Tag Archives: Human rights

How to avoid the democratic process within your own party

7 Jun

power

 

In December 2014, then Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made this alarming lunge for sole power over citizenship decisions without recourse to judicial review:

The DIBP submission to a Senate committee argues that an elected member of parliament and minister of the Crown has gained a particular insight into the community’s standards and values. This particular insight therefore qualifies Morrison to overrule AAT decisions. It is the bill’s intention to grant a minister, in this case Morrison, the power to determine an individual’s “good character” or otherwise, regardless of any ruling made by the AAT. Morrison’s decision will be unchallengeable.

Peter Dutton has now replaced Morrison as Minister for Immigration and is in the process of attempting a similar grab for sole power over the stripping of citizenship from those he alone deems unsuitable to retain it.

No citizen can have confidence in a government or an opposition that supports one politician being granted absolute power over such decisions. It is absolutely contrary to all democratic instincts and practices. The question we must ask is why is it thought necessary to invest one politician with this much power? The answer is obviously that the government cannot risk internal debate, and is determined to avoid that democratic process. The Minister is answerable to no one within his party, let alone outside of it. It is only a matter of time before more Ministers are granted similar authority over who knows what circumstances, and anyone who believes or trusts otherwise has their head in a sack. The government has no mandate to invest a Minister with absolute power, not even within its own ranks.

 

 

There are currently so many disturbing events initiated by the Abbott government it’s difficult to triage, however, surely one of the more alarming is the decision to imprison for up to two years doctors, nurses and teachers who disclose adverse conditions at asylum seeker detention centres on Manus and Nauru.

In spite of the border protection rhetoric that surrounds this decision, it’s apparent to anyone with a brain that the only interests served by imposing these draconian restrictions on professionals who, in Australia, are mandated to report abuses they become aware of in the course of their work, are the interests of the Abbott government, supported by the Labor opposition.

Neither major party wants us or the rest of the world to know what goes on in the off-shore detention centres. Knowledge of abuses inflicted upon the detained cannot possibly be a threat to our national security, and if that is what the major parties continue to insist, they need to explain exactly how they justify that claim.

Indeed, if there was any logic to the government’s argument the ill-treatment of asylum seekers ought to be trumpeted from the rooftops as a deterrence to anyone else attempting to come here by boat. Not only will you never be resettled in Australia, you and your children will be subjected to inhumane treatment and conditions in tropical hell holes as well.

As head of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs so eloquently pointed out, we are currently being subjected to an erosion of rights that ought to have us taking to the streets in protest at the over-reach of executive power by the Abbott government. It is not far-fetched to imagine that a government prepared to imprison professionals for doing their jobs in off-shore detention centres will extend that threat to professionals doing their jobs in the homeland, should it serve their interests. There’s certainly no future in entreating the ALP to take a stand, indeed, the ALP seems more than happy for Abbott to do this dirty work.

Truth, employment and freedom of speech.

2 May

President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs, yesterday proffered this analysis of the sacking of SBS sports presenter Scott McIntyre, after he posted a series of tweets that suggested, among other things, an alternative and previously unspoken view of the actions of the ANZACS.

In her piece Professor Triggs refers to the case of Banerji v Bowles (2013) in which Department of Immigration former employee Michaela Banerji was sacked after tweeting criticisms of detention centres, the Prime Minister, and the Minister for Immigration. Ms Banerji used a pseudonym for her Twitter account, and argued that her comments are “constitutionally protected by her right to freedom of political communication as an indispensable incident of representative government.” The Federal Court rejected this view.

Ms Banerji has now replied to Professor Triggs’ observations on her case here.

I know there are readers of Sheep who are as intrigued by legal forensics as am I, and the arguments made by both parties are of significant import to anyone who is employed and uses social media. I won’t add my comparatively ignorant voice to those of Professor Triggs and Ms Banerji, rather I’m interested in Trigg’s observations on the use of social media and Truth.

Triggs begins her piece with a quote from John Milton’s Areopagitica in which the poet passionately opposes censorship, arguing for freedom of speech. “Whoever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” he asks.

Triggs argues that “today’s near universal access to social media challenges the idea that freedom of expression ensures truth will be victorious over falsehood.”  The poet Milton could not have envisaged the extent of free and open encounters awaiting society in its future, and made his observation at a time when only the privileged had access to a public platform.

