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Banning repugnant figures reflects a harsh, fearful society

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Andrew Hamilton |  07 October 2015

Banning people from entering countries has become the flavour of the month. Two US citizens — hip-hop artist Chris Brown, for his record of domestic violence, and anti-abortion advocate Troy Newman (pictured), for his claim that killing the foetus is equivalent to murder and should be subject to similar penalties — were banned from entering Australia. Australian lawyers Greg Egan and Terence Lambert were banned from entering PNG, where they were to prepare a case against the prime minister.

Troy NewmanTogether these cases invite reflection on the principles and processes that ought govern the denial of visas.

My own opinions have been shaped by observing similar, though less effectual, acts of exclusion in the Catholic Church. In recent decades many bishops have banned local and overseas Catholics from speaking on church premises. The exclusion often followed complaints by vocal Catholic groups that the speakers held positions incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy, had been criticised by their own national bishops or were controversial. The process of exclusion was opaque, but the bannings were generally justified by the risk that Catholics would be confused about their faith.

This practice was often ineffective because the sponsoring groups simply moved the events off Catholic turf. In the long run it was also self-defeating to use power to exclude open discussion of controversial topics. This suggested that truth could be imposed by authority and need not be commended by reasoned reflection. The result was that people barracked for their own side, and dismissed opposing arguments as motivated by ideology rather than the search for truth. The civility of public discourse and unity between Catholics both suffered.

This experience provides the lens through which I look at the denial of visas on character grounds. I concede that both in church and state it will sometimes be right to exclude people. But unless the processes are transparent and the need clearly demonstrated, such exclusion has costly consequences for the life of the community.

It privileges power over reflection, betrays the fear that exposure to bad people and ideas will inevitably seduce people, and suggests that character is defined unchangeably by past behaviour. These are the assumptions of a fearful and harsh society.

In Australia people have increasingly been excluded by executive power without consideration of whether it is reasonable. Think of asylum seekers, people deported after criminal charges and people fighting with IS. These exclusions do not weigh the threat posed by the individuals concerned, nor the evidence that their disposition and behaviour have changed.

In this climate it is important that the reasons for denying entry to Australia should be principled and narrowly defined. The salient consideration is whether the person would damage Australian society by their presence or actions.

Such damage might be caused in many ways. People with continuing criminal connections in another nation might want to expand their activities into Australia. People with incendiary views on issues that divide Australian communities might provoke violence. 

People who plotted sedition, violent revolution and the overthrow of the state might exclude themselves. Others might be excluded because they affront the moral bonds that link Australia to the civilised world. We might also think of people who committed monstrous deeds, such as war atrocities, from which immigrants have suffered, and people who deny the reality and effects of the Holocaust.

It is also important that the criteria for exclusion be interpreted narrowly, and that applicants should receive the benefit of the doubt. People should not be excluded simply because they hold repugnant views. We must also ask if they will advocate for these views, and whether their advocacy will foment divisions or violence.

Nor should people be excluded automatically because they have committed criminal actions. They must demonstrate a lack of repentance.

Finally, the process by which people are excluded needs to be transparent. The reasons need to be stated clearly, and the decision to be open to effective review.

These safeguards are important to prevent banning people being used as a weapon in Australian moral and political debate. It would be wrong to use the harm done to an individual by shaming and excluding as a means to endorse particular views of what are right ideas or acceptable behaviour. The power of government or of social media should not be used to close down moral reflection.

In the light of these reflections, what can be said of the most recent examples of banning?

In excluding the Australian lawyers, the PNG government appears flagrantly to have exercised its power in its self-interest.

In the other two cases strong arguments can be made for banning, but I have reservations about each. Chris Brown certainly acted criminally and repugnantly in beating his girlfriend. He is not coming to Australia, however, to defend this behaviour, nor is his presence likely to encourage it. And he claims to have changed his ways. So a solid argument also exists for giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Troy Newman uses high and polemical rhetoric, which will anger and distress many people. But it is not clear that his speaking in Australia would have encouraged criminal behaviour or violence. And there remains the suspicion that power has been used to foreclose an important ethical debate in our society, namely whether the rights of the woman to terminate the life of a foetus should trump other rights.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

 


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Submitted comments

Some thorny issues in this article. To me there seems to be a dichotomy between the general and the personal. To a woman who has experienced, say, domestic violence firsthand, rather than reading about it in media, the presence of Chris Brown in her country may be distressing. If she was put in the position of working with, or meeting, him this would be doubly distressing. In the case of Troy Newman, if the woman is a feminist and disagrees with his rhetoric or is a woman who has had an abortion ( There should be sensitivity in understanding individuals' background and beliefs before making judgements for them.

