Opinion journalism is no place for pussycats, and Tim Soutphommasane gained a small, grotesque pleasure from some of his readers' correspondence.
No-one gave me a manual when I started writing a column for The Weekend Australian. But if there were a manual, one of the first things it should offer is a note about correspondence from readers.
In the two years my "Ask the Philosopher" column ran, I received what I think was a respectable amount of mail. Usually I'd sit down early in the week to open my column email account with just a little dread. While there would always be some positive or complimentary messages – from readers grateful for being introduced to Mill or Hume or Rousseau – inevitably there would also be correspondence that suggested I was a cretin, a Big Australia stooge of Rupert Murdoch’s, or a sinister agent for the Asian invasion of a white, Christian Australia.
Yet I derived a strange pleasure from receiving so-called hate mail. There is some validation of your writing when you find yourself on the receiving end of abuse. It means you might be dealing with matters where things are at stake.
My antagonists fell into a few categories.
There were those who were old-fashioned Trotskyites, such as the reader who accused me of limiting discourse and limiting disagreement with the logic of the capitalist state. "You do much to close down the public conversation, by dramatically narrowing what can be said and understood," this reader wrote, assuring me that this was "more than simple ideological mesentente".
There were those of a more conservative persuasion who objected to my progressive view of the world. One letter from a reader suggested: "You would be well advised to re-train so that the awful non-sequiturs, scrambled thoughts and random quotes don't continue to expose you as a cerebrally incontinent crypto-Marxist poseur."
But there was a category of correspondence that truly merited the description of hate mail: that which could only be described as bigoted, chauvinist, even racist. One reader, in response to my suggestion in one column that moral enhancement through biomedical technology could be understood as an act of self-improvement, wrote:
Yes, so let’s start with Asians, yourself included, given that they are the most racist of all peoples on the planet. You know it's true. What is it with Asians and race?
A piece about cricket and Usman Khawaja in the Australian Test team provoked the following response from another reader:
More Asian anti-white racism. More Asian arrogance, from a bona fide Asian racist. So Asians taking over the education is 'equality' is it Tim? This is why the 'white' Australia Policy was put in place Tim, to stop Asians taking over & Aussies who want to protect Anglo culture is jingoistic & nasty? Asians gooood! Whites? Baaaaaaad. Good one Tim. I’m glad we’ve got that sorted. Where are you from Tim? Laos was it? LOL!!!! Go home soon Tim, if you feel an anglo saxon country with an anglo saxon legal system & government doesn't suit. I've got some news for you. You came here from a failed Asian country & a failed inferior culture. Feel free to leave. The sooner the better.
In such cases I usually opted not to respond. When there's so much anger you know you're not dealing with people out to have a reasoned exchange. There was, however, one occasion when I did reply to a hate mailer. It was in response to the following from Fred, whose letter arrived after an Australia Day piece I wrote in 2010 and began:
Tim, Tim, Tim.
1. U were not born here. U have NO ancestral background here.
2. You're Asian.
3. You're a left wing academic.
4. Did your relatives fight on foreign battlefields to keep this country free?
You of course are only interested in the pilloring of white anglo-saxons which makes you nothing but a rascist [sic].
I wrote back only to receive a response from the reader's wife offering an apology on behalf of her husband:
…I'm Iranian myself so I can clearly see your point of view. But what can we do? Each one is entitled to their own opinion. Keep up the good work as it seems racism and minority group hating seems to be on the rise. God bless you.
Of course, opinion journalism is no place for pussycats. To put an idea out there as someone offering public comment is analogous to stepping up on a soapbox in those days when people actually gave speeches on a street or park corner.
Contending with hecklers was part of the fun, part of the carnival of rhetoric. Rigorous exchanges with readers were very much in the same vein.
In any case, I always got an unlikely pleasure out of receiving my hate mail.
Many of us have small, sometimes grotesque pleasures in life. For me, there was always a certain gratification in knowing there was nothing that would infuriate my typical, angry, hate correspondent more than seeing a yellow man with slanty eyes, with an unpronounceable name, gazing at him from the pages of his weekend newspaper.
Tim Soutphommasane, a political philosopher at Monash University, wrote the "Ask the Philosopher" column in The Weekend Australian from 2009–11