There are a couple of assumptions in Triggs’ argument that ought to be noted. In claiming that universal access to social media dilutes the possibility of Truth triumphing over falsehood, Triggs, inadvertently I’m sure, is claiming not only that Truth is, as it was in Milton’s time, defined and controlled by a particular demographic who enjoy freedom of expression due to their privilege, but that this is still a legitimate manner in which to determine what is Truth.  Now the masses have unprecedented access to public platforms that democratise freedom of expression, Truth will inevitably be vanquished by the freely expressed opinions of these masses. Whatever is publicly expressed by those other than the privileged and entitled will inevitably be falsehood, is what her argument implies.

Truth is a tricky concept, fluid in the extreme, determined by the orthodoxy, enforced by the state and its agents, and religion and its agents. Social media offers the most expansive and democratic opportunity for the contestation of what Foucault calls “regimes of truth”  that has ever existed in human history.

Truth, argues Foucault, does not exist outside of power:

 on the contrary, truth “is produced by virtue of multiple constraints [a]nd it induces regulated effects of power”. This is to say that “each society has its regime of truth”, and by this expression Foucault means: (1) “the types of discourse [society] harbours and causes to function as true”; (2) “the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true from false statements” and (3) “the way in which each is sanctioned”; (4) “the techniques and procedures which are valorised for obtaining truth”; (5) “the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true” (Foucault 1976, p. 112; 13).

Therefore, “truth” is “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and functioning of statements”; it is linked “by a circular relation to systems of power which produce it and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which redirect it”. 

It is the function of social media, exemplified most recently by the tweets of Scott McIntyre, to contest truth regimes produced by systems of power that control and sustain what comes to be normalised as “Truth.” Scott McIntyre, Michaela Banerji and countless others have used social media to contest the constructed regimes of truth, to their cost. Whether these challenges to the orthodoxy are accurate or not, the point is they must be made and in a liberal democracy the people who make them ought not to be punished.

There is absolutely no correlation between freedom of expression and what we might, at any given time, consider to be Truth. The very best we can do is, as Foucault recommends, constantly question the origins of our current regimes of truth, by whom are they determined, whose ends do they serve, what techniques and procedures are valorised for obtaining truth and by whom. Our most powerful weapon for contesting regimes of truth is social media. Professor Triggs is quite wrong: today’s near universal access to social media ensures an unprecedented freedom of expression that in turn ensures an unrelenting contestation of truth claims, and herein lies its power, and its threat to authority.

Freedom of expression has never ensured Truth, not in Milton’s time and not in ours. Social media is a powerful tool for the examination of regimes of truth established by the privileged and entitled, regimes that all too often have little to do with what is true, and far more to do with what is advantageous to those who declare it to be true.

Foucault: Regimes of Truth

 

Abbott uses society’s vulnerable as means to an ideological end

2 May

It seems to me that it’s a core conservative tradition to use  the most vulnerable people in society as a means to an ideological end. There are endless current examples of this: threats to pensions, restricted access to Newstart for unemployed youth, destruction of universal healthcare, proposed reduction of the minimum wage and a cap on that wage for the next ten years, all part of the Commission of Audit’s recommendations to the Abbott government prior to its first budget in a couple of weeks.

None of these measures will affect anyone as disastrously as they will affect the poor, and while middle class journalists  on a good wage, some of whom are Abbott’s most vocal supporters,  scream like stuck pigs about the flagged “debt levy” on incomes over $80,000, nobody much is pointing out the ideologically-based, systematic crippling of the lives of those who struggle hardest to keep poverty from their doors.

Conservatives seem to hold the ideological position that poverty is a moral failing, for which the individual is solely accountable, and if that individual has been incapable of taking care of her or himself and his or her family, they’ve no one to blame but themselves. If they do sink into a morass of underprivileged misery then they ought to be able to find ways to redeem themselves. If they don’t manage this feat, they obviously only deserve what little they get, and the conservative will do his or her best to take even that away.

This unexamined belief that the less financially fortunate are immoral and a drain on the prudent is, it seems, impossible to eradicate from the consciousness of the privileged and entitled, who lack any ability to comprehend context, and the myriad forces at work in society that affect the course of a life. This, coupled with the conservatives’ traditional love of a good clichéd stereotype, works to reinforce their sense of entitlement, and their contempt for anyone less blessed than are they.

