Living in a networked world has many advantages. We get our news online almost as soon as it happens, we stay in touch with friends via social media, and we advance our careers through online professional networks.
But there is a darker side to the internet that sees far-right groups exploit these unique features to spread divisive ideas, racial hate and mistrust. Scholars of racism refer to this type of racist communication online as “cyber-racism”.
Even the creators of the internet are aware they may have unleashed a technology that is causing a lot of harm. Since 2017, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has focused many of his comments about the dangers of manipulation of the internet around the spread of hate speech, saying that:
Humanity connected by technology on the web is functioning in a dystopian way. We have online abuse, prejudice, bias, polarisation, fake news, there are lots of ways in which it is broken.
Our team conducted a systematic review of ten years of cyber-racism research to learn how different types of communicators use the internet to spread their views.
We found that the internet is indeed a powerful tool used to influence and reinforce divisive ideas. And it’s not only organised racist groups that take advantage of online communication; unaffiliated individuals do it too.
But the way groups and individuals use the internet differs in several important ways. Racist groups are active on different communication channels to individuals, and they have different goals and strategies they use to achieve them. The effects of their communication are also distinctive.
Individuals mostly engage in cyber-racism to hurt others, and to confirm their racist views by connecting with like-minded people (seeking “confirmation bias”). Their preferred communication channels tend to be blogs, forums, news commentary websites, gaming environments and chat rooms.
Strategies they use include denying or minimising the issue of racism, denigrating “non-whites”, and reframing the meaning of current news stories to support their views.
Groups, on the other hand, prefer to communicate via their own websites. They are also more strategic in what they seek to achieve through online communication. They use websites to gather support for their group and their views through racist propaganda.
Racist groups manipulate information and use clever rhetoric to help build a sense of a broader “white” identity, which often goes beyond national borders. They argue that conflict between different ethnicities is unavoidable, and that what most would view as racism is in fact a natural response to the “oppression of white people”.
Meanwhile, individual cyber-racism seems to have a more direct effect by negatively affecting the well being of targets. It also contributes to maintaining a hostile racial climate, which may further (indirectly) affect the well being of targets.
What they have in common
Despite their differences, groups and individuals both share a high level of sophistication in how they communicate racism online. Our review uncovered the disturbingly creative ways in that new technologies are exploited.
For example, racist groups make themselves attractive to young people by providing interactive games and links to music videos on their websites. And both groups and individuals are highly skilled at manipulating their public image via various narrative strategies, such as humour and the interpretation of current news to fit with their arguments.
Our findings suggest that if these online strategies are effective, we could see even sharper divisions in society as the mobilisation of support for racism and far-right movements spreads online.
There is also evidence that currently unaffiliated supporters of racism could derive strength through online communication. These individuals might use online channels to validate their beliefs and achieve a sense of belonging in virtual spaces where racist hosts provide an uncontested and hate-supporting community.
This is a worrying trend. We have now seen several examples of violent action perpetrated offline by isolated individuals who radicalise into white supremacist movements – for example, in the case of Anders Breivik in Norway, and more recently of Robert Gregory Bowers, who was the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
In Australia, unlike most other liberal democracies, there are effectively no government strategies that seek to reduce this avenue for the spread of racism, despite many Australians expressing a desire that this be done.
This piece is part of a series on race and racism in Australia. The series examines this complex and incendiary topic, and the role it plays in contemporary Australia. You can read the rest of the series here.
Nearly 30 years ago, Australians made a decision to start implementing anti-vilification laws. They now exist federally, in every state, and in the ACT.
But unlike many countries around the world, the focus here is on civil laws. Although many states have criminal laws prohibiting serious vilification (such as NSW and Queensland), there are no criminal “hate speech” laws at the federal level. In practice, the vast majority of vilification complaints in Australia are dealt with under the civil law.
The basic idea is pretty simple. In a society that aspires to embrace diversity and support the human rights of all, it is not OK to vilify someone (that is, denigrate or defame them) because of who they are, as opposed to something they might have done.
We have been researching anti-vilification laws for more than two decades. So, how well do these kinds of laws work? Do they provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech? Do they stifle free speech? And, perhaps most importantly, do they reduce the incidence of hate speech?
First, let’s look at whether hate speech laws provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech. If a person feels that an incident of unlawful vilification has occurred, they can lodge a complaint by contacting the relevant state authority (for example, the NSW Anti-Discrimination Board) or the Australian Human Rights Commission.
There are procedural difficulties in lodging a complaint. For example, the person complaining needs to be from the group that was targeted and has to be able to identify the person about whom they are complaining (which is difficult when vilification happens in public places and the perpetrator is a stranger). The process can also take a long time. This can discourage people from lodging complaints or cause them to give up before the matter is resolved.
After a person lodges a complaint, the authority will assess whether the allegation falls within the definition of unlawful vilification. If so, the authority will investigate and attempt to mediate a resolution.
Our research has found that in about a third of complaints, a successful resolution is reached. This usually means that the person who made the comments agrees to stop making them or agrees to apologise, or the workplace where the comments occurred agrees to hold workshops to educate their staff about appropriate behaviour. These are all good outcomes.
