Asylum Seekers and the Redefinition of ‘Compassion’

I’m going to talk about the practicalities of debating/challenging/protesting against official asylum seeker policy in a future post, however I wanted to use this post to challenge the redefinition of the notion of ‘compassion’ that’s going on before our eyes in regards to these issues.

It seems to me that the concept of ‘compassion’ for those who are seeking asylum has been hijacked by people who understand its potency and who wish to harness the emotion that is attached to it, all the while re-inscribing the word with new meaning leaving it, ultimately, void of any real meaning.

For years now, those of us who have found this bizarre obsession with ‘boat people’ distressing—and who object to the dehumanising policy that has grown out of this irrational, fearful fixation—have suggested that we need to inject a little bit more compassion into the mix. The point is reasonably straight forward: vulnerable people, fleeing often horrendous situations, need to be embraced with gentle, caring, open arms rather than clobbered with an iron fist (you know, that whole ‘treat other people like you’d like to be treated’ thing?). Whether or not this is a useful strategy for speaking into this issue (or whether it, rather, speaks to a frame of thinking that automatically associates such notions with naive ‘bleeding heart’ syndrome) is for a future post. The point here is that is has been a fairly common call.

This has been challenged, however, by those who would suggest that ‘allowing’ people to get on the boats in the first place is to encourage dangerous behaviour, and is therefore implicit support for asylum seekers dying at sea when boats sink. “How is this compassionate?”, it is asked. And many people are left without an answer. Surely it’s not compassion that encourages people to risk their lives on a dangerous voyage! Surely it would be ‘compassionate’, rather, to make sure that these dangerous journeys across the oceans on leaky boats are not embarked upon in the first place!

Of course, from this point, we have a direct line to support for idiotic mantras like ‘Stop the boats’.

I must admit, it’s been brilliant insofar as i’s been a very effective strategy for disarming the force of the argument. It’s worked well!; this I cannot deny.

However, it’s total nonsense.

It works out of the premise that the desire to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect and at least some level of care—to treat them as human, in other words—is tacit approval for the method in which they arrive. Support for ‘boat people’ is deemed support for ‘boats’.

It’s a pretty stupid argument, when you think about it.

No one I know actually supports people having to get on leaky boats to make a perilous journey across the ocean. No one! The thought of being so desperate that the decision to do so looks like a good option is quite frankly horrifying to think about. I, and the people I know who are most vocal about support for vulnerable people who are seeking asylum, would not ever suggest that this is a great idea. It’s dangerous. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s deeply saddening that people would feel like they are left with no other choice.

What we’ve consistently suggested (apparently not very effectively…) is that it is precisely because people feel that they have no other choice that they take this option in the first place. The ‘queue’ that so many people insist these people are jumping just doesn’t exist. There is no appropriate framework in place in these areas to be able to manage the situation, and so the option of ‘going through the correct channels’ is quite simply not on offer much of the time.

What many of us are calling for, then, is not a free-for-all on boats, but rather for funding to be directed to establish an appropriate framework throughout the region which is able to better deal with the situation. Let’s at least help in setting up adequate regional processing centres before we complain about people bypassing ones that don’t currently exist.

It would be a heck of a lot less expensive than the billions that we currently spend on ‘deterrence’ measures, and it has the added benefit of allowing us to meet our international obligations as well as not being evil. Everyone wins!

But where this co-opting of the language of compassion in support of deterrence policies is really exposed in all its ugliness is when you look at what is offered as the ‘solutions’.

‘Compassion’, it is argued, is making sure people don’t get on the boats to start with. And that’s where it apparently also finishes. Truly caring about these men, women, and children is not, it seems, about doing anything in regards to making sure they have other options; it’s simply about making sure they don’t get on a boat that’s headed anywhere near us.

This sort of approach does nothing by way of really grappling with the causes of the situation, but is rather aimed solely at treating the presenting symptoms. The ‘problem’ doesn’t exist, apparently, if we don’t see it. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

Let’s call this what it is: blatant hypocrisy.

This co-opting of the language of compassion is merely a disgusting cover for making sure that we don’t have to deal with it, even though we know others still will. We don’t want to have to abide by our international obligations, but we’re happy for others to have to (who don’t have a colossal moat surrounding their countries).

Asylum seekers will still take desperate measures, because they’re in desperate situations. They’ll still die in the process. But, apparently, this is fine as long as we don’t have to see it.

The whole argument is breathtakingly abhorrent! It’s truly despicable!

But it’s even more despicable that it’s wrapped in the co-opted language of ‘compassion’.

