No Shame: The Science Behind Why Most Australians Feel Okay About Tormenting Asylum Seekers

It's no accident. There's a science to this.

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This article is the first in a two-part series. Read part two here.

Pakistani refugee Shahraz Kayani waited five years for the Immigration Department to allow his wife and children to join him in Australia. The wait was fruitless and fatal. In April 2001, he set fire to himself outside Parliament House in Canberra and died weeks later from his burns.

Late last year, fearing a return to detention, Hazara asylum seeker Khodayar Amini burned himself to death in bushland around Dandenong. The day before he died, he wrote a letter to refugee advocate Michelle Bui which read: “My crime was that I was a refugee. They tortured me for 37 months…Red Cross, Immigration and the Police killed me with their slogans of humanity and cruel treatments”.

These two desperate political acts book-end fifteen years of human rights abuses inflicted upon asylum seekers by political, media and corporate elites, backed by the democratic will of the Australian people. The litany of cruelty is disturbingly familiar, recited to the point of morbid cliché: thousands of innocent men, women and children imprisoned indefinitely in ‘mental illness factories’; detention conditions so poor they move inmates to mass hunger strikes and starvation; widespread cultures of physical and sexual abuse and self-harm within detention centres; thousands of deaths at sea en route to Australia, and dozens of deaths in detention under our care.

One of the many extraordinary aspects of this checklist of crimes against humanity is the broadly compassionless response. Where is the national flood of shame, guilt and remorse for our actions?  Where is the unconditional apology? Where is the ‘never again’ resolution? What on earth explains the archive of abuse on one hand and progressive hardening of public policy and attitudes towards asylum seekers on the other?

The Architecture Of Atrocity: Asylum Seekers And Moral Disengagement

Edmund Burke’s aphorism that, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ needs a companion adage under our technologically specialised realities: ‘The triumph of evil requires a lot of good people, doing a bit of it, in a morally disengaged way, with indifference to the human suffering they collectively cause.’

– Albert Bandura

Stanford University Professor Emeritus of Social Science in Psychology Albert Bandura’s theory of moral disengagement so neatly applies to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers it’s almost as if Howard and his heirs misread the theory as an instruction manual. The theory describes the many ways moral codes can be disabled to avoid the negative feelings like shame and guilt normally associated with behaving immorally. It explains the capacity for human beings to be generally terrible in areas ranging from aggression in children, to approval of violence towards animals, to bullying, cheating and corruption, right up to medieval crusades and witch-hunts, as well as modern genocides.

There are four different aspects of moral disengagement, pictured below, and Australia’s managerial elites have diligently upheld them all in their treatment of asylum seekers. They relate to the immoral behaviour itself, the effects of the behaviour, the victims, and the responsibility for the actions.


Brutal Behaviour, Clear Conscience

The first aspect is redefining harmful conduct as honourable. Using moral justification, reprehensible behaviour is made socially acceptable by claiming it serves a worthy goal. The Australian government has used this with ruthless success, justifying torturous conditions on Manus and Nauru with constant reference to stopping drownings at sea. This is also an example of advantageous comparison: contrasting deplorable actions with other, hypothetically worse actions, instead of a third, more ethical alternative. As Bandura points out, Voltaire was onto something when he said: “if you can lead people to believe absurdities you can get them to commit atrocities”.

Australian politicians are also masters of euphemistic labelling: using sanitised language to obscure awful truths. Pernicious policies like turning back boats so innocent people can die somewhere else are reframed as integral parts of “border protection,” “border security” and “Operation Sovereign Borders”.

In this kind of language, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters fleeing persecution become an external threat from which Australians must be protected. Cultures of abuse on Nauru and Manus are hidden with anodyne terms like “offshore processing” and more sinister ones like the “Pacific Solution”. Locking up children in remote camps to be sexually abused is justified because by risking their lives in perilous boat journeys these children are “queue jumping” or “coming in the back door”. In the words of George Orwell, “political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.

What Human Rights Abuses?

The second aspect of the moral disengagement playbook involves minimising the effects of the harmful conduct. This requires hiding or undermining evidence of harm and ensuring suffering is invisible. The further away negative effects take place from destructive actions, the less likely moral codes will be triggered. If the UN ran some kind of twisted competition where countries had to compete to design an immigration system which would best hide the suffering of asylum seekers, Australia’s blend of remote island camps and denial of journalistic access would certainly make the podium.

