Do Australians care more about their phones than refugees on Manus Island?

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Even if Australians are actually racist and indifferent to the plight of refugees, pointing this out is hardly likely to win support for the cause, says Barry Hindess.

WHILE I was a junior academic in England, my department head published a short collection of his own poetry, Earthquake Somewhere Else, with the title piece lamenting the fact that while we worried about a few deaths in road or railway accidents, news of thousands dying in an earthquake somewhere else – I think it was Iran – left most of us untouched. 

As so often happens with moralising writers, this author, John Barron Mays, a sociology professor and minor British poet, managed to suggest that, because he was sensitive to this discrepancy, he was ethically superior to most of his readers and other compatriots.

Mays' poem made such an impression on me that I remember little more than its title and its moralising tone. I was reminded of the latter by some of the Twitter responses that followed my last article on IA, 'Manus Island crisis: What does Australia owe to refugees?' 

For example, the following tweet asserted on the basis of no evidence – except, perhaps, the author's impressions – attracted many comments:

'Unfortunate but it's the reality, people care more abt [sic] their phones than others lives. When did we become so apathetic to human suffering?'

Here the word "unfortunate" suggests that the author of this tweet and those who liked it do not count themselves among the apathetic people who care less about others' lives than their own phones. Good for them! But I think this tweeter's judgement of other Australians may be both too harsh and politically counterproductive.

It is easy to get the wrong impression about the feelings of our fellow Australians. For example, this headline in the Sydney Morning Herald –'Asylum seeker boat turn-backs supported by 71 per cent in poll' – does look pretty bleak, but bear in mind that the poll tells us only how people responded to one of several questions in a single survey.

We all know that answers to survey questions depend on the specific wording of the question and the context in which it is asked, particularly on what was said before the question is put. What if, for example, respondents were told right before the question, Australia introduced the turn-back policy, in part, to discourage asylum-seekers from embarking on the dangerous sea-journey from Indonesia — a statement that may well be misleading in important respects, but is not entirely false? This seems intended to dispose respondents to say they support the policy.

It is not difficult to find poll results from recent years that suggest a rather different view of Australian attitudes. Moreover, careful studies, which rarely produce such exciting headlines, conducted by Andrew Markus over several years for the Scanlon Foundation, show that only a minority of Australians are consistently prejudiced against immigrants. (The results are carefully discussed in David Marr's Quarterly Essay 65, 'The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race'.)

Do Australians really care more about their phones than the lives of the asylum-seekers locked away on Manus Island? I really don't know, but I'd be very surprised. My guess, based only on the evidence of my own impressions, is that a poll on the relative importance of our phones and the lives of asylum-seekers would show only a small minority coming down on the side of their phones.

Mike Seccombe, writing in The Saturday Paper (11 November 2017), quotes Greens Leader Richard Di Natale:

'I’ve always maintained that when you drill down on specific issues, people are on the progressive side.'

This seems to me about right, except that you may sometimes have to drill down a very long way. 

Why do I say the tweeter's judgement of other Australians quoted earlier is not only harsh but counter-productive? The general point is that alienating people you want on your side is not a good look. To say that someone cares more about their phones than the suffering of others would be seen by many as offensive, even if it describes exactly how they behave — just as it would be offensive in Australia today to call them stupid, even if they persist in saying stupid – or racist, things – even if they are.

This last issue is complicated. White Australians of my generation will have grown up in contexts in which casual racism was commonplace among English-speaking whites. Most of us learned later in life that we should not be – or not be seen to be – racist, which was mostly a matter of watching what you say. Others will have learned this lesson at school or at home. The complication here is that there are class and educational dimensions, not so much in the lesson itself, but rather in the extent to which it has been taken on board. A minority of white Australians have not learned how to watch what they say – that is, to dissimulate – and resent the idea that they should have to.

For all his faults, former PM John Howard was a master at not talking in explicitly racist terms. He said nothing that could be pinned down as obviously racist when he described One Nation's supporters as:

"... a group of Australians who did not have a racist bone in their bodies, who believed that, in different ways, they had been passed over."

Rather than endorsing what are often thought to be their racist sentiments or criticising them for feeling that way, Howard simply implied that he knew how they felt and that it was nothing to be ashamed of. He was trying to win their support. Similarly, when he rejected the "black armband" view of Australian history, Howard did not deny that massacres of Indigenous people took place in Australian history, only that this history should not be defined by these massacres — suggesting, in effect, that, even if there were massacres, they were no big deal, but not saying so directly.

Compare Howard's cautious approach to those he regarded as his party's actual or potential working-class supporters to the Left's treatment of these same working-class voters when they accused Howard of dog-whistling. This accusation draws on the image of the dog whistle once commonly used in sheep herding. It was designed to sound at a frequency of 20,000Hz or more, which would be inaudible to normal human ears but would be noticed by dogs whose hearing is generally more sensitive to high-frequency sounds than that of humans. Where humans would be unaffected by the whistle, except for a few splitting headaches, suitably trained or habituated dogs would receive both a sound and the instruction that came with it – telling them, for example, to stop where they were or to round up sheep that had broken away from the main flock – and could be trusted to respond accordingly.

To accuse Howard of dog-whistling is thus to say that Howard's working-class supporters voted his way without thinking — not a flattering image. The accusation that people care more about their phones than the lives of others is not much better as a way of winning them over.

Barry Hindess is an emeritus professor at Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. You can follow him on Twitter @barryhindess.

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