Don’t be fooled: the current ‘solutions’ to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ have absolutely nothing to do with compassion.


The Irony of Self-Interest

The thing I really hate about election campaigns is the way that they shine a light on what we value—not the things we say we value in polite company, mind you, but the things we actually value. Unfortunately, it’s not a pretty picture.

It’s fairly easy, I would suggest, to identify what we truly value in these campaigns, because politicians want to find those things that (we think) are important to us and, once they find them, to milk them for all they’re worth. All we need to do, then, is to look at what our politicians are focusing on most heavily, and we’ll see where our value lies. As a side note, it’s fairly depressing to watch politicians scrambling to find these issues, seeking only what is already popular rather than outlining a vision for a better future and seeking to take the rest of us on the journey to that place (or, as I like to call it, ‘leading’).

In this current campaign surrounding the 2013 Australian federal election, the thing that most stands out, as I see it, is self-interest.

So much of this campaign (and similar campaigns in recent years) is focused more and more on who will leave more money in my pocket (or how the other guy will rip that money out of my pocket), or who will make my life that little bit ‘easier’ (especially in the short-term). Basically, the majority of everything that is announced is about who will best pander to my own narrow self-interest.

Nearly everything fits into this scheme.

Concern about the environment is reduced to the immediate effect on my cash flow. Concern for asylum seekers is reduced to misplaced fear about how this faceless, sinister horde is going to effect me personally (through taking my job, or making my commute time longer, or threatening the safety of me and my family in various unfounded ways).

It’s all about me, me, me!

What we have lost, in all of this, is the fact that total self-focus is actually detrimental to us as human beings. This sort of thinking revolves around the idea that, since no one else will look out for my interests, I need to look out for myself. Everyone else is out to get me, so I need to protect myself and my family from ‘everyone else’.

Ultimately, however, our growth as human beings remains stunted by such thinking. We become emotionally and socially underdeveloped. Ironically, having our self-interest indulged leaves us less than fully formed.

Through all of this, we lose the ability to see beyond ourselves. We forget that we, as humans, find fulfilment through each other, rather than in isolation. When we allow this unchecked individualism to invade our thinking, it actually limits us from our full potential.

In short, we make independence our final goal, and we forget that there is a further step in human potential. Though we are born dependent, and though we do move to a stage of (relative) independence, this is not our home. Our final destination—the point at which we reach full maturity—is moving through dependence and on towards interdependence.

Interdependence is when we choose* to look out for the best interest of others, and when they reciprocate. It’s when we seek mutuality over individual rights.**

It entails risk, but it also entails growth as a human being. It thrives on the humility of other-centred thinking, rather than the arrogance of self-focus. And it allows space for true human flourishing.

As a Christian, this sort of thinking should be absolutely central for me. I can’t understand, then, why so many churches allow the same sort of self-centred thinking to pollute and contort the ‘Good News’. But I’ve spoken of that in more detail here, and will leave that point where it is.

The fact remains, though, that this is not just a Christian thing. True human potential is unlocked only in relationship with others, and thus when we allow ourselves to be boxed into the unnatural*** position of narrow self-focus we fall short of that potential.

In election campaigns, our politicians—through their own narrow self-interest—are going to try to focus on the things that, apparently, truly matter to us. If our only interest is ourselves, then they will oblige. They will frame their message in ways that pander to such interests (like they are doing so well now).

But, if we let them know that we actually care about something bigger than ourselves, they will listen. The choice is ours.

* I need to emphasise here the free nature of this choice.
** Those who know me may find this statement quite interesting, as I am a supporter of human rights. My point here, though, is that individual rights are not the end goal. I will always support the goal of seeing each person attain their fundamental human rights (especially where those rights are impinged by another!), however I see this as a starting point, rather than the end goal.
*** Some may argue that self-interest is actually very ‘natural’ for humans. I am convinced, however, that self-interest is the central feature of what is often referred to as ‘sin’, and is not the ideal natural state for humans to occupy.

How to Vote at the Federal Election(???)

We Aussies are now in the midst of a federal election campaign. The date has been set, the arrangements are being made, and pretty much all hell is breaking loose as our politicians seek to overwhelm us  with trite slogans, empty promises, and the nauseating machinations of party politics.


I’ve been wanting to write about what’s been going on in Australian politics for a while now but, to be perfectly honest, it’s all been doing my head in a little bit.

