Annual Lecture in Bigotry and Tolerance, 2001

Annual Lecture in Bigotry and Tolerance, 2001

Dr Evelyn Scott

"On the Evil of Tolerance and the Virtue of Intolerance"

Dr. Herbert and Mrs. Valmae Freilich, distinguished academic members of the Australian National University, ladies and gentlemen.

Firstly, may I offer my thanks and pay tribute to the Ngunnawal peoples, traditional owners of this land, for allowing me today into their country. And may I also offer my sincere thanks to Herbert and Valmae for so generously endowing this wonderful foundation, part of the Humanities Research Centre of the ANU.

Centres such as this, and those in other universities, which examine the causes and motivations of intolerance, act as a beam of light illuminating the dark and murky subterranean world inhabited by racial and religious extremists, a world which always threatens to undermine the foundations of our lives.

I recognize the enormous tribute paid to me in being asked to be this year's public lecturer on Bigotry and Intolerance. Last year you were privileged to listen to the poet Les Murry. Even though my words cannot hope to be as inspired and poetical as his, I hope that my experiences of bigotry and injustice will resonate in your hearts as lyrically and passionately as did his.

The subject of my lecture is Australian Bigotry and National Prejudice. I have chosen the rather unusual title, "The Evil of Tolerance and the Virtue of Intolerance," because I think it's time that we all began to re-define our attitudes towards one another. In this country, we're all being hurt; every one of us except a very privileged few is hurting from the process of change. If nothing else, the hurt we're suffering explains the re-emergence and renaissance of the Pauline Hanson phenomenon and the reason why someone such as her, with no carefully thought out policies, is so attractive to traditional Australians in the bush, and living on the margins.

In this re-definition, I think it's necessary to start with what we've become as a nation. Let me begin with the concept that each and every one of us is in some way a bigot, and prejudiced. Even those whose education, or interaction with numerous races and religions and social groupings categorizes them as unbigoted and unprejudiced, even those who actively fight racial and religious intolerance, even those who work in the fields of reconciliation, are in some small way prejudiced.

Bigotry and prejudice are an aspect of us all. Because we're different from one another, because we profess different beliefs, or we've grown up with different skin colours, or within different layers of society, we're often socially conditioned to be wary of difference.

In his Reminiscences of Bigotry, Herbert Freilich recounts a charming story about two children who grew up together in South Africa. The little girl was the daughter of a poor white farming couple; the little boy was the son of black workers; the two kids were the closest of friends, until their first day together in school, when the little girl comes home to her mother in a state of fury, and says, "Johnny didn't tell me he was black."

It's interesting that intolerance is unknown in children, until it's instilled in them. But in the wider community, intolerance here and overseas is increasingly the focus of media attention. In recent elections in Western Australia and Queensland, we saw the rise of One Nation, and it appears as we draw closer and closer to a federal election, that the divisions caused by the likes of Pauline Hanson will grow deeper and deeper as men and women who feel disassociated from the control over their lives, seek simplistic remedies.

Of course, the keystone of Hansonism is isolationism, racism and intolerance, no matter how she or her members dress it up in the cloak of respectability by appealing to patriotism. And events during the past decade have shown us very clearly that intolerance is not just a phenomenon of Australia, but is on the rise again throughout the world. It would have been wonderful, though naive, to think that the First and Second World Wars had expunged the virus of intolerance from our makeup.

Indeed, as we begin the long and slow ascent into the third millenium, we should be able to look back on our memories of the previous century, and say to ourselves that enough is enough that the millions of refugees, the countless legions of widows and orphans, and the mountains of broken bodies which are the icons of the 20th Century, have produced enough horror and bitterness for human civilization; that if a total of 70 million people died as a result of all the wars and genocides of that murderous century, then we in the 21st Century should understand the consequences of intolerance, and have none of it.

But as I said, that would be naive. For intolerance and its inevitable consequences of marginalisation, hatred, barbarity, and destruction, are as much a part of the first few years of this millennium as they were throughout every year of the past thousand and more years. Today, we shudder at the intolerance of the whites towards blacks in Australia, of Moslems towards the Christians in Indonesia, of the Hindus towards the Moslems in India, of skinheads in Germany towards Turkish and other foreign workers, of Iranians towards the Jewish minority, of white towards black and black towards white, of Christian fundamentalists towards Jews, and Catholic fundamentalists towards Protestants, of heterosexuals towards homosexuals; the list goes on and on.

