There’s no surer gauge of the depth and breadth of someone’s stupidity than the potency of his racism. The science on this has been settled for some time; we are all, if traced back far enough, evolved from bacteria. But, paradoxically, the equivocalness of this has a tendency to prevent any serious examination of racism. Liberals (small-l, that is) often condemn anything and everything that could be construed as being racist, without honestly confronting their own prejudices. Conservatives, on the other hand, often cry ‘political correctness gone mad,’ without acknowledging how hollow and meaningless such a retort is and, seemingly, ambivalent to claims of offence from minorities.

Enter Tony Abbott, who, depending on one’s political leanings, is either a textbook racist (or worse) or another victim of the PC culture. In his short stint as the nation’s leader, the prime minister has been accused of vilifying, at one time or another, Muslims, Aboriginals and the Irish.

So are his comments about each minority equally as condemnable, or are some worse than others?

In trying to answer this question it’s helpful to think about a facet of the debate around religion. In 2007, Christopher Hitchens published God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in which his subtitle, he assured readers, was not mere sensationalism forced upon him by publishers who go in for that kind of thing. Rather, he believed religious faith to be a failure of our capacity for reason and a turning away from the gains made during the Enlightenment. On that basis, he argued, religious belief – and, by extension, religion itself – infects every aspect of life.

This argument is more compelling when racism is substituted in for religion because, in most cases, people’s views are more instinctive. People think more carefully and deeply about questions of faith, but racism – tellingly, often characterised as something that ‘infects’ individuals; something ‘toxic’ or some kind of ‘disease’ – sprinkles prejudice amongst one’s thinking without one even realising it.

There’s some merit in this thinking in trying to understand Mr. Abbott’s comment that Aboriginal people who live in remote communities do so as a ‘lifestyle choice.’ I’m willing to give the prime minister the benefit of the doubt when he says he’s committed to improving the lives of the First Australians, but his comments reveal, at best, a lack of understanding and, at worst, a deep-seated prejudice.

Getting to the root of his prejudice, Guy Rundle argued that it’s a product of his conservative Catholicism, which predicates a belief that ‘non-Christina societies are inferior.’ Thus, Mr. Abbott is dismissive of any attachment Aboriginal people have to their land because he sees it as nothing more than a kind of superstitious spiritualism, which is just another hurdle on the road to Damascus.

There’s validity to this critique because the prime minister has repeatedly claimed that his sense of morality – and, make no mistake, closing down remote communities is a moral decision – comes from his faith.

How does one, then, explain his slur against that distinctly Catholic people, the Irish? Mr. Abbott’s St. Patrick’s Day ‘joke’ – and the insinuation that Ireland is a land of boozers – may have riled his Irish counterpart, but it’s ostensibly less offensive than his ‘lifestyle choice’ comment.

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has gone so far as to suggest that racism – or what he calls ‘progressive racism’ – can actually be used to counter garden-variety racism. He claims that ‘progressive racism’ – like jokes about the Irish – can foster a sense of solidarity, which neutralises their racist sting. Moreover, he argues that these jokes can also highlight the absurdity of racism, while making light of ethnic stereotypes. One only has to watch the stand-up of people like Russell Peters or Eddie Murphy to understand what he means by this.

Žižek’s theory is a rejection of the adapted Hitchens argument, which is absolutist and essentialist to the point of being reactionary. But Žižek’s point fails on the idea of solidarity because racism is already used to mobilise hate and anger, usually against minorities. There are, perhaps, instances when this can be benign, but, I would argue, this is overwhelmingly not the case. More often racism is used to demonise a group of people so their oppression becomes justifiable.

This seemed, at least in part, Tony Abbott’s motivation when he accused Muslim leaders of not doing enough to prevent the ‘radicalisation’ of young men and women. In other world, he makes the distinction between ‘their’ values and ‘our’ values – and ‘we’ are at risk because of ‘them.’ Australians (by which he means white Australians) are the victims and Muslims – stripped of any of the diversity that such a descriptor entails – are a potentially dangerous Other.

This was Mr Abbott’s you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists moment. Unpopular with the people as well as his colleagues, the prime minister fell back on the much tried and proven tactic of fostering fear, creating an enemy to unite the country and set about protecting the people from that threat.

The success of this has been variable – there is a tendency to exaggerate the popularity of the more extreme elements in society (the Reclaim Australia rally being a case in point). Nevertheless, it’s a tactic that sullies the high office of Prime Minister, it’s a stain on his character and it threatens to undo some of the progress Australia has made in combatting racism in our culture. It’s racism in its most virulent form.