Scott Morrison and the power of negative branding


The word 'brand' applies by a branding ironWhat's in a word? Quite a lot if you ask Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. He instructed department heads and agencies to refer to people who come by boat to Australia to seek protection from persecution as illegal maritime arrivals, not as irregular arrivals. People detained after seeking protection are to be called detainees, not clients.

At one level harsh public language does not matter. It can sometimes clarify reality. It would, for example, be clearer to describe the condition of all people who are deprived of their freedom in secured premises as imprisoned, the places of detention as jails, and themselves as prisoners. The differences of treatment between different categories of people are not significant when compared to their deprivation of freedom.

But at another level such language matters a great deal. It is designed to create the stigma of criminality, which can then colour our attitudes to people who come to Australia to seek our protection. This stigma has consequences for their lives and reputation, and for the workings of the places where they are held. It also has consequences for the quality of Australian society.

This can be seen best by a thought experiment. Suppose the media, shocked to the core by what seemed to them a cavalier approach to politicians who claim allowances for travel and other perks, unanimously decided henceforth always to refer to our parliamentary representatives not as Members and Ministers, but as Rorters and Archrorters.

Such branding would quickly attach a stigma to political life. It would be reflected in the judgments and expectations that people have of politicians. Imagine how the change of terminology would affect people's response to such ordinary announcements as, 'the Prime Archrorter of Australia today announced a parliamentary enquiry into corruption', 'the Archrorter for Immigration is in Sri Lanka to do a deal on asylum seekers', or 'the Archrorter for Finance today appointed three new members to the Gambling Regulation Board'.

The stigma attached to politicians would be reflected in a diminishment of the high level of trust in which they are currently held by the Australian public. Voters might even be tempted to spoil their ballot papers at election time.

People would also see politicians as the disreputable other, and no longer ask what effect government decisions would have on the welfare of the nation, but, what is in them for the relevant ministers. Then, disillusioned, they would withdraw from engagement with public life and ask only what was in any decision for them. In the face of such spreading mistrust the government would eventually have to force the media to use neutral language.

This fanciful example illustrates the harm done to any society by naming groups of people abusively, so creating stigma. Certainly, the ill effects of cynicism about politicians prompted by branding them in such are way are more easily recognised than in the case of other less influential groups.

But in both cases it weakens the sense of a common humanity. Solidarity is made to rest on circumstantial qualities such as the circumstances of birth, nationality and way of arrival in Australia. When one unpopular group is stigmatised, the inclination to stigmatise other groups based on their qualities will grow, and society will become more fragmented. The trust that is essential for the building of society is eroded.

But more important is the effect of this kind of branding on people who seek protection from persecution. Especially for those who are detained, it makes more difficult the tenuous relationships on which their health and spirits rest. The relationships between those who are deprived of freedom and those whose responsibility it is to ensure they remain deprived are inherently unequal and can easily deteriorate.

In immigration detention centres the tendency of such relationships to turn authoritarian and callous has been mitigated by insisting that people relate to one another as officers and clients. To name the relationship as one between detainers and detainees will benefit no one.

If we are seeking a more accurate language, we might speak of asylum seekers as persons. And if we wish to describe their relationship to Australia more precisely, we might refer to them as 'persons who came to Australia seeking protection from persecution'.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Brand image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Scott Morrison, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Sometimes our journalists do this already. My favourite is “disgraced businessman”, as when we read in a great metropolitan daily that “disgraced businessman Steve Vizard was unavailable for comment,” thereby judging him for all time and implying he has something to hide. Clark Kent had a field day describing the previous Prime Minister on a regular basis as a “liar”, despite the fact that on any day her statements were crystal-clear messages of truth, justice and the Australian way. As all informed people know, the scandal with calling asylum seekers “illegal” is Orwellian, i.e. it asserts as a fact the opposite of the actual case. Asylum seekers are, just precisely, legal. The other difference is that this is coming from the upholders of law, the government, and not Jimmy Olsen and Lois Lane. When the lawmakers use English in this way, our nation is morally compromised.

BOAT PERSON | 23 October 2013  

The American politician, Adlai Stevenson, once said "Man does not live by words alone, despite the fact that he sometimes has to eat them." The problem with branding vulnerable people, of course, is that they have to swallow the hurt. Journalists have a particular responsibility to the man in the street, to use language in a sacred way - their reputations depend on it. In relation to people fleeing from persecution - is there anything more offensive than to seek shelter and find that shelter is a place of harsh words?

Pam | 23 October 2013  

And of course none of the lazy media who encourage them ever ask why we would write and ratify a treaty that made behaviours illegal?

Marilyn | 23 October 2013  

You can argue whether or not a rose by any other name would smell as sweet as much as you like, but surely this is not a question of semantics but more importantly, it is part of the process in how best to tackle the issue of people smuggling. You cannot deny the reality of human trafficking any more than you can modern slavery. Currently the line is blurred between a trafficked person and an asylum seeker. Indeed, the two terms are often used interchangeably. Moreover, the asylum system favours employers and penalises workers – particularly those without permission to work – creating a situation in which labour exploitation and forced labour flourish. To this end Scott Morrison deserves our applause not opprobrium.

