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The socially corrosive effects of fear and prejudice as public policy

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Friday, 23 May 2003

Perhaps because of my early training in psychology and my exposure as a young adult to the graphic depiction of the Vietnam carnage, I developed a strong desire to understand how human beings arrive at the point where they can torture and kill one another. I have read fairly extensively - perhaps to the point of obsession - about torture and mass murder as instruments of political regimes, particularly in Nazi Germany.

Like those who lived through the horror of the Holocaust and its aftermath, I have asked how ordinary people could have become "Hitler's willing executioners", how doctors could have employed their skills to experiment on and kill disabled people, communists, homosexuals, gypsies and the Jewish people. How was it that so many could stand by as their Jewish neighbours were first branded and excluded from normal life, then herded into ghettoes and cattle trucks, and say that they did not know what was happening? How could so many otherwise unexceptional men become expert in torture and murder for tyrants like Stalin, Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. How could they so completely deny their victims' humanity, slaughtering them with no more thought than they would give to swatting a fly?

The easy answers are that they were terrorised into complicity, or that they were somehow deranged or, even less satisfactorily, that they were simply evil. These glib assessments allow us to escape the uncomfortable conclusion - which I think is closer to the mark - that under certain conditions we may all be capable of brutality or, at least, indifference to it. Oppressive regimes could not operate without the "willing executioners", without technocrats to keep the wheels of the system turning or without the majority of the populace being willing to turn a blind eye to the disappearances and the brutality taking place around them.


The uncomfortable suspicion that any of us could be persuaded to deal with our fellow human beings as non-human is difficult to accept and many would want to exempt themselves from such a damning conclusion. Yet we know that, in the recent past, cultivated men and women were comfortable with owning, buying and selling other human beings. In our own history, Indigenous Australians were treated as less than human, murdered, mistreated and taken from their families. We know that, in living memory, many Germans voted for a man who made it clear that he regarded the Jews as a "problem" requiring a "solution". In Rwanda the bloodbath that erupted involved so much of the population that the idea of individual psychopathology simply will not do as an explanation. In Bosnia neighbours who had lived peaceably together slaughtered one another without apparent regret.

In all of these situations, and others like them, one of the factors contributing to the oppression and bloodletting is the continued depiction of the targets of brutality as non-human, as dangerous, as unworthy of being treated with respect and decency. Very often, this characterisation is the result of a very deliberate and carefully constructed propaganda campaign by political figures exploiting - indeed cultivating - primitive fears. At other times, it reflects the longer, slower process of the formation of prejudice. The most lethally effective of these campaigns feeds on ancient group prejudices.

There are many less spectacular, more mundane, examples of our all-too-human tendency to diminish the humanity of others; read the letters pages of most newspapers and sample popular talk back radio for a few examples. Hateful attitudes toward Indigenous people and Muslims abound, often with the predictable disclaimer - "I'm not a racist, but…."

Asylum seekers as "the other"

The last election in Australia was dominated by the dehumanisation of asylum seekers, by fear and xenophobia - the fear of strangers - and a rejection of "the other". While similar prejudices have attached to previous waves of migrants to our shores, the difference this time was that prejudice was officially sanctioned, indeed encouraged.

In the lead-up to the last election, we appeared to be operating in a moral vacuum when our political leaders were as one in refusing to allow a refugee holding a temporary protection visa permission to leave (and re-enter) Australia when he wished to do so in order to visit relatives in Indonesia who lost family members in the tragic sinking of a leaky vessel transporting asylum seekers to our shores (the SIEVX). Indeed the fate of the 352 people who perished when the vessel sank appeared to be a matter of almost supreme indifference to our leaders and most of our community. The lack of compassion was breathtaking.

This suggests that our moral compass is awry. Put simply, as Robert Coles does when discussing moral intelligence, "a moral person has room in his or her heart for others".


Recent events showed there is not much room in our hearts and that our policy on refugees does not have a strong moral basis. We live, increasingly, in a world in which we - and our children - are told that we should take care of ourselves first; a value system which lauds individual action at the expense of co-operation, which denigrates the compassionate as "do-gooders", "bleeding hearts" or, more recently as "elites" out of touch with the so-called "aspirational" class.

The community's response to events like the arrival of asylum seekers and their prolonged detention in appalling conditions shows that much prejudice remains among our people, although it is, most of the time, underground. It is usually expressed in indirect and subtle ways; it is encrypted. Such prejudice is, however, easily mobilised; it is very agile and can find many hooks on which to hang itself, no matter what the landscape. "Race" is one such hook, religion is another - both social constructs around which fear and prejudice can easily be mobilised and used for political purposes.

Much of the debate in Australia about the "asylum seekers", especially from those promoting exclusionary policies, has been designed to provoke a racially based, xenophobic response. Much of the argument to exclude refugees takes the form of a denial of moral responsibility; it ranges from indifference to focusing on formal equality, often ignoring the facts (for example, insisting that people should join an orderly queue to apply for passage to Australia when their circumstances preclude such action).

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Article edited by Ian Spooner.
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This is extracted from a chapter in a forthcoming edited collection of essays to be published by University of Wollongong Press.

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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Carmen Lawrence's home page
Deparment of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs
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