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Advocacy for people who do bad things

  • 28 October 2019


The daily news provides us with many examples of people who are treated unfairly. African immigrants who are racially abused and discriminated against, for example, or people seeking protection dumped on Manus Island. If we are appalled by their plight we may want to change public attitudes and policies.

We shall then soon be challenged by realising that some members of the group whom we represent do bad things. Some young African immigrants may invade homes; some people seeking protection may sexually abuse local women. This recognition encourages deeper reflection on the basis of our advocacy.

If we wish to persuade the public that a group of people is being treated unjustly and that this injustice should stop, we naturally portray them as innocent victims. We represent them as a class and as virtuous in order to change public opinion.

Stories of violent and brutal behaviour by members of the group, however, reveal the reality that no group is uniformly composed of virtuous and innocent victims, but comprises both law abiding and law breaking people. If such stories are not to discredit the group in the eyes of the public, we need to respond to them.

A common way of doing this is to ignore the stories. We will continue to portray the group as innocent victims of unjust treatment, and will highlight the virtues and plight of attractive members of the group. We try to drown out the bad publicity.

If governments are hostile to the group or popular media are feral this strategy will not be successful. Public opinion will identify the group with its members who have acted badly. We may then adopt a fallback position, explaining the bad behaviour of members of the group by referring to the effects of a traumatic childhood, the loss of relatives, of a dysfunctional family or of the mental illness that long incarceration in dehumanising detention centres brings on. By speaking of their sufferings we try to reestablish the status of the group as innocent victims rather than as callous criminals.

This approach may satisfy people who are already sympathetic but is unlikely to satisfy the general public. They will be more strongly moved by the details of the brutal behaviour than by the exposition of its context, no matter how pertinent that exposition may be.


"To advocate for human beings on the grounds of their inalienable human dignity is a long game in which there are