DavidSt | 23 October 2013  

Perhaps we should refer to the minister as The Brandunlegit Minister Scott....!

Rose Drake | 24 October 2013  

Maybe when I complain about the trains and buses I should talk about human trafficking! Words do certainly influence our judgments and we should treat everyone with the respect every person without exception deserves.

Patricia Ryan | 24 October 2013  

excellent! I hope 'archrorters' catches on!

Anne | 24 October 2013  

It is nothing more than a play with words and technically it is against the principles as outlined in the UN Convention for Refugees of which Australia is a signatory. The stigma has been set in place by both major parties and will this immoral stance ever cease - I think not!

Brian Goodall | 24 October 2013  

To paraphrase Auden, there is one evil in language use that should never be passed over in silence but must be publicly attacked, and that is the corruption of the language. We are all dependent upon the language we inherit, so when it is corrupted, we are corrupted in turn. The misuse of language by journalists and politicians is singled out by Auden in this regard, and he should know, he lived through 1930s Europe. Auden elsewhere warns that corruption of the language, misuse of words by those in authority, where meaning has been corrupted to meet political ends, creates fear and uncertainty and anxiety, which ultimately can lead to violence.

BOAT PERSON | 24 October 2013  

Maybe it's time we referred to "immigration detention centres" as "concentration camps". What is Scott Morison's "final solution"?

Dissillusioned | 24 October 2013  

From where did Andrew Hamilton get the idea that Australians have a high level of trust in our politicians? The latest survey I have seen shows that Bill Shorten and Tony Abbot have a similar trust rating to that held by the Italian people for Silvio Berlusconi, This article provides a hint as to why.

grebo | 24 October 2013  

Great article. The same logic applies to language in the church eg use of only male nouns & pronouns in all official documents (not to mention also an exclusively male structure) leads to women's sense of exclusion in the church.

Patricia Wood | 24 October 2013  

I normally object to the use of the term 'unAustralian', but it springs to mind for Scott Morrison's requirement to his Dept to use the word 'illegal'. This plus the increased secrecy surrounding asylum seekers surely offends against many of the values held dear by Australians.

Rodney Wetherell | 24 October 2013  

This is an important topic. The 'negative branding' of groups of people or individuals has been a way of dehumanising people in history. It diminishes awareness of the need for concern for the other person and increases the chance of that person's mistreatment and experience of social isolation. It is the beginning of a deadly path, the other end of which is abuse of power, torture and genocide. It can begin with fear and as scapegoating and finish with devastating consequences.

Kerry Holland | 24 October 2013  

What is the point in having a passport? "... we might refer to them as 'persons who came to Australia seeking protection from persecution'." Would that include, Andrew, those Sri Lankans who chose to return voluntarily because of the greater level (presumably) of persecution they discovered in Australia? The English language is the most expressive (yet not the most melodious) in the world. What is wrong with using it in its correct meaning rather than manipulating it to paper over things some individuals might not like? Words may mean nothing and yet, paradoxically, they mean everything.

john frawley | 24 October 2013  

OK, what is the definition of a "legal immigrant"? Surely it is one who enters the country by legal means and consequently whose background can be traced. Where this is NOT the case, we run the risk of admitting people who are fleeing from actions that we also would regard as crimes. Sure, most boat people are attempting to escape oppression in their country of origin and deserve our help and support, but just how are we going to be sure when they are attempting to bypass the rule of law in this country, no matter how dire their circumstances? Doesn't that make them illegal immigrants? Let's call a spade a bloody shovel, please. And how else would you propose we suppress the appalling people smuggler trade? We live in an imperfect world and sometimes the lesser of two evils must be committed.

ian | 24 October 2013  

A great piece Andrew. Even if the Immigration Minister were interested in adopting a humanitarian approach on this issue, he would see himself forced by the immutable rules of political conduct to adopt a more bloody-minded slant than his political opponent as a differentiation manoeuvre. There was a time not so long ago when a callous stance on this issue could be countered with a humane rebuttal, but since Tampa it has moved in the other direction. It has now become a spiraling contest between the two major parties to engage in a name-calling contest typical of a brutal schoolyard culture that now infects mainstream adult discourse. The culture seems to take as its point of departure that those fleeing our official enemies deserve to be punished again by us. The standard is set by showing how effortlessly and effectively the victim can be bashed. The contest winner is the one that trumps the other in new and inventive ways to display the finer characteristics of a torturer. A leader is needed to intervene and get us out of this malaise..