The whole mediation process is confidential, so the public rarely gets to hear about these success stories. But they do show that the laws can provide redress and remedies to targets of hate speech.
The same research project showed that communities targeted by hate speech support the existence of the laws. Even if they never make a formal complaint, people appreciate that the government has legislated to tell everyone that racist, homophobic or other vilification is unacceptable. These laws help people to feel valued and supported.
Unfortunately, there are some gaps in current anti-vilification laws. Most laws don’t cover religious vilification and so, for example, little protection is offered to Muslims, even though we know they are one of the most vilified groups in Australia.
Do hate speech laws stifle free speech?
One of the most common arguments made by opponents of hate speech laws is that they stifle free speech. But our research does not support this claim.
Only a small number of complaints are lodged around the country each year (about 200), and less than 2% of those complaints end up in a court or tribunal. Of those that do, only half succeed. The most commonly ordered remedy is an apology or correction, or removal of the material from public view.
There is little evidence that people feel some topics are “off limits”. On the contrary – political debate in Australia is robust and wide open.
In fact, some of those who complain most vociferously about being silenced – like Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Tony Abbott – are amongst the loudest and most influential voices in Australia. They are prominent public commentators who enjoy wide media exposure.
Do hate speech laws reduce the incidence of hate speech?
This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer.
Our research has shown that there have been some changes in how controversial topics are discussed in outlets like newspapers. Overt racial and other vilification is less common now. Anti-vilification laws have played a part in effecting this change, but lots of other factors have been important, too, including changing social attitudes.
Unfortunately, as our research confirms, there has been little to no change in the incidence of vilification in public places – on the street, on trains and buses, or in shopping centres, for example. The only shift that has occurred is in who is targeted, with more recent waves of migrants newly targeted. There has been a shift, for example, towards people of African heritage and from the Middle East.
On this level, anti-vilification laws do not seem to have reduced the overall incidence of hate speech.
Another way of measuring the success of anti-vilification laws is in public attitudes. Opinion polls show strong public support for the idea that governments should draw a line in the sand – one that says that racist hate speech and other forms of group vilification are unacceptable.
This is perhaps the most important legacy of 30 years of anti-vilification laws in Australia.
This piece is part of a series on race and racism in Australia. The series examines this complex and incendiary topic, and the role it plays in contemporary Australia.
In October, the ABC’s Background Briefing outlined how the NSW Young Nationals Party had been the target of an organised infiltration attempt by members with neo-Nazi or “alt-right” views. Once this infiltration was exposed, 22 members were banned for life and individuals in other extremist groups were barred from becoming future members.
The group’s aim was to influence party policy in the area of immigration, as shown in motions they proposed at the Young Nationals’ annual conference. Controversially, they wanted immigration to be curtailed to only “culturally compatible peoples” and for white South African farmers to be granted refugee status on the basis of racial oppression.
Senator Pauline Hanson’s most recent maiden speech in 2016 also called for an end to multiculturalism and the granting of visas for “incompatible” people, specifically Muslims.
These views are based – perhaps unknowingly – on a core belief of neo-Nazis: so-called “white genocide”.
The defence of Western civilisation and pride in “white” achievements – on the rise both here and abroad – have become racist dog whistles for this call for action to prevent the “disappearance” of the white race.
This fear of white genocide is also leading to violence. The shooter who killed 11 people in the recent Pittsburgh synagogue attack justified his actions by claiming that Jews were committing “genocide” against his people.
So, what is ‘white genocide’?
The recent manifestation of white genocide has its origins in the American neo-Nazi movement. The Turner Diaries, a very influential 1970s novel by William Luther Pierce, posited a dystopian world in which white Americans were oppressed by non-white minorities at the behest of Jewish politicians. A righteous, armed resistance then takes back control of the world after a bloody nuclear war.
Pierce’s work inspired a spate of violent crimes, including the Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh in 1995. It also led to the formation of secret groups, including the infamous and ultra-violent white supremacist group The Order. It was an influential member of the Order, David Lane, who coined the white nationalist mantra:
We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.
White genocide adherents want a return to a so-called traditional way of life defined by the nuclear family and prescribed gender roles. They divide humans into separate races and see multiculturalism and migration as a threat because each race should be contained to their perceived homeland.
The idea of a homeland is important. Following the second world war, American neo-Nazis drew on notions of place and race that took root in Germany in the 19th century and were later adopted under Adolf Hitler as the slogan “blood and soil”.
“Blood and soil” is the cry of the nativist, asserting the belonging of a people to a place to the exclusion of outsiders. The slogan reappeared as one of the chants at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
For white nationalists, this idea forms the “solution” to the threat of white genocide. Neo-Nazi groups like Identity Evropa advocate for ceasing immigration from “non-compatible” nations and encouraging population growth amongst whites.
The most important goal of white nationalists, however, is the creation of a white “ethno-state”.
It is this belief that whites are being targeted that underpins the resignation letter of the leader of the NSW Young Nationals infiltration attempt. Clifford Jennings claimed that young white Australians face a grim future in which they are at risk of becoming a “harried, persecuted minority” due to an “oppressive multicultural regime” supported by the “treasonous” leaders of the major parties.
This is a clarion call to the believers in white genocide.
