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Greens senators staged a walkout during Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech. AAP/Mick Tsikas

If the normal rules of political engagement don’t apply, how do we handle Pauline Hanson?

Australians had an unnerving sense of déjà vu last week when Pauline Hanson delivered her predictable but no less offensive maiden speech in the Senate. Hanson warned that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Muslims and called for all Muslim immigration to be stopped.

Back in 1996, in her maiden speech to the House of Representatives, Hanson infamously predicted Australia was going to be swamped by Asians. If she felt any embarrassment that her last round of doomsday forecasts had proven wrong, she didn’t show it.

But, then again, that is the privilege of the paranoid right. The normal rules of political engagement – coherence, consistency, fact, logic, proportion – do not apply.

Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to the Senate.

How do we ‘handle’ Hanson?

The response to Hanson was also fairly predictable. The Greens staged a dramatic walkout. They then posted a video in which they condemned Hanson’s speech.

Several Turnbull government ministers said that, while they did not agree with Hanson’s claims, they respected the right of people to have a difference of opinion.

The mainstream media weighed in with their own assessments about how to handle Hanson. Age journalist Tony Wright denounced her but criticised the Greens’ self-indulgence. He suggested the best way to tackle Hanson was to expose the illogical and false nature of her claims, not shun her.

SBS’s The Feed pointed out ten factual errors in Hanson’s speech.

Columnist Waleed Aly offered a grim assessment that in a polarised Australia it is as if the Hansonites and anti-Hansonites occupy two different universes – the implication being that there are no grounds at all for genuine engagement.

On and on it went, as it will presumably for the next few years, every time Hanson opens her mouth and says something horrible. The prospect is not a pleasant one.

So, is there a “right” way to handle Hanson? Should we ignore her? Engage her? Denounce her? Laugh at her?

The answer depends on what we mean by “handling” Hanson. Is our intention to make her see the errors of her ways? Is it to silence or marginalise her? Or is to try to contain the damage she causes when she uses parliamentary privilege to belittle and harm minority groups by engaging Australians in a different conversation?

This last option is likely to be the most practical and effective one.

What is the paranoid style?

It is improbable that Hanson can be reasoned with in relation to her views on Muslim immigration. She and her fellow travellers conform to what US historian Richard Hofstadter once referred to as “the paranoid style”.

Hofstadter did not mean such people were clinically insane, rather that they were normal people motivated by tendencies towards acute exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.

History, Hofstadter pointed out, is peppered with individuals and groups who mobilised politically on the basis of their belief that their group was under direct threat from hostile forces intrinsically opposed to the “in-group’s” values and ideals. These threats were deemed urgent because such outsiders had managed to infiltrate the core group and were subverting it from within.

Catholics, Communists and Masons were some of the “out-groups” Hofstadter identified in relation to American politics. To that list, and in an Australian context at different times, we might also add the Irish, the Chinese – and now Muslims.

Anger, absolutism, anti-intellectualism, anti-cosmopolitanism and racism are common elements of the paranoid style.

Hofstadter also recognised a strong sense of dispossession at its core. The proponents of paranoid politics feel robbed of their heritage, security and identity. Their alienation from the political system and the machinery of power (its processes, rather than its consequences) means they:

  • underestimate the power of negotiation, bargaining and compromise in the decision-making process;

  • view difference as irreconcilable; and

  • imagine conspiracies where none exist.

Hanson and the paranoid style

Viewed in this context and that of the more general culture of silence and misinformation that has been allowed to surround Australian immigration policy in recent decades, it becomes apparent why Hanson is unlikely to be swayed from her views.

Ignoring Hanson is not an option nevertheless. She is a professional agitator who feeds off the social disturbance she creates. Australian political scientist Alan Davies described the agitator as someone who:

… lives in effect, to shout or write – to be noticed, to provoke and leave his mark … a man (sic) who is himself agitated; roused by events to an unusual excitement … a man stung into demanding that others en masse quail, rage or condemn too.

Having finally re-established a public platform for herself in the form of a Senate seat, Hanson will work hard to ensure the media spotlight remains firmly focused on her.

Her temptation to up the ante by issuing ever-more-provocative statements will be strong. The onus will be on government and community leaders to ensure Hanson is not setting the limits of public discourse and decency.

All this presents significant challenges for the Australian body politic – but the situation is not completely hopeless.

Handling Hanson will require a strong sense of proportion from the media and her opponents. They will need to engage directly with her and her One Nation colleagues while also trying to deny them too much political oxygen by responding to every single utterance – tempting though it will be.

They will need to counter erroneous claims with real data and facts. They will need to find some “good news” stories to tell.

It also requires strong, ethical leadership from our MPs. This is the sort of leadership that puts social stability and cohesion above party-political interests. It is not afraid to call out racist and demeaning behaviour in the public sphere.

What’s needed most of all is a positive counter-narrative to Hanson’s toxic discourse – one that celebrates Australian multiculturalism, consciously tackles the misinformation that surrounds immigration policy, and demands respect and dignity for all Australians regardless of their religion, culture or ethnicity.

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