supremacists. Around the world, there are clear signs that the old evil of bigotry has returned in full force.
Liberal democracy everywhere is under challenge. Far-right populist movements are growing in support, seizing upon disillusionment with established politics. They are fueling xenophobia and racism.
Australia isn’t immune from this. There are signs that organised racism and bigotry have been emboldened. In recent weeks a number of universities and schools have been smeared with white supremacist propaganda targeting groups including Jews, Muslims and Asians.
The tone of public debate has also deteriorated. While parliament has its theatrical moments, Pauline Hanson’s burqa stunt in the Senate went into new pantomime territory. Dick Smith last week launched an advertisement about slashing immigration, in which he predicts war and collapse while clutching a pitchfork.
Amid all this, there have been some brighter moments. Attorney-General George Brandis delivered a powerful rebuke of Senator Hanson. In the US, former presidents Bush, Clinton and Obama were forthright in rejecting hatred and violence.
But it was Barack Obama’s response that has proved most memorable. Quoting Nelson Mandela, Obama wrote on Twitter: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. For love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
It is true that hatred isn’t innate to humanity. Racists aren’t born racist. Bigots have to learn to become bigots. And it’s equally true that hatred can be overcome through goodwill.
Yet getting to that point isn’t easy.
It has become harder, for instance, to see racism and bigotry for what they clearly are. Today’s far-right expressions of hatred have been cloaked with a new respectability. White supremacist and neo-Nazi elements have been savvy in rebranding themselves as “alt-right”. White pride is justified as cultural self-determination, concealing how its adherents believe in racial purity and hierarchy. It can be enough to convince people of a novelty to the “alt-right”, when it is just far-right racism by another name.
There can also be a misguided even-handedness on race and bigotry. People can think there are “many sides” to hatred and violence, as Donald Trump said in his response to Charlottesville. In much of the reporting about anti-Islam movements here, anti-racism groups are put on a par with the self-styled “patriots” who target Muslim Australians.
But, in the big picture, there aren’t morally equivalent sides to racism and anti-racism. On one side are those such as the white supremacists in Charlottesville who chanted “Jews will not replace us”. Those who oppose them are on the side of justice and equality.
Still, where to draw the line on racism can be a source of confusion. Some say we mustn’t equate racially offensive speech with the more serious category of racial physical violence. There is a distinction to be drawn between speech and action.
Such a view, however, ignores how speech is itself an act, with real consequences. And it ignores how racially charged speech can quickly escalate.
Extreme racism doesn’t always begin as extreme racism. Sometimes it evolves from something more seemingly benign. The cumulative effect of low-level racism, when left unchallenged, is it makes more serious forms of it possible.
Violent speech and violent action are connected. It was racist hate speech that was the prelude to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s, just as anti-Semitic propaganda paved the way for Nazis to carry out the Holocaust.
So how we characterise racism matters. It can be convenient to believe racism is simply a product of ignorance. And assuring to think a resurgence of far-right nationalism has come from economic anxiety, rather than anything more visceral.
The reality is that racism’s return also reflects a public debate where there is more accommodation of bigotry. Our multicultural society faces a paradox. For all our success on race relations in recent decades, some believe it is acceptable again to vent racial hostility openly.
Recent events in the US show us that leadership matters. When licence is given to bigotry, we can’t be surprised to find that it flourishes. Hatred may not always begin with politics, but politics can bequeath hatred.
As for how we must respond, in one sense it is simple. Our society mustn’t give ground to far-right extremism, and our leaders mustn’t pander to people’s fears. It is not enough to be non-racist; we must also be anti-racist.