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Australians dogged by Pavlovian politics


The Russian neurologist, Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, discovered that you can change the behaviour of animals by changing the circumstances in which that behaviour takes place ('classical conditioning'). So, while dogs generally don't react to bells, he could famously make a dog salivate just at the sound of one by getting it to associate the sound with food.

Pavlov's dog diagramGovernments are well aware that Pavlovian conditioning works quite nicely on people as well. This week saw some textbook examples.

While running a Royal Commission into domestic violence and a $30 million campaign against it, ringing the bell marked 'asylum-seekers are queue jumpers' has allowed successive governments (and the Nauruan government to whom they have partly outsourced their treatment) to abuse alleged rape victims with barely a word of protest from the general public.

Just this week, one woman's name and details were released to the press and she was threatened with being charged with an offence. Another seems to have been spirited out of the country before she could receive counselling and medical care, in an apparent effort to avoid judicial scrutiny.

(She was seeking an abortion here, a fact which raises thorny ethical dilemmas. Nonetheless, failure to provide counselling, an interpreter or medical care — as allegedly happened — would seem harmful to both mother and baby on any reading.)

One has only to think what the reaction would be if this were done to practically anyone else in the care of the Australian government to realise the huge empathy deficit which the country seems to have developed in relation to asylum seekers and refugees.

This deficit exists because successive governments have spent money and effort in cultivating it — conditioning the public to respond with fear and distrust to any mention of refugees and asylum seekers with so-called 'dog-whistle politics'.

By getting the public to (groundlessly) associate refugees with criminality and queue-jumping and tapping into our baser instincts of xenophobia while depriving us of contact with the real people behind the slogans, our senses have slowly been blunted so that we no longer have the ability to empathise.

Insofar as any residual feelings exist, we tell ourselves that any brutality is inflicted 'to stop deaths at sea'. So successful has this (bipartisan) Pavlovian policy been that Australian refugee policy is now the toast of German neo-Nazis.

Another bell to which we have been conditioned to respond is the one marked 'terrorism'. There is no doubt that people use violence to make political statements or engender fear in the population (a form of Pavlovian conditioning itself). The recent tragic killing of Curtis Cheng is one horrific example.

It is, however, hard to see how we do anything other than play into the hands of such conditioning and invite more terror by inflicting our own terror in response. Australia has now (as I mentioned previously) muzzled the media and introduced additional surveillance powers — all with no notable impact on the incidence of terror attacks (which still kill fewer people than road deaths or falls in the bath).

Why is it that we say nothing when police are given the power to impose conditions (regular reporting to the police, wearing a home detention bracelet and non-association), on suspicion and without disclosing evidence, on 14-year-olds? Such sanctions normally require conviction in a criminal court.

All this in the midst of a Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse which has highlighted the dangers of unconstrained and opaque institutional power over children.

Aside from the fact that there is no empirical evidence suggesting that control orders actually prevent attacks, who would not respond with horror if it were their 14-year-old who was forbidden from leaving the home, from seeing friends, from using a computer? Ah, but it is no 14-year-old we know. It is always someone else's child, someone else's problem.

Suspicion of terrorism tends to be translated to guilt in the mind of police and public alike. (As the famously circular prosecutor's logic goes, 'If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.') So it is that those who do commit acts of terror do their dirty work by turning everyone on their neighbours. Meanwhile, governments around the world play into terrorists' rhetoric about the persecution of Muslims by sweeping their terrorism dragnets ever wider.

While the divisive language of Team Australia has been binned, watering down the legal rights of children and mass arrests must achieve much the same purpose. After all, if the population is docile and takes no offence when their neighbours' rights are chipped away, it would be a very principled government which did not take full advantage of their apathy to secure more and more power for itself.

In doing so, they find that manipulating their populations is easy, if you know which bells to ring.

Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Christmas Island, Nauru, Pavlov, dog-whistling, domestic violence, abortion



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Existing comments

In the movie "Silence of the Lambs" FBI agent Clarice is warned not to let the criminal psychiatrist, Hannibal Lecter, "into her head". Clarice prevails, but only after some very scary moments. I'd like to think that Australians are too fine a people to be manipulated. But it's not looking good for us. I am very angry about the way the female asylum seekers have been treated. I'm angry that a gentle family man and a 15 year old boy are dead. I want our government to show the world we are a decent people.

Pam | 20 October 2015  

I am horrified at the treatment of refugees. They are not illegals, they are people trying to get away from brutal treatment only to be met with institutionalised brutality. I am ashamed to think that the Nazis, against whom we fought are now praising our policies. I am now deeply ashamed to call myself Australian.

Tony | 21 October 2015  

Australians are tough and should know right from wrong. I am ashamed at the Aussie treatment of refugees, particularly women and children. I would also be deeply ashamed to be called Australian. But is it the people of Australia or the wretched government passing laws or the people?. And do the people agree?. The Aussies could protest the treatment of refugees and make the government change the laws. But given the treatment of the Aborigines and the Torres Island people I am thinking it not at all likely. Prove me wrong Aussies.