Why this theory is flawed and dangerous
Jennings is harking back to the long-abandoned Immigration Restriction Act (1901) and other racially targeted pieces of legislation known colloquially as the White Australia Policy. These privileged certain Europeans in migration programs with the aim of “keeping Australia white”.
But how do Australia’s white supremacists side-step Australia’s 60,000 years of Indigenous history? For the believers in white genocide, the term “genocide” does not refer to the impact of European colonisation on Indigenous peoples because they claim Australia only came into being as a nation with the arrival of white Europeans.
Visiting alt-right speakers such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux have openly denigrated Aboriginal culture. This has supported a belief that there is no place for Aboriginal people in the white ethno-state.
Of course, the idea of whiteness itself in Australia has changed dramatically over time. And despite the claims of DNA testing companies, there is no scientific basis for “race” itself and, therefore, for racial superiority claims.
Are white Australians at risk of becoming a persecuted minority? Hardly.
Regardless, the white genocide theory is based on a flawed premise – that only white people can be authentic Australians (or residents of other perceived “ethno-states”). And in multicultural Australia, the facts tell a different story.
Immigration has become one of the most divisive issues in Australian politics. It has created open fractures within government ranks and sparked dog whistling; it’s being exploited to nefarious political ends by fringe and not-so-fringe players.
But an appallingly racist diatribe, by a senator who not one in a thousand Australians would have heard of, on Wednesday brought almost all the parliament together to reassert some core values of Australia’s policy.
Delivering his maiden speech on Tuesday, Fraser Anning called for a ban on all further Muslim immigration and invoked the words “final solution” – the term referring to the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews – when calling for a popular vote on immigration.
Anning arrived in parliament by chance, replacing the equally controversial Malcolm Roberts from One Nation, who fell foul of the citizenship crisis. But Anning immediately parted ways with One Nation, and has recently joined Katter’s Australian Party.
Among much else, the Queensland senator told parliament on Tuesday that “the one immigrant group here and in other Western nations that has consistently shown itself to be the least able to assimilate and integrate is Muslims”.
“The first terrorist act on Australian soil occurred in 1915 – when two Muslim immigrants opened fire on a picnic train of innocent women and children in Broken Hill – and Muslim immigrants have been a problem ever since.”
Such are the rituals of first speeches that many Coalition senators and even crossbencher Derryn Hinch (who has been beating up on himself publicly ever since) went over to pay Anning the traditional congratulations afterwards.
But after that reactions were quick, and by Wednesday morning condemnation was raining down on Anning from almost everywhere.
Labor with the support of the government moved a motion in the Senate and the House; the leaders in both houses spoke.
The motion, which did not mention Anning by name, acknowledged “the historic action of the Holt Government, with bipartisan support from the Australian Labor Party, in initiating the dismantling of the White Australia Policy”.
It gave “unambiguous and unqualified commitment to the principle that, whatever criteria are applied by Australian Governments in exercising their sovereign right to determine the composition of the immigration intake, race, faith or ethnic origin shall never, explicitly or implicitly, be among them”.
The motion was the same (except for the addition of the word “faith”) as the one prime minister Bob Hawke moved in 1988 after opposition leader John Howard had suggested a slowing of Asian immigration. Then, the Liberals voted against the motion, though with three defections.
In our frequently depressing and often toxic political climate, Wednesday’s bipartisanship was a small but significant and encouraging moment of unity on what we stand for as a nation.
Mathias Cormann, an immigrant from Belgium, said: “This chamber in many ways is a true reflection of what a great migrant nation we are.”
“We have … representatives of our Indigenous community. We have in this chamber representatives of Australians whose families have been here for generations, who are the descendants of migrants to Australia of more than 100 years ago.
“We have in this chamber first-generation migrants from Kenya, Malaysia, Belgium, Germany and Scotland. What a great country we are. Where first-generation Australians can join First Australians and those Australians whose families have lived here for more than 100 years and all work together to make our great country an even better country.”
While the mainstream had its act together, on the fringe it was a wild ride.
Hanson denounced Anning’s speech. “I have always advocated you do not have to be white to be Australian,” she said. And “to actually hear people say now that, as Senator Hinch said, it is like hearing Pauline Hanson on steroids – I take offence to that”.
Never mind that in her own maiden speech as a senator Hanson had declared that further Muslim immigration should be stopped and the burqa banned. “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” she said in September 2016.
Later on Wednesday Hanson introduced her private member’s bill “to give voters a say on whether Australia’s immigration levels are too high by casting a vote at the next general election”.
Then there was that force of nature, Bob Katter, who said he supported his new recruit “1000% … I support everything he said”.
It is never easy to navigate one’s way through Katter speak – on Wednesday it was at times close to impossible.
“Fraser is dead right – we do not want people coming in from the Middle East or North Africa unless they’re the persecuted minorities. Why aren’t you bringing in the Sikhs? Why aren’t you bringing in the Jews?” he told a news conference in Cairns – he could not fly to Canberra and parliament because of a sinus procedure.
As for the “final solution” reference: “Fraser is a knockabout bloke, he’s owned pubs and he’s not stupid – he built his own aeroplane. But he hasn’t read all the history books.
