Is history really about psychological profiling?
According to John Quiggin "There is only one real instance of political correctness in Australia today and
that is that you are never, ever allowed to call anyone a racist."
Why is this?
For many people racism is a kind of psychopathology. To be a racist is to have morally objectionable personality traits. Racists need to believe that their racial group is superior to others. They need to believe that their group has a right to dominate inferior groups. People tend to think of racism in the same way as they think of pedophilia – racists can be restrained but they can never be rehabilitated. Racists are sick, deformed human beings.
On this view to call someone a racist is stigmatizing. It is to reveal the core of their being and declare it morally unacceptable. If this is how people think about racism it’s no wonder they’re nervous about using the word.
But perhaps a more useful way to think about racism is to apply it to what people and institutions do rather than to their personalities or mental states. On this view, a racist act or policy is one which has the foreseeable result of disadvantaging a particular racial or cultural group. We could call this kind of racism, ‘practical racism.’
Quiggin’s post was provoked by a Sydney Morning Herald piece on Keith Windschuttle’s latest book – The White Australia Policy. As readers would know, the White Australia policy restricted non-white immigration to Australia by requiring immigrants to pass a dictation test in a European language.
The Windschuttle debate is firmly focused on the beliefs and intentions of the policy’s creators. According to Herald journalist Deborah Snow:
Windschuttle’s thesis is that until the 1950s Australian historians held a much more benign view of the purposes and origins of the policy than they do today. They saw it as an attempt by politicians to preserve social harmony, and by a fledgling trade union movement to keep cheap labour out of the country. Windschuttle concedes there were some politicians and intellectuals, among them Henry Lawson and a clique at the Bulletin, who took an anti-immigration stance based overtly on a belief in the biological inferiority of some races. But he maintains this was a minority view.
It’s hard enough to get into to a person’s head when they’re alive. When they’ve been dead for decades it’s next to impossible. So instead of having an sensible argument about the merits of the policy we end up with an intractable argument about the moral worthiness of the nation’s founders. Historians and journalists like Windschuttle dig around what written traces remain of the founders’ thoughts and actions and try to piece together a psychological profile. It’s fascinating stuff – but is it history?
What we never seem to argue about is whether the White Australia policy was racist in practical terms. Perhaps the reason for this is that nobody can deny that the policy systematically disadvantaged some groups of people. If you were Chinese then you wouldn’t be allowed in.
Rather than arguing with people about the contents of their own heads perhaps it would be a better idea to argue about the effects of the policies they support.