Anti-racist Pharisees: Bob Ellis and Charlie Pickering

parableof pharisee and tax collector

Kids draw the darndest things.

One of the topics being currently discussed in Australian mainstream media–which I ignore on purpose as it’s life-wasting noise–is whether some comment by football personality Eddie McGuire to footballer Adam Goodes was racist.

A friend recently pointed me to this article by Bob Ellis, which claims

It is not racism to say a man looks like a monkey. Some men, like George W Bush, really fucking do. It is not racism to tell an Irish joke. It is not racism to tell a Tiger Woods joke. Or if it is it does not compare with racism involving rape or death or ruin or stolen children. Racism is deeds, not words; not a few ill-chosen, misspoken foolish words in a land where speech is free.

Now, I don’t buy this at all.

First, I don’t see the point of the ostensive definition. It’s not necessary to redefine racism to make the point that: “inequalities of outcome along racial lines must be eradicated.”

Second, I wouldn’t agree that such inequalities of outcome are necessarily racist. My mum found an old English picture book from the 1910s in an op-shop years ago, which made racist or ethnic generalizations about just about every people on earth. One: Spaniards are lazy. Let’s say that as a result, most Spaniards are also poor. Now–if this is true–that on average Spaniards are relatively lazy and poor as a result, I’d argue it’s not racism (by a more accepted definition that I prefer) that there is an inequality of outcome. Nor should it necessarily be addressed in any way. Let these Spaniards take responsibility for their own actions.

What would be racism was if the enterprising Spaniard showing up to a job interview in London was immediately judged on the basis of his racial/ethnic characteristics. “This Spaniard will be lazy,” thinks the interviewer, and declines to give him a job.

Racism as it is more commonly understood is this way of thinking that foregrounds a person’s race rather than their individual characteristics. It is a dehumanising move that typically results in the denial of an individual’s equal access to opportunity (which is more important than outcome), leads to the condoning of their abuse, and in its worst incarnations is used as justification for stripping whole racial and ethnic groups of their rights to life, liberty, and property. Bob Ellis, like Charlie Pickering in this recent article in Mamamia, in which he repeatedly says “I know nothing about racism in Australia” seems making a move intended mainly to display his supposed sensitivity and virtue.

To Ellis and Pickering–well done! You have paraded your virtue in the public square!

People such as Ellis and Pickering have existed for thousands of years. In the Jerusalem of Jesus’s day they called themselves Pharisees, and he loathed them for their greater interest in being seen to do good, and in placing themselves above others, than in having mercy and compassion for their fellow humans.

Denying that racism is primarily about denying others’ humanity on racial grounds obscures its links with other similar ideologies or inclinations (sexism, for instance), and obscures the importance of radical solidarity based on our shared personhood and negative rights.

Ellis and to a greater extent Pickering make this denial in such a way that it appears they do it mainly to look morally superior. Or maybe that’s not entirely fair to the two. Certainly, many of those who approvingly repost these articles on Facebook do so, without so much as a careful thought about whether their arguments are sensible, true, or helpful.

Down with Pharisees, I say, and down with their self-righteous chest-beating.

Author: Ben Hourigan

Ben Hourigan is a novelist from Melbourne, Australia. His books Kiss Me, Genius Boy and My Generation’s Lament are Amazon category bestsellers, and are available wherever good books are sold online. Ben also works as an editor, copywriter, and self-publishing consultant at his own firm, Hourigan & Co. For news and book release updates, sign up to his email newsletter.