Saturday, November 24, 2012

Nothing Matters

My four year child recently took to saying “Nothing matters” in response to pretty much whatever she didn’t want to hear. If you refused her a sweet, or more screen time for example, you would hear “Nothing matters” in a child’s imitation of a long suffering soul.

We have no idea where she picked it up from. It’s possible that she originally meant to say “Doesn’t matter” but remembered it wrong. Regardless of the genesis, the kid noticed that neither I nor her mum liked the phrase. That guaranteed its common use.

Before I react negatively to a phrase like “nothing matters” I like to investigate what it means. Sometimes I find that someone has just said something I do agree with but in a way I wouldn’t put it. Certainly our kid was no help in explaining her exact point.

At first glance it seems like “nothing matters” is meaningless. It’s the “nothing” that suggests that. To understand what I mean by that consider the opposite phrase; “everything matters”. That’s clearly meaningless; if everything matters then what does mattering mean? Without any standard of not-mattering to compare mattering to, then mattering means nothing distinguishing. It’s like saying “everything is”. There’s nothing to agree or disagree with there at all.

“Nothing matters” is similar. If nothing at all matters then there just isn’t any use to not-mattering as a distinguishing term. After all it applies to everything. However “nothing matters” doesn’t quite fall into the same vacuum of comparison that “everything matters” does. This is because even when nothing (that exists) matters there can be a non-existent ideal that defines mattering for us. This ideal of importance (mattering), although non-existent, can be the basis for comparing everything to. Then if everything doesn’t measure up to this ideal, “nothing matters” in a way that makes sense.

E.g. We could say that for something to matter it must endure – that is have permanence. From this definition we could argue that because nothing lasts for ever then nothing matters.  All our loves and hates, efforts and achievements don’t matter because in a million years they are ground into dust.

The problem with having an ideal description of mattering (like permanence) is that it begs the question of why. Why do only those things which have permanence matter? This is especially true if we are inclined to conclude that nothing has permanence and therefore nothing matters.  If we are going to set the bar for mattering in such a way that everything falls short we are beholden to have an especially good reason to do so. That is because we are claiming either a flaw in language (for having a concept like matters) or in the universe (for lacking anything that fits the concept). If our definition is merely arbitrary then we might as well pick one that doesn’t make such large claims necessary.

Ultimately though any objective definition of  what matters can’t justify itself. That’s true if it exists or is a non-existent ideal. For example we could say that what matters is what affects other people, which begs the question “Why is it only what affects other people that matters?” There's no way for what matters to just abruptly begin, except by suppressing a perfectly legitimate question "Why?".

This throws us back to our own subjectivity. If “matters” has any meaning then perhaps it is in only in terms of what matters to us. By this definition “nothing matters” is really an expression of personal indifference rather than a description of reality. That’s why it comes out as either nonsense or arbitrary when we think of it as a description of reality.

When a person genuinely does feels nothing matters (unlike when a four year old says it in disgust at parental limits) they may also be in a great place of producing art without the voice of critics in their head. They may be appreciating pleasantly what Romantic philosophy called the sublime – the sense that the world is infinitely larger than our own crap.  However more often they are not in a safe or happy place. They are making a cry of ennui – of boredom with and apathy towards the world. This places them at risk of suicide or even risk taking behaviour. It’s the sort of place I might imagine someone who lived for their kids ending up if they lost their child.

If we wanted to understand a person biochemically when they are in a bad place of “nothing matters” we would say they have low dopamine levels. Dopamine is the reward chemical in the brain that plays a key role in reinforcing behaviour. It’s clearly seen in addictions where the reinforcement overwhelms us. One interesting fact is that we are hardwired to avoid low dopamine levels with far greater intensity than we are to pursue high levels. That’s where the risk taking behaviour comes in – as desperate attempts to push our dopamine up.

