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Advocacy for people who do bad things



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.

Silhouette of a reaching hand (Melinda Podor / Getty)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 more defeats than victories."


Nor may it satisfy ourselves. It may lead us to reflect on the shifts in our own argument. We shall ask ourselves about the discordance between our personal understanding of the people whom we represent and the way in which we represent them in our advocacy. Do we need to persuade ourselves that all members of the group are innocent victims? Do not people who act criminally also matter to us? If they do matter, why do we shy away from acknowledging their presence in the group? Would it make a difference to our advocacy if we could not find extenuating considerations in their personal and social history?

These questions might lead us to ask about the basis of the solidarity that links together people who behave badly, ourselves and the people whom we try to persuade. What commands us to see the member of all three groups as 'us' rather than as separate?

If our advocacy for the group is more than emotional or strategic, it must be based in the conviction that each member of the group and of the public has a unique and inalienable value by virtue of being human. This value underlies their religion, political views, race, position and behaviour. It commits us to respect even people who have committed crimes. They are not an embarrassment but the rock on which our defence of rights is built.

Because all human beings matter by virtue of being human, the circumstances of their lives, including their social and personal histories, also matter. We do not explore these to prove that they are innocent victims but to fill out the picture of them as real human beings like ourselves.

This insistence on the human dignity of each human being presumes also that we are responsible to one another. That follows from the preciousness of each person. If we advocate for one group of people to other groups, we assume that we all form a community within which we have responsibilities to each other. Underlying the pragmatic choices we make about how to represent the people for whom we plead is a moral universe that connects us all.

If our advocacy for people who behave badly is based the unique dignity of each human being, it will naturally collide with the working assumptions that govern our society. It presupposes that people who have done bad things can change, pay for their crimes, be forgiven and become fully part of society. It also presupposes that all human beings often act badly. These corollaries of human dignity are encapsulated in slogans like 'We are all sinners', 'There but for the grace of God go I', and 'Everyone deserves a second chance'. They encapsulate the understanding of the human condition that underlies advocacy.

They run counter, however, to attitudes that make even youthful misbehaviour a cause for automatic disqualification from later public office, that adopt a one strike and you are out policy, that divides people into good Australians and monsters, winners and losers, and sees humility as an affront to aspiration.

To advocate for human beings on the grounds of their inalienable human dignity is a long game in which there are more defeats than victories. But are there any other grounds?



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, migrants, Manus Island, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Concur fully! The rule of law is not well understood, and the Australian instinct for it diminished. Treating the human as a solely economic being, and dividing people socially into Us and Them, distract us from equality before the law, and, if we are religious, before the Divine.

Adrian Glamorgan | 28 October 2019  

This article has led me to ponder on the difference we place between rescuing people in a life and death situation and advocating for people who are not in immediate danger of death but nevertheless in a very difficult circumstance. It may be the difference between immediate, heartfelt response and assessing a situation in a more calculated way. It is difficult to see our own fallenness and insecurity in the latter. In the former, we act impulsively but more true to our better nature.

Pam | 28 October 2019  

Bravo, Andy, for your way with words! I think too that another approach to forgiving the 'virtually' fallen and bringing their plight to our attention is to invite reflection on the extent to which the righteous often project their own fears and guilt about themselves onto others whose behaviour it is easy to excoriate. This state of 'projection' explains scapegoating, witch hunting and demonization of the fallen. "What dungeon is so dark as one's own heart! What jailer so inexorable as one's own self!" (Nathaniel Hawthorne).

Michael Furtado | 28 October 2019  

An excellent thought-provoking piece as usual Andrew. The last two days have seen the deaths of two men guilty of doing great evil; Ivan Milat and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. How many of us, on hearing of their deaths, paused to pray for the repose of the soul these public sinners, just as we have rightly prayed for their victims? Every member of the human race is “another me” in some sense; we can’t pick and choose which ones we consider part of the family of mankind. Ivan Milat attended a Catholic school. (I once heard one of his classmates say they hadn’t seen Ivan at class reunions for a while!) It’s likely then that Ivan Milat was my brother in Christ through baptism too. Again we can’t pretend otherwise, can’t sanitise society or the Church. We need to understand that Pope Francis’s field hospital of a Church obtains some unattractively, grotesquely, even repugnantly, wounded patients. They are as much part of the Church and of the wider society as any of us.

Gerard Hore | 28 October 2019  

Would advocacy for human beings on the grounds of their inalienable human dignity be such a tall order were there a more widespread recognition of humans as made in the image of God and redeemed by Christ?

John RD | 28 October 2019  

I suspect the big judge up in the sky will sort out Ivan and Abu, Gerard, and our prayers will have little bearing on the judgement. Better to direct the prayers towards other things, methinks.

john frawley | 29 October 2019  

You miss my point John, and perhaps miss the point of praying “for things” (like rain) at all. We don’t do it to change God’s plans or activities. We do it to help ourselves have the right understandings, the right approach, especially in difficult situations and to remind ourselves of our dependence on God and of our solidarity with each other as children of God. God won’t decide if Misters Milat and al-Baghdadi enjoy eternal happiness with God. Immediately after their deaths, they will have found God inviting them, begging them to enter that state of bliss. They will know whether they are worthy to do so and act accordingly. There’s at least one thing God can’t do. He/she can’t stop loving us as a human race and as individuals.

Gerard Hore | 29 October 2019  

Wonderful stuff. (Fr) Ted Kennedy used to talk about the "deserving poor" as an expectation held by the un-poor. A pity when people get angry. That provides the true face of the "benign" oppressor to be revealed by raising the little finger in dismissal.

Peter Griffin | 30 October 2019  

An interesting understanding of God, Gerard. I must admit I haven't quite got to that same level yet. You have, however, taken a huge load off my mind with the foretelling that God will invite, indeed beg me to enter eternal paradise with him . I don't think it will take much begging on his part for me to accept the invitation!.

john frawley | 30 October 2019  

Gerard, Milat shuffled off this mortal coil declaring he was innocent of his crimes. I would have thought Peter would not let him past the Pearly Gates unless he acknowledged his guilt in this life and showed some remorse. I would have thought he would only be begged to enter by God if indeed he was innocent. "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ Luke 16. So I dont think entry is a lay down mazaire. As for Abu, his God beats a different drum and may indeed reward his murderous jihads with 40 vestal virgins but I have my doubts.

francis Armstrong | 31 October 2019  

Thank you, Andy, for putting it so clearly: we are all brother/sister to each other, no matter who and where the 'other' is or has done. To foregive 77 times, in other words, endlessly.

HEATHER WEEDON | 02 November 2019  

Dear Francis: there is only one God. One, no more; various peoples see God from a different angle, ascribe different characteristics to God, claim that God gave different commands and teaching. But in the end, there is only One God, who will attend to the judgement without consulting us. Jesus sanctified humanity by becoming human, so we can claim that each human being is sacred; created and beloved by God. Therefore our task is to become as Christlike as we can with the aid of the Holy Spirit, forgiving even 'robbers', and - yes, John - praying for our enemies. God's command to love one another has no caveats.

Pirrial Clift | 02 November 2019  

Great article Andy. Aquinata Brockman OSB once said, "We look after sick people not because they are good. We look after them because they are sick."

Fran Sheahan | 12 November 2019  

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