A Crack in the Wall of Xenophobia
by Ross Gittins, Sydney Morning Herald, February 23, 2011
Attitudes towards asylum seekers may be impervious to rational argument but not to emotion.
Scientists used to think that chimpanzees – our close relatives – were a gentle, peace-loving species, until they observed their behaviour in the wild and found they could be quite murderous towards other chimps. What caused them to become vicious was the arrival in their territory of chimps from a different troop.
I remembered this one day after failing to persuade a friend, who took a dim view of asylum seekers, that her objections were unfounded. Whenever I knocked down one argument she’d just switch to another.
Our evolutionary history has left us with an instinctive fear of outsiders – people who are different, people who invade our territory to steal our food and our women or, in the contemporary context, to jump the queue and steal our jobs, overcrowd our schools (and win most of the prizes), overwhelm our culture, push up house prices and add to congestion on the roads.
You can call it racism or religious intolerance – the nation that invented the White Australia policy can hardly object to that charge, except to say we’re no worse than most nationalities and better than some. But I think it’s best thought of as xenophobia – a fear of foreigners, people who are different, who aren’t one of us.
And it’s so deeply ingrained, so visceral, that it’s not susceptible to rational argument. It would be nice if a greater effort by the media to expose the many myths surrounding attitudes towards asylum seekers could dispel the fear and resentment, but it would make little difference.
Our politicians have long understood that dislike of newcomers, especially those of darker skin or strange religious practices, lay just beneath the surface and could be easily aroused. The politician or party that tapped this vein would draw much support.
For decades, there was an unspoken agreement between the major parties to keep such tactics off limits. Their role was to avoid bringing out the worst in the Australian psyche.
But maybe 20 years ago that bipartisan approach began breaking down. Perhaps it was the rise of Asian immigration, perhaps the era of so many people arriving by boat.
It may be true we have a bigger problem with visitors arriving by plane and overstaying their visas, but the more visible arrival of scruffy people on overcrowded, leaky boats – the footage of which can be replayed many times, leaving an exaggerated impression of the numbers involved – seems far more threatening.
Perhaps it was the huge increase in the levels of sanctioned immigration in more recent years, for which governments have failed to provide sufficient housing and public infrastructure.
Another factor was the advent of talkback radio, which gave greater currency to the disaffection of individuals, and then the rise of shock jocks who, in their pursuit of ratings and commercial gain, were quite prepared to incite their listeners’ resentments.
Pauline Hanson brought the issue crashing on to the stage of federal politics, forcing the major parties to respond. But politicians had begun walking away from their commitment to avoid politicising the issue much earlier. Perhaps they couldn’t avoid responding to public concerns; perhaps, in the heightened contest between the parties, they could no longer resist the temptation to gain an advantage over their opponents.
Some people blame it all on John Howard, but the harsh treatment of asylum seekers began under his Labor predecessors. And whoever started it, once the embargo had been breached both sides got down and dirty.
Julia Gillard took the debate to a lower level before the election when she invited people to give their prejudices free rein. ‘People should feel free to say what they feel,’ she said. ‘For people to say they’re anxious about border security doesn’t make them intolerant. It certainly doesn’t make them a racist.’
To acknowledge we have an evolutionary predisposition to fear and resent outsiders is not to condone such attitudes. The process of civilisation involves gaining mastery over our base emotions.
But if such attitudes are instinctive and impervious to rational argument, what’s to be done now the pollies have let their standards fall? I was at a loss for an answer until last week and the arrival in Sydney of that distressed orphan boy for the funeral of his father. Suddenly, a crack appeared in the wall of prejudice against asylum seekers.
Tony Abbott and his immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, got caught going beyond the pale in their pursuit of electoral advantage. It emerged that Morrison had earlier proposed exploiting the resentment of Muslims, but had been rebuffed by colleagues insisting the Liberals’ long-standing commitment to a non-discriminatory immigration policy remain inviolate.
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen was widely criticised for his bureaucratic and insensitive treatment of the young boy and his relatives. And it seems the episode has prompted Gillard to find the courage to lead.
‘People easily fear change. People easily fear difference,’ she said. ‘It is the job of national leadership to reassure in the face of that fear, to explain to people that there is ultimately nothing to be afraid of.’
What changed? Here’s a clue: in their efforts to gratify and exploit public resentment of ‘illegals’, governments of both colours have given the highest priority to preventing individual asylum seekers from telling their stories to the media. They must continue to be seen as monstrous invaders, never as flesh and blood.
Our attitudes towards asylum seekers may be impervious to rational argument, but they’re not to rival emotions – particularly the positive emotion of empathy.
Like all nationalities, Australians are neither good nor bad, they’re both. Our leaders can play to our darker side, or appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Ross Gittins is a senior columnist.