“He didn’t go to university, he was out working building pipelines for the coal and the gas and the oil with a hard hat on. He’s a member of the hard left, not the lily pad left. He didn’t go to university to know the significance of all these words.
“Fraser would have no idea about what that meant. For those of us, like myself that are fascinated by history and have read the history books – it is one of the worst statements in all of human history.”
“He like myself, has had constant meetings and addressed Jewish groups around Australia. We are strongly behind the Jewish people.”
Hanson wasn’t the only one complaining of being insulted. Katter turned on a journalist who referred to his Lebanese grandfather.
“He’s not. He’s an Australian. I resent, strongly, you describing him as Lebanese. That is racist comment and you should take it back and should be ashamed … No prouder Australian than my grandfather.”
It has been quite a week for race-laden discourse in the Australian media.
There was Blair Cottrell, a notorious pro-Hitler extremist, appearing on Sky News and calling for a race-based immigration policy.
There was Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun sounding the tocsin about how “there is no ‘us’ anymore”, how Australia was being overwhelmed by a “tidal wave of immigration” and ethnic “colonies”: Jews, Indians, Chinese, Muslims, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Italians.
A speech in London last month by Alan Tudge, Australia’s minister for citizenship and multiculturalism, resurfaced in which he said Australia was veering into ethnic separatism on the “European” model.
Reporting material that risks marginalising or stigmatising groups in the community on grounds of race presents the media with a difficult ethical dilemma, balancing free speech against harm.
Concerning Cottrell, the starting point is to recognise that hate speech and racism are his stock in trade. He is entitled to express his views, but the media are under no obligation to give him a platform to amplify them.
That Sky did so seems to have been a case of what Soutphommasane calls “the monetisation of racism”: that is, using racism as a way to attract interest, increasing ratings and adding advertising value to a program.
However, in this respect it backfired. American Express, Specsavers and the nappy-maker Huggies have suspended advertising on Sky in protest against Cottrell’s appearance. Yesterday, Victorian Transport Minister Jacinta Allan announced she had directed Melbourne’s Metro Trains to remove @skynewsaustralia from all station screens in the CBD.
A further dilemma for the rest of the media, including The Conversation, is that while these events are clearly a matter of public interest and therefore have to be ventilated, we play into the hands of Sky by giving it free publicity.
For an outfit like Sky – as with a fading celebrity – all publicity is good publicity, except if you get their name wrong.
Tudge presents a different problem. While the media are under no obligation to give the likes of Cottrell a platform, when the minister responsible for multiculturalism warns that Australia is veering into ethnic separatism, there is a clear duty to report it.
Tudge was not specific about what “separatist” group he was talking about, but from the context of his speech he seemed to be singling out Muslims, referring to sharia law and female genital mutilation. Inflammatory stuff.
It is a curious fact that while Australia’s immigration intake has been increasing, the minister responsible for citizenship and multicultural policy should be making inflammatory remarks about “ethnic separatism”.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports
that net overseas migration reflected an annual gain of 262,500 persons in 2016-17, 27.3% (56,300) more than in 2015-16.
As it happens, Tudge’s London speech came just three months after a debate in Britain over what was referred to as the “weaponising” of racism for political gain.
The debate was provoked by BBC Radio 4’s decision in April to mark the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech by broadcasting it in its entirety, read by an actor.
Powell was a Conservative MP who represented Wolverhampton, a Midlands city with a large population of West Indian and South Asian immigrants.
Speaking to Conservative Party members in Birmingham, Powell referred to an observation by one of his Wolverhampton constituents that “in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man”.
Powell, who was a classics scholar, ended his speech with a passage from Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a sybil, or prophetess, warns Aeneas that Italy will be plunged into civil war, and she sees “the River Tiber foaming with much blood”.
Recognising the toxic potential of this analogy, Conservatives leader Edward Heath sacked Powell from his shadow cabinet, effectively ending Powell’s political career.
No such fate seems likely to befall Alan Tudge.
However, on August 6, Soutphommasane sounded a warning of his own, referring explicitly to Tudge’s remarks.
“Race politics is back,” he said. “Right now, it feels like there has never been a more exciting time to be a dog-whistling politician or race-baiting commentator in Australia.
“Five years ago … I wouldn’t have expected that the biggest threats to racial harmony would come from within our parliaments and from sections of our media. Yet here we are.”
Soutphommasane said these developments had made some groups in society feel more vulnerable, sown division in the community and forced the targets of it into retreat. “Where the seeds of racism are planted in political speech, they bear bitter fruit in society.”
In response, Tudge suggested Soutphommasane was avoiding discussing genuine concerns about integration.
Soutphommasane did not confine his criticism to politicians. He accused sections of the media of responding to the financial pressures induced by the digital revolution by using racism as part of their business model.
“Faced with competition from a proliferation of news and entertainment sources, some media outlets are using racial controversies to grab attention – as a means of clinging on to their audiences.”
He referred specifically to Sky and Bolt.
In covering these stories, journalists have an ethical duty to minimise the risk of harm and act responsibly.
In straight news reportage, they can do this by seeking out and including alternatives to the racist perspective. This may provide at least some antidote to the poison.
They can also seek comment from communities targeted by racist discourse, thus giving them a voice and perhaps helping to mitigate any sense of isolation.