Noeline Champion | 21 October 2015  

Justin, unfortunately you are correct. People are endowed with a conscience, the ability to acquire knowledge and the ability to reason. These attributes can enable us to resist Pavlovian conditioning. The fact that many people, I think in growing numbers, are appalled by the treatment of asylum seekers, demonstrates this and offers hope.

Anna | 21 October 2015  

It is hard to read what Justin has to say without recalling the thoughts of Pastor Freidrich Niemöller (slightly modified according to whichever audience he was addressing): “In Germany, they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist; and then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew; and then . . . they came for me . . . and by that time there was no one left to speak up.” Can we really expect our compatriots to stick up for any principles, even ours?

Dennis Sleigh | 21 October 2015  

An amazingly narrow perspective, Justin. Your reaction is understandable and might well be Pavlovian in its own right, conditioned by your earlier environmental influences or conditioning in Sth Africa, tangibly the most racist country in the so-called civilised world of recent times with an enduring Nazi flavour to it. I can easily understand a conditioned or Pavlovian abhorrence of racism from the majority of people living with apartheid in Sth Africa. The perspective you fail to address is simply this, What should be done when a potential killer full of hate is detected? What should the government do to detect such killers when the threat is known to exist and to be real not imagined? Does age determine the effectiveness or otherwise of the killing? It would be refreshing to hear whether we ever do anything right or worthwhile in this country. I thought Australia's record in contributing aid, money, shelter and personnel to the poor, disadvantaged, displaced and victims of natural disasters was recognised as the best in the world on a population basis. Regarding the allegations re the treatment of the woman seeking an abortion here the record of her medical and counselling consultations was released yesterday and indicates that of those with doctors and counsellors all were in the presence of an interpreter contrary to what she claimed. It also indicates that she had consultations on every day that she was here. She received a very good hearing it seems and certainly far more consultation and counselling than the half hour or less provided by the family planning clinics in this country. She certainly received medical and counselling consultations with an interpreter. I suppose, however, that the blind or naïve will say that the record is all constructed untruth because she is an asylum seeker. Can you explain your extraordinary statement that failure to provide such services would be "harmful to mother and baby". If you would like to experience genuine harm to mother and baby visit a "family planning clinic" and watch an abortion. Then you will see some genuine harm - to both!

john frawley | 21 October 2015  

Thank you Justin for your thoughtful insights. I keep thinking of the story - the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and the letter I've received from a refugee on Manus Island who told me he was going mad. Let's hope that the inter-faith leaders and parliamentarians who have recently formed a committee to address this grave injustice in relation to refugees can 'light the way' ... into a hope-filled response that preserves the dignity and safety of each human being involved in this massive exile from their homeland. God be with them.

mary tehan | 21 October 2015  

Justin talks about Pavlovian conditioning. Well he might. It certainly applies to the asylum seeker lobby and the way it’s conditioned to smear those who oppose asylum-seekers as racists xenophobes, devoid of compassion – and now Neo-Nazis it also seems. It never ends does it? The ASB continues to viciously vilify those who support strong border protection policies. Not even 1200 deaths, nor the denial of asylum to about 50,000 genuine refugees rotting in Middle East refugee camps from 2008-2013 (because of all the queue-jumpers who got here first) seems to induce any sense of shame in this lobby. Not to mention the $12 billion Australia was forced to spend to handle these so-called asylum-seekers during this period. Habitual denial of responsibility and personal attacks on those who oppose this lobby's agenda is its standard knee jerk response. Classic Pavlovian behaviour indeed.

Dennis | 22 October 2015  

Who is my neighbour? It is an ancient question. From the primitive family tribes to the gathering of nations, there has always been a question around what each of us is called to do for and with the stranger. At this point in time, Australian seems to have drifted into a holding pattern so colloquially and seductively described by John Howard, as being ‘relaxed and comfortable’. Justin, your brief summary of our present malaise is helpful. We are salivating well. We have used language well. We know that language swirls in a cloud of change as we have seen the tag ‘illegal’ used as a logical adjective. Fifteen years ago I would not have foreseen todays atrocities being used to ‘protect’ my country. Being always in the state of educating the future, my deepest concern is that we are today teachers of silence.

Vic O'Callaghan | 22 October 2015  

Thank you for this article - and for continuing to draw our attention to the appalling behaviour of politicians on all sides in relation to refugee issues. Surely the tide will turn soon - so many diverse groups are beginning to form and speak out such as Grandmothers against Refugee Children in Detention and combined groups of religious leaders. It cannot be beyond the imagination of decent Australians to find a way of providing care for genuine refugees, while still ensuring control over our borders; it has been done in the past under governments from both sides. No one is saying there is an easy solution to this world-wide problem, but we have to do better than this.

Heather O'Connor | 27 October 2015  

I agree with Pam -it's not looking good for us. I have a German cousin, a committed Catholic, who insists that the slaughter of twelve million people was not the fault of the other German people - it was their government. Our children will be saying the same thing about the torture of asylum seekers. They'll be wrong - it's our fault.

Joan Seymour | 29 October 2015  

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