1st November, 2012
Australia has just been removed from its own ‘migration zone’. Our country, this huge mass of land, no longer exists as a place of refuge, of sanctuary for desperate people.
‘Migration zone’: another euphemism to add to the pile that has steadily grown since the beginning of the Howard years.
One of the worst euphemisms of recent times is ‘the people smuggling business’. It first entered the public forum last year and it is still bandied around – on both sides of politics and increasingly in the wider community. Like all political euphemisms it is a form of propaganda. The word ‘model’, dangling precariously at the end of an already cumbersome phrase, has been added to suggest that if we don’t nip this ‘people smuggling business’ in the bud it will serve as the pro forma for umpteen more people smuggling businesses. And what is it about the construction of this phrase that the word ‘smuggling’ is so dominant? ‘Smuggling’ is a present participle, derived from the verb ‘to smuggle’. Verbs tend to be strong words, the most powerful and active of a sentence. ‘People’, in contrast, is a noun, and a collective noun at that, i.e. non-specific and relatively weak, but in this construction it is weakened still further by acting as an adjective. If instead of ‘people smuggling’ the phrase were ‘children smuggling’ or ‘infant smuggling’ or ‘kidney smuggling’, the more specific word would hold its own against ‘smuggling’. So when a member of the government says ‘the people smuggling business model’ the words we actually hear are ‘smuggling business’. And it sounds pretty awful, conjuring up pirates with machetes threatening innocent people – like us.
While this particular euphemism comes courtesy of the Gillard administration, no Australian government exploited language with such ruthless effect and success like the Howard government. Under that regime euphemistic-speak was raised to an art form. The ‘pacific solution’ implied that the plight of asylum-seekers was a regional issue, but because of the ambiguity of the word ‘pacific’ it was a gentle solution, a peaceful even humane solution. And ‘off-shore processing’, that was – and remains – a beauty. Remove the human from the process and the plight of desperate people incarcerated in poor conditions for several years with neither work nor personal supports is reduced to the level of sorting oranges – our government separating the acceptable goods from those that are tainted.
Remember the phrase ‘social bonus’? It was bandied about by many of Howard’s pollies but particularly Amanda Vanstone, the only true liberal left in Howard’s cabinet. The euphemism was constructed during an election campaign to accompany the coalition’s new tax proposals. ‘Social bonus’, a phrase with such positive resonances, referred to gains made out of losses – a problematic concept if ever there was one. In reality it meant that health, social welfare, education, the ABC and other services for the general good were to be plundered in order to provide a ‘social bonus’ that would benefit – yes, the general good.
It reminds me of another phrase, again used by Amanda Vanstone back in the days when she was Minister for Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs. While the intellectual guts were being ripped out of our universities, Minister Vanstone referred to a ‘savings target’. ‘Savings target’, like ‘social bonus’ suggested something positive that would benefit the community. But as a result of meeting their ‘savings targets’ universities have become indistinguishable from spare parts manufacturers, with the CEOs of both types of institutions being interchangeable. The humanities and pure sciences – the so-called ‘non-vocational’ areas – have been decimated, and school leavers are offered ever-shrinking but increasingly pragmatic options.
Then there are the ‘queue jumpers’. This is implying that asylum seekers and refugees are no different from people lining up to buy tickets to the footy finals. It suggests there is something unfair – not sporting – about people who land on our shores through unorthodox means. The fact is that no one chooses exile. People seeking asylum are escaping brutal regimes where their very life is under threat, where corruption, cruelty and anarchy are the norm. These are people so desperate that they would leave their country, their language and culture, their roots, their relatives and friends, to risk life and limb on the long voyage to an Australia now rendered non-existent by the newly drawn ‘migration zone’. And on arrival? Men, women and children already brutalised and disorientated are whisked away to an isolated location there to be treated with suspicion and hostility, with inhumane, assembly-line coldness. All this is conveniently swallowed up in that cruel little euphemism ‘queue jumpers’.
‘Off-shore processing’, ‘queue jumpers’, ‘the pacific solution’, ‘Malaysian solution’, these abuses disguised by language are so misconceived, so inhumane, so wrong.