The conservative disregard, some may even allege contempt,  for those other than (lesser than) themselves, allows them to use rational agents as a means to an end, contradicting the Kantian position that to use others as a means, and not an end in themselves, is to flout the fundamental principle of morality.  Perhaps this is nowhere as starkly obvious as in the current and previous governments’ treatment of asylum seekers. Both major political parties have, for many years now, used boat arrivals as a means to achieve political success, and not as rational agents deserving of consideration as ends in themselves. In this sense, the ALP finds itself on the same side as conservative politicians, something that should chill the heart of any ALP supporter.

There is no point in decrying the lack of humanity and compassion in conservative ideology. Both qualities are regarded as belonging to the bleeding hearts of the left, hindrances to freedom, obstacles to profit. So we find ourselves in the bizarre position of having a Human Rights Commissioner for Freedom, Tim Wilson, who recently claimed that McDonalds has “human rights to own property” and that “spending” is an expression of free speech.

It’s a dangerous situation when a Commissioner for Human Rights equates the ability to spend with the right to freedom of any kind, including speech.

It makes no sense to take any measures that prevent or discourage people from taking care of their health, such as co-payments for doctor visits for example. This will increase the pressure on accident and emergency departments, already stretched beyond their means, and result in people becoming chronically ill, at much greater expense to the taxpayer.

It makes no sense to continue to spend billions of dollars incarcerating a few thousand asylum seekers, for example, when there are many less expensive options  such as allowing refugees to live in, work, and contribute to the community.

It makes no sense to waste billions on a paid parental leave system when the money could be much better invested in increased child care for parents who want to work, but find it difficult to access adequate care for their offspring. Good child care is also an investment in our future: children can benefit enormously from early education and socialisation, a child care centre doesn’t simply “mind” them, it educates them.

However, none of the above is of any consequence to a political party driven by ideology. Humans are, to such a party, a means to an ideological end, not an end in themselves. Obviously, it is much easier to treat the less financially blessed as a means to an end, and if you already believe poverty and disadvantage to be  indicators of lack of morality and worth, why would you care anyway?

You may not agree with Kant’s categorical imperative, but there is something very dark about the Abbott government’s willingness to impose harsh circumstances on those already doing without in this wealthy country. It is easy, Mr Abbott, to make life more difficult for those without the power to protest. It is more of a challenge to work towards an equitable society based not on ideology, but common sense, and respect for everyone’s humanity.

Note: It’s with my tongue firmly in my cheek that I use this conservative image of Jesus.

conservative-re-write-conservative-values-politics-1361875456

A brief history of the Coalition’s hostile encounters with the UN

17 Jul

March 28, 2005 – “Australia was facing a United Nations committee’s scrutiny for the first time in five years. The event went unreported back home and the verdict – handed down on March 12 – was the subject of only a few, scattered reports in the press.”

“Australia was rebuked for its treatment of migrants, Muslims, asylum seekers, refugees and Aborigines. In the eyes of the Geneva committee, the list of this country’s failures on the human rights front has only grown longer since the Howard Government came to office.”

The Coalition’s recent insistence that asylum seekers can only be sent to states that have signed the Refugee Convention is startling, given its history with the UN throughout the Howard government years. This history can be fairly described as hostile and bordering on the pugilistic, with then Foreign Minister Alexander Downer reacting to negative UN committee reports with this outburst:

  “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if a United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

On Howard’s watch in 1998, Australia became the first Western nation to be issued with an “urgent action” notice following what the UN committee identified as a risk of “acute impairment” to native title rights. We were then found in breach of our obligations to the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and again earned the dubious distinction of being the first Western nation to incur a breach finding.

John Howard reacted to UN criticisms thus: “Australian laws are made by Australian parliaments elected by the Australian people, not by UN committees.” Amnesty International confirmed his attitude with this observation, after a 2004 High Court ruling sanctioned mandatory detention:  “These findings show the limited impact that international human rights law has had to date on Australian law-making.”

As an indication of the Coalition attitude in 2001, Liberal Senator Ross Lightfoot referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive peoples whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).

In 2002, at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mrs Mary Robinson, the Howard government agreed to allow Special Envoy Justice P.N. Bhagwati to assess the conditions of asylum seekers held in indefinite mandatory detention, with specific regard to the question of their human rights.

Justice Bhagwati’s report, which can be read in full at the above link, contains this observation:

As noted above, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 7) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, explicitly prohibit torture and all cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and punishment. The human rights situation which Justice Bhagwati found in Woomera IRPC could, in many ways, be considered inhuman and degrading.