Philosophically what is tricky is that there is no logical way forward from this position. “Nothing matters” is subjectively true for someone with low dopamine. If subjective truth is the only truth around no-one else can challenge their position as valid as any other. Even more seriously they themselves can’t challenge their own apathy when their initial reality is one in which nothing matters. The image this conjures up for me is one of a person floating in space. With no external reality to push against they have no way to move forward. That’s how I imagine myself isolated in my subjectivity, particularly one in which nothing matters. 

That is my explanation for why we have highly developed religions and philosophies which describe mattering as much more than a subjective concern. It is essentially a cognitive trick to give our floating astronaut something beyond themselves to push against. It remains deeply useful, if logically difficult, to do so. However externalized sources of meaning are more preventative than curative. Investing in anything like that from the position of nothing matters is very difficult. We don’t care to.

There are two realizations that can move us beyond a position of nothing matters. Firstly, as I tried to explain in a previous post (Questions of Intrinsic Worth), our subjectivity is not free of reality. No matter what some self-help gurus promise subjectivity does not allow us to freely rearrange the world. We cannot, as young romantics, say that looking at sunsets matters but that eating healthily doesn’t. Eat too much sugar and you’ll lose your eyesight to diabetes and won’t be able to look at sunsets. Similarly I can’t say that my child matters but that my own life doesn’t. My life matters to my child. Subjectivity is therefore not isolation. It is instead engagement with the world from our unique position within it. Think otherwise and “bam”, reality will correct you.

For someone feeling trapped in a sense of “nothing matters” this realization should encourage them to engage with the world, their own body and other people’s in order to properly awaken their subjectivity's wisdom. “Mattering” can be understood as a phenomenon that arises out of a subjectivity which relies on engagement to be sensible. It follows therefore that we shouldn’t expect “mattering” to precede engagement, as strange as that might sound. Fake it if you have to but get out into the world is good advice for any depressed person. It's a legitimate way forward, once we properly understand subjectivity.

The second realization is of the inherent contradiction involved with caring that “nothing matters”. Why does the idea that “nothing matters” matter? Once we realize that “nothing matters” doesn’t mean that the world actually is uninteresting in some metaphysical way but is only so according to a personal perspective this can liberate us to create some interest ourselves. This is particularly true for people who are devastated because they newly feel that nothing in life has the special quality they believed imbued things with “mattering”.

E.g. Someone might have believed that what made the world matter was its relationship with God, until they lost their faith. This could produce a feeling of devastation – that “nothing matters” now. However that feeling of devastation is unnecessary. In fact that feeling of devastation makes no sense as it depends on a whole theology the person no longer holds.

This idea that we can act with purpose in an essentially purposeless universe (not only God-less but without a linear human history) was expressed by philosophers like Albert Camus (and Bill Murray below). Camus' particular brand of existentialism, sometimes called absurdism, did not hold that life had no meaning. Instead it holds that we should look for our meaning in the personal and immediate rather than in the absolute and infinite. The moment we step out our doorway we are surrounded by a world which we impact. Just those impacts give us reason to care themselves, even in if they are not attached to some grand human story, perhaps even especially so. 

I haven’t shared all of this post with my four year old (seriously). However we did sit down and have a lengthy discussion about what nothing matters might mean. With my prompts she made up a list of what matters and what doesn’t matter. It made me realize that the “Doesn’t Matters” column is important to her. Her socialization has involved figuring out what ought to go there almost as much as what is supposed to matter. It made her realize that she doesn’t mean that nothing matters at all. She hasn’t said it since.

I’m really glad I listened to my kid on this topic. I haven’t really sat down and asked her what she think matters before in such a specific way. I recommend it to any parent. Here’s hoping you and those around you aren’t in a bad place of nothing matters. In Australia Lifeline is one number you can call if you are.(13 11 14)

What matters
1.      Don’t hurt anyone
2.      Listen to your school teacher at school
3.      At Uni you always have your listening ears on
4.      You have to put your seat belt on in the car
5.      You have to always have fun when you’re playing with other kids
6.      If you’re talking at school talk in whisper voice
7.      Love is very, very, very, very, very, very, very important
8.      Always have dinner.
9.      Always listen to your parents.
10.  Your dogs’ name
11.  Picking too many fruits off trees
12.  Leaving people alone if they’re sick
13.   Make sure that people aren’t talking so loud and making your ears and head have an earache.