Whistleblowers exposing appalling conditions in offshore detention centres are threatened with two years imprisonment under the Border Force Act; a piece of legislation that both major parties supported. According to asylum seeker advocacy body No Business In Abuse, Broadspectrum’s (formerly Transfield) treatment of asylum seekers since 2012 has violated 47 international laws, but you wouldn’t know it going from the company’s language. In the Nauru detention centre, for example, that hellhole of sexual abuse, Broadspectrum claims: “The atmospherics within the Nauru Regional Processing centre have remained calm…individual occurrences of an aggressive or antisocial nature may continue to occur; however it is probable these will be attributed to personal issues and agenda, and unlikely to be linked to any collective concerns.”

Less Than Human

The third plank in this cognitive apparatus of cruelty is dehumanising and blaming the victim. Several studies show that when people are given the power to punish others, they do so more severely to dehumanised individuals. A Nazi camp commandant told Primo Levi that victims were reduced to subhuman objects to limit the distress on gas chamber operators.

Shame and guilt about our treatment of asylum seekers are not triggered for many Australians because they’ve been convinced by the government and media that “boat people” are less than human and, therefore, deserve inhumane treatment. The practice of referring to detainees by number rather than name is illustrative, as is the Children Overboard affair, during which former Prime Minister John Howard said about the fabricated actions of asylum seekers: ”I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that”.

Specific moves by our two most recent Ministers for Immigration are also blatant examples. In late 2013, Scott Morrison instructed Department of Immigration and Border Protection and detention centre staff to refer to asylum seekers who arrive by boat as ”illegal maritime arrivals”. With this language, desperate families are dehumanised as mere “illegals”, thus becoming blameworthy and deserving of punishment for illegal behaviour.

That this is a bald-faced lie — asylum seekers are legally entitled to seek asylum under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — is much less important to Morrison than the effectiveness of the language to whip up community antipathy. One study confirmed that groups exposed to the language of “illegals” showed more negative attitudes to asylum seekers than those given more neutral terms.

More recently, Peter Dutton used a similar strategy in the case of Abyan, the refugee brought to Australia after being raped on Nauru and then deported before the operation could take place. He said: “The racket that’s been going on here is that people, at the margins, come to Australia from Nauru, the government’s then injuncted, we can’t send them back to Nauru…we aren’t going to be taken for mugs”. In a couple of easy sentences, brutalised and tormented victims of physical and sexual violence are transformed into duplicitous racketeers exploiting the poor Australian government.

The Banality Of Evil

The final morality killer is minimising personal responsibility for the actions. This may be through displacement of responsibility: the old Nazi “I was just following orders” defence. Described as the “banality of evil” by Hannah Arendt in her book about the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, this popular technique is often invoked in military atrocities such as the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. Many immigration bureaucrats and detention centre staff can sleep soundly at night thanks to a little responsibility displacement.

Moral agency is also minimised by diffusion of responsibility, meaning people don’t feel personally responsible when many others are involved. This happens at the governmental level, where group decision-making is at play. Researchers have found that people act more cruelly as part of a group than when they hold themselves personally responsible for their actions. Conversely, where everyone is responsible, no one feels responsible. This process also occurs at the broader population level and is known as the bystander effect; the more witnesses to a tragedy, the less likely any single person will intervene. You and I can enjoy our delicious carcinogenic baby pig sandwiches in peace because we assume someone else will sort out that asylum seeker torture business.

From Bad To Worse To Nazi

Moral disengagement is so insidious and terrifying because, much like the frog heated in the bath, it gets progressively more dangerous and life-threatening without us noticing. Bandura describes the process:

“Initially, individuals perform mildly harmful acts they can tolerate with some discomfort. After their self-reproof has been diminished through repeated enactments, the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish or self-censure. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinised…People may not even recognise the changes they have undergone as a moral self.”

 If you’ve ever wondered how it became okay to lock up kids in remote island camps and sexually abuse them, or to deport rape victims and accuse them of taking the Australian government for mugs, then this is your answer.

So What’s To Be Done?

So Bandura’s theory seems to offer a pretty useful map of our immigration terrain. It’s no surprise then that the first academic study of moral disengagement and asylum seekers in Australia, published in 2014, found Bandura’s theory provides ‘a strong framework for understanding the support of current asylum seeker policies and their hardline treatment’.

That’s all well and good, but can understanding our culture of cruelty help end it? Absolutely it can. Part two of this series, due to be published tomorrow, will explain how.

This article is the first in a two-part series. Read part two here.

Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is sweet on activism and the arts.  He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from @situtheatre.


Feature image via James Fosdike; you can Like and Share it on Facebook via Visualante.