In commentaries, they can frame the article in a way that is explicitly or implicitly disapproving.
Reporting or commenting on racist discourse is one thing. Creating it is quite another.
George Orwell warns us in his dystopian novel 1984 that authoritarianism begins with language. In the novel, “newspeak” is language twisted to deceive, seduce and undermine the ability of people to think critically and freely.
Donald Trump’s unapologetic bigoted language made headlines again Thursday when it was reported he told lawmakers working on a new immigration policy that the United States shouldn’t accept people from “shithole countries” like Haiti. Given his support for white nationalism and his coded call to “Make America Great (White) Again,” Trump’s overt racist remarks reinforce echoes of white supremacy reminiscent of fascist dictators in the 1930s.
His remarks about accepting people from Norway smack of an appeal to the sordid discourse of racial purity. There is much more at work here than a politics of incivility. Behind Trump’s use of vulgarity and his disparagement of countries that are poor and non-white lies the terrifying discourse of white supremacy, ethnic cleansing and the politics of disposability. This is a vocabulary that considers some individuals and groups not only faceless and voiceless, but excess, redundant and subject to expulsion. The endpoint of the language of disposability is a form of social death, or even worse.
As authoritarianism gains strength, the formative cultures that give rise to dissent become more embattled, along with the public spaces and institutions that make conscious critical thought possible.
Words that speak to the truth to reveal injustices and provide informed critical analysis begin to disappear, making it all the more difficult, if not dangerous, to judge, think critically and hold dominant power accountable. Notions of virtue, honour, respect and compassion are policed, and those who advocate them are punished.
I think it’s fair to argue that Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future is no longer fiction in the United States. Under Trump, language is undergoing a shift: It now treats dissent, critical media coverage and scientific evidence as a species of “fake news.”
The Trump administration, in fact, views the critical media as the “enemy of the American people.” Trump has repeated this view of the media so often that almost a third of Americans now believe it and support government-imposed restrictions on the media, according to a Poynter survey.
Thought crimes and fake news
Trump’s cries of “fake news” work incessantly to set limits on what is thinkable. Reason, standards of evidence, consistency and logic no longer serve the truth, according to Trump, because the latter are crooked ideological devices used by enemies of the state. Orwell’s “thought crimes” are Trump’s “fake news.” Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” is Trump’s “Ministry of Fake News.”
The notion of truth is viewed by this president as a corrupt tool used by the critical media to question his dismissal of legal checks on his power, particularly his attacks on judges, courts and any other governing institutions that will not promise him complete and unchecked loyalty.
Under Trump, the language of civic literacy and democracy has become unmoored from critical reason, informed debate and the weight of scientific evidence, and is now being reconfigured and tied to pageantry, political theatre and a deep-seated anti-intellectualism.
One consequence, as language begins to function as a tool of state repression, is that matters of moral and political responsibility disappear and injustices proliferate.
Fascism starts with words
What is crucial to remember here, as authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes, is that fascism starts with words. Trump’s use of language and his manipulative use of the media as political spectacle are disturbingly similar to earlier periods of propaganda, censorship and repression.
Under fascist regimes, the language of brutality and culture of cruelty was normalized through the proliferation of strident metaphors of war, battle, expulsion, racial purity and demonization.
As German historians such as Richard J. Evans and Victor Klemperer have made clear, dictators like Adolf Hitler did more than simply corrupt the language of a civilized society, they also banned words.
Soon afterwards, the Nazis banned books and the critical intellectuals who wrote them. They then imprisoned those individuals who challenged Nazi ideology and the state’s systemic violations of civil rights.
The end point was an all-embracing discourse of disposability — the emergence of concentration camps and genocide fuelled by a politics of racial purity and social cleansing.
Echoes of the formative stages of such actions are upon us now. An American-style neo-fascism appears to be engulfing the United States after simmering in the dark for years.
More than any other president, Trump has normalized the notion that the meaning of words no longer matters, nor do traditional sources of facts and evidence. In doing so, he has undermined the relationship between engaged citizenship and the truth, and has relegated matters of debate and critical assessment to a spectacle of bombast, threats, intimidation and sheer fakery.
This language of fascism does more than normalize falsehoods and ignorance. It also promotes a larger culture of short-term attention spans, immediacy and sensationalism. At the same time, it makes fear and anxiety the normalized currency of exchange and communication.
In a throwback to the language of fascism, Trump has repeatedly positioned himself as the only one who can save the masses — reproducing the tired script of the model of the saviour endemic to authoritarianism.
Trump is also the master of manufactured illiteracy, and his obsessive tweeting and public relations machine aggressively engages in the theatre of self-promotion and distractions. Both of these are designed to whitewash any version of a history that might expose the close alignment between his own language and policies and the dark elements of a fascist past.
Trump also revels in an unchecked mode of self-congratulation bolstered by a limited vocabulary filled with words like “historic,” “best,” “the greatest,” “tremendous” and “beautiful.”
Those exaggerations suggest more than hyperbole or the self-indulgent use of language. When he claims he “knows more about ISIS than the generals,” “knows more about renewables than any human being on Earth” or that nobody knows the U.S. system of government better than he does, he’s using the rhetoric of fascism.