Pam 07 October 2015

Troy Newman had the opportunity to appeal against the cancellation of his visa but chose not to do so. He was deported because he knowingly attempted to enter the country without a valid visa. His attempt to do so was just a publicity stunt.

Ginger Meggs 07 October 2015

@Fr Andrew. I agree with the main point of your article. Having said that, I am deeply troubled by your phrase "..the rights of the woman to terminate the life of a foetus.." I have difficulty not concluding that by this phrase you acknowledge that women have this right. You would doubtless be aware that according to the teachings of the church the foetus is regarded to be human. Only in the most extraordinary and particular circumstances can the destruction of the foetus be deemed moral. I would ask you to clarify your position. Apart from this, you offer no praise to Troy Newman's aims. Do you not think that it is laudable to try to stop the holocaust of abortion? Newman was falsely portrayed in the media as promoting some sort of vigilante 'justice' against abortion providers. He gains no credit here for being against an unspeakable evil. I don't know, Fr Andrew, if you were responsible for the headline to this article but I find it offensive to have a man like Newman named as 'repugnant'. Especially when, as far as I am aware, Eureka Street featured no article condemning Planned Parenthood's trade in body parts. Were the people in this endeavour not more worthy of the adjective repugnant rather than the man who exposed them?

Marg M 07 October 2015

So called free speech, and the right to own a gun or people really is a problem for a community.When the right of one person gets in the way of the welfare of the whole, the community needs to respond without having to justify the individual so called rights.Censorship is very useful at times.

marlene bracks 08 October 2015

Hard to expect anything else from the anal retentive group who have a foothold in Canberra

Nola Randall-Mohk 08 October 2015

"the bannings were generally justified by the risk that Catholics would be confused about their faith"......... There has been a very long history in the Church of banning opinions that challenged official 'teachings', even when it was those teachings that were confusing, and needed to be up-dated to clarify the truth of the matter. 'Faith' once held that the Bible was the inerrant Word of God. And In the year 1600, when Giordano Bruno challenged this interpretation, he was burnt at the stake. When the Church could no longer exercise such power, it introduced an Index of forbidden books. In more recent times, Ordinandi were obliged to swear an oath not to hold or teach opinions linked to 'Modernism', most of which opinions are now accepted as evolving truth. Some leading progressive Theologians are forbidden to teach, lest their opinions confuse faith in out-dated 'teachings' that need to be allowed to be refined to meet new insights into complex and evolving situations. Only if healthy questioning is allowed and encouraged, will emerging Truth resolve the confusion and conflicts that result from stifling progress.

Robert Liddy 08 October 2015

Troy Newman, in your opinion, has the right to speak in Australia. Yet, in your own words, you would 'hesitate' to support a publication like Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech. Here's a quote from Troy Newman's book: “The United States government has abrogated its responsibility to properly deal with the blood-guilty. This responsibility rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge blood-guilt from the land and people,” This man is advocating the murder of medical practitioners. So cartoons can be censored but banning Troy Newman represents the foreclosure of 'an important ethical debate in our society'? That's rather interesting.

Tony Thompson 08 October 2015

I think that the quote that Tony Thompson provided from Newman's book ( “The United States government has abrogated its responsibility to properly deal with the blood-guilty. This responsibility rightly involves executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge blood-guilt from the land and people”) indicates that he is expressing points of view that are extremist to the point where they could incite violence and certainly do incite hatred. However, the news report that I read suggested that his visa was denied/withdrawn while he was in the air, so it seems that Ginger Meggs is wrong about his failure to apply for a review of the visa. The whole thing is very complex. I would suggest, however, that Newman is not actually going to facilitate the conduct of ethical debate on the abortion issue because the kind of rhetoric that he employs only serves to polarise and further entrench people in the positions that they already hold.

