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What lies beneath election campaign ethical silences

Andrew Hamilton |  08 June 2016


Election times are full of sound and fury, much of it broadcast on a loop. But they are also marked by silences. Like the still water in the surf that indicates a rip, these silences indicate concealed perils in society.

xxxxxIn this election campaign two striking examples are the treatment of Indigenous Australians and of people who have sought protection from persecution in Australia.

Of course asylum seekers and young Indigenous people are spoken about, often noisily, by politicians, but always as the object of policy, not as people whose lives have been blighted by policy. The human beings who suffer are shrouded in silence. This silence is an ethical silence that covers people whom we want to keep out of mind.

Ethical silence allows people to be reduced to problems to which a practical solution is sought. Human beings are seen as means to be used as part of that solution.

From this perspective any conversation that focuses on human values, and so raises matters of conscience, is obstructive. It stands in the way of practical courses of action and makes more difficult their implementation. So ethical silence may be a sign of pressure to be silent, and certainly presages attempts to enforce silence.

In this election campaign the dynamic is clear in the pressure placed on candidates to conceal their ethical difficulties with Australia's treatment of asylum seekers, and in the criticism of their parties for choosing as candidates people who differ with party policy.

Such attitudes suggest that there is no room in parties for conscientious disagreement. Party representatives are to be no more than loudspeakers that amplify another's voice. Anyone who adopts well thought out ethical positions will not be welcome unless they match the party line. And free votes on conscience matters will be denied in parliament.

It is a short step from imposing silence by party discipline to impose it by legislation. So some advocates of same sex marriage seek to make anti-discrimination laws prevent groups that are in principle opposed to same sex marriage from making their case in public. The proposal to force all marriage celebrants to conduct same sex marriages if asked would have the same effect.


"Tolerating zones of ethical silence creates a culture in which other groups will be more vulnerable to exclusion and defenceless against it."


The government have gone further in imposing a canopy of silence over the treatment of people who seek protection. It prohibits under severe penalties doctors and other health professionals from bringing into the open any criminal that they see in the course of their work. Here the effect of imposed silence is not simply to override the conscience of those affected by the law, but also to make the places where they work zones of ethical silence.

The consequences for society of tolerating zones of ethical silence are diffuse but considerable. It creates a culture in which other groups will be more vulnerable to exclusion and defenceless against it. Silence insinuates itself throughout society.

When views based on the welfare of human beings are silenced in political parties, too, the range of people welcomed there will become narrower. As divergent views are no longer heard, the party will quickly become out of touch with the larger community. It will also lose vitality, because it will deprive itself of precisely the people with the ethical passion needed to provide energy and to attract future leaders. When conversation within the party is restricted to the convinced talking to the convinced, its members will find it impossible to recognise the need for change in order to address the challenges posed by a changing society and world.

When ethical silence festers in society, people lose faith in political parties and public institutions. They recognise that these bodies do not understand their predicaments, and will not act on their behalf. People become alienated from public life, and become ready to trust people who can mimic ethical passion even when it endorses the most unethical and contradictory courses of action. Ethical silence eventually gives way to unethical cacophony.

We are fortunate in Australia that in this election we do not have to envisage such a dystopia. But if elections are times to submit the body politic to a medical check up, it will reveal disquieting symptoms of ethical silence chosen, pressured and legislated. The evidence is there to be seen in its victims.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

I'm not sure how many times I've sung along with Simon & Garfunkel to "The Sound of Silence" - lost count really. When some people become alienated from some aspects of public life, they never regain that sense of trust we all should have in political parties and public institutions. The outsiders' voices are not strong enough or important enough or mainstream enough to be taken seriously. And then we all lose.

Pam 08 June 2016

What compelling words, Andrew! I have been really concerned about the the 'silence' regarding indigenous Australians. But this provokes me also to pondering my own complicity in that silence.

vivien 09 June 2016

Thank you Andrew - It seems that we are easily lulled into the creeping normality of complicity by "tolerating those zones of ethical silence". Energy is sapped and adequate response is less likely to follow.

Rosemary Grundy 09 June 2016

As described the silence takes on the qualities of a cancer. The matters, the area of neglect, become more and more toxic. And the paid noise which replaces proper investigation demeans us all. Just another aspect of the current vacuum once occupied by vibrant Christian ethics, culture and practices. All the more reason for organs like ES and others giving voice and light to dark corners.

Michael D. Breen 09 June 2016

Thank you Andrew, Once again your essay strikes a cord with me. I suspect like many voters I am fed up with the drivel being dished up to us by both sides of politics .I have spent enough time overseas to see how lucky we are in Australia. However I sense a lot of unease in voter land. Both parties are out of touch with the community. I worry for the future of this country and the negative perception our refugee policies are having overseas. Sadly the rich and powerful are being heard at the expense of the ordinary people. This development can not be good for the future generations.

Gavin 09 June 2016

I suspect the ethical silence you refer to is due to a deep ethical void in most of our politicians. This includes those who most loudly proclaim their own righteousness. It is a sad time. There were people in our political tradition, such as the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, William Wilberforce and Daniel O'Connell who addressed issues as challenging as the ones you mention and achieved considerable success. I suspect this was due to the lights which guided them. Sadly these lights appear to be pretty dim, if they exist at all, in many of our politicians. I am reminded of what T S Eliot said about his belief that our civilisation would not long outlast the religion which gave birth to it. I blame the recent leaders of our mainstream Churches for this decline in religious influence. My hope is that new leaders, such as Anthony Fisher, may provide a much needed corrective.

Edward Fido 09 June 2016

'We are fortunate in Australia that in this election we do not have to envisage such a dystopia.'Andrew, I hope you are not being unduly optimistic and that we are not already on a downward spiral to this frightening dystopia.

Joanna Elliott 09 June 2016

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me. Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) who spent the last seven years of Nazi Germany in concentration camps

PaulM 09 June 2016

I looked up the meaning of the word 'dystopia' in the Macquarie Dictionary. It wasn't there. The nearest I can get to it is 'dystokia', which means 'a long and painful delivery'.

Claude Rigney 09 June 2016

IN regard to Asylum Seekers deplorable situation,I would like to suggest watching a doco. Called "Chasing Asylum" being shown in Sydney and throughout Australia. Google ....Chasing Asylum.... and follow links to get tickets. A movie the Govt and others may not want you to see!!!! One showing is Avoca theatre on Central Coast 24th June 7.30 pm

Bernie 12 June 2016

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