Silence is not neutral

Silence is not the absence of noise. It is a deliberate and effective tool to dehumanise and destroy.

This morning Australia, and the world, woke up to the news that violence had erupted on Manus Island. Filtering through the now normal blanket of silence, we’ve heard disturbing reports of PNG locals and police attacking the asylum seekers in or around the Manus Island detention center. Minister Scott Morrison has broken his usual mantra of “operational matters” to confirm that a refugee was killed this morning and 77 were injured – most with head injuries.

How does this happen?

How, when desperate people get on boats to come to one of the wealthiest, safest countries in the world, do we wake up on a Tuesday morning with the blood of at least one asylum seeker on our hands and the injury of 77 others?

This is the corrupting power of silence.

Silence does more than form a barrier between events that happen and the public hearing about the events that happen. It is more than a communication breakdown. Silence plays an active, causative role. It prevents early detection. It builds frustration and resentment. It hides the bubbling tensions and leads to mistrust and fear and anger.

Silence is a tool that our government is using to abdicate its responsibility for people in our care.

It couples this silence with a slow, insufficient trickle of information released exclusively at its discretion – making it the sole authority and the sole keeper of knowledge. 

It thus becomes legislator, police and jury all at once.

It then calls them illegal entrants, IEs or transferees and invites us to at worst hate them, at best condemn them.

The thing about silence is that it’s rarely absolute. Short of chloroforming thousands of people, history shows us that suppressing the human desire to speak is rarely accomplished. Instead you get an insidious corrosion of basic rights, basic dignities and basic freedoms. You get outrage from those being silenced, and it’s met by confusion – even hostility – from those who don’t know or don’t know what they know. Even people who would normally be supporters.

Uncertainty is destabilising. It is one of the most effective tool of disempowerment. If you don’t know what you oppose – how do you oppose it? If you aren’t sure what is happening, how do you make demands for change?

We hear the disturbing reports of asylum seekers being burnt on naval vessels that have taken custody of their boats to tow them back Indonesia, and we don’t know what to think. We feel uncomfortable at the suggestion that our noble naval personnel would deliberately inflict suffering on vulnerable human beings. We suspect that it’s a manipulative ploy, understandable, but nonetheless a lie and worthy of condemnation. We become pawns in a political game that creates “us” and “them”, with “us” firmly positioned under the Southern Cross and “them” silenced on an island that “we” associate vaguely with tribalism, conflict, witchcraft and other xenophobic generalisations.

We hear of asylum seekers who destroy their documents before boarding leaky vessels and it sits uncomfortably with us. If they really were deserving of our asylum why would they destroy them? The well-documented reasons for destroying identification in case of capture fly out the window when the limited discussion around asylum seekers is imbued in secrecy and inconsistencies and only fragments of knowledge.

Silence is not neutral. It is being used by our Government to systematically condemn vulnerable people who travel by boat to Australia in need of asylum.  And it is used to coerce the Australian public into consenting to this cruelty.

Some silence is legitimate. However, the basic rule of thumb we use in law when we compromise peoples’ freedoms is a two-limbed concept of need and proportionality.

And this is where our Government has outright lied.

The “need” the Government alludes to vacillates between the “need” to break the people smuggling business model and save people from dying at sea (note that they are people when they are dying at sea, but “IEs” when we’re locking them up indefinitely) and the “need” for the Government to exert its control over our borders and establish an orderly system of entry.

Whether or not you believe that the Government’s policy (which has directly resulted in at least 1 death and 77 injuries within the last 24 hours) saves lives; the second limb of the question is that of proportionality.

So the question:

Is the need to save the lives of asylum seekers and control our borders proportionate to locking up vulnerable people, pregnant women and children indefinitely and offshore in conditions that have been described by the United Nations as inhumane?

Gross misrepresentation constitutes deception by any definition – and the Abbott Government (and the Labor Government before that) has grossly misled the Australian public. It has played on all the weak and ugly parts of Australian society to dupe the Australian people into somehow thinking that it is acceptable that our Government acts in a way that is entirely unaccountable and entirely incompatible with basic principles of law and justice.

The Government has tried to satisfy the ‘need and proportionality’ question by creating a war that doesn’t exist to justify its violation of international laws and basic human rights.

It creates this “war” by controlling how we talk about, how we think about and how we understand asylum seekers. “Operational matters”, “illegal entrants”, “transferees”, “CI’, “MI”, “nationals”, “involuntary removals”, “voluntary removals”, “unclassified information”, “classified information”, “illegal”, “I.Es”.

Propaganda and democracy are not compatible. By definition, propaganda misleads the public and removes all capacity for the public to make informed opinions and decisions about its Government.

Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders is systematically and effectively destroying the lives of the thousands of desperate people we have locked up offshore just as surely as it is systematically and effectively destroying the very basis of our democracy.

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