Judy Redman 08 October 2015

It will be interesting to see whether or not the upcoming Synod on family in Rome admits or excludes discussion on contraception, the most major factor causing disillusionment for Catholic families. If last year's preliminary synod on family matters is any indication it is highly likely that any discussion on the science of conception will continue to be ignored and excluded from participation together with contraception and technology such as IVF and their moral positioning within genuine sacramental marriage. European dominated Catholicism has quite a record of ignoring the revelation of God's creation by Science (ref - Copernicus and Galileo amongst many others). It is time the Church genuinely embraced advances in science as divine revelation, and confined itself to defining the morality of the application of those advances in the living of human life. One also wonders why the Church is so silent on abortion in the public domain in this country. The Science says it is the destruction of human life. However, we have to be humane, touchy-feely, truly caring and socially just, I suppose.

john frawley 08 October 2015

Hi Ginger, I have travelled to plenty of countries without a valid visa. Does that make me a criminal too. Frankly as an Australian I am very embarrassed at the whole visa system that our immigration department uses - just another way to exclude people. In any case, Troy Newman applied for and was granted a visa and started travelling to Australia with a visa. It was a pro-abortionist who complained about him coming to Australia - but Troy still came because he was morally right to do so. Peter Dutton and Terri Butler were the ones who conducted a publicity stunt. Troy had been invited by Cherish Life to speak on behalf of the unborn. P.S. I would like to have a word with Troy Newman myself and let him know that a pro-life position is anti-abortion and anti-death-penalty.

David 08 October 2015

One thing I love about Eureka Street is the variety of comments its articles generate. I had not thought about the 'Banning of repugnant figures' in connection with the Synod on the Family and yet John Frawley has made the connection. And made it very well indeed. So much so that I am inclined to connect the second part of the article's title 'reflects a harsh, fearful society' to the Synod too. Pope Francis, imbued with the spirit of Jesus, is bending over backwards to impress upon us all the overwhelming embrace of God's infinite Mercy and to be not afraid. On the other hand some catholic church leaders, both clerical and lay, seem to be acting like Pharisees in their self-serving dedication to The Law and their distain for their perceived inferiors. More about Mercy and less about Justice is my plea. More Joy. Less Fear!

Uncle Pat 08 October 2015

Thank you Andrew, for your thought provoking article. My concern about Troy Newman is that he thinks there should be the death penalty for anyone "killing an unborn baby". In other words, he wants a death for a death. If that were to become the focus of his talks here, I would not be happy for him to come. You don't mention this. On a more personal note, I find myself questioning my long-held belief that abortion is always a heinous sin, no matter what the circumstances. I hold to the view that abortion is taken far too lightly in our society but banning abortion completely ignores two problems for me. Firstly, there still seems to be no certainty about when a foetus becomes a live baby and so I wonder whether an early abortion is really an abortion in the sense of killing an unborn baby. Secondly, there are the cases where the pregnant woman's circumstances, either mental or physical (or both) make it impossible for her to be expected to continue her pregnancy and then look after her baby. The plight of a woman in either Manus or Nauru (I can't remember which) who has been raped and is pregnant and pleading to come to Australia seems to me one which justifies abortion. She is in a hell hole, has been raped, God knows what her mental condition is like and she has no freedom to make her own decision. Surely she deserves our compassion and an understanding of her untenable position.

Anna 08 October 2015

john frawley: "The Science says it (abortion), is the destruction of human life."........A single sperm or ovum is human at least in the sense that each is produced by a human being, and could be part of evolving, (with help), into a functioning human person. Each is also a 'being', as being a live entity, (it could die), so in that sense each is a human being. But no one would suggest that the death of any such is a matter of concern. Millions of each are consigned by nature to die every day. Even a fertilised ovum, or embryo does not yet have any of the qualities needed to function as a human person. It only gradually acquires them. So there is not a clear demarcation on when it can be said that an abortion, whether natural or contrived, is a destruction of a human life. Other considerations come into play.

