Australia is having a bit of trouble with its humanity at the moment. Well, I say ‘at the moment’, but it’s been going on for a while.
Perhaps it’s because the descendents of the English colonists have always felt a lurking guilt about taking the land from the original inhabitants, but throughout our short history we have continually categorised some migrants as ‘welcome’ and others as more than unwelcome; as absolutely despised, rejected and feared.
Currently, the unwelcome (potential) migrants are the asylum seekers who are, basically, imprisoned in both on- and offshore detention centres.
Even when migrants have been sought after and welcomed, like the Maltese child migrants of the 1950s represented by these statues at the Maritime Museum in Fremantle, we haven’t always treated them well. Like the British child migrants to Australia in the same period, many of these children were abused and used as cheap labour.
No wonder she looks worried.
But at least, at some point, our government had the decency to apologise for this inhumane treatment, and to recognise what these children contributed to Australia. The plaque in this next picture is at the children’s feet.
I hope the day will come when more Australians realise that asylum seekers are not a threat, and that Australia can be better for their coming.
What will it take?
Will reality TV make a difference?
SBS is currently airing a reality series that looks at issues that divide Australians — such as the detention of asylum seekers — by making people from opposing sides live together for ten days. It’s called Living with the Enemy.
The most recent episode put together Morteza (Morte), a young man who was in detention for four years as a teenager, and Jenni, a white middle aged woman from sunny Queensland, who firmly supported government policy.
Jenni tried to convince Morte that asylum seekers were being treated humanely by our government, and trotted out many of the usual ill-founded arguments against people who try to get to Australia by boat. Understandably, this infuriated Morte, who, after all, has first hand experience of detention centres, and their debates got very heated. A bit too heated, in my view. I don’t think people learn very well by yelling over the top of each other. I think people learn better by listening attentively to each other. But I guess a bit of shouting is compulsory on reality TV.
I was relieved when Morte decided to reach for ‘compassionate’ Jenni and things calmed down a little. Perhaps Jenni had made a similar decision; it’s hard to tell what’s really going on, in a show that compresses a week of conversations into 50 minutes. At any rate, I found it moving, that after several days of extreme anger and distress, they both seemed to become more open to acting from a basis of shared humanity, rather than animosity.
And it was humanity that won out in the end. Meeting an ‘expert’ psychologist, reading the details of Morte’s story in an anthology of asylum seeker stories, and reading a whole lot of research about the vicious impact detention has on asylum seekers’ mental health, shattered Jenni’s belief in the integrity of our government’s asylum seeker policies. She realised that what was being done in her name conflicted with her belief in what was right and humane.
Maybe having got to know Morte meant reading the research and stories had more of an impact on Jenni’s thinking; maybe not. Again, it’s hard to tell in a short, somewhat sensationally edited version of their interactions. The important thing is, that she changed her mind, even apologised to Morte for the views she’d been attacking him with. I find this very hopeful. Let’s hope she takes that changed worldview back to her friends and neighbours.
A friend of mine suggested that the people who ‘need to watch’ this show, i.e; people who support detention centres and ‘hate’ asylum seekers, wouldn’t do so; that they would dismiss Living with the Enemy as greenie leftie rubbish, and would not want to have their views challenged.
That’s possibly true, but I’ve been thinking, since that conversation, that people like us, who ‘side’ with Morte, also ‘need to watch’ — but with our hearts and minds wide open, and not just to get our own opinions reaffirmed. Living with the Enemy is an opportunity to learn more about the people with whom we disagree, and to try and understand where they’re coming from and why.
Jenni’s concerns and fears about asylum seekers may have been fueled by the unprincipled opportunism of our federal politicians and the dishonest ranting from some sections of the media, but they were based on her protective love of her culture, country and her environment. You don’t address such deeply held feelings by shouting them down.
If we dismiss people like Jenni as ‘bogans‘, and then reject everything they say and do (as I’ve been seeing people do on Twitter), we’re just reinforcing the divisions between us and missing the chance to open up dialogue about whether or not their fears are justified, whether or not there are better solutions to the issue of people trying to get to Australia by boat. If we reject Jenni’s humanity, our own footing on the moral high ground starts to get a bit slippery.
So will reality TV help us collectively remember our humanity? I don’t know, but it’s a small step in the right direction, if we watch and listen to it carefully.
If you’d like to read other bloggers’ take on the humanity challenge, check them out here. Most have them have more pics and less words, than mine:) and are lovely reminders of all that’s good, wonderful, (and amusing) about human beings.