Australia signed the CAT treaty in 1985, and ratified in 1989.

Justice Bhagwati’s report was described by Howard government ministers as “fundamentally flawed,” “emotive” and lacking objectivity. The government received an advanced copy of the report, and had the opportunity to correct any “flaws” prior to its release. The Special Envoy was also accused of interfering in domestic policies.

A personal observation: I visited Woomera Detention Centre in 2002, just before Justice Bhagwati undertook his visit to Australian detention centres. It was entirely appropriate to react with emotion to the conditions in that place, and to the suffering of the children, women and men behind its razor wire. Indeed, the inability to feel disturbed by those conditions and the resultant human suffering, indicates the presence of sociopathic tendencies, an inability to accept those imprisoned there as human.

For a much more thorough analysis of the Coalition’s relations with the UN than I’ve provided, I strongly recommend “The Howard Government’s Record of Engagement with the International Human Rights System” by Sarah Joseph.

The series of events over the last decade and more rather gives lie to this extravagant claim: “The Opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison says the Coalition has always supported the UN Refugee Convention, and will continue to do so.”

The Opposition’s recent decision to refuse to allow asylum seekers to be sent to any country that hasn’t signed the Refugee Convention is wildly inconsistent with its attitude to the United Nations for the last fourteen years. When in government, the Coalition regarded the UN as toothless, and our obligations to the treaties we signed as irrelevant. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as children were and still are kept in mandatory detention, with and without their parents.

These attitudes are not peculiar to the Opposition. The current government does not observe our obligations either.

Now Scott Morrison seems to be getting himself in something of a twist, having declared the Refugee Convention to be out of date and needing an overhaul, while simultaneously demanding the government observe the fundamental protections it offers in ensuring asylum seekers are sent to a signatory country.

Neither major party have anything to boast about when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Both pander to the prejudice and xenophobia of voters they believe will give them government. Both claim they wish to avoid deaths at sea, but they apparently have little or no concern about asylum seekers dying anywhere else, as long as it’s out of our sight and mind.

This is a drastic failure of leadership on both parts. It’s been shown time and time again, that if people are given the opportunity to meet and know asylum seekers, even the most hardened attitudes can change dramatically. Leaders worth the title would grasp this, and take the opportunity to extend our hearts and minds rather than encourage their shrinkage for political gain. There are many things that can be described as despicable in politics, but surely up there at the top must be the demonisation of human beings, and exploitation of their suffering for domestic political gain.

A pox on both their houses.


Belief versus human rights

13 Jun

After my blog yesterday on Prime Minister Gillard’s belief that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, I became embroiled in several robust Twitter fights. One of the points of contention was that the PM, like anyone else, is entitled to her personal beliefs. I was threatened with Voltaire, told belief does not require any knowledge, described as intolerant and blind to the mote in my own eye,  and finally accused of risking the downfall of the government and an Abbott ascendency, by criticising Ms Gillard’s personal belief about same-sex marriage.

While there’s a good community here at Sheep, Rupert Murdoch I’m not.

Be that as it may, the fights led me to thinking about belief. While I agree that everyone is entitled to their beliefs, I don’t agree that everyone is entitled to act on those beliefs to the detriment of others. Once a belief is extrapolated from the personal realm and used to determine the lives of others it is no longer personal, it is political.

Personal belief can legitimately determine the course of one’s own life. If you don’t believe same-sex marriage is right, for example, then don’t make a same-sex marriage. Nobody in our country will force you into an arrangement that powerfully disturbs your moral sensibility.

What disturbs me, however, is the argument that personal beliefs ought to be set apart from the interrogations we are at liberty to apply to all other human processes. The personal belief is elevated to the sacred, inspiring respect and reverence simply because it is a personal belief, and regardless of its substance. While I find this bizarre, hinting as it does at some transcendental exterior governance, I have little problem with it, as long as the belief remains in the realm of the personal. When it becomes prescriptive, I argue that it is no longer protected from scrutiny and critique by reverence.

Tony Abbott, for example, holds a personal belief that abortion is wrong, as well as being opposed to same sex marriage. In this article titled Rate of abortion highlights our moral failings Mr Abbott explores his personal beliefs about this procedure, including his belief that abortion is a lifestyle choice made to suit the mother’s convenience.