The extraordinary last three-and-a-bit years of Australian politics has been (extraordinarily!) capped off by the events of Ruddivivus (that is, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd becoming, well, plain old ‘Prime Minister Rudd’ once again), and what was looking like a landslide victory for the Coalition has become a proper contest once more. Somehow, the incumbent Prime Minister has been able to position himself as the underdog challenger(!), while the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has had to reframe his own position (due to the fact that Kevin Rudd basically took many of Mr Abbott’s key policy positions swiftly out from underneath him) as the guy who can do what the Prime Minister says he is going to do, only better (all without giving those pesky details about how he is going to pay for it).

It’s all a bit bizarre!

It’s also very disheartening.

This has not been good news in a number of policy areas, perhaps most significantly in the area of asylum seeker policy. The last dozen-or-so years has been really nasty when it comes to asylum seeker policy, and both major parties are now seemingly vying for the most soul-destroying ‘solutions’ their twisted minds can conceive. It’s truly horrible.

I know many people who are totally disillusioned by it all, and who are having a very hard time trying to work out if they will vote, let alone how to vote.

While I am not going to try to tell people who to vote for here (and don’t recommend listening to anyone who does tell you who to vote for), I do want to offer a couple of thoughts that might be helpful to keep in mind as we move forward in this election campaign and edge towards voting day.

1) As a Christian, I must remember that none—not one!—of the parties or candidates on offer represents the fulness of my belief system and the hope to which I hold.

It’s so easy for us Christians to divide ourselves along the familiar lines of ‘right’ and ‘left’, ‘conservative’ and ‘progressive/liberal, and forget that the Christian message of hope stands quite distinct from any particular party platform. As someone who more naturally identifies with the [libertarian-]left of politics, it’s quite easy for me, in the face of what looks like a win for the ‘right’ of politics either way(…), to become wrapped up in the ridiculous notion all the problems in the world would fade away if only a true left–of-centre party was elected. For my friends who more naturally identify with ‘economic-rationalist’ approaches to fiscal policy (and the parties that embody such ideas), it’s easy for them to be convinced that, if only we had a Government that could essentially get out of the way and ‘free’ companies from all that pesky regulation (and responsibility), ‘the economy’ would be transformed and wealth (and therefore happiness) would trickle down to all and create a rising tide of prosperity and rainbows and unicorns and…

Ok, that’s a cheap shot, but you get the idea!

And, of course, it’s all nonsense.

No party is going to magically fix everything that’s wrong with our beautiful-yet-corrupted nation (let alone the world). No merely political movement is going to heal human hearts and end the greed and fear and hate that divides us. No politician is able to ‘save us’ from…ourselves.

As such, when (or, indeed, if) I vote, I need to remember that I am taking part in something that allows me to have my voice heard in the way I think the country could best be run, which is great and all, but it’s not everything. Most of all, no matter what happens on election day, I need to remember that I, as a Christian, am called to embody the hope to which I hold, demonstrating an alternative way of being human through transformative love and grace. To read more on this idea, see my friend Matt’s excellent post here.

And this leads me to my second point (which needs to keep this first point in mind as a kind of context for what I will say next).

2) Taking part in the political process is, nevertheless, an important responsibility.

The first part of this point, as I see it, is that we Australians are privileged to live in a nation where we get to vote, and indeed where our elected representatives are required to meet with their constituents. I have been very fortunate to be able to meet with the federal member for the electorate I live in numerous times over the past five years and, though he and I certainly don’t see eye to eye on certain (well, perhaps ‘most’) issues, he nevertheless takes the time to meet with me and groups that I’m a part of and does actually listen (to some degree) to what we have to say. Compared with so many places around the world, we in Australia are privileged to live in a country where we have such direct access to the political system. As much as the system can still be very frustrating sometimes (and, as I noted in the first point, certainly isn’t the answer to all life’s problems), it is still a relatively good one. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s not bad by world standards.

As such, I’m of the opinion that we, as Australians, should not take it all for granted. We should at least have some idea of how it all works, as well as some idea of which party stands for what. So many people I speak to simply don’t understand how our political system works, and vote for a given party for reasons that have little to do with the party’s actual policy platform. We should know where parties stand on the big issues that effect us as a nation (and, of course, the rest of the world…), and we should take the time to work out which parties best reflect (in the limited way they can) the things that we each consider to be important. We should seek to understand the parties as a whole (not just the individuals who represent them), and we should also look into how each party distributes preferences in elections.

‘Vote Compass’ is a tool recently developed to help people figure out where they most naturally ‘fit’ in the Australian political landscape, and can be found on the ABC website. It’s not a perfect tool, to be sure, and it’s not designed to tell you who you should vote for, but it does use your own answers to important questions to help you figure out just how closely you stand to each of the major parties. I would recommend at least giving it a go.

