Monday, February 28, 2011

"Challenging Racism" survey by UWS misleading, says Graham Downie

There is no contradiction at all between concern about the environmental effects of Australia's rapid rate of population growth (fed partly by extremely high immigration) and concern to prevent prejudice against immigrants.  Many people feel both concerns.

The grounds for not wanting a huge excess of immigrants over emigrants is not that immigrants are inferior or different, but that they are extremely similar to the existing population in the demands they will make on Australia's environment and resources.

However politicians and spin-doctors of the Hawke-Keating era enthusiastically used accusations of prejudice and even of "racism" to choke off critics of their high immigration policy. (Indeed they so mis-used the word "racism" that in the mouths of many young people it has now lost most of its meaning and became simply a term for any kind of antagonism or friction between groups.) 

Because such accusations were a way to claim moral superiority over critics, the tactic attracted some characters who may have needed to bolster their own moral standing. Most of Australia's half-dozen most prominent flingers of the racism slur have since been disgraced or convicted of serious crimes (Theophanous, Einfeld, Al Grassby, Pratt for starters) and this has taken the gloss off the movement. And with time some politicians have learned wisdom. Bob Hawke, who when he was in office was happy to use the racism slur against those concerned about population growth, told Andrew Denton on his 80th birthday that the thing which now most terrifies him is over-population!

(For more on this see Chapter 17 "The Racist Bogey" in Overloading Australia, available from )

But there is a group of academics at University of Western Sydney that continues to pour out claims that Australia is a racist society; and at least some of them use what is probably an exaggerated fear of racism to justify continuing high immigration.

Their recent release of a survey called "Challenging Racism" got uncritical "shock, horror" treatment from much of the media, for its claims that racism was common in Australian society.  It was in fact difficult to offer any criticism (even if a critic had had time to drop everything and respond within the 24 hours that the story remained "news")  because they do not provide clear information about how their surveys defined "racism" and what responses they took as proof of it.

For instance, the survey's web page appears to be at

and it does appear to offer a "generic" version of the survey questions at
This list of questions begins:
1. Knowledge and perceptions of local community relations
a) What cultural/ethnic groups are part of  ___[this region]__? In general, how do people get along?
b) How do you see day to day interactions between different cultural groups?
c) To what extent is racism a problem in _____?
d) What community relations activities are happening in _____ in response to racism?
It all seems very sloppy. Whoever formulated these questions made no attempt to distinguish between (1) the loose colloquial sense of "racism" = any antagonism between groups, and (2) the correct historical sense of "racism": a theory that humans can be divided into races, some of which are innately superior, mentally or morally to others.  The intense moral horror felt at any resurgence of real racism (sense no. 2) is often illegitimately transferred to sense no. 1 = any kind of antagonism between nations or even between religions.

Indeed this sequence of questions seems to invite respondents to interpret the word "racism" in its loose colloquial sense, and hence reply that there are various "racist" problems in their community. Having got the alarmist answer they may have wanted, it seems the researchers then offered their findings to the media  in such a way that the word was interpreted in its other sense, setting off alarm bells.

I note that while they speak of different kinds of anti-racism (presumably different initiatives) they do not seem as much aware of different definitions of racism, even though some questions are enigmatically classed as being about "old racism". Amazingly they seem to think that Moslems are a race not a religion, since "Anti-Moslem concern" appears to be classed as "racism".

Their findings seem to be presented in the same question-begging way. See for instance answers are tabulated to what seem like a different set of questions.  Yet some of the headings here are clearly not the questions actually asked. For instance figures are given for levels of "Anti-Moslem concern" and "Anti-Indigenous concern", but no indication is given of what answers to what questions were taken as evidence of either.

For instance most Aborigines  would agree that there is much wrong with Aboriginal society, and some would say that it is deeply dysfunctional today. But if non-Aborigines agree, is this the same thing as "holding negative views of Aborigines" ? More exact definition would be needed.

Some media reports claim that the survey showed a quarter of Australians are anti-Semitic. Once again, that term needs to be defined. I simply don't believe anything like 25% are hostile to Jews as Jews. But the researchers may have counted criticism of Israel or the suggestion that Israel is an illegal state as proof of anti-Semitism.  The sad thing is that few journalists will have time to ask these questions, much less to investigate them.

