Tag Archives: asylum seekers

EMPATHY 1.

 

In her book, Prosthetic Memory. The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, Alison Landsberg explores a new type of memory she calls prosthetic memory. This memory refers to the appropriation of past experience through experiential museum installations, film and other media by people who do not have a personal connection to the events being portrayed.

Through the work of Toni Morrison, for example, people who are not African-Americans can take on a ‘deeply felt memory’ of slavery and the African-American experience. Through films such as the miniseries ‘Holocaust’ or ‘The Piano Player’ or ‘Sophie’s Choice’ people with no connection with the Holocaust can incorporate memories of this experience into their overall intellectual and subjective worlds. Through the numerous books, films and documentaries about the Gallipoli campaign, young people identify with the soldiers in the trenches to an extent that renders many of them to painful tears. ‘Through the technologies of mass culture, it becomes possible for…memories to be acquired by anyone, regardless of skin colour, ethnic background, or biology. Prosthetic memories are transportable and therefore challenge more traditional forms of memory that are premised on claims of authenticity, ‘heritage’, and ownership.’

Such ‘mass-mediated memories’ are reliant on an imaginative and empathic reader/viewer.

The success of any work of fiction requires the engagement of a similar sensibility. A reader is drawn into the world of a novel, into the lives and environments and historical circumstances of the characters being depicted. The reader enters the novelistic world and treats it as if real. It is for this reason that when a reader reaches the end of a compelling novel s/he doesn’t want it to finish, or s/he wants it to finish it differently, or s/he hopes that these same characters will appear in the author’s next novel. Readers care about characters in fiction, they are concerned with what happens to them.

The so-called ‘non-fiction novel’ such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood relies on the same sensibility. Capote could have written a straightforward documentary account of the murder of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter and their two youngest children by two ex-convicts on parole. But by writing it in a novelistic form he engaged a far greater degree of reader empathy.

The ability to empathise with ‘the other’, with people outside our own time, our own culture and our own experience is common to us all. Adults demonstrate it through their response to fiction and films, children reveal it in their wonderful ability to play ‘make-believe’. Why then is it so difficult to employ the same quality when it comes to people in the real contemporary world? Why is it that desperate people driven to leave the country of their birth and the language in which they are at home, are more likely to inspire fear, disparagement, even hatred, rather than understanding and empathy.

All of us have the cognitive tools to understand the plight of asylum seekers, indeed to understand all ‘foreigners’ who seek a homeland in Australia, but many choose instead to demonise these people as ‘other’, as ‘different’, as ‘threatening’. These exiles, these homeless people are condemned as undermining the Australian way of life; of taking our jobs; of polluting the essential Australian character.

The crucial question is: why this response?

Is it greed? That we are not willing to share the freedom and opportunity that most of us enjoy in this country.

Is it fear? That we are so insecure in our nationhood that a small number of broken, desperate, homeless people are a threat?

Or is it simply that there’s been insufficient public discussion, discussion untainted by popularist bias, political opportunism and/or media power? That these people seeking asylum are treated so badly because not enough honest thought and time has been given to aspects of the Australian culture that we might be reluctant to own.

Australians have been quick to criticise racism in South Africa and the United States, and religious intolerance in Ireland and the Middle East, but what about discrimination here in our own country? We have the ability to understand what drives people into exile but we choose to close our minds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MATESHIP AND OTHER DELUSIONS

In his Berlin Diary (Hamish Hamilton, 1941) the American foreign correspondent, William L. Shirer, observed that ‘for the last three or four years the Nazi regime has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect has been representative of the people it rules.’ That is, the rise of Hitler and Nazism was not due to the charisma of the leader or an unusually astute political machine, in fact, nothing unique about the movement or its leader could account for the widespread support from the German people. Rather what Hitler stood for and what he pandered to was already there, in the German people: beliefs about German superiority, German purity, an essence of ‘Germanness’ which set Germans apart and above other people. Hitler identified these traits (and, of course, he shared them) and fed them back to the people in a form that both enhanced the values themselves and the people who subscribed to them.

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THE LANGUAGE OF LYING

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.

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