The second part of this point, as I see it, is the question of whether or not to vote in the first place. There has been a lot of discussion lately from people I interact with on social media suggesting that they are considering not voting at all, or are going to sabotage their own vote by either casting a ‘donkey’ vote on election day or, more likely, leaving the ballot paper completely empty. Of course, in Australia, those who do refuse to vote face the prospect of a fine, because voting is compulsory for all Australians over 18 (and I know my North American friends find this amazing!).

In the light of recent policy decisions, I have actually considered refraining from voting at all, and accepting the fine that necessarily follows, as an act of civil disobedience. The trends in asylum seeker policy, for example, have so disgusted me that I have felt, at times, that I am not able to take part in the system that is used to legitimate the ‘mandate’ those elected feel to pursue such dehumanising policy.

I am a fan of nonviolent action, and I am a fan of (well thought-out) civil disobedience, to make a clear point. Though a couple of people not voting is not likely to have much of an impact, I don’t underestimate the point that could be made if enough people were to refuse to enter polling places and instead came together in peaceful demonstrations against such policy, or even, perhaps, holding open events of welcome for all who make up this wonderfully diverse bunch we call ‘Australians’.

From my comments here, I can see at least a couple of responses.

Someone might suggest to me that I have here completely contradicted myself in the space of one blog post. Earlier in the post I described how we shouldn’t take for granted the ability to be part of the political process in our country, and thus suggesting the possibility that I might refrain from voting altogether would be ridiculous. To this, I would suggest that, though I am reasonable ‘happy’ with the political system I find myself in (at least comparatively), I am under no illusions that it is perfect. There are times when the system itself needs to be challenged, because there are times when taking part in the system as it is amounts to complicity in what I consider to be ‘evil’. With both major parties (that is, the only parties who will actually form Government after the election) pursuing horrific, dehumanising policies in regards to asylum seekers, I have entertained the possibility that it would be better, on this occasion, to break the law, in order to highlight what I consider to be unjust, inhumane policy. If I were to take this course of action, I would be happy to accept responsibility for my action and face the consequences. For me, it may actually be worthwhile, on this occasion, to stand outside the system in order to highlight the brokenness of the system as it is. It would, however, need to be done in the right way, and this brings me to the second point.

Someone (else?) might suggest that my apparent idealism here is totally outweighed by my pragmatism. Will I only take part in the dissident action of deliberately refraining from voting if enough people do it with me, rather than just doing it because it’s the right thing to do? In some senses, the answer is, quite simply, yes. I despise ‘stupid’ protest, which is why I think the idea of casting a ‘donkey’ vote is ridiculous. Going through all the effort of looking like you are voting, only to waste that vote on technical details, is, I think, pretty dumb. It doesn’t actually do much. Likewise, leaving the ballot paper empty is, to my mind, a way of seeking to make a protest without having to face up to the consequences. I am of the opinion that I always need to be able to take responsibility for my actions, so the thought of this kind of anonymous protest, for me, seems like a bit of a cop-out.

In addition to this, if only a handful of people were to refuse altogether to enter polling places and, rather, stood outside with placards (or whatever) protesting asylum seeker policy, I can’t see how the message would cut through. Instead, I think the more likely outcome would simply be that those who care about asylum seekers would be the only ones to refrain from voting (leaving their important voice relatively unheard), and the major parties would still consider their victory to be a ‘mandate’ for such cruel policy. For me, it would be far better, in this instance, to use my vote to place a minor party first on the ballot paper, and then allocate my preferences according to the major party that is least worst over a range of policy issues. At least this option could see the minor parties’ vote increase (which the major parties take more seriously than they let on), at the same time as recognising the fact that parties represent more than just this one issue (no matter how important I consider it to be). At this point in time, this is my default option, unless someone can show me how we would be able to rally enough people together who had chosen to refrain from voting as a form of protest.* I’m guessing we’d need to have somewhere over 100,000 people take part in such action for it to be taken seriously. If you have any ideas, please let me know : )

Anyway, these are just a couple of my thoughts as we head into the election. I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments on the matter.

* I need to make it clear here that I am not (at least at this stage) encouraging anyone to either completely refrain from voting in the federal election, or to lodge an ‘informal’ vote (of whatever kind). It has been said that to do so is an offence, though I cannot (at this point) find information relating to such action in the Commonwealth Electoral Act.