What doesn’t matter.
1.      What I wear
2.      Your kids name
3.      What is actually for dinner
4.      How high you can jump

Friday, November 23, 2012

Should the Catholic Church be singled out over child sexual abuse?

Archbishop Pell, Australia’s Cardinal, objects to an “exaggeration” of the Catholic Church’s responsibility for the abuse of children. Pell’s comments suggest that he wants the abuse of children to be seen as a wider cultural problem which the Catholic Church was caught up with, just like other institutions. In Pell’s repeated opinion the Catholic Church has been unfairly smeared by the media due to an anti-catholic bias, as having a far greater problem with the abuse of children than the rest of society.

However Patrick Parkinson, who reviewed the Australian Catholic churches own processes for dealing with child sexual abuse and who is considered by Pell himself to be an expert in this field in Australia, disagrees. He stated to Radio National  that there are “roughly six times the number of clergy or religious offenders (in the Catholic church) as in the rest of the churches combined” and in his view “the Catholic church has a huge problem with child sexual abuse, a problem that is disproportionately higher by many fold than any other institutional organization working with children.”

Other sources confirm the Catholic Church’s disproportionate responsibility for child sexual abuse. “Victoria police numbers suggest it is 10 times the level of abuse among the Anglicans and Salvation Army” according to Adam West of the Sydney Morning Herald.

It might be possible that this is an extraordinary and unfortunate matter of chance. Child abusers congregate. They form networks. Therefore one should expect incidences of child sexual assault to cluster – in one service more than another, in one town more than another, and in one institution more than another. It may be that the Catholic Church was unlucky enough to be chosen by those seeking to abuse children almost randomly amongst places where they could access kids. Then they recruited others like them and the abuse became epidemic in some quarters.

It is also possible that the Catholic Church was chosen specifically. Maybe the esteem given to clergy, maybe the celibacy requirement, maybe the male-only leadership, gave people with a desire to sexually abuse children a better cultural cover. Maybe there is even something in the Catholic Church’s concept of its own authority and its disdain of questioning (even by its own members) that sponsors, or worse produces, child abusers. Maybe it is something as simple as the greater involvement of Catholic clergy in education and direct contact with children producing greater opportunity. If we are serious about preventing child abuse then we have to ask these kinds of questions.

Obviously if there is a problem with the Catholic Church that promotes or covers sexual abuse it is not exclusive to them. Abuse has and does occur in non-Catholic institutions. It’s like how there are a few women who abuse children so we can’t say this is a problem exclusive to men. However the problem is so overwhelmingly male that to not talk about the gender dimension is grossly foolish, if we are honestly trying to understand it. You understand problems partly by looking at the patterns of their incidence.

The same attitude should apply to looking at the Catholic Church specifically in this matter. If there is, as it appears, disproportionate abuses of the kids in Catholic care, that requires us to focus attention there.

That focused attention should be done critically though. We don’t have really hard statistics on how many people in the general population sexually abuse children. We are relying on anecdotal and police reports coupled with a few limited studies. Although there are (under-reported) figures of how many victims there are, the number of general abusers per capita is much harder to find. Therefore when Professor Cahill of RMIT says that one in twenty Catholic priests will commit sexual offenses against children  we don’t really know if this is higher or lower than the general male population.

What we can reasonably guess is that familial sexual abuse is likely to be even more under-reported and even tragically disbelieved due to:
a) conflicting loyalties amongst family members (particularly a factor in sibling abuse);
b) lesser media interest because the risk of abuse it represents is less “public”;
c) lesser media and police interest because each abuser involves a fewer number of victims (though just as many occasions of abuse).

