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Passion has a place in border protection's age of reason


The former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsFormer Australian navy captain John Ingram doesn't mince his words. In an interview for the ABC, Ingram, reflecting on his long career in the Navy and his encounters with asylum seekers at sea, described the policy of turning back the boats as 'morally corrupt' and 'absolutely abhorrent'.

It's easy to imagine some readers brushing aside these comments as fanciful and unreasonable. The Australian debate on border control has for two decades been structured such that 'practical' language is presented as the field for 'reasonable argument', while overtly 'moral' language is cast as the domain of 'do-gooders'; and by extension, as irresponsible, because such language is seen as assisting the 'people smugglers'.

Concepts like 'sovereignty' and 'integrity of borders' have become established as 'reasonable' in the context of the Australian discussion — words like these are now decisive in discerning 'good' from 'bad'. Just think of the way asylum seekers are positioned, as infringing liberty — our liberty. We think of our liberty in terms offered by John Stuart Mill: as long as our actions don't infringe other people's rights then we can proceed, but the state can intervene against those whose actions adversely affect the rights of others.

In the Australian debate, political agents like Phillip Ruddock and Scott Morrison have effectively positioned asylum seekers as a group of people whose very existence, in its challenge to the 'harmony' of our politics, is an inimical 'other regarding action' against which the state has the right to intervene.

The historical reality of states controlling borders can be used to shut down conversation about the moral relationship between those who maintain borders and those who seek to cross them. So one academic commented to me recently that he was a little confused by the philosophical literature that focuses on border controls: 'I don't understand the point of this ... states have always sought to control their borders'. The implication was that discussion about the rights and wrongs of stringent border controls was literally nonsensical.

Of course most people wouldn't accept that there is no further fundamental moral discussion to be had about border controls — but it is a challenge to maintain in public view the ethical difficulties that arise at borders, places where people sometimes die, and sometimes in great numbers. Language, including concepts like 'integrity', can be used to restrain different kinds of discussion, to normalise one particular form of speaking.

In the Australian migration control debate, language is an instrument and occasionally a weapon. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, referring to a report of one prospective asylum seeker who had acknowledged that the route to Australia is now 'closed', responded: 'Well, thank you sir, the way is closed.'

I'm struck not only by the 'closing of the way', but by Abbott's use of the word 'sir'. One of the marks of a modern liberal democratic society is that we use such titles to refer to anyone and everyone; it's a great equaliser. But it becomes absurd when directed at the suffering supplicant, a term of derision rather than respect. When the Prime Minister says 'well, sir' he is effectively positioning that man as someone in the world of the absurd, whom he doesn't have to meet face to face.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reflected recently on how people of religious faith should engage in the public sphere — whether they should be able to point to their religious commitments as sources for their political reasoning. His sense was that yes, religious people, although they should no doubt reason in terms approachable by everybody, should have no hesitation in pointing to the sources of their fundamental commitments. With regard to the issue of migration, Williams said he would begin by admitting that the deepest normative source from which his feelings and reasoning sprang would be the biblical image of hospitality.

As in many dimensions of our broader culture, in the Australian migration control debate, 'passion' is construed as opposed to 'reason'. But, to refer again to Williams' lecture, 'passion' in its classical (ancient or biblical) sense, is not opposed to reason (being attuned to the world), but rather to 'peace' or 'harmony'. In the debates on border control, 'harmony' means no information, no angst — only a kind of enforced conversational restraint presented as 'reasonable'. Thus the importance of Ingram's 'passionate' language — alongside practical proposals, 'passionate' language can unsettle uncritical pictures of the issue.

And here there is a role for religious people. As one Catholic migration worker recently emphasised, the very notion of catholicity should present profound challenges to the current border regime since the principles of universality and unity aren't realised in the practice of offshore detention: the policy of stopping the boats should be denounced — 'they have crossed our path and are our neighbour'. 

Whereas the Coalition Government deploys the language of 'integrity', 'sovereignty' and 'transgression' to frame the issue, here we have the use of 'path' and 'neighbour'. In the biblical context paths are places of encounter, shared places where the stranger is met and discovered to be not so strange after all.

We need to be suspicious then of language that narrows the issue at hand. To quote Ingram, through 'turning back the boats', through offshore detention, we have placed ourselves in a corner from which 'we need an honourable way out, and we need a way out very soon'. One part of finding this way out is to open up the discussion to include vocabularies other than those of unchallengeable 'reason' and 'sovereign prerogative' — vocabularies that offer instead an imaginative grasp of larger connections.

Benedict Coleridge headshotBenedict Coleridge is a postgraduate student at Balliol College, Oxford University. Follow him on Twitter @Ben_Coleridge

Topic tags: Benedict Coleridge, A Word Edgeways, asylum seekers, Phillip Ruddock, Scott Morrison, John Ingram



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Existing comments

A small minority seems to becoming more and more desperate to defend a deadly trade in human misery. The people smuggling industry has made many organisations and people very rich and also caused the death of well over 1000 in recent years. I am disgusted how people hiding behind the facades of churches and charities are able to continue to defend the deadly, but highly profitable people smuggling industry. The people smuggling industry has nothing to do with passion or compassion, it has all to do with greed and profits. Well meaning people defended slavery and colonialism. There is no place for people smuggling in a compassionate human society.