Of course Mr Abbott is entitled to hold these beliefs. Anyone can believe anything they want. He is not entitled to impose his beliefs on others. When he does, the belief has ceased to be personal, and has become political.

If I am expected to unquestioningly respect Ms Gillard’s personal beliefs on homosexual marriage, I gather I am also expected to respect Mr Abbott’s beliefs on abortion and refrain from challenging them?

What about Hitler, because no argument about belief is complete without a reference to Hitler. Hitler’s personal belief was that  human beings who did not fit his ideal didn’t deserve to exist. Including homosexuals. When Hitler’s personal belief burst out of his private realm, millions upon millions of human beings were starved, tortured and murdered. Yet Hitler’s personal belief ought to have gone unchallenged because personal beliefs are sacred?

I could go on with endless examples of the dire repercussions of actions based on personal beliefs, but I know you’ve got my drift.

Perhaps a belief can be considered sacred only as long as it remains personal. Once it affects anyone other than the believer it is no longer personal, and no longer entitled to protection from interrogation.

Were I to be given the chance, I would ask Ms Gillard if she has reasonable, plausible evidence for her core belief that homosexuals should not marry. I use the term core belief  because I’m assuming that the PM has actively thought about her position on same sex marriage and has come to a state of justified true belief. Otherwise we would be dealing with something more akin to superstition, of the kind practised by Jim Wallace and the ACL.

The reason I care about this has nothing to do with marriage, about which I personally give not a toss. It has to do with the right all homosexuals have to be treated equally. It is about the right homosexuals have to be recognised as being as fully human as heterosexuals, and as entitled to participate in our institutions to precisely the same degree. This is not, in my opinion, a matter for anybody’s personal beliefs to determine. It’s a matter of human rights.

 

 

Forgiveness and human rights: a response to Charles Griswold

15 Feb



Part One

In which I argue the nature and purpose of forgiveness from a secular perspective, that is, from a horizontal, inter-human position, rather than the vertical, theological position of divine forgiveness and grace. I argue against the appropriation of forgiveness to the service of a philosophical discourse, and for multiple understandings and practices of forgiveness that are not reliant either on philosophy, or religious belief.

Must we not accept that, in heart or in reason, above all when it is a question of ‘forgiveness’, something arrives which exceeds all institution, all power, all juridico-political authority? Jacques Derrida

So let us speak of the mystery of forgiveness. Forgiving is imperative…it is extremely difficult to forgive. I don’t even know if forgiveness exists. Hélène Cixous

In his 2007 philosophical exploration of forgiveness, Charles Griswold, Professor of Philosophy at Boston University, states that forgiveness should be understood as

…a moral relation between two individuals, one of whom has wronged the other, and who (at least in the ideal), are capable of communication with each other. In this ideal context, forgiveness requires reciprocity between injurer and injured. I shall reserve the term forgiveness for this moral relation. All parties to the discussion about forgiveness agree, so far as I can tell, that this is a legitimate context for the use of the term; and most take it as its paradigm sense, as shall I.

A further definition of forgiveness is ‘…first and foremost the foreswearing of revenge…and of the other abuses of resentment.’ This definition will be implicit throughout my argument, but not in the context of its application being restricted to the paradigm of ideal conditions proposed by Griswold.

Griswold also states that his inquiry is secular, however within that stated secularity he has constructed a dogma, a system of principles and tenets authoritatively laid down, as by a church. Failure to attain the requirements of these principles and tenets results, Griswold claims, in exclusion from the possibility of forgiveness: ‘Where none of the conditions is met, the threshold of what will count as forgiveness is not crossed; sadly, and painfully, in such cases we are either unforgiven, or unable to forgive,’ he claims.

I explore the ramifications of this prohibition primarily from the perspective of the injured, and suggest that it is an extremely serious matter to cast either the injured or the injurer as beyond the ameliorating possibilities of forgiving and forgiveness, whether this is done under the umbrella of philosophy or religion.

I’m going to argue that the most appropriate context for discussions of forgiveness is within an embodied discourse of human rights. I’m also intrigued by what Judith Butler describes as the ‘…moral predicament that emerges as a consequence of being injured’ and from that argue that forgiveness is both a practical and an ethical necessity, and that it is the victim’s privilege, task and responsibility.