As I said, intolerance of others isn't something with which we're born. No child comes out of its mother's womb with feelings of hatred coursing through its veins. Look at the way a baby instinctively smiles at people, the immediate acceptance. No, intolerance it taught to us in our homes, our streets, our schools. In enlightened communities in America, South Africa and Australia, we see black children cavorting in school playgrounds with white children. These children see the colours of each other's skin, but they celebrate the differences. The children are curious and ask open and candid questions about the other child's race and customs and ceremonies. The curiosity of these very young children is without malice, without prejudice.

Yet in other homes in that city, white parents speak in derogatory terms about blacks, and blacks talk menacingly about the evil whites. And the children listening absorb their parents' words and attitudes and become as prejudiced and intolerant as them, and so the virus spreads from generation to generation.

The same applies to Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, and Moslems and Hindus in India and Pakistan; to Jews and Moslems in Israel and Palestine; to Moslems and Christians in Indonesia; indeed there are virtually no countries in the world which are free of prejudice and intolerance and bigotry.

But intolerance doesn't prosper in isolation; intolerance flourishes when the celebration of the difference of others is subsumed within old, often ancient hatreds. And it's by recognising the evil of intolerance that we appreciate the value and beauty of those in our community who openly and candidly celebrate difference.

Let me give you perhaps the finest example of tolerance that I know. When the Mahatma, Mohandas Ghandi was fasting because of the internecine warfare between Hindus and Moslems in post-imperial India, a bereft Hindu man came bursting into Ghandi's bedchamber, tears streaming down his cheeks. Ghandi was on the point of death from starvation; yet the Hindu stood over the bed of the living saint, and told him that his young son had just been killed by a fanatical mob of Moslems. How could Ghandi ask him, a recently bereaved father, to be tolerant when his son had just been murdered?

Ghandi, weak and skeletal, lifted himself off his bed, and said to the man, "I grieve for your son. But now is your chance to give life where life no longer exists. Go into the streets and find an orphan boy of the same age as your dead son. Take him into your home. But ensure that this boy whose life you save is a Moslem boy - and one further thing - ensure that you bring up this boy in your Hindu home, as a Moslem."

History doesn't tell us whether the Hindu father did as he was instructed. Yet as an example of utter and total tolerance, it highlights what's wrong in this increasingly intolerant and bigoted world.

Tolerance was the liberal catchcry of the 1950s. Today, in a new world, with new world problems, I think we need to go beyond this notion. I think we need an entirely new approach to the horrors of racism and bigotry, of sexism and ageism, of all forms of hatred by one group against another because of difference. You see, being tolerant isn't enough any more. Tolerance is the positive form of the word intolerance. It is not the opposite of intolerance.

Tolerance implies a grudging acceptance, an almost forced acknowledgement that those who are different have rights, and that some higher authority - the legal system, the religious hierarchy - demands that we acknowledge and tolerate those in our community who are different from us.

Tolerance is the real problem. People tolerate Moslems in their community, but they don't accept them; they tolerate Asians living next door, but they never invite them in; they tolerate black children in the playground playing with their white children, but they prefer them not to mix outside of school hours; they tolerate Hindus and Jews and Blacks and Whites because the authorities have enacted a law which says they're not allowed discriminate in public; they tolerate Aborigines in their pubs, only because they know the law forbids banning them.

Intolerance is caused by many factors, but one cause, which we don't seem to have come to terms with in our society, is the profoundly detrimental nature of tolerance. Intolerance begins when the patience and the good will, the openness and the generosity of spirit, which we require in our multi-cultural society runs out, when those who are different from us cross some imaginary boundary of our minds, or when some demagogue arises and gives us a reason to bury our tolerance and legitimises the means to oppose those we fear, and gives imprimatur to an ability to take action - action like a race riot, or the shooting of recently arrived migrants, or voting for an extremist political party which promises an overnight cure for all our problems, or permitting horrific treatment of human beings in detention centers, or allowing its minority inhabitants to live in fourth world conditions while the majority of the society lives in comparative splendour.

There are no easy answers to ending intolerance; throughout the centuries we have sought to understand the nature of this most destructive of evils. Yet the more we understand the benefits of diversity, the more we are learning of its value, its strength. The world of science, from Darwin to the Genome project, has proven time and time again that diversity in all its aspects, is strength. The very movements of ecology and environmental science are based on the value of diversity. Isn't it interesting that the difference between someone who is black and someone who is white has now been shown by recent scientific research to be almost biologically indistinguishable. The genome project has shown how close all men and women are to each other, whether they're black or white, Asian or European, tall or short; unfortunately it's also shown how close we are biologically to the fly and the earthworm.

