Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane knows the subject of his newly published fifth book, On Hate, all too well.
During his time as Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner from 2013 until 2018, Soutphommasane received numerous anonymous death threats and a steady stream of hate mail.
The academic and human rights advocate explores the history of hostility and racism in Australia in the newly released book On Hate. He dissects its driving forces and importantly how to counter it.
Soutphommasane spoke with 10 daily about how Australians must combat growing extremism and come together to face what he says is brewing hateful sentiment.
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The book opens with a simple yet profound construct: “All of us know how to hate. But not all of us know what it’s like to be hated.”
“One challenge we have in talking about hate and racism is not everyone has experienced them.
Those who’ve never experienced them need to make a leap of imagination and feel empathy. Unfortunately all too often, this doesn’t happen.”
How do we encourage that “leap of imagination”?
“It involves some element of humility. Understanding something like racism is as much about impact as it is intention.
Too often, people think if you don’t intend to hurt someone or you’re not motivated by malice, then you should be immune from criticism.
That ignores the effect of any act or speech on other people.”
Is it the marginalised person’s responsibility to educate another on hatred?
“We shouldn’t leave it up to minorities to counter prejudice and discrimination. Sometimes you get the impression people resent those who speak out against hate — as though people want to play the victim — or welcome being targeted in some way to make a scene out of their predicament.
If you talk to anyone who’s experienced racism, you’ll know that’s precisely the last thing anyone wants to experience.”
In the book, you write Australia has a “tendency to be so sensitive about charges of racism”. Did we see that in Kerri-Anne Kennerley and Yumi Stynes’ heated interaction on Studio 10?
“Yes. Just look at the headlines following the incident. The reason it became a story appeared to be because Yumi said Kerri-Anne sounded racist.
Surely the reason it should have warranted attention is that it involved a rehearsal of racist stereotypes.
That’s a prime example of how many people think the real offense is caused by people responding to racism, not the racism itself.”
You also write in the book, “Life gets boring without hate”.
“Hate comes in many forms, and none of us is immune to feeling hate at some point or another.
All of us will encounter enemies in some shape or form, but we’ve got to be able to control any feeling of hate.
It shouldn’t become destructive and it shouldn’t lead us to do things beyond the limits of morality.”
What do you hate?
“I hate bigotry. I hate injustice. I hate tyranny.
There will be people who will do things which provoke a strong feeling of hatred as well. I’m human just as everyone else is; I would hope I’m able to reflect on my emotions and know myself well enough to control them.”
You described 2018 as “the year the Australian discourse shifted”. What’s one significant challenge we face?
“Part of the cultural challenge here is to make sure people move beyond colour blindness.
There’s always an insistence by some that they ‘don’t see colour or race’. If that means these things have no moral significance to someone, great.
But to suggest we don’t see race or colour at all is often a way for people to deflect conversations about these topics.”
When did you decide to make issues on race and culture your life’s work?
“I grew up in southwest Sydney, part of a migrant family. I was a teenager when Pauline Hanson was first selected to Parliament, which had a politicising effect on me.
When she said this country was ‘in danger of being swamped by Asians’, she was talking about people like me and my family. When you’re confronted with politics like that and are forced to defend or justify your very presence in the country, you can’t help but think about issues of race and national identity.”
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