On Hate | Tim Soutphommasane

Louisa Luong

Cover image: Joyce Cheng | @_joycecheng_


Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and human rights advocate. As Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission from 2013 to 2018, he was an important voice in race politics and the defence of section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Over the past decade, he has explored national identity, multiculturalism and what it means to be an Australia patriot.


Vertigo chats to Tim about hate, the cost of speaking out, and the role that young people play in political change and social progress.



Vertigo: You have been in the business of hate as our Race Discrimination Commissioner. While it’s natural that you would tether hate and racism in ‘On Hate’, why isn’t the book called ‘On Racism’ instead? Is hate the only element of racism?

Tim Soutphommasane: To be clear, I’ve been in the business of fighting hate.

As I say in the book, racism is a prototypical form of hate. It’s the tone and venom in much of the racism we’ve seen in recent years that makes its resurgence so concerning. So it’s only right to focus on the hateful elements of racism. It’s not the only side to racism, but it helps us get to the core of why it’s so potent and dangerous.


V: This book serves as a reflection of your five years as Commissioner, who did you write this book for? Is it a letter for your future self, our political leaders or the Australian public?

TS: It’s a book for the general public, but especially for citizens who care about our democracy. As I see it, the resurgence of racism poses a threat to our democratic values.


V: In the past ten years, you’ve been writing about patriotism and reclaiming it from far-right nationalists who have used it as a vehicle to peddle racism. Have you seen any shifts in patriotism in Australia over this decade?

TS: A love of country is often used to shut down debates about our society. People can accuse others of being “un-Australian” if they should  criticise aspects of our country. But a real patriotism should be about improving our country, and demanding it lives up to its best.


V: In ‘On Hate’, you warn of the destructive effects of political leaders in inciting hateful speech and actions. What was your reaction to Christchurch a month later after essentially prophesying such a violent Islamophobic attack?

TS: I was deeply saddened by it. The attack on our New Zealand neighbours felt like an attack on us, in some respects — because our countries are so close. But the fact that it was perpetrated by an Australian white supremacist brought it home in a particular way. This is where racist hatred leads when it becomes politicised and incorporated into political movements.


V: Considering the shortsighted reaction of our political leaders who deny any personal responsibility for the violent and palpable results of hateful rhetoric, do you see any hope for the future in opposing a culture of racism?

TS: I still believe the vast majority of Australians have a firm rejection of racism. We need to see that mirrored in our political leadership. For too long, there has been pandering to prejudice from certain quarters of our political class. That must end. For that to happen, more people must speak out against extremism and racism.


V: How do you balance giving People of Colour platforms to speak and be seen, while not exposing them to being targeted or victimised? Is that just the concession for representation?

TS: There’s no sure guarantee against racism or bigotry. Being heard or seen can come at a price. Those who choose to speak out must understand they may become targets of hatred. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. So we need to educate advocates and leaders coming through about the cost of speech.


V: The face of racism changes with every generation; young and older people have different lived experiences with racism. How do you see young people contributing to the defence of democracy and patriotism in Australia? Especially when our society questions the resilience of youth and the thickness of our skin.

TS: Young people have a crucial role to play. There needs to be a generational change in attitudes. But people also have to be judicious in their interventions, and understand there are different kinds of contributions that can be made. It can’t all be driven by anger at injustice and by rage at oppression. There’s got to be constructive energy too. There’s an important division of labour that must be in place when we’re talking about political change and social progress.


V: Now that your term as Race Discrimination Commissioner is over, what do you see for the future of race in Australia?

TS: I don’t like to pretend I can predict the future. But I hope we can push back on the normalisation of racism. It’s a test of who we are. Not to put too fine a point on it, we will get the democracy and the society that we deserve.