Beat Odermatt | 06 February 2014  

Every day about 33,000 people flee from death and torture, Beat whinges incessantly about the travel. There are no smugglers, Beat, how many times do you have to be told.

Marilyn | 06 February 2014  

Writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit. George Orwell (Eureka Street- Deciphering capitalism's corrupt metaphors. David James | 06 February 2014) Beat Odermatt: Your comment is a perfect example of this kind of writting/reasoning 'inside’ a box. Regrettably because of your comment, mine is just as banal.

Annoying Orange | 06 February 2014  

thoughtful & penetrating, Benedict

Ralph Wessman | 07 February 2014  

Thanks, Benedict Coleridge. Some of us feel we are in a land where compassion and empathy are words unknown by our political leaders. I'm ashamed to be an Australian.

Caroline Storm | 07 February 2014  

In response to the hardline comment by Beat Odermatt (?), it seems wrong to me to punish the smuggled, who have already suffered enough punishment in the treatment from which they are understandably trying to escape. They are our neighbours, as Benedict Coleridge says, and I would not turn away my neighbour if he asked me for food and water. Thank you Benedict, and thank you John Ingram for your compassion and love. there may be no place for people smugglers, but there should be places for those who ask our help.

Name | 07 February 2014  

One of the problems with the border protection issue is that it is just a tiny part of the problem of the huge number of people displaced by war, famine and other issues. They would number in their millions. Behind much of the official language is, I think, the feeling that refugees could swamp us and change our society in ways we don't want. Preaching at people who feel this way by appealing to their supposedly better natures may not work. So where do we go from here? I think there is a real need to nut out a genuine national consensus on the issue. It will take real leadership to start the genuine debate that we need to have and haven't, as yet, had. That, to me, is the test of our current political leaders on both sides. Failure here would to me be indicative of a real leadership vacuum.

Edward F | 07 February 2014  

Beat you miss the point. This is not about the defence of so called "people smugglers"; it is about the demonisation of asylum seekers

JR | 07 February 2014  

We already have well organised and highly capable organisations to deal with refugees. Every country, including Australia has limited resources. Resources which could go to real foreign aid (rural development etc.) and helping refugees to resettle is being siphoned off by the people smuggling industry. Our Government and Julia Gillard deserve praise for trying to help refugees and to stop the deadly trade in human misery. I believe that the Red Cross and UNHCR are far more skilled, passionate, unbiased and effective to deal with human tragedies then our greedy people smuggling industry.

Beat Odermatt | 07 February 2014  

If we responded more generously to the crisis of displaced people and cooperated with the UN and countries in our region in processing and bringing many more asylum seekers here, there would be no, or little, trade for people smugglers. Instead of spending millions of dollars stopping people from coming here, why not use that money in resettlement programs for refugees in Australia.

Maureen | 07 February 2014  

The government treatment of asylum seekers is a litmus test of whether Australia really is a Christian country. The hospitality at Mamre is pivotal in Jewish history, the moment where Abraham makes place for the strangers who come in from the wasteland. The strangers are the arrival of God. The sin of Sodom is making people sod off. It is the failure to show any spick or speck of hospitality that is the ultimate undoing of that self-absorbed facebook of a place. Rowan Williams is Benedictine. As anyone with the name of Benedict knows, their saintly namesake put hospitality at the head of human relationship. Strangers who arrive on the doorstep are shown to the guesthouse of a Benedictine dwelling. They are not sent back out into the wilderness, there to be humiliated with toilet training and burnt with hot irons.

Philip Harvey | 07 February 2014  

An excellent, very timely article, thanks Ben . It is easy to fall into the trap of using official language. I was pulled up for it recently. BTW, there is no shortage of passion - the ugly kind - from the rightwing shockjocks. I heard two of them gloating on air (2GB) yesterday over news that another boatload of asylum seekers had just been successfuilly turned away by OSB.

tony kevin | 07 February 2014  

All who arrive as guests are to be welcomed like Christ, for he is going to say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me. (Rule of Saint Benedict 53:1)

Annoying Orange | 07 February 2014  

If Beat Odermatt is really concerned about Australia and its limited resources, then how does he justify the billions of dollars of taxpayer money being spent on detention camps on islands all around our coastline? One does not have to be Einstein to see that this is an obscene waste of resources that could better be used in finding these people a place in Australian society. And how long does Beat expect these camps to operate? One year, five years, ten years? It was another German who came up with a solution about what to do with people in camps that his government didn’t like.

