On the Wrong Side of History

One of the sobering things about the study of history is to realise that ordinary, well-intentioned people have often cooperated with deeply inhumane practices.

There were well-intentioned people who were involved with, or who at least failed to oppose, the horrors of the slave trade.

There were well-intentioned people, both male and female, who opposed women’s suffrage and the rights of women to own property, to access bank loans, have equal pay for equal work and so on.

There were well-intentioned Germans who felt that handing Jews over to the Nazi authorities was for the good of society.

There were well-intentioned Australians who took “half-caste” indigenous children off their parents. Others who forcibly took children off single mothers for adoption.

There were well-intentioned people who supported apartheid in South Africa.

All of these actions, with the clarity of hindsight, involved cooperation with evil systems. Yet with that hindsight, they are exposed as profoundly immoral actions.

It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Every generation needs to set its moral compass sharply, and see through the justifications and lies that prop up the injustices of their own time.

The biblical creation accounts convey the profound truth that we are all part of a family. Every human being on earth is my brother or sister, descended from one mother and father. Every human being is created in the image of God; a creature of immense worth and dignity.

The biblical moral compass for the way we treat precious human beings involves one simple command: “You shall love your neighbour as you love yourself”. In other words, you should treat others the way you would like others to treat you.

And what has triggered this stream of consciousness?

I have watched with growing alarm over a number of years a trend toward dehumanising asylum seekers, at least on the political horizon. Mandatory detention under the Keating government. Pauline Hanson’s infamous “Australia is at risk of being overrun by Asians” speech. The Howard government’s misreporting of “children overboard” and “Pacific Solution”. The Gillard government’s reintroduction of offshore processing. Now the Abbott government’s recent initiatives to “stop the boats”.

My heart was recently captivated by one story of the thousands of tales of individual suffering that could be told: that of a mother separated for many hours a day from her newborn, and a father who was not allowed to see his child at all. http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/asylum-seeker-separated-from-her-sick-newborn-in-brisbane-20131113-2xh0f.html

My heart was captured by a deeply personal reason: I can still recall vividly being told I could not see my newborn baby in the special care nursery of the hospital. I was in a public ward with curtains my only barrier to those in the other three beds in the room. Despite the presence of others, I could not restrain myself. I began to wail… not discreet tears, nor quiet sobbing, but animalistic cries of anguish. The grief of separation from my baby was so profound my mouth released the primal sound of a broken heart. It still brings tears to my eyes to recall the pain of that moment.

Reading about Latifa and her baby evoked all my own memories of anguish. The question that tumbled out of my heart was… how did it ever come to this? How can a stateless woman fleeing violence and persecution in Myanmar be denied such a primal bond, that of a mother for her newborn child? What has happened to a “fair go”? What has happened to the basic kindness and decency of the Australian people? Can we really keep defending the indefensible?

There is a game unjust societies play to make well-intentioned people cooperate. It is called “demonising the victim”. To pick but one example, the Jews in Nazi Germany were apparently to blame for everything wrong with society: marginalising and persecuting them was quite simply what they deserved.

The desperate victims of persecution arriving on our shores today are no longer called asylum seekers by our politicians, they are “illegals”. This legal lie is used to paint boat arrivals as “criminals”, who deserve to put in prison-like conditions and refused refuge in Australia. These “illegals” are a threat to us, apparently, not really human beings to be treated with human decency.

Justifications of our inhumane practices are repeated over and over and over, until many well-intentioned people believe treating asylum seekers in an appalling way is the only “reasonable” thing to do.

When our children and children’s children look back on this era of our nation’s history, they will be horrified. How could anyone have thought this was the right course of action? I believe those who cooperate with the current political tide stand on the wrong side of history. This moral failure will be judged harshly. I can no longer be silent on this issue: for me this will involve being complicit in a terrible injustice.

I invite you to join me in treating others as we would like to be treated, and in campaigning for compassion, decency and justice for asylum seekers in Australia.


Janet Woodlock said…
This is unbelievable. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/19/revealed-doctors-outrage-over-unsafe-refugee-patients

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