As well, I argue against Griswold’s belief that the perpetrator’s remorse is necessary for forgiveness. I also claim in opposition to Griswold that the attitude of perpetrators to their victims can and frequently must be irrelevant to the victim’s decisions about forgiveness.  We need a paradigm of forgiveness that is based in the embodied experiences of the injured, rather than defined as an abstract ideal to which the injured must aspire.

I don’t know what forgiveness is, though I’ve spent many hours thinking about it. Some say that it’s a state of grace that comes without announcement. Some say it’s a calm, in which there’s no ill will, and perhaps no thought at all. Some say it’s when you know something has ended and move on, without even really noticing

None of my propositions comply with the requirements of a concept of ideal forgiveness, whether that is theological or philosophical. They are a consequence of my experience of injury, and the subsequent profound moral dilemma I experienced. This dilemma is centred on the quite natural desire for redress and revenge, and the possibility of becoming a perpetrator if I act on this desire.

While Griswold’s definition is a legitimate context for the use of the term forgiveness, to declare this context the ‘paradigm sense’ taken by ‘most’, is to exclude from the experience of forgiveness millions upon millions of the injured who, for various reasons, are denied or legitimately shy away from the possibility of communication with their injurer. I argue instead for a much broader understanding of forgiveness, one in which unilateral forgiveness, that is, forgiveness that does not require the co-operation of the perpetrator, is included in the forgiveness paradigm.

I do this because injuries after which there is a possibility of ‘reciprocity’ are likely to be less common than those in which the perpetrator is unavailable or unrepentant. Such latter injuries can range in nature from the offended householder whose freshly painted wall is vandalised by unknown graffiti artists, to the victim of sexual assault whose rapist cannot be found, to the survivors of genocide whose tormentors are dead or unidentified. That is, circumstances which Griswold casts as ‘non-paradigmatic’, for example ‘…forgiving the dead or unrepentant…’ are likely to be more frequent than instances in which the injured and injurer are capable of communication and resolution.

As well, Griswold situates his argument ‘…in the ideal…’ and circumstances extraneous to this ideal are described as ‘…lacking or imperfect relative to the paradigm.’ If the circumstances do not fit Griswold’s ideal paradigm of dyadic forgiveness due to their failure to comply with the necessary ‘…baseline conditions…’ then, he claims: ‘…you are not engaged in forgiving, but doing something else.’

Below ideal baseline conditions for legitimate entry into Griswold’s country of forgiveness: ‘…may lie excuse, or condonation, or explanation, or any number of psychological strategies from rationalisation to amnesia…’ In other words if I assert that I have forgiven my perpetrator without having entered into communication with him, and without the benefit of his expressed remorse, then I am deluding myself.  Griswold elaborates: ‘…just being in the psychic state of no longer feeling resentment…whether that state is induced by medication, therapy, an astonishing act of will, an ostensibly religious revelation, or what have you,’ is not, he claims, sufficient to qualify as forgiveness.

As any survivor will attest, there is no such thing as ‘just being’ free of resentment: the struggle to overcome that feeling and everything associated with it is enormous, frequently ongoing and often demands more than just one ‘astonishing act of will.’ There is also a considerable difference between being medicated, and exercising one’s will. This argument for what forgiveness is not and why it is not is unconvincing, as is any argument that concludes an extensive list of unrelated generalisations with the phrase ‘what have you’.

The construction of an ‘ideal’ that is exterior to the imperfect human condition, complete with prescriptives and prohibitions for its attainment, is not entirely dissimilar to constructing a theology, not least in that both demand an original act of faith and belief in the existence of a fixed transcendental, from which subsequent thinking ensues. While the secular as proposed by Griswold is firmly disassociated by him from the religious, their prescriptive, exclusionary, and monolithic discourses are remarkably similar. For example: ‘…we count the capacity to forgive – in the right way and under the right circumstances – as part and parcel of a praiseworthy character,’ states Griswold. Who are the ‘we’ represented here, by what authority and process do they determine the ‘right way and circumstances’ for forgiveness, and how and by whom is the praiseworthiness of character determined?

The phrase ‘right way and circumstances’ inevitably makes reference to a metaphysical authority that ultimately determines what is praiseworthy and right, unless Griswold is assuming this authority for himself.

In a paper titled ‘Derrida, Death and Forgiveness,’ Andrew McKenna observes that Derrida

…claims to find in Western Philosophy a crypto-theology. His analyses regularly uncover presuppositions about foundations and primacies, points of origin and authoritative presences that correspond to nothing other than a Supreme Being, however veiled or unapproachable.

