By Liam McLoughlin 21/06/2016
The following is the transcript of a speech given by Liam McLoughlin at a forum organised by Niko Leka and Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy.
In October last year, Hazara asylum seeker Khodayar Amini was hiding from immigration authorities, fearing a return to detention. The day before setting himself on fire in Dandenong bushland, Amini wrote this in a letter to a refugee advocate:
“My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months...Red Cross, Immigration and the Police killed me with their slogans of humanity and cruel treatments.”
Just days ago, Malcolm Turnbull responded to the homophobic horror in Orlando by linking refugees with terrorists.
“We stand in solidarity with the people of the United States as they stand up to this terrorist, violent, hate-fuelled attack. And as we stand up too, whether it is in the skies above Syria and Iraq, in Afghanistan or on our borders.”
Amini spoke the language of truth. Turnbull spoke the language of power.
The language of truth tells us Australia has boundless cruelty, not boundless plains, to share.
It reveals the extraordinary human cost of our barbarity; thousands of innocent men, women and children trapped in mental illness factories; nearly 200 incidents of self-harm last year on Nauru alone; detention conditions so poor they drive inmates to starvation and mass hunger strikes; pervasive cultures of physical and sexual abuse in offshore prison camps.
The language of truth tells us our immigration system kills; not just Khodayar Amini, but Omid Masoumali, who self-immolated after being told he may remain on Nauru for up to ten years; Fazal Chegeni, who died on Christmas Island in suspicious circumstances; Mohammed Nasim Najafi, who died of a heart attack after being beaten by a prison gang, placed in solitary confinement and denied medical treatment inside Yongah Hill Detention Centre. Hamid Kehazaei; forced to endure fatal delays in treatment for his septicaemia. Reza Barati, killed in a riot on Manus in February 2014. Not to mention the more than 40 other victims of our immigration prisons since the year 2000.
The language of power tells us refugees deserve this cruelty. They are illegals, unauthorised arrivals, criminals and terrorists who threaten our borders. We need the Australian Border Force to drive back this menace to our national security.
The language of power tells us refugees blackmail their way into Australia with tall tales of rape and violence.
Although they are illiterate and innumerate hordes attacking our borders, Peter Dutton assures us they are also great multi-taskers. Somehow they will steal our jobs and occupy our welfare queues at the same time. They are aided and abetted in their devious crimes by refugee advocates, the scourge of our times.
Either that or the inmates on Nauru and Manus are the sacrificial lambs required to “save lives at sea”, which is the latest Canberra euphemism for saving seats in parliament.
The propaganda of power is deceitful, manipulative, and wildly inaccurate. But it works.
It’s so forcefully framed the refugee debate, the Opposition is no longer worth its name. If elected, the Liberals will continue offshore processing and turning back boats... So will Labor. The Liberals will continue detention for children and families.... So will Labor. The Liberals will maintain the Australian Border Force. So will Labor.
Both major parties remain convinced cruelty to refugees is a mandatory re-election strategy.
While the refugee movement, the Greens, some sections of the media and dissident voices inside Labor speak truth to power, the broader electorate remains numb to our violence towards refugees.
Various polls over the last two years showed 71% of Australians supported turning back boats, 60% thought Labor was “too soft” on asylum seekers and 60% wanted the Abbott government to increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers.
Clearly the language of power is winning the war against the language of truth. Why?
Where is the moral outrage of most Australians and why do so many feel ok about tormenting asylum seekers?
Psychology professor Albert Bandura can help answer these thorny questions. Bandura came up with a theory called moral disengagement. It describes the four main techniques used to disable moral codes and avoid pesky feelings of shame and guilt. It’s helpful in understanding appalling human behaviour ranging from childhood aggression all the way up to modern genocides.
When you hear just how neatly the government’s propaganda fits into Bandura’s theory, you will swear Peter Dutton spends his nights studying “Moral Disengagement Theory For Dummies”.
The four techniques of moral disengagement are reframing immoral behaviour, minimising harm caused, dehumanising and demonising victims, and blaming others. Let’s go through each of those in turn.
First, you reframe the immoral behaviour. You claim your heinous actions actually serve a noble goal.
Both major parties justify torturous conditions on Nauru and Manus with constant reference to saving lives at sea. This nauseating faux compassion distorts reality. It presents a false dilemma between concentration camps and drownings, ignoring many other humane and sensible policy alternatives. As Voltaire said, “if you can get people to believe absurdities you can get them to commit atrocities.”
Second, you minimise the harm caused. You hide or undermine evidence of suffering and ensure this suffering is invisible.
This explains the veil of secrecy covering Operation Sovereign Borders - the remote prison locations, the denial of journalistic access and the punishment for whistleblowers.
It also explains the cold, anodyne language for some of the greatest human rights abuses in Australian history. Turning back boats so people can die somewhere else becomes an integral part of “border protection” and “border security”. Children who are sexually abused in concentration camps are merely taking part in “offshore processing”, all part and parcel of the “Pacific Solution”.
Peter Dutton and Malcolm Turnbull pay their daily tribute to George Orwell, who said “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
So you reframe the immoral behaviour and minimise the harm.
The next way to fight off moral condemnation is by dehumanising and demonising the victims. Many studies show when people have the power to punish others, they are more severe to dehumanised individuals. It’s no wonder Jews were reduced to subhuman objects to limit feelings of distress for gas chamber operators.
Fifteen years of government propaganda has convinced Australians that so called “boat people” are less than human and so deserve inhumane treatment.
John Howard spread the fiction of children overboard, saying “I don’t want people like that in Australia”.
Scott Morrison perpetuated the lie of ‘illegals’.
Successive governments have framed desperate families fleeing persecution as blameworthy in the public eye. As such, they deserve to be punished for illegal behaviour.