Taking this into account encourages caution before concluding that something like celibacy in the Catholic Church leads to or even just correlates with higher rates of abuse.  Even if men without families have exactly the same rates of committing sexual abuse as men with families, a tragic likelihood is that the latter group will evade detection easier. That could be a better explanation of higher reported rates of child abuse by Catholic unmarried clergy than anything else.

I want to understand the sexual abuse of children. I want to know what developmental, social, political and even biological factors might contribute to a person committing this crime. I’m serious about that because that knowledge just might help prevent some of these crimes. That is the goal to prioritise.

I also don’t like the Catholic Church hierarchy, its undemocratic structure and its patriarchal and conservative influence. Archbishop Pell on the other hand wants to defend those aspects of his Church and to preserve its influence on society. Both of us should forget those agendas when considering the problem of sexual abuse. We need to banish from our minds any interest in the Catholic Church’s reputation at all – whether to tarnish or redeem it.

If we are solely interested in understanding sexual abuse against children we should focus on the Catholic Church if the data points us there and not if it doesn’t. For the moment there seems to be reason to do so, but with strong reservations that we may be overlooking the wider problem of familial sexual abuse.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Let justice be done though the world perish.

There are many different ways to resolve ethical questions. Two ways in particular appear similar. We can identify them by their golden rule; 
  • “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or;
  • “Act only in accordance with what you would want to be a universal law.”
The similarities are there because the first is credited to Jesus and the second to Immanuel Kant, a Christian philosopher, whose main goal was to show a rational foundation to all things including Christianity. Although he was almost eighteen centuries after Jesus, Kant did not see his rule as borrowed from Christianity. Instead he saw Jesus’ golden rule as derived from his categorical imperative (as Kant called his rule). Before we scoff at this hubris, Kant was only saying that he was articulating a more fundamental principle in the background of all human rationality – not that Jesus copied him!  Kant also felt his categorical imperative gave clearer direction to more ethical problems than Jesus' golden rule.

It can be difficult to apply “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to problems like environmental damage. In most cases dropping a piece of rubbish on the ground or pumping out smog from car use has a very diffuse effect. We can ignore that it is somehow affecting any “others” because it only has a tiny effect on any specific other person. The concept of “others” is also confused because the effect on others is usually shared with the polluter themselves.

Kant’s rule does seem to be a better way of expressing the spirit of what Jesus was talking about for problems like environmental damage. Early Kantian’s concerns weren’t the same as the green movements of today. However Kantian ethics is likewise concerned with promoting social behaviour that can govern large groups of people living together without external authority. Kant wrote in the infancy of the modern nation state. His ethics describes the internal policeman that we expect national citizens to carry with them. This inner cop reminds us not to drop litter, or speed, or steal by asking us to imagine what our town/country/world would be like if everyone did the same.

Many professing Christians would agree with Kant that his rule is merely a clearer expression of Jesus’ former one. There is no culture war with Kantians on one side and Jesusians on the other. To have ethics grounded in Kant’s rule is so common now that it can be difficult for some people to imagine that it is not the only possible way to discuss ethics even if they are Christian.  However Kant has not merely clarified Jesus’ rule with his own. He marks a significant departure.

Firstly, the two rules are addressed to different audiences. Imagine a person who is about to be hung for theft and is trying to escape. Jesus’ rule makes more sense if we say it to the hangmen. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to apply it to the person trying to avoid punishment. If we ask the thief to do unto others as they would have done to them they could well reply “ok” and keep escaping. They thief could be happy not to have to hang anyone in the hangmans place.

On the other hand “do unto others…” has great implications for the hangman. They are being asked to sympathise with the thief and to put themselves in their place. That’s going to spell the end of the hanging, I would guess.

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is power leveling. If a King and their subject required this of themselves they would end up like equals because if the King was mistaken for a commoner they would still want respect. If the wealthy and the poor required this of each other they would end up more like equals too. The implications of this commandment were far more costly for the men of Jesus’ time than the women. It asks more of judges than prisoners and conquering armies than the vanquished. This is Jesus primarily directing his moral discipline to those in power or rather to each of us in our positions of power whatever they may be, parent over child for example.