Robert Liddy 08 October 2015

I take issue with politicians deciding on my behalf who I can see and listen to because in their view a particular person could cause me harm. Having worked for a few politicians in my time, and good people that they were, the first hint of bad media and the knee jerk reactions and back flips came thick and fast. While Chris Brown would not be someone I would readily engage, he wasn't planning a speaking tour. He is a singer. As far as Troy Newman is concerned, whether you agree or disagree with his views on abortion, surely he is entitled to speak his mind, as long as he commits to a non-violent position. Politicians today are far too quick to appease certain sections of the community for fear of bad polls. Censorship of this kind should not be imposed on Australians in the 21st century.

David Ahern 08 October 2015

To Judy Redmond, Newman may have claimed that his visa was revoked 'while he was in the air' en-route from the US to Australia, or that may have been reported, but it is clear that the High Court did accept that as true. In fact, 'Justice Nettle ruled Mr Newman may have had a case to challenge the refusal, but said he should not have boarded a plane to Australia KNOWING [my emphasis] his visa had been cancelled. "Acting as he did means he does not come to this court with clean hands," he said. Mr Newman had no right to treat the law as "nought", Justice Nettle ruled. See www.abc.net.au/news/2015-10-02/anti-abortionist-troy-newman-lose-court-bid-to-stay-in-australia/6823952

Ginger Meggs 08 October 2015

ANNA AND Robert LIDDY. With the advent and increasing use of the scanning electron microscope in 1964, magnification of human cells was dramatically increased by up to 5000 times. A whole unknown world of cellular biology was revealed. At about the same time, the effects of various hormones on human tissue and cellular function were better understood. (For example, as a result of this better understanding the oral contraceptive pill was born).Similarly, a more precise understanding of fertilisation of an ovum and the processes of conception were revealed. The science is embodied in the definition of conception (the time when human life begins). That definition from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is that "conception is the implantation of a fertilised ovum in a woman's womb". Implantation happens 6-7 days after fertilisation which takes place in the abdominal cavity, not in the womb. The woman is not pregnant until implantation is successful. Thus fertilisation is not the same as conception although it is a necessary precursor to it and if life as understood as being human and possessing an immortal soul begins at conception, then the fertilised ovum does not represent established human life. Again a stored fertilised ovum does not represent soul-possessing human life and is wrongly called an embryo in true scientific terms. An embryo is the developing very early human being over the eight weeks following implantation in the womb. Thereafter, it is known as the foetus - why I am not quite sure. This is the science that the modern Church needs to address just as it needed to address Copernicus' and Galileo's demonstrations of the sun, not God, being the centre of our universe. If truth is the domain of God then scientific truth is part of that domain and has to be addressed in the application or abuse of that truth in the living of a moral life. The fact that fertilised cells are human is true but so too are the cells in the dandruff on your collar or those scraped from your mouth when you eat but do not represent the integrated whole that is the personal self possessing a soul (Pope John Paul II's definition of life). Living human cells are not beings, Robert, but the "integrated whole' certainly is and the earliest phase of that integrated whole is the implanted ovum with its God-gifted immortal soul taking its first step on the evolutionary road of the human being, an evolution that continues in its various characteristics until death. If this science and philosophical admixture is accepted then the implications are 1. that anti-fertilisation contraception does not carry the same depth of moral transgression as the contraceptive measures that prevent implantation (IUD devices) or destroy a newly implanted embryo (RU 486 and other abortifacient drugs). 2. that stored fertilised ova are not human beings and 3. that abortion by any means is the deliberate destruction of human life. The family synod needs to address these issues or will alienate more of its already disillusioned and tenuous adherents in the name of ignorance of the type that persecuted Galileo..

john frawley 08 October 2015

Argh! That should have read 'but it is clear that the High Court did NOT accept that as true'. (Less haste, more speed.)

Ginger Meggs 08 October 2015

Thank you for the lively comments. In response to Marg M, it would be wrong to say that I acknowledged the right of a woman to terminate the life of a foetus. I simply said it was a position that should be debated and not imposed on the Australian community by banning its opponents unless,as with other opinions, there are further reasons of the kind I set out in the article. By way of a more general response to comments, I find it tempting to want to have people who defend opinions I find abhorrent banned. But who in a society is to decide which opinions are abhorrent - the majority, pressure groups, appointed censors, the government, people like me, or just me? To my mind it is better to encourage freedom of speech and to limit it only when particular ways of exercising it will clearly damage society. Incidentally, how do you respond to the news that Geert Wilders has been allowed to come to Australia to launch an Australian party?