More recently Peter Dutton used this strategy in the case of Abyan.
The Somalian refugee was brought to Australia for an abortion after being raped on Nauru. Five days later and before having the operation, Abyan was flown back to Nauru on a secret charter flight without her lawyer’s knowledge and against her will.
The Immigration Minister said: “The racket that’s been going on here is that people at the margins come to Australia from Nauru, the government’s then injuncted, and we can’t send them back…we aren’t going to be taken for mugs”.
In a couple of easy sentences, brutalised and tormented victims of physical and sexual violence are transformed into duplicitous racketeers exploiting the poor Australian government.
And now in the shadow of an election Malcolm Turnbull is ramping up the mythic refugee-terrorist connection.
The PM bangs on about “securing our borders” from “unauthorised arrivals”. He says our “national security has to come first”, as if refugees were an invading enemy.
Asked by radio host Neil Mitchell “Do you believe any of them are dangerous?” Malcolm said “I can’t tell you whether some have got security issues more than others”. All of a sudden voters are wondering if depressed and suicidal men, raped women and sick children are just convenient ISIS cover stories.
Linking refugees with terrorism after both the Brussels attacks and Orlando shootings is part of the same depraved strategy of dehumanisation and demonization.
The fourth and final technique of moral disengagement is blaming others for cruelty to refugees.
Malcolm Turnbull says it’s all Labor’s fault: “The detention centre at Manus was set up by Labor...the detainees there are the consequence of Labor’s failure to maintain the strong border protection policies they inherited.”
Peter Dutton says the 900 asylum seekers in limbo on Manus are the responsibility of the PNG government.
Meanwhile the epidemic of self-harm in these camps has everything to do with refugee advocates and nothing to do with the camp conditions which violate the UN Convention Against Torture.
This blame-shifting is infectious and takes place on a national scale. Australians fall victim to the bystander effect which says the more witnesses to a tragedy, the less likely any single person will intervene. Even if Australians still feel some shame despite years of government propaganda, they can absolve themselves of responsibility and hope someone else will help.
So there they are – the four techniques of moral disengagement which guide the language of power.
The government reframes the immorality of asylum seeker policy, minimises the harm done on Nauru and Manus, dehumanises and demonises refugees, and blames others for the cruelty.
Equipped with this language of power, Australians have been armed against their own basic sense of right and wrong.
They have become immune to the language of truth.
Compassion has been neutralised and the path is cleared to escalating and indefinite cruelty.
The most terrifying thing about moral disengagement is it tends to get worse over time.
Albert Bandura says:
“Initially, individuals perform mildly harmful acts they can tolerate with some discomfort. After their self-reproof has been diminished through repeated enactments, the level of ruthlessness increases, until acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinised…People may not even recognise the changes they have undergone as a moral self.”
If you’ve ever wondered how it became okay to lock up kids in remote island camps and sexually abuse them, or to deport rape victims and accuse them of taking the Australian government for mugs, then this is your answer.
And so it’s a very dark path we are walking as a nation. So dark in fact, the clear and disturbing parallels with German society under Nazism must not be ignored. After all, understanding past evil can help us understand present evil.
In 1961, political theorist Hannah Arendt reported on the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, the man who managed the mass deportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps.
In her 1963 book called Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Arendt wrote
“German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies, and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality. These lies changed from year to year, and they frequently contradicted each other…but the practice of self-deception had become common, almost a moral prerequisite for survival”.
Arendt is describing how the language of power poisoned German society.
When you think about the scale of suffering Australia has inflicted on thousands of refugees over 15 years, along with the fact that 60% of Australians want even harsher treatment, you can’t help but think about the poisoned well of Australia’s national character.
Arendt biographer Elisabeth-Young Bruehl’s thoughts should echo across this country. She writes:
“When political life atrophies and debate and questioning cease, while thoughtful moral experience is blocked internally, the resulting capacity for evil can spread like an epidemic....Arendt feared that thoughtlessness had become, quote, “among the outstanding characteristics of our time”.
Only now does Malcolm Turnbull’s description of Peter Dutton as an “outstanding Immigration Minister” suddenly make sense.
These are the grim realities of Australia in 2016. Thoughtless evil has been routinised. Unbeknownst to much of the public, the language of power has spread moral disengagement across our boundless plains.
By and large Australians have swallowed the government’s lies at the expense of people like Khodayar, Omid, and Abyan.
But this is only half the story.
Organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, media outlets like New Matilda, parties like the Greens, a string of whistleblowers, and activists like Niko and the Hunter Asylum Seeker Advocacy group, are making inroads into the moral paralysis gripping Australia.
They are exposing the false choice between camps and drowning and articulating sensible policy alternatives like community processing, radically increasing our refugee intake, and offering safe passage for asylum seekers to Australia.
They are uncovering the full scale of the harm done by this government. The current documentary Chasing Asylum, featuring footage from inside Nauru and Manus, tells this vital story.
They are also using the power of humanisation to combat damaging government rhetoric linking refugees and terrorism. Forums, organisations and media stories in which refugees take the leading roles can powerfully shift community attitudes. We saw this in the wake of the disturbing images of Aylan Kurdi and the push to accept thousands more Syrian refugees.
And advocates are educating citizens about our shared responsibility to show compassion to asylum seekers. I believe Tom will have much to say on education as a path to transformation.
The recent Let Them Stay campaign was a beautiful example of how our communities can rapidly be mobilised to protect refugees.
May such inspiring movements spread like wildfire.
May they cascade into multiple campaigns of mass demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes.
May they smash Australia’s moral corruption and end mandatory detention once and for all.
For so long as we think critically, engage morally, and resist politically, there is hope.