As the aforementioned historian Richard J. Evans writes in The Third Reich in Power:
“The German language became a language of superlatives, so that everything the regime did became the best and the greatest, its achievements unprecedented, unique, historic and incomparable …. The language used about Hitler … was shot through and through with religious metaphors; people ‘believed in him,’ he was the redeemer, the savior, the instrument of Providence, his spirit lived in and through the German nation…. Nazi institutions domesticated themselves [through the use of a language] that became an unthinking part of everyday life.”
Under the Trump regime, memories inconvenient to his authoritarianism are now demolished in the domesticated language of superlatives so the future can be shaped to become indifferent to the crimes of the past.
Trump’s endless daily tweets, his recklessness, his adolescent disdain for a measured response, his unfaltering anti-intellectualism and his utter ignorance of history work in the United States. Why? Because they not only cater to what historian Brian Klass refers to as “the tens of millions of Americans who have authoritarian or fascist leanings,” they also enable what he calls Trump’s attempt at “mainstreaming fascism.”
The language of fascism revels in forms of theatre that mobilize fear, hatred and violence. Author Sasha Abramsky is on target in claiming that Trump’s words amount to more than empty slogans.
Instead, his language comes “with consequences, and they legitimize bigotries and hatreds long harbored by many but, for the most part, kept under wraps by the broader society.”
Surely, the increase in hate crimes during Trump’s first year of his presidency testifies to the truth of Abramsky’s argument.
Fighting Trump’s fascist language
The history of fascism teaches us that language operates in the service of violence, desperation and troubling landscapes of hatred, and carries the potential for inhabiting the darkest moments of history.
It erodes our humanity, and makes too many people numb and silent in the face of ideologies and practices that are hideous acts of ethical atrocity.
Trump’s language, like that of older fascist regimes, mutilates contemporary politics, empathy and serious moral and political criticism, and makes it more difficult to criticize dominant relations of power.
His fascistic language also fuels the rhetoric of war, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, anti-intellectualism and racism. But it’s not his alone.
It is the language of a nascent fascism that has been brewing in the United States for some time. It is a language that is comfortable viewing the world as a combat zone, a world that exists to be plundered and a view of those deemed different as a threat to be feared, if not eliminated.
A new language aimed at fighting Trump’s romance with fascism must make power visible, uncover the truth, contest falsehoods and create a formative and critical culture that can nurture and sustain collective resistance to the oppression that has overtaken the United States, and increasingly many other countries.
No form of oppression can be overlooked. And with that critical gaze must emerge a critical language, a new narrative and a different story about what a socialist democracy will look like in the United States.
Reclaiming language as a force for good
There is also a need to strengthen and expand the reach and power of established public spheres, such as higher education and the critical media, as sites of critical learning.
We must encourage artists, intellectuals, academics and other cultural workers to talk, educate, make oppression visible and challenge the common-sense vocabulary of casino capitalism, white supremacy and fascism.
Language is not simply an instrument of fear, violence and intimidation; it is also a vehicle for critique, civic courage and resistance.
A critical language can guide us in our thinking about the relationship between older elements of fascism and how such practices are emerging in new forms.
Without a faith in intelligence, critical education and the power to resist, humanity will be powerless to challenge the threat that fascism and right-wing populism pose to the world.
Those of us willing to fight for a just political and economic society need to formulate a new language and fresh narratives about freedom, the power of collective struggle, empathy, solidarity and the promise of a real socialist democracy.
We would do well to heed the words of the great Nobel Prize-winning novelist, J.M. Coetzee, who states in a work of fiction that “there will come a day when you and I will need to be told the truth, the real truth ….no matter how hard it may be.”
Democracy, indeed, can only survive with a critically informed and engaged public attentive to a language in which truth, rather than lies, become the currency of citizenship.
Overnight in Geneva, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) began its two-day review of Australia, asking government representatives to explain their progress in promoting racial equality and tackling racism.
The CERD notified the government in advance of the key focus areas of the review. Not surprisingly, these include the situation of Indigenous people, and of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees; racist hate speech and hate crimes; and human rights and anti-racism protections in Australia’s laws and policies.
What is the CERD?
Australia has ratified seven of the nine core human rights treaties. Each treaty has its own treaty monitoring body, like the CERD, comprised of independent experts who are nominated by governments but do not represent them.
These bodies monitor states’ compliance with their international law obligations as set out in the treaty, primarily through periodic reporting.
Most recently, Australia received criticism from another one of these bodies, the Human Rights Committee, which highlighted shortcomings in relation to Indigenous rights, treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the lack of a national bill of rights.
It is often overlooked that of these nine core treaties, the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), was actually adopted before any of the others. The CERD became operational in 1970, and ICERD is now the third most commonly ratified UN human rights treaty, with 177 states signed up.
Australia and CERD – the background
The CERD last reviewed Australia’s record in 2010.
The recommendations made in 2010 contained 21 specific actions for the government. These included the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as First Nations Peoples, supporting the proper performance of the Australian Human Rights Commission, appointing a Race Discrimination Commissioner, and addressing Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system.
Like many other UN human rights bodies, in 2010 the CERD also recommended that Australia review its mandatory detention regime of asylum seekers, with a view to finding an alternative to detention and ensuring that the detention of asylum seekers is always a measure of last resort.