But this closeness of all human beings also applies in every feature of society. Paradoxically, though, the more we legislate against discrimination and bigotry, the more it seems to flourish and fester, despite ourselves.

So is legislation the way? Certainly society must enact laws which place a barrier between the right to be bigoted, and the right to act upon that bigotry. Racists must be marginalised, and forbidden the right to make public their inner hatreds. But no laws can affect the way a person thinks, and this, I believe, is the clue to how ultimately we can, over generations, conquer this virus of prejudice.

Because if prejudice begins in the home, then it can be ended in the home. And the best way for us to ensure that it is ended in our neighbour's home is by our example. By opening our doors to those who are different from us, and sharing in the value of their cultures, their history, their thoughts.

The only opposite of intolerance we should accept, is the celebration of diversity, of understanding, respecting, and valuing the difference in others as a social and cultural strength. Difference, and our appreciation of it, will make us finer people, more resilient, better able to adapt to the constant changes which are so much a part of our modern world.

By teaching our children this most valuable lesson, we will be enriching their lives, by giving them so many more things, and so many more ways to celebrate who they are, and the heritage from which their pride will grow.

But it's not just our children who are capable of learning the lessons which surround acceptance and openness to new ideas and strains of thought - it's also us adults. While I'm the first to appreciate that a rabid racist will be resistant to any form of argument or education which contradicts his or her views, I'm still a firm believer in the power of reason to persuade someone to open his or her mind to the potential of other perspectives, other ideas, other solutions, even when those prejudices are firmly entrenched.

This is a moment in time for Australia when it is very important for us all to begin to speak about these aspects of intolerance and bigotry and prejudice. And I don't think it's right to shout down and condemn out of hand those whom we call prejudiced and bigoted. It's all too easy to denigrate those people in our community who oppose opening our doors to refugees, and assistance to migrants and money going to ATSIC, but when we denigrate, we fail to listen to what they have to say - we fail to take notice of their fears.

It's very dangerous for those of us in this room, and those in the wider community who passionately believe in social justice and equity, to block our ears to the words being said in the bush and in the margins of the cities. These words are given prominence and expression by Pauline Hanson and others on what we've dubbed the far right.

But Pauline Hanson isn't an evil person; what she says might be counted as evil, but in herself, I don't detect anything other than a simple and honest Australian woman fighting for those values she feels important to herself - values, I might add which she shares with many, yet values which are of a previous and much less equitable age; and the million or so Australians who have voted for her in elections over the past six years, aren't evil either. What they're doing is simply espousing complaints about which we, who fight for causes such as Aboriginal reconciliation and tolerance and multiculturalism, have failed to heed. And it's not just us, but all governments and oppositions, have failed to heed these complaints.

Why is the fight for Aboriginal reconciliation so fiercely resisted by so many people? I can point to close to half a million men, women and children who have gone out on the streets and marched for reconciliation, but in every pub and club and private house and factory floor and office throughout Australia, I can hear the voices of millions who say that they're not racists, but they oppose reconciliation; they oppose compensation to Aborigines for the harm we've been caused since white settlement; that they oppose land and other rights which they fear will give the Aborigines an advantage over others. I can hear these voices because they're espoused so stridently through the mouths of the extremists who are now gaining political legitimacy.

But the ordinary people who are expressing these fears, are not overt racists. They're just people whose lives have not yet been touched by the true meaning of acceptance and harmony; they're ordinary people who would hate to be called bigoted and who would oppose being called prejudiced, but who have a fear for the future of their lifestyle and for their family's security; they're people who will vote for Pauline Hanson, not because they hate blacks, but because they don't want their lifestyle disrupted.

Are they evil because they don't embrace multiculturalism? Are they evil because they don't want an Aboriginal, or a Vietnamese, or a Lebanese family living next door? Is it necessarily wrong to express these views? No, it's not wrong to express your fears. And the people who say these things aren't necessarily evil - they're just people who haven't experienced the benefit which a multicultural society can offer. Apart from the taste of ethnic food and the enjoyment of foreign-language movies, these people who want to live in the protection of a mono-cultural society, are frightened of those whose lifestyle is different.

But how many of them have ever experienced that difference? How many have experienced the harmony and morality of a traditional Aboriginal extended family, our understanding of the land and of the rhythms of nature? Or how many have experienced the joy of the Mediterranean culture with its colour and gaiety? And how many people in this country have sat for any period of time to truly appreciate the sophistication of Asian thought? How many have been sufficiently open and approachable to people who profess homosexuality and appreciate that they are precisely the same as everyone else, except for their choice of partner? From the success of the One Nation Party, I would guess that I'm talking about very few people indeed.