Andy Hamilton 09 October 2015

Thanks, Andrew, for drawing us back to the subject of your article. In answer to your specific question, my gut feel is that Geert Wilders' visa should be cancelled, at least at the present time. I think we have enough yobbos of our own shouting Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, oi, oi, oi, without bringing in someone who can only make the matter worse. Yes, I understand the freedom of speech argument, but does that extend to the freedom to shout 'fire' in a crowded cinema?

Ginger Meggs 11 October 2015

Thank you, Andrew, for your insightful and well-argued article. Am wondering what you think of Geert Wilders being allowed to come to Australia at this delicate time in our history.

Elizabeth 12 October 2015

I can't understand the claim that Troy Newman's views had the potential to incite violence. Surely anyone who supports the death penalty anywhere in the world would similarly be guilty of that. The issue that Newman's ban conveniently avoided was whether abortion is taking a human life. I don't think there's a need to be Catholic or religious to admit that in some form or other, a foetus is a human being. But I'm a man and I'll never be faced with such a moral dilemma and I wouldn't wish any mother who's gone through an abortion to be punished, In this case, I see a clear distinction between legality and morality... and concede that Troy Newman's campaign will make as much difference to saving unborn babies as I would if I opened my mouth.

AURELIUS 12 October 2015

I'm in agreement in principle with the author on this issue. On the matter of Chris Brown, the 'banning convicted criminals' argument invites cynicism, given that the ban coincided neatly as/with promotion for the government's #StoptheViolence campaign, and given that the singer had already been granted entry here previously since his conviction. And I'm opposed to the argument which advocates banning on the basis of what 'might' be said. Though not a visa issue, the Uthman Badr 'honour killings are justified' controversy I think illustrates this. I would have preferred this individual, whose theology/politics I diametrically oppose, be heard and challenged rather than banned on the inference drawn from his speech title. The difficult question for me though is incitement. And if the potential for violence is the concern, does it matter whether it's supporters or detractors who will be incited? My disappointment with Wilders' last visit to Australia was not that he was granted a visa, but that his fear mongering and populism wasn't more intelligently exposed. Actual scrutiny and counter arguments were largely absent in favour of rowdy placard waving. On the other hand, if a visa means he again courts admiration from an Anders Breivik...

Rashid.M 12 October 2015

In reading the comments here, I am amazed by the quoted teachings of the church. The US has some strange levels of belief in this fiction. Few non Muslim or non Jewish Australians go to church. The catholic and Anglican churches especially are being shown for the savage rapists of children that they are by our current Royal Commission into child abuse. The teachings of the church are absorbed mindlessly in the US but are widely ridiculed here. Transporting the loud and aggressive sense of self righteousness of the bigot from the US to Australia is as unacceptable as trying to import Starbucks crap coffee into a country settled by large Italian populations who produce great coffee and a European population who recognise nonsense when they see it.

Bob smith 23 October 2015

If by "high and polemical rhetoric" you mean advocated for the murder doctors, encouraged one individual who subsequently assassinated Dr. George Tiller, employs and continues to work actively with a convicted terrorist (firebomber) and both funded and helped orchestrate a systematic campaign to deceive his fellow citizens and his own government then yes, but out here in the real world we recognise that this guy's a bit more than just offensive (offensive was that Holocaust denier David Irving). Oh, to answer the last part, yes, a woman has an absolute right to control her own body. If she wants to get rid of a parasite then she ought to be able to.

Ben 17 November 2015

BTW, for those of you unsure as to when Troy Newman knew his visa was cancelled, you do know there's video footage on YouTube of him getting into an argument with TSA officials over it ... at Denver Airport (en route to LA for the connecting flight to Australia). Who recorded this exposé? Oh, right, that was Troy Newman. But how did it get online? His partner in crime, the one convicted of conspiracy to firebomb clinics and sentenced to a serve time in a US federal maximum security facility. The video shows their stupidity in all its glory, but they put it online themselves because they believe their own BS and think they're fighting an evil empire or something. The public servants at Denver were *very* patient.

Ben 17 November 2015

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