Another recommendation in 2010 was that Australia criminalise the dissemination of racist ideas and incitement to racial hatred or discrimination.
In this regard, Australia has formally limited its obligations by having a reservation to the relevant article of the treaty. Reservations allow states to commit to treaty obligations, but with caveats.
Despite criticisms of Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act and suggestions that the federal parliament may even have exceeded its external affairs power by going further than was required by the ICERD treaty, the reality is that Australia lacks comprehensive criminal sanctions against incitement to racial hatred. Many other countries have such criminal laws in place.
On Tuesday in Geneva, the government will continue to seek to convince the CERD that it has made progress on these recommendations. It could refer to the appointment of a Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, for example Where it has not made good progress, it will be expected to provide explanations.
The last two reviews of Australia by the CERD in 2010 and 2005 were carried out in typical diplomatic mode – the review is called a “constructive dialogue”.
However, Australia’s review by the CERD in 2000 is famous in human rights circles, as there were unusually heated exchanges between Philip Ruddock and one of the committee members.
The Human Rights Committee, one of the aforementioned seven treaty bodies, is sometimes confused with the Human Rights Council – a completely separate UN human rights body. The Human Rights Council is the key UN human rights body, a more politicised entity.
Who actually holds Australia to account?
Being subject to reviews by international human rights bodies is important for the upholding of human rights in Australia – we are currently the only sestern democracy lacking a statutory or constitutional bill of rights.
Also, unlike many other states, we are not part of a regional human rights framework.
Several interested parties made submissions to the CERD and delegates are in Geneva for informal briefings with the committee members. They will inform the committee of the key concerns they have about the government’s progress. NGOs have already made the committee aware of the situation on Manus Island.
My research has found that such submissions can be quite influential and help shape the recommendations eventually delivered by the committee. However, mechanisms to ensure the government implements the recommendations are lacking.
Therefore, those in civil society with an interest in racial equality, NGOs, academics, trade unions and others should be aware of the recommendations and encourage the government to progress their implementation.
What happens next?
The CERD will finish its review of Australia today, which should be available to view via webcast.
In a few weeks, the committee will hand down its concluding observations, containing recommendations for the Australian government.
At the heart of the problem is the clash between commercial goals of social media companies (based around creating communities, building audiences, and publishing and curating content to sell to advertisers), and self-ascribed ethical responsibilities of companies to users.
Although some platforms show growing awareness of the need to respond more quickly to complaints, it’s a very slow process to automate.
Australia should focus on laws that protect internet users from overt hate, and civil actions to help balance out power relationships.
The convention is a global agreement to outlaw racism and racial discrimination, and Article 4 committed signatories to criminalise race hate speech. Australia’s reservation reflected the conservative governments’ reluctance to use the criminal law, similar to the civil law debate over section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in 2016/7.
New data released by the eSafety Commissioner showed young people are subjected to extensive online hate. Amongst other findings, 53% of young Muslims said they had faced harmful online content; Indigenous people and asylum seekers were also frequent targets of online hate. Perhaps this could lead governments and opposition parties to a common cause.
Secondly, while Australian law has adopted the European Convention on Cyber Crime, it could move further and adopt the additional protocol. This outlaws racial vilification, and the advocacy of xenophobia and racism.
The impact of these international agreements would be to make serious cases of racial vilification online criminal acts in Australia, and the executive employees of platforms that refused to remove them personally criminally liable. This situation has emerged in Germany where Facebook executives have been threatened with the use of such laws. Mark Zuckerberg visited Germany to pledge opposition to anti-immigrant vilification in 2016.
Finally, Australia could adopt a version of New Zealand’s approach to harmful digital communication. Here, platforms are held ultimately accountable for the publication of online content that seriously offends, and users can challenge the failure of platforms to take down offensive material in the realm of race hate. Currently complaints via the Australian Human Rights Commission do elicit informal cooperation in some cases, but citizen rights are limited.
Taken together, these elements would mark out to providers and users of internet services that there is a shared responsibility for reasonable civility.
In addition to legal avenues, civil initiatives can empower those who are the targets of hate speech, and disempower those who are the perpetrators of race hate.
People who are targeted by racists need support and affirmation. This approach underpins the eSafety commissioner’s development of a Young and Safe portal, which offers stories and scenarios designed to build confidence and grow skills in young people. This is extending to address concerns of women and children, racism, and other forms of bullying.
The Online Hate Prevention Institute (OHPI) has become a reservoir of insights and capacities to identify and pursue perpetrators. As proposed by OHPI, a CyberLine could be created for tipping and reporting race hate speech online, for follow up and possible legal action. Such a hotline would also serve as a discussion portal on what racism looks like and what responses are appropriate.
Anti-racism workshops (some have already been run by the E Safety commissioner) have aimed to push back against hate, and build structures where people can come together online. Modelling and disseminating best practice against race hate speech offers resources to wider communities that can then be replicated elsewhere.
The Point magazine (an online youth-centred publication for the government agency Multicultural New South Wales) reported two major events where governments sponsored industry/community collaboration to find ways forward against cyber racism.