PaulB | 24 October 2013  

Thank you Andy for,again, bringing to notice the evil manipulations of our politicians to demonise groups of people. Morrison by deliberately insisting on branding refugees---people seeking refuge from persecution in their homeland-- as illegal immigrants and subjects of people smugglers, neither of whichis correct,isintentionally tarnishing their identity in order to manipulate our, his constituents, view of them. Are we prepared to be so manipulated? Of course language matters when it is used to create a particular view. There are several examples in the comments on this blog. Can you imagine your 'brother and his family' seeking safety from life persecution to be dehumanised as illegal immigrants and detainees until such time as this regime is overturned? And this despite the historical fact that Australia has signed a treaty guaranteeing acceptance into this country for people suffering persecution. We all know that such people will be authorised by health, identity and behaviour checks before acceptance, so how come we permit them to be tortured first. To create good will? Or is it rather to show power in the hands of the Minister in charge?

Michelle | 24 October 2013  

I think that the Archrorter for Immigration is definitely the weak link in Mr. Abbott's government, particularly as he's now one of the most far-right frontbenchers in the Coalition lineup. Could another useful fact in shaping the public perception of Mr. Morrison be his uncanny resemblance to Herr Flick in " 'Allo 'Allo"?

Bob Faser | 24 October 2013  

An excellent analysis whch merits wide circulation and should be read by our politicians

The Rev. John Beer | 24 October 2013  

What about 'rendition' (short for extraordinary rendition) for the process of handing over people who are regarded as enemies by their own government (such as Tamils from Sri Lanka) to that government. And other similar crimes against humanity.

Gavan | 24 October 2013  

Not a lawyer myself, in response to Ian, but it is my layman's understanding that international law requires that those seeking asylum and refuge in another country, especially due to circumstances of war and conflict where they cannot return, shall be given such access by the signatory country and that these people are in fact fully legal persons in Australian law. For the government to say otherwise is wrong, both legally and morally.

Quiet Voice of Calm | 24 October 2013  

I am amazed at the reluctance of independent commentators to compare the Abbott government's demonisation of asylum seekers, to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews. I am further surprised that "archrorter" Morrison didn't even suggest that they (those terrible illegals!) should wear a 'No Entry' stamp on their foreheads, or a yellow garment with a large black cross painted on their backs. And the 60% or so of us who voted these lunatics in, should wear a "No Illegals Permitted" armbands or red, white and blue bandanas to display our sovereign patriotism to Queen and Country! Indeed, we don't live in the same world like these pests who want to be free from persecution. We live in a parallel universe where Christianity rules and God is always on our side: the winning side.

Alex Njoo | 24 October 2013  

The Sri Lankans are all human beings with the same rights as you have John. So what if a few Sri Lankans went home rather than spend years in jails here?

Marilyn | 24 October 2013  

But the clerical labelling of my son's sexuality as "objectively disordered / intrinsically evil" (or vice versa: I never did get that sorted) is quite ok, is it? Stigma doesn't apply here..?

Bernadette Reeders | 24 October 2013  

A great article. Well written and well expressed. It brings out the saying, 'People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones'.

Bob Myers | 24 October 2013  

Why some people can't accept the truth; Boat people arriving in Australia without a visas are illegal maratime arrivals and people in detention centres are detainees. No matter how much anger and rubbish is directed to the coalition parties, the truth will prevail. They won the Federal Election in a landslide victory.

Ron Cini | 24 October 2013  

Thanks Andrew!! How do our good Catholics lose their way when they become politicians?--------------------

leo kane | 25 October 2013  

Ron, it is not illegal under any law in the world to enter and seek protection, why on earth would the UN bodies sit and write protection instruments and then make them illegal to use? And they are detainees only because we choose to detain them for no reason at all.

Marilyn | 25 October 2013  

Mr Cini, it was not a landslide victory anyway and words do matter. Rewriting history does not improvements a country's level of civilisation. How could an Iraqi have sought a passport from Sadam Hussein if she had wanted to leave her country legally and seek asylum, in your ideal world? Traffickers are a wonderful thing, everyone can blame them and ignore the fact that the world is a boiling cauldron full of people seeking peace and security.

Name | 25 October 2013  

And alongside the sinister Archrorter,can be seen the more basic Troughrorter,snout in,tail waggling,happy to follow along and believe the dogwhistle of polliespeak.

penny | 26 October 2013  

I agree with Boat Person. When you call people currently in immigration detention refugees, they have their humanity, a rightful place in the world, a right to live. When you call them irregular arrivals you are starting down a dark road. Then you progress to illegals. Now they have no right to be here, they are illegal and you can jail them for being illegal. Once in jail you can call them detainees. So now the stage is set, they're here, illegally, so they are jailed. This makes them criminals, worthy of punishment. Now we can sit back comfortably, secure in the knowledge that these 'criminals' have been locked up in a detention camp permanently. Then the camps become completely overcrowded, no more room, facilities non existent, people fighting for food, a place to sleep. Riots. So what will the government do then? What will be their solution to this problem. It all starts with words doesn't it? And the words take on a life of their own, leading us into a downward spiral of oppression and outright cruelty towards defenceless people who have done absolutely nothing wrong, beyond coming to Australia and begging us to help them.

Eva Kopke | 01 November 2013  

The LNP has "negative branding" down to an artform. witness their incessant use on Mr Keating and Ms Gillard.
re Voltaire.".throw enough..some is sure to stick".

John M Costigan | 14 December 2013  

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