The refugee is the representative of total otherness…This is the reason why the refugee is seen as such a threat…the terrifying absolute, total other, the symbol of contamination that otherness may bring upon community and identity. Costas Douzinas
Scott Morrison makes this existential fear of contamination by otherness literal in his construction of boat arrivals as “diseased,” and threateningly infectious to healthy Australians who are bound to take responsibility for their care.
He isn’t the first to draw this comparison between the otherness of asylum seekers and disease. The Solicitor General for Australia, David Bennett QC, when he defended the Howard government’s excision and migration laws in the High Court back in the early 2000’s linked the two thus:
Today, invasions don’t have to be military … they can be of diseases, they can be of unwanted migrants….
And then we have this:
Antisemitism is exactly the same as delousing. Getting rid of lice is not a question of ideology. It is a matter of cleanliness. In just the same way, antisemitism, for us, has not been a question of ideology, but a matter of cleanliness, which now will soon have been dealt with. We shall soon be deloused. We have only 20,000 lice left, and then the matter is finished within the whole of Germany.
— Heinrich Himmler, April 1943
So what can we take from Morrison’s tactic of blaming boat arrivals for exposing honest Australian workers and children to disease? On the most superficial level it’s just another attempt to highlight the government’s failure to adequately manage the boats, although what Morrison would consider adequate management is anybody’s guess. His boss Tony Abbott just wants to turn them round and send them back to anywhere but here.
However, the narrative Morrison uses as a means to attack the government is far more sinister than Abbott’s preferred solution. Morrison, like many before him, is engaging in propaganda to further dehumanise boat arrivals with the goal of whipping up fear and loathing in the community that he can then use to turn voters against the government.
Boat arrivals are already widely perceived as breaking the law by requesting asylum here, a perception that is entirely wrong. Add to that the suggestion that they are dangerous to us because they are diseased, and their dehumanisation is almost complete.
Nothing unites a people like the threat of an external enemy. John Howard knew this well, and won an election by creating an enemy from whom he then offered voters protection. He was assisted by others such as then Senator Ross Lightfoot, who referred to boat arrivals as “uninvited and repulsive people whose sordid list of behaviours included scuttling their own boats.” (Human Rights Watch Report, 2003).
In case it wasn’t clear enough how undesirable boat arrivals are: “These people abuse their children,” Howard informed us. “I don’t want people who abuse their children in our country.” He must have meant he didn’t want anymore people who abuse children in our country, conveniently ignoring the sex abuse scandals raging in the Catholic and Anglican churches at that very time, and the appalling child abuse statistics generated by those already residing here. In using child abuse as an example, Howard unwittingly revealed the level of denial in which he lived his life and practiced his politics.
Howard was supported in his beliefs about boat arrivals by Anglican Dean Philip Jensen, who advised his flock in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, in 2003 that any beliefs other than Christian are “the monstrous lies and deceits of Satan, devised to destroy the life of the believers.” Yes, he meant Muslims who fetched up here on boats.
Criminals, harbingers of disease and bent upon spiritual destruction of Christians.
Howard later revealed Jensen to be his spiritual mentor, to whom he turned for advice on stem cell research, Iraq and “moral issues.”
It hardly needs stating that anyone, refugee or intrepid traveller, can arrive in the country by air or sea, infected with something the rest of us would rather not catch. A friend of mine contracted tuberculous while travelling in India, for example, and unknowingly brought it home. Chlamydia, another disease listed by Morrison, is one of the fastest growing sexually transmitted diseases among young adults in Australia, and it isn’t being transmitted by asylum seekers in detention centres. It’s not hard to demolish Morrison’s stupidity.
But what is harder to demolish is the narrative he’s dedicated to continuing, a narrative that originated with Howard, Jensen, Lightfoot, Ruddock, Reith and the like, and that holds sway over politicians of all persuasions to this day. In this narrative, people who have every right to request asylum here are cast as criminals solely because they accept the invitation we extend through our voluntary commitment to a United Nations Convention.
But casting them as criminals isn’t enough. Through what philosopher Martha Nussbaum describes as “a narcissistic refusal to tolerate the reality of something different from oneself,” boat arrivals are assigned the role of scapegoat for all that apparently threatens a country that has alarming tendencies towards paranoia and neurotic anxieties about sovereignty.
With Philip Ruddock referring to them as “infecting” us, the boat arrival rapidly became in our mythology what Rénè Girard, in his commentary on the purpose of scapegoating, describes as “…the polluted figure, whose appearance within their boundaries fills the inhabitants with dread.”
We need proper processes for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, including attention to health issues for their protection and ours. But why does this have to be framed as a moral rather than a practical and human rights issue?
Morrison is a Christian, a member of the Assemblies of God Pentecostal churches. Does he share Philip Jensen’s views on the destructive and Satanic intentions of non-Christians?
Morrison’s press release is abhorrent. Is this the kind of Christian politician we want in government? And what the hell would Jesus say? It’s perfectly reasonable to ask that question of any Christian, and to expect a serious answer.
It’s time to refuse the moralistic narrative politicians like Morrison impose on what are questions of practicality and human rights. Let’s deal with them within those frameworks.
When I visited detainees in the Woomera Detention Centre I was overwhelmed by the effort they made to extend hospitality to me. They had nothing, and faced an uncertain future. Yet they managed to offer refreshments and they apologised for their necessarily constrained ability to honour a guest as they would like. The contrast between their notions of hospitality and the attitude of many in this country towards their appeal for sanctuary here, is shocking.
Yes, the detainees I met were absolutely “other” to me. But when encountering Other we have choices as to how we respond. “Other”, in the words of Derrida, “brings me more than I contain…” if only I allow that.
To shelter the other in one’s own land or home, to tolerate the presence of the land-less and homeless on the “ancestral soil” so jealously, so meanly loved – is that the criterion of humanness? Unquestionably so. Emmanual Levinas.