Language comprises the connective tissue of social life. Where it is blunted, so the depth of social relations is blunted; where it flourishes so the possibilities of understanding are increased. Language both forms and is informed by beliefs and codes of conduct. So we find Americans calling on God’s help in nearly all their public speeches in a way that seems faintly ludicrous to Australians. Language exists in symbiotic relation to the home culture; each shapes the other and is shaped by the other in turn.
Language also functions as an instrument of power. Long after the sword has rusted words will persist. In 1933, Goebbels and Hitler orchestrated the burning of books hostile to the NAZI regime – they called it ‘cleansing’. Some of the greatest writers of all time went up in smoke. Fortunately Mann, Brecht and most of the other brilliant undesirables survived the conflagration and are still read today. But it is not just written words that are so robust, all words are. During the Stalinist terrors, Russian poetry was committed to memory and spread widely both within and beyond the borders of the Soviet Union. Words have saved people, and they’ve killed them too. It is not by chance that a culture’s intellectuals are among the first to be cut down by repressive regimes. Silence the wordsmiths and the ability to make sense of brutality, bigotry, violence and destruction is crippled.
But you don’t have to kill the intellectuals or send them off to gulags to silence opposition. There is another way. Rather than kill off the speakers, you can maim the language.
A brief glance at the barbarous twentieth century shows that when repressive regimes take root, one of the first tasks of the new leaders is to attack the language. Whether the Soviet Union, South Africa during the apartheid era, Nazi Germany or the Taliban, beliefs, justifications and explanations for inexpressible brutality are reduced to slogans. With ‘the final solution’ 6 million Jews were murdered, and ‘ethnic cleansing’ – such a clean term – summed up the bloody massacre of Bosnia’s Muslims. With ‘Art for the worker’, centuries’ old Russian culture was destroyed. The examples are distressingly numerous of positive sounding catch-phrases that hide unimaginable brutality and terror. Inhumanity in practice has a horrendous diversity, but the language used to describe and justify it has, all too often, the depth, complexity and emotional temperature of a child’s set of building blocks.
Language is power. Drain it of its symbolic function and reduce it to slogans, and it becomes a weapon of deception. How can two or three words portray the destruction of a whole people or a whole social system? The short and honest answer is: it can’t. How can ‘the people smuggling business model’, ‘the Malaysian solution’ and ‘off-shore processing’ reveal the plight of terrified and terrorised people caught in some nightmare purgatory? They can’t. But then they are not intended to.
It is eighty years since Hitler rose to power, and people are still grappling with how the German people could have been willing participants in mass destruction, how an apparently civilised people could behave like barbarians. This is a complex issue and no single explanation will suffice, but language certainly was a player. Hitler knew the power of language. So eloquent, so theatrical, he milked the German language of abstraction, he made words into facts. Rather than represent reality, Hitler used language to hide reality, and then to replace it.
We have to hear and react against these new verbal constructions. We must peer beneath their pretty surfaces, their slick meaninglessness, and see what is being hidden. ‘Savings target’ means services are being cut. ‘Australians investing in themselves’ means full-fee paying students at university. ‘Rationalisation’ means that people are losing their jobs. And ‘off-shore processing’ and ‘the people smuggling business model’ mean that we Australians have lost our humanity.
Slogans and catch-phrases are so sure, so certain, they do not allow for subtlety, they preclude curiosity and questions, they militate against interpretation, and they result in a conforming, compliant population. These euphemisms created by our politicians focus on ‘solutions’ without actually explicating the problem. And why? Because the problem concerns desperate men, women and children with hopes and aspirations, fears and longings, people like us with heart and soul.
We are a wealthy nation with a standard of living that’s among the highest in the world. We are a nation built on pluralism, a nation of immigrants, and a nation founded on the belief of a fair go. Our asylum-seeker ‘problem’ is minor when compared with most western European countries. Our current intake of refugees is relatively small. Would we be more amenable to sharing our freedoms if these people seeking asylum were pale-skinned and Christian rather than dark-skinned and mainly Muslim? Howard exploited Hansonite racism and he did it with great authority. There’s still time for Gillard and her Labor government to do it better.