It is just such a crypto-theology that Griswold has constructed in his philosophy of forgiveness, in which forgiveness is perceived first and foremost as an ideal concept located in the authority of an unidentified exteriority, and one that the imperfect human being must struggle to attain.

In claiming the necessity for a sovereign ideal that must create notions of lack, imperfection, exclusion and failure, Griswold is describing a vertical concept of forgiveness that can be seen as largely irrelevant to the temporal and inter-human experience of suffering and forgiveness, as viewed through the secular lens, and through the horizontal discourse of human rights. Human beings are most usefully served, I would argue, by considering forgiveness not as an ideal whose conditions one may fail to meet, and perhaps through no fault of one’s own, but rather as a universally accessible, cosmopolitan practice.

To be continued.

The vulnerability of children

7 Jun

Come forward to childhood, and do not despise it because it is small and it is little

As American philosopher and academic Judith Butler puts it in her book, Precarious Life: the Powers of Mourning and Violence, the condition of childhood is “a condition of being laid bare from the start.” In childhood, she continues, we inhabit “the condition of primary vulnerability…a primary helplessness and need, one to which any society must attend.”

The face of the child makes a powerful moral claim on us, none more so than the face of the suffering child. Children have no capacity to represent themselves. If we are unable to represent ourselves, as children or in adulthood, we “run a greater risk of being treated as less than human” Butler observes.

Vulnerability is an inescapable fact of existence, particularly in childhood, and a child alone, without country, home, family and protectors, is in a state of extreme vulnerability. That vulnerability can be respected, exploited, or denied by adults. In situations where it is exploited and/or denied the child is radically objectified, and constructed as less than human.

 The child seeking asylum is a child who is stateless and without rights. As Hannah Arendt observed, rightlessness follows from statelessness. Our human rights are dependent upon being part of a community that enacts these rights on our behalf, and offers a framework in which these rights can be realised. Refugee children have lost their place in the world: they do not belong to a political community from which they are able to claim the right to human rights. UN Conventions such as The Rights of the Child supposedly offer avenues for the protection of such children. But for these to have any meaning, signatory countries must be trustworthy enough to abide by our undertakings.

When signatory countries like Australia do not honour the rights the Conventions bestow on a stateless child, when we disregard our serious obligations, refugee children remain stateless, rightless, lost and utterly vulnerable.

As long as we do not grant the child’s dignity and sovereignty by honouring our commitment to the Convention, we continue to perceive and treat refugee children as objects.

We are defined by where we belong, who cares about us, and our fundamental rights as human beings. The profound sense of violation reported by survivors of childhood abuse is often described as soul damage. Perhaps it’s also realistic to think of that profound damage as the destruction and or denial of the rights that help to construct us as human, in the eyes of others, and of ourselves.

As survivors will agree, the journey back from that rightless position to the point where one can come to believe that one has even the right to have rights, is a journey of hardship, and struggle. Many do not make it through. In sending unaccompanied refugee children to a country that does not honour the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child we are condemning them to a rightless life, and denying them an opportunity that could be provided in this country for healing, and a productive adulthood.

Yesterday I heard a talking head comment that if the government allows any children to stay here, rather than send all of them to Malaysia, people smugglers will seize this opportunity to load their boats with children. Yes, that’s probably true. But, he went on, if there should be another Christmas Island tragedy, and a boatload of children are drowned, this will be a political catastrophe. Can’t argue with that.

But what struck me about his observations was that it’s perfectly acceptable in Australian public discourse for anything to do with unaccompanied child asylum seekers, or adults, to be framed in purely political terms. Not in human terms, involving compassion, understanding, desire to assist, responsibility or even concern for the welfare of kids. The only thing that counts is how events affect politicians and their party’s future.

We need no more proof that Australian politicians, echoing the sentiments of many in their electorates, do not see refugee children as human beings. They are objects, to be palmed off to another country as quickly as possible in an effort to minimize political fall out.

The moral dilemma any politicians with integrity face is that to demand that these children be treated as human as the rest of us means going against the tide, and possibly losing their jobs. There’s no room for respecting refugee children’s humanity, human rights, and human vulnerability, in Australia today. Our society is not one that, as Butler puts it, will attend to the child’s primary helplessness and need.

Better to be a cow.

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