They may come from different political perspectives (in theory, anyway) but there are interesting similarities between British PM David Cameron’s authoritarian threats against the rioting mobs, and those used by Julia Gillard on the matter of water-borne asylum seekers.
Whenever there is social unrest of almost any kind, politicians pull up the same violently repressive cliches: stamp out, crack down. I/we will not allow, full force of the law, tough stance against criminals, illegals, queue jumpers. This ritualized language is the backbone of authority’s discourse when faced with challenges it ‘s very likely incapable of controlling. The less likely the possibility of control, the more violently repressive politicians’ language becomes.
While there is a place for dissent and disobedience in a liberal democracy, these acts can only be performed within the strict parameters of acceptable middle class behaviour. It is not acceptable to riot, either in the streets of London or behind the razor wire of a detention centre. Middle class manners do not allow for extreme behaviours of any kind. This is why politicians have absolutely no hope of competently addressing extreme behaviours: they don’t understand them and they’re scared to death of them. All they can think of to do is threaten with imprisonment or expulsion, either of which may at some point become necessary, but neither of which do anything to calm a red-hot situation.
The bottom line is, David Cameron cannot control the rioters. He may bring in water cannon. Australians know from Woomera that doesn’t work. It’s a very bad look, especially for a country aiming to put on the best Olympics ever next year. The effects of water cannon are extremely temporary, unless it inadvertently kills or injures someone, and it’s use will further incite the rioters it blasts all over the streets.
The bottom line is, Julia Gillard cannot control the asylum seekers who are already here awaiting assessment, or those she intends to expel to Christmas island. She cannot stop them trying to poison themselves, going on hunger strikes, sewing up their lips or killing themselves. Her plan to despatch them to Malaysia is now completely out of her control, and in the hands of the High Court. Even if she has them shot again them with bean bag bullets she’s still got no control over them, and that’s a bad look too.
You cannot control human beings who feel they have nothing to lose. You can only attempt to create a society in which human beings are not driven to that extreme. People exhausted by failure frequently resort to savagery. Politicians consistently fail to understand this. There’s no votes in understanding it.
Once, in less sophisticated times, the public might have been reassured by politicians using tough language in a crisis. Not anymore, but politicians haven’t caught up with the change in the public’s credulity. Consequently they look increasingly impotent as it becomes more apparent that their rhetoric is hollow. The objects of their wrath are entirely un-cowed by the blustering, and more often than not, they’re driven to greater extremes by the threats.
So Cameron throws hundreds of youths in jail. Imprisonment then becomes a right of passage and the offenders emerge even more brutal and brutalized than when they went in.
God only knows what’s going to happen to the asylum seekers, but it doesn’t look like the boats are doing any stopping, and there’s still the problem of expelling unaccompanied minors into very uncertain conditions and futures.
So what exactly do the politicians hard line positions achieve?
Votes, of course. Because there’s still enough of us who want to hear the rhetoric, even if we know it doesn’t work. The authoritarian rhetoric reassures. It makes us think somebody’s in charge even though we don’t really believe it. In full authoritarian flight, the politician appears to possess the “truth” about the situations we’re facing, and the right things to do about them. It’s a chicken and egg thing: the use of authoritarian language facilitates authority.
Of course, the fact that these events are taking place at all signifies the degree to which our politicians really have lost control.