Friday, July 8, 2016

Dangerously Divisive! Korach & Pauline Hanson

Arguments are raging about how to respond to the election of the divisive anti-Islam senator elect Pauline Hanson. On one hand we are being urged to “listen [to,] not lampoon” Hanson and her voters. We are told that although ‘Hanson’s policies are misconceived’ we can must empathise with the economic pain of Hanson’s rural supporters and to accept that their “fears are natural, and understandable”. I suggested on twitter that ‘dialogue with fearful, resentful people must sit alongside ensuring that bigotry is not made respectable’.

On the other hand, there are very real fears that giving credence to bigotry will have devastating effects. Jarni Blakkarly wrote after the election of Hanson: “A lot of my friends who are people of colour and particularly Muslims are genuinely afraid at the moment.” Last time Hanson was in Parliament she made offensive comments about Aboriginal people and there was an increase in racist incidents in her state to the extent where Aboriginal people reported being afraid to travel on buses. A similar effect is currently being felt on the streets of the UK, as a result of the toxic Brexit rhetoric. Tim Soutphommasane correctly asserted that “We have plenty of examples about how licensing hate can lead to serious violence and ugliness in our streets and our communities ”.

In the Torah reading this week we have the example of Korach, a Biblical figure who challenged Moses’ leadership and threatened the cohesion of the Israelites. Of Korach it is written that ‘A man took a divisive stance and lost part of himself[i]’. There is something profoundly diminishing in the stance of hateful divisiveness. Yet, the threat dividers pose is seen as massive, and must not be underestimated. Shakira Hussein argues that Hansonism is part of an international trend and that those who are supporting the approach “are not just seeking to recapture the past. They’re looking to the future — and they believe that it belongs to them[ii]”. In the case of Korach, God himself intervened and had the earth swallow Korach alive[iii].  This reflects the power of words to undermine societal norms and cohesion. Ridicule of Hansonism and of her as a public figure representing offensive views is appropriate and a legitimate part of the battle of ideas.

Like Hanson challenging the Elites, Korach denied Moses authority as a messenger of God and falsely accused him of haughtiness: holding himself above the people[iv].  Yet, we know that Moses was a reluctant leader and is described in the Torah as a most humble man. In speaking the unspeakable, Korach shook the foundations of his society and emboldened others who wished to break free from the constraints of what was previously considered “correct” speech. In our time, like then, it is important for people to strongly distance themselves from divisive figures or risk being seen as legitimising their views. This is symbolically alluded to in the story of Korach when the people are instructed to physically distance themselves from Korach[v] because tho stand near Korach could be understood to be standing with him and his agenda[vi].

On the other hand there is value in a dialogue with Hanson’s voters, but in a way that does not to amplify their voices. Moses himself talked to some of the rebels and sought to reason with them. Moses send a messenger to two of the other rebels who had not approach him to invite them to meet him for dialogue[vii]. In many ways, Hanson’s voters are people like you and me. Many of them are suffering and have genuine concerns about the future of our country. They also have unacceptable and harmful views that need to be challenged. But the best way to do that is to engage with them in an appropriate way without causing further harm to our society. 

The nature of Korach’s punishment is illustrative of the nature of in-fighting and divisiveness. The ground opened and swallowed Korach alive[viii]. This is the nature of conflict, it is consuming[ix]!  When the Israelites saw Korach consumed as a consequence of the conflict they ran screaming[x], because they said: “lest we also be swallowed”. There is a struggle for hearts and minds and the direction we will take regarding differences. Let us fight hard, compassionately and wisely.

[i] Ohr Hachayim, to Numbers 16:1
[iii] Numbers 16:31-33, If I take the story of Korach literally, it troubles me because of what it implies about dissent and challenging authority but I am looking at it in more thematic or Midrashic terms
[iv] Numbers 16:3
[v] Numbers 16:26, Arama, Rabbi Y., cited in Lebovitz, N. Studies in Bamidbar Numbers, Malbim, Hirsch, S.R.,
[vi] Midrash Hagadol cited in Torah Shlaima
[vii] Numbers 16:5-12
[viii] Numbers 16:31-33
[ix] Chafetz Chayim
[x] Numbers 16:34, “screaming” is my creative interpretation/translation of the words in the verse that states “they ran to/for their voices” which is ambiguous. 

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