AU CONTRAIRE | 07 February 2014  

It's not often I can agree with something Beat Odermatt writes about asylum seekers. "There is no place for people smuggling in a compassionate society." True, because in a compassionate society we would accept refugees, and help them to get here. As it is, they can't come here, so the only way we can help them is through overseas aid. So the government slashes overseas aid. I heard mention the other day about eleven people who had been killed after we sent them back to Afghanistan. Their blood is on Australian hands.

Gavan Breen | 07 February 2014  

Some of our politicians are keen to remind us that our values are founded within a Judeo-Christian value system. If this is so, and to act consistently with these values perhaps the words of the prophet Micah may serve as a timely reminder. What does God require of us? To do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God (6:8). Asylum seekers are seeking to live life, and life in all its fullness. Who are we to deny them this? Thanks for the challenge Benedict.

Tim Collier | 07 February 2014  

It is a great tragedy, Beat, that we spent so much of "our limited resources" on participating in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that helped produce many of the refugees that are now desperately trying to find a good, safe place to live. What if we had spent that war money on peaceful settlement of refugees?

Janet | 07 February 2014  

This article "Refugee figures a reality check" by Michael Gordon in the SMH on 19 June 2013 might help put the problem in some perspective. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/refugee-figures-a-reality-check-for-australia-20130619-2ohpa.html It is factual rather than polemical and puts Australia's performance on refugees as a whole - not just asylum seekers - into context. One of the problems with the discourse so far is that it appears in the main not to be factually based. I would hope our politicians, their advisers, the interested public and posters on this thread do read it.

Edward F | 07 February 2014  

In response to AU CONTRAIRE and others: Our Governments has shown more compassion towards refugees then many of the bible bashing self righteous hypocrites. I think we all should also praise Julia Gillard for her effort in trying to stop the tragedies at sea. Kevin Rudd policies made a lot's of people very rich and caused the death of hundreds. We have an enquiry into so-called pink bat tragedies. I fail to see why people responsible for the death of over 1100 people still can walk our streets. History is repeating itself, we had so called good people promoting inquisition, witch hunts, colonialism, slave trades, crusades and abuse of children. I cannot see a difference between promoting and benefiting from people smuggling or slavery. In both cases innocent people die to satisfy the greed of a few. I hope the current Government can succeed in stopping the deadly trade.

Beat Odermatt | 10 February 2014  

I’m not sure what the pink batt mess has to do with the subject of asylum seekers. It is curious too how people who dare to quote the Bible are instantly branded Bible bashers by some people in our society. ‘Hypocrite’ seems to trip off the tongue rather too easily. I personally am against bashing of any kind, be it with a Bible or any other object: it’s against my religion. If Beat read what Benedict Coleridge said in regard to Rowan Williams, he would have a better understanding of how many of us take the long view on major conflict issues, and won’t be drawn into the ideological attitudes of the moment. The long view includes, for Christians, what is being explained painstakingly in Scripture. Scripture also invites us to be prayerful, meaning to give the issue our absolute attention in terms of justice and equity.

AU CONTRAIRE | 11 February 2014  

Yes, finally we have a Government which actually cares. We have a Government which does not want people to perish at sea. We have at least a Government which is brave enough to stand up against people smugglers. True charity and compassion has been displayed by people like Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. True charity and compassion does not allow innocent people die because of the greed of others. On the other hand, encouraging desperate people to enter Australia via rickety boats in dangerous seas is just being cruel, cold and heartless. I am ashamed of people trying to sell their evil greed as “compassion and care”. True compassion and care can only succeed if people use their head and their heart.

Beat Odermatt | 11 February 2014  

To AU CONTRAIRE: The pink bat saga resulted in the death of people. The people smuggling industry support by Kevin Rudd caused a lot more death. I don't know why we have only an investigation into one policy which caused death and not the other.

Beat Odermatt | 11 February 2014  

Thank you, Beat. The ultimate investigations into what is really happening at offshore detention centres, where the Abbott government wishes to wash its hands of responsibility, will be horrendous. It will put what you are talking about into some perspective. While the government is actively going about exposing its enemies through punitive Royal Commissions and the like, its own policies of secrecy about what it is itself doing are unprecedented in Australian politics and a scandal that good Australians must act to condemn. It seems we only see what we want to see, whether its pink batts or drownings at sea.

AU CONTRAIRE | 11 February 2014  

hank you foor this article Benedict. I am non plussed at the non reaction of our Catholic community in it's generally , '' policy of silence'' at the barbaric treatment of those seeking asylum in Australia.I am also amazed at the silence of our clergy. . Our parish priests could be , and may be in some Parishes,such an inspiration in the sphere of social Justice., in the treatment of those seeking asylum in this wealthy country. Why are we all mostly silent? Do Catholics believe Christ's teaching, on helping your neighbour? I mean why do we listen to Tony Abbot with his wonderful Catholic policy of, 'no help here, we are not interested in helping you, so don't think you can change us!! How appalling is that! Where are the peaceful demonstrations, opposing such laws. It is so easy to be comfortable. Our sins of omission may be growing. Let us try and change these repressive laws, and maybe we can hold our heads high again on the world scene

bernie introna | 12 February 2014  

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