In 2016 I started working at a university. At this university (as at others) there are active student groups, including Socialist groups. I consider myself a socialist so one day at lunchtime I walked over to their stall. They were asking people to sign a petition against Pauline Hanson. I had noticed that since the federal election they had distributed posters against her all over the campus.
I read the petition statement but didn’t sign it - it wasn’t well written and included some assumptions I wasn’t on board with - and then I asked some questions. When I said I wasn’t going to sign the petition afterall they responded with aggression. I was told that petitions didn’t work anyway. ‘OK’, I said ‘what do you think will work?’ I then entered a strange conversation. I was told that the way to defeat Pauline Hanson and her followers was to shout at them that they are racist. I was told that this strategy had worked last time. I suggested that it was just bullying, and perhaps it would be better to build relationships with people and educate them and bring them along, so that they learn to not be afraid of people they don’t understand. The students told me that my suggestion wouldn’t work because: educated people are racists, in fact Malcolm Turnbull was the biggest racist because he held the highest position in the country; that if Pauline Hanson learnt not to be a racist there would be other people to take her place and it wasn’t about her - even though the posters and petition were all about her; that education doesn’t work and we need to just keep shouting at people that they are racist. I didn’t follow their logic about Malcolm Turnbull and Pauline Hanson, so I asked why they thought education doesn’t work. What did they think education was for if it didn’t lead to making a better society? Why were they at university? That’s where the conversation ended.
I’ve thought of this conversation after Brexit and after the election of Donald Trump. I’ve thought about it in relation to a rule in ethics classes. In ethics classes there is a rule that you don’t call people names. I extended this in the classes I taught to include people outside the room: politicians, celebrities, sportspeople, and I would ask what happens when you call people names. The students would say you hurt people’s feelings. I would agree, and extend the answer to include this: you cut off an opportunity to understand other people. Instead of calling people names, we need to listen and engage. Respectfully. People we disagree with genuinely believe they are right and are good. Shouting in their faces does nothing to change that - usually it makes people dig in, giving them more reason to not listen to you. Calling people names misses an opportunity to increase understanding and to make progress. Lets not do that.