Opened borders, closed minds

It alarms me how rapidly people who want to be on the side of open-mindedness and tolerance will close their mind to, and judge, people who have different, less tolerant views. People who want harsher treatment of asylum seekers are ‘rednecks’, are racist, are, essentially, bad people. Someone opposed to ending marriage discrimination is homophobic or bigoted. Someone who doesn’t know the difference between cis- and trans- gender is perhaps blind to their own privilege.

a comment from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre on Facebook. It reads, "to people who bang on that refugees who don't like how australia treats them should go home, let's start with you, no one is going to miss a redneck"

A constructive contribution to the refugee debate

I feel quite lucky then that my cumulative circumstances make it possible for me to avoid warranting such criticisms. My private Catholic school taught compassion and gave free education to two refugee boys from Afghanistan. Attending the University of Adelaide allowed me to meet many more LGBTIQ people than I might have otherwise, and not only have I learnt not to oppose marriage equality, I also feel no need to ask lesbians how they actually have sex. I’m told that there are barely three people who’ve done Honours in Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne and I’ve been fortunate enough to mix with two of them, fortunate enough to have friends who have a profound understanding of gender issues and who are considerate enough to tolerate my peccadilloes and plug the gaps in my understanding.

I use the word “lucky” quite deliberately here. My parents’ wealth and education meant that I could grow up in relative affluence, that I had the leisure time to read Philosophy, the resources to attend University, the luxury of moving interstate and being supported by my parents. This is the background that makes me the open-minded compassionate person I claim to be. This situation is not a chance event or an outcome of my ‘deciding’ to welcome refugees: it is a statistically likely consequence of my own privilege and integration into Society.

Which I think is intriguing. Because I think that maybe judging somebody too harshly for being racist, or sexist, can end up being classist.

When it comes to public health or crime we understand the range of extenuating circumstances in play. Your postcode, how educated your parents are, how much they earn, whether they are living together, what school you go to, your race: these affect your life expectancy or the likelihood that you’ll be incarcerated, in all sorts of unfortunate yet unequivocal ways. Public health experts talk about the social causes of ill health and the need to improve social infrastructure, housing, or economic circumstances in order to reduce smoking or diabetes rates. Perhaps the same approach is suitable for thinking about how to create a more compassionate society?

Being financially well-off, I can’t understand what it might feel like to be living from week to week, dreading the thought of how a sick child or broken car could ruin everything. I can’t understand being too busy, or simply too absorbed in other things, to not know or care who the Prime Minister is, or what Minister Scott Morrison is doing to boat people this week. It’s not my experience, but I can begin to understand how in such a situation one might feel ignored, vulnerable, mistreated, and it might become more important to maintain familiar institutions and to have another group of people towards whom I could feel superior.

And I think if you acknowledge the class structure in our society, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about this as if “self-confessed racist” Raquel Moore is a ‘redneck’ or a ‘bogan’ because she thinks Tony Abbott should stop the boats. I think it makes more sense to think about whose interests are served in this situation and to realise that their interests are served as much by middle-class scorn of Raquel as they are by her own small-mindedness. (A point made much more capably over here.)

a graph showing how household income affects both views on refugee seekers and whether people care at all
In the “Tim Costello Lecture”, Julian Burnside, patron of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, talks about his decision to answer all the hate mail he received for speaking out on behalf of asylum seekers. He describes his surprise when the most vitriolic correspondents, when replied to, would reply much more calmly and politely. Estimating that 50% of these exchanges ended in the person’s agreeing with him, he reflects,

We are a prosperous country: most of us are genuinely lucky. But we are not good at sharing our luck, and we have a strange habit of thinking that those who are less lucky must be, in some way, responsible for their own misfortunes.

There are many reasons why members of the community become alienated from it. They may have been dealt a bad hand: they have been born poor, they have been badly educated, they have a mental or physical disability, they have bad luck in employment, they make bad choices which lead them into a hopeless life. Any one of these disadvantages can lead to a cascade of events which leave a person at the bottom of the pile. And when compassion turns to vindictiveness these people suffer twice for the disadvantages they could not avoid.

His article in The Conversation is one of the most profound and beautiful pieces I’ve ever read. He puts his finger on two points – firstly, a harsh attitude towards refugees doesn’t necessarily stem from racism or intolerance, secondly, respectful listening is a much more worthwhile response than judgmental dismissal.

In this post I have attempted to encourage these two same things: more compassion for the context of somebody whose views might seem less enlightened than yours, and the treatment of them not as an adversary, but as an equal. I’ve probably done so imperfectly, and I haven’t studied Marx or Greer or done an internship with a refugee action group. So disagree if you will, and please let me know where you think my argument is incorrect or lacking. And let us have such disagreements as compassionate equals.

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One Response to “Opened borders, closed minds”

  1. Well said, but perhaps you should be a little more obvious with your satire.
    Adherents of Andrew Bolt et al, your target audience, may just nod their heads in agreement with you. They are blinded by their ignorance and brainwashing by the rightwing religious groups that have polluted their minds .

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