But is this majority of Australians who have no association with other cultures or lifestyle preferences, entirely composed of bigots and prejudiced people who are forever unwilling to change their ideas? Well, let me tell you the story about a man, chosen as a totally ordinary and representative Australian, who was one of three hundred or so participants last February in the Summit Reference Group organized by Ian Sinclair at the old Parliament House. The Reference Group was debating the issue of Aboriginal Reconciliation. In the Group, picked to represent a complete cross-section of Australian society, were blacks and whites, migrants, educated and illiterate, country and city and many more.

Now this man entered the Reference Group's weekend as someone who would vote against reconciliation; no, he wasn't a bigot or prejudiced, but he thought that Australia's pleasant lifestyle would be disrupted by giving more to the Aboriginals - that we'd demand compensation and it would run the country into bankruptcy. But when he listened to the arguments for and against, this man changed his opinion. He heard, he listened, he understood...and he changed his mind. He has now gone on the public record as saying that because of the weekend he spent as part of the Reference Group, he firmly believes in Reconciliation. Yes, it's only one man, but it's indicative of where we're going wrong. I said earlier that I believe that no amount of reason or education could change the mind of a committed racist, and I still believe that; but few of us are committed racists; most of us are prejudiced in some way, but we bury it in order to be a member of a civil society. And its to the majority, not the vicious racist minority, that I address these remarks. And here, I firmly believe that education and openness and listening to the fears of others can act as an agent of change in our society and assist in overcoming it's greatest of all failings - it's prejudice.

Because that, ladies and gentlemen, is the very heart of where we are all failing. We, in the Aboriginal movement, in multiculturalism, in fighting for the rights of refugees and migrants, are failing to listen to the very real and genuine cries from the hearts of middle Australia who are frightened of change. We, in this room, are agents of change. We're desperate for our viewpoints to become reality; we're anxious for governments to enact legislation to right the wrongs we see in our own and other societies. We believe that we have right on our side - that it's right for the government to sit up and listen to what we're demanding; that our human rights have been so abused that we shouldn't have to sell our message!

Well let me tell you that with that attitude, we'll never get anywhere; let me assure you that with that attitude, extremists on both sides will prevail, and we'll see polarized groups begin to travel down the road of violence and confrontation, and that's something which we all must avoid.

Until we listen to the concerns of middle Australia, until we assure ordinary men and women - decent men and women - that we're not out to harm them and to destroy their lifestyle, then we'll never win the battle for our rights. Change must come about - change in people's attitudes and pre-conceptions about Aboriginal ownership of the land, about our rights as human beings, and about where white society fits into our traditional environment, and where we fit into white society. But change must be welcomed by the majority, and not forced upon them by anger and aggression.

Because if we do release the pent-up passions of prejudice - prejudice and bigotry on both sides, black and white - then the winners will be the demagogues who pander to the fears of the majority of people who resist change; the One Nations and the League of Rights and the Citizens Electoral Council and the Lyndon LaRouches of this world, as well as the other offensive and extremist right and left wing groups who are rocketing to prominence because we, whose passion is for social justice and equity, have lost sight of the fact that only a minority of Australians at the moment agree with us. That most people who are scared of change have blinkered vision and will only cast off their blinkers when they can see that there are no great pitfalls ahead of them.

We're not getting our messages through to the millions and millions of ordinary and decent people who are frightened that reconciliation and land claims and law suits are going to dramatically alter the way they live. We're not selling our message. We're so arrogant in thinking that we're right, that we've all forgotten that the majority of Australians have yet to be convinced.

I've entitled this Lecture, "The Evil of Tolerance and the Virtue of Intolerance". You might think it an odd title. But what I've tried to show tonight is that if we only tolerate difference, we're guilty of the same attitudes which lead to extremists stealing the agenda.

But if we appreciate the virtue of intolerance - if we're intolerant of ignorance and prejudice and bigotry and racism and all the other circumstances which lead to complacency, then we will know more accurately where our path lies.

And surely, that path is a common road, along which your people, whoever they are, and my people, wherever they are, must travel together.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for the honour of allowing me to be your Lecturer tonight.

Updated:  28 November 2014/Responsible Officer:  Freilich Foundation/Page Contact:  Herbert & Valmae Freilich Foundation