Playing with words to play with lives

February 16th, 2014  |  Published in Asylum; Refugees, Childhood; Abuse

Words come with baggage; some more than others; “sinful” more than most; and “illegal” is fast catching up, at least in its application to asylum seekers in Australia.

This, anyway, is where my thoughts wandered as I watched “Philomena” at the cinema recently.


There’s a scene near the end of the movie in which the venomous shipwreck of a nun, Sister Hildegarde, tells Philomena (Judi Dench) that she deserved everything she got – her son sold for adoption, years of servitude in a Magdalene laundry, fruitless search over decades, and being kept in ignorance of his death and burial in the convent grounds.

Philomena deserved all this, Hidegarde ordained, for being carnal (having sex out of wedlock). Her fate was the wages of sin.

Sound familiar?

Maybe not, but I found myself exchanging “sinful” for “illegal” and segueing into the current narrative about asylum seekers in Australia.

Describing asylum seekers – inaccurately – as illegal, is even more insidious than describing the Magdalene girls as sinful.

Why? Many people believe in “sin”, but even more accept the validity of the law; most Australians, for example, would hold the law in some respect and accept that there are legitimate consequences for transgressions.

Extending the narrative, then (in the same direction as the one about sin) those who behave illegally DESERVE to suffer the consequences. This is implicit; it does not need spelling out.

That is, to give this story legs, all you need do is to repeat, over and over, that asylum seekers are “illegal”. Those receiving this message will fill in the blanks.

So, in three easy steps:

  1. Label your target group as sinful/illegal, drawing on the authority vested in you by Church/State.
  2. Treat this group abysmally – because you can.
  3. Sit back and watch as the idea takes hold that people “like that” deserve all they get.

Why do this? Who knows. But even more disturbing is when people (and Philomena is a good example) accept their status as sinful/illegal and start believing they deserve the abuse meted out to them.

I find it unsettling that “Philomena” is described as a comedy-drama. To me it is a tragedy; as is our treatment of asylum seekers…Joan Beckwith.

no illegal

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4 comments on “Playing with words to play with lives”

  1. George Baumann says:

    I think the fact that vilifying them is so easy, and it works so well for Abbott is reason enough for him. The bigger threat he makes asylum seekers out to be, the more he’s able to style himself as “our” heroic saviour from these illegal hordes with who-knows-what dishonourable intentions in coming here.

    • joanbeckwith says:

      I suspect you are on the money about the delusions of heroism, George, particularly in the context of the ‘war on…’ narrative that has been lurking on the margins, or indeed front and centre in the military-style operations (bungled and all as they have been)…Joan Beckwith.

  2. joanbeckwith says:

    Sadly, abrasive divisiveness seems to be a winner at the polls (link following)! Reference to asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants/maritime arrivals” does of course predate this government, although perhaps they have hammered the inaccuracy more. It is clearly deliberate, and clearly effective in creating prejudice. I still don’t really ‘get’ why so much energy is directed at building up so much prejudice against relatively small numbers of totally defenceless people…Joan Beckwith.

  3. George Baumann says:

    “Sin” has thankfully lost much of its sting these days due to having been parodied so much. (There is, after all something good about our age.)

    “Illegal”, on the other hand, has gone from being almost a badge of honour in convict and larrikin Australia to now reigning as the new “sin”, as you have noted.
    This is right and proper in its right and proper place, but unfortunately is now being used by self-serving politicians and shock-jocks to vilify innocent people.
    Why they do it? Tony Abbott has a fine instinct to rule by divisiveness and he does this by slandering those in need of help but without a voice and feed them to the lions to please his Roman circus crowd audience. Easy, if you lack conscience.

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