The growth of online racism marks the struggle between a dark and destructive social movement that wishes to suppress or minimise the recognition of cultural differences, confronted by an emergent social movement that treasures cultural differences and egalitarian outcomes in education and wider society.
Advocacy organisations can play a critical role in advancing an agenda of civility and responsibility through the state, the economy and civil society. The social movements of inclusion will ultimately put pressure on the state and in the economy to ensure the major platforms do in fact accept full responsibilities for the consequences of their actions. If a platform refuses to publish hate speech or acts to remove it when it receives valid complaints, such views remain a private matter for the individual who holds them, not a corrosive undermining of civil society.
We need to rebalance the equation between civil society, government and the internet industry, so that when the population confronts the industry, demonstrating it wants answers, we will begin to see responsibility emerge.
Governments also need to see their role as more strongly ensuring a balance between the right to a civil discourse and the profitability of platforms. Currently the Australian government seems not to accept that it has such a role, even though a number of states have begun to act.
The Cyber Racism and Community Resilience Project CRaCR explores why cyber racism has grown in Australia and globally, and what concerned communities have and can do about it. This article summarises the recommendations CRaCR made to industry partners.
We live in a richly diverse country, populated by Indigenous Australians, recent immigrants, and descendants of relatively recent immigrants. Some feel threatened by this diversity; some relish it.
Most of us, I think, are unsure quite how to talk about it.
We have many words to describe diversity. We ask people about their ancestry, their ethnicity, and – most awkwardly – their “background”. We seem least comfortable asking people about their “race”, and with good reason.
Racial classification has been used to justify some of the most heinous crimes of modernity, including those committed on our own shores. Asking people about their “race” can make you sound a bit, well, racist.
What justifies the continued use of racial classification? Nothing, or so I argue in Replacing Race, an open-access article published recently in the philosophy journal Ergo.
I argue that there are no races, only racialised groups – groups that have been misunderstood as biological races.
The reader may object – “surely, I can see race with my bare eyes!” However, it is not race we see, but the superficial visible biological diversity within our species: variation in traits such as skin colour, hair form and eye shape. This variation is not enough to justify racial classification. Our biological diversity is too small, and too smoothly distributed across geographic space, for race to be real.
This is not merely an opinion. From a scientific perspective, the best candidate for a synonym for “race” is “subspecies” (the classification level below “species” in biology). When scientists apply the standard criteria to determine whether there are subspecies/races in humans, none are found. In chimpanzees yes, but in humans no.
Racial classification is unscientific. However, humanities scholars have their own justifications for race-talk. Many argue that while there are no biological races, there are social races. Race, as philosophers put it, is a social kind.
In my view, the redefinition of race as a social kind has been a major mistake. Most people still think of race as a biological category. By redefining it socially, we risk miscommunicating with each other on this fraught topic.
Once the idea of race is divorced from biology, strange things start happening, conceptually. What makes a group a “race”, if race is social, rather than biological?
We could say that races are just the groups that are labelled as races, but this doesn’t work. Just as witches are not women accused of being witches, races are not merely groups labelled as races. There has to be something more to the group for it to qualify as a social kind.
Nobody has put their finger on this “something more”. Some tie “race” to “essentialism”. Essentialism is the view that groups have essenses: fixed traits that all members of a group have, and which are unique to that group. “Social races”, on this view, are groups treated as if they have some unchangeable essence.
This move fails. While racialisation is often essentialising, it is not always. If you look at current “scientific” racism, you’ll see that it’s all about alleged inborn average differences between the so-called “races”, not racial essences (which does not make it any less horrid, or more plausible).
Moreover, essentialist thinking is not only applied to racialised groups. Gender is also essentialised, and so is ethnicity.
Remember when I said strange things start happening when race is defined socially? Well, if races are social groups subject to essentialism, we would have to accept that men and women constitute de facto races!
Let’s abandon “race”
We should abandon attempts to save the category of race. There is no good way to make sense of the category from a biological or a social perspective. There are no races, only groups misunderstood as races: racialised groups.
Racialised groups are not biological groups, in the sense that they are not biological races. Yet how you are racialised does depend on superficial biological characteristics, such as skin colour. That is to say, racialised groups have biological inclusion criteria, vague and arbitrary as they may be.
These biological inclusion criteria are determined by social factors. Philosophical debates about “race” have relied on a dichotomy between the biological and the social. However, this is a false dichotomy: the biological and the social interact.
In racialisation, the biological and the social interact with a number of other factors: administrative, cultural, economic, geographic, gendered, historical, lingual, phenomenological, political, psychological, religious, and so on. I call this view “interactive constructionism about racialised groups”.
The category of the “racialised group” can be of great value, politically. It offers a way for those who have historically been treated as members of “inferior races” to assert and defend themselves collectively, while distancing themselves from the negative and misleading associations of the term “race”. “Race” is not needed for purposes of social justice.
Being of Aboriginal descent is crucial because this is our link to country and the natural world. But at the same time, Aboriginal people do not rely on a race-based identity … continuing cultural values and practice are the true basis of Aboriginal identity in the whole of Australia today
The category of race is not needed for cultural identity or political action.
We need to be talking about racism, racialisation, and racialised groups, not “race”. Given that “race” fails as both a biological and a social category, let’s consign it to the dustbin of history’s bad ideas.