Perhaps if I had time to explore further I would find some extra material in their website that claims to justify their assumptions or explains these leaps of logic; but if it was there it was not easy to find. I am left with a suspicion that the study was flawed and poorly thought out.  What protects this group (and its hefty ARC grants) is that few people have time, motivation or funding to substantiate their suspicions, especially when the information available on line is so patchy.

 However the very well regarded Canberra Times columnist Graham Downie has not been deterred. In a column titled 'Anti-Muslim' survey result is questionable, if not misleading  (Sunday Feb. 27 2011, p. 29) he remarks:  ....
A survey which concludes that more than 4 per cent of Canberrans describe themselves as anti-Muslim is at best questionable and potentially very misleading.
The survey to be the largest survey of racist attitudes to date.
Respondents to this survey were asked how they would feel if a close family member were to marry someone of a different ethnic or religious background. Apparently demographers use this question to identify racism.
This seems to be a very broadbrush approach. There are many sound reasons for people being concerned about marrying into a significantly different culture or religion. There are also many examples of such marriages working well. But to brand someone as racist based on a response to this question seems very simplistic.
It seems Graham Downie took the trouble to speak to the "the lead researcher of the project, Professor Kevin Dunn" and was less than satisfied with his reply that "We were loath to get into academic debates on how to define racism."

It seems that at least some of the student disciples of this group are so extreme as to be something of a hazard in public debates. In August last year I was invited to debate the population issue with Dr James Arvanitakis of  UWS (the University of Western Sydney) at "Politics in the Pub". James Arvanitakis (and some student supporters of his who asked aggressive questions) seemed to me ill-prepared and ignorant of the issues, but sustained by an enormous sense of moral superiority. Fortunately the well-known Leftwing economist Steve Keen was in the audience, and he took Arvanitakis to task severely for what he saw as neglect of the rules of evidence and, indeed, relevance. He pointed out that it was not enough to be Leftwing (i.e. concerned for the disadvantaged), one also had to think accurately.

More recently (February 2011) Sandra Kanck, President of Sustainable Population Australia, was invited to a debate on population, immigration and multiculturalism ---organised by the Equity and Diversity section of UWS. This was something of a set-up, since she was outnumbered 2 to 1, and the moderator was to have been James Arvanitakis. Though she says she "anticipated the aggro", her experience during question-time was described on Population Forum as more like being in the school playground with a gang of bullies than a meaningful exchange of ideas. 

She writes
I stuck to the script, saying things like, if the environment
collapses it will not matter to the earth that one of my grandfathers
came from England and one from Sweden, but - for the most part - they
were so blinkered that it was impossible for them to take in anything I
had to say.
I went through all the arguments that are thrown at us - racists,
greenwashing etc - to make it harder for them to try these arguments out
on me.
Andrew Jakubowicz spoke first, then me, then Tanveer Ahmed effectively
had right of rebuttal on what I had to say.
Jakubowicz talked about the "sociosphere" and the "biosphere",
indicating that the biosphere is impacting on the sociosphere. ...
He said that no-one can agree on what the
population crisis is - be it people in the wrong place, at the wrong
time, of the wrong colour or the wrong age. ...
Ahmed  began by
attempting to dismiss all that I had said with the observation that a
whole lot of urban fears are cluttered into this issue. He said that a
lot of the environmental arguments are mere pseudo-science and that
"throwaway comments" bring out "individual paranoias".
As predicted by some of you, he (ever so gently) used the term
"backwater" to describe what Australia would become without increasing
our population and said that the best way to stop population growth is
to stop economic growth (in other words you will be poor if people like
Sandra Kanck get their way). He concluded with a general question
thrown out to the audience: do you understand the drivers of this debate
or are you just a populist (not aimed at me, of course !).
Some of the subsequent questions asked by the audience and directed at
me were incredibly emotional and angry. ...A lecturer(?) from Macquarie
University was so enraged by what I had to say that she could barely frame
her question, but she kept on asking why I had "conflated the issues".
There were quite a few talking rather than questioning and as part of
that we heard that all we need to do is to change the direction of
rivers in Australia, and that countries like Hong Kong and Taiwan
happily survive with very dense populations.

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