Kant’s categorical imperative works differently. Kant’s message is deliberately indifferent to the power or other circumstances of the audience. “Act only in accordance with that maxim which you would want to become a universal law” makes sense when spoken to our condemned thief and the hangman both. It is indifferent to their relative positions. Kant asks all equally, hangmen, thief and cook whether we think all thieves everywhere should escape. If the answer is no then the thief should stop escaping.

At first we might think that it also equalizes people. After all if a person should hang someone then this, universalized, would lead to hanging everyone, which no-one would want. The hangman, specifically, by not wanting the good of hanging people to be a universal law is thus restrained from hanging anyone. So the same result can be achieved by Kant’s rule as by Jesus’.  However it’s easy to have the maxim say all convicted thieves, not all people, should hang.  This rule allows the hangman to practice hanging with moral consistency under Kant’s law while they would have difficulty doing so under Jesus’ rule.

Although it is indifferent to power, Kant’s rule is often more costly to those without power. Refugees for example suffer when we apply Kant’s principle of universalism. We cannot cut one family a break because there are millions behind them who we would then have to give the same break to. In Australian migration debates we are regularly asked to imagine “what if every single person who wanted to come into Australia was let in?” That is a very Kantian question.

Refugees fare much better under Jesus’ rule where we are asked to do unto them as we would have them do unto us. I believe I would have them make room for me if our situations were changed and they were (as I am now) sitting on a quarter-acre block. Jesus rule doesn’t speak to me and the refugee equally. It speaks to us in our positions of power which I clearly hold over the refugee.

Kant’s rule seems to operate in a conservative fashion. It preserves the status quo more effectively than it delivers justice through change. It is more power maintaining than power leveling. Amongst modern and unwitting Kantians this is actually the defense of universalism that they put forward. Kant’s rule is seen as pragmatic, reasonable, workable and so on in comparison to what Jesus’ rule requires of us. Jesus is a radical while Kant makes common sense. Again that can be heard in refugee policy debates in Australia; not the specific mention of Immanuel Kant but the ideas.

However Kant was no conservative or pragmatic person. He saw himself as an opponent of pragmatism and once wrote “let justice be done though the world perish.” His ethics have very radical implications which we are seeing in their application today.

One of the most commonly cited examples of the logical and radical implications of Kant’s rule is the dilemma of the hangman and the thief on an island. Kant held that if it is right to hang the thief (in his example it was a murderer) in a city of millions then it is also right to hang them when there is no-one else around. If the hangman doesn’t hang their only companion on the island then they are also saying that all hangings of all thieves are wrong everywhere else too. Kant is radically indifferent to circumstances. That is in fact the pride of his ethics.

This thinking, (enforced by a global military alliance for profit), is what is creating many millions of economic refugees the world over by trapping countries inside spiraling debt. The argument is that people must repay debts because if we were to universalize defaulting on a debt then we would have no basis for borrowing in the first place. Hence under Kant’s rule no country can default regardless of the insanity of their economic situation. Even if a country’s debt was created by a previous dictator who used it to torture their people those very people must service that debt. Even if a country’s debt is only able to be serviced by unsustainable strip mining that must be what is done. Otherwise, under Kant’s rule, all debts, even all contracts of any kind would be meaningless. The circumstances of individual cases cannot be taken into account.

This is leading to an untenable world order. Whole nations of people are in debt prisons and if they attempt to flee then they are placed in life-long limbo in refugee camps. This is generating massive profits for a few. Kant however wouldn’t care. He never proposed that his rule would produce a better society. In fact his main opponents were utilitarians whose ethical philosophy evaluated actions by their benefits and harms. Kant appears to be reasonable and even pragmatic with an emphasis on conservativism but his ethics is in fact profoundly uninterested in any of that. His ethical system is a system of absolutes. And it’s killing many of us.

It probably seems odd to suggest that any solution to the world’s refugee crisis needs to challenge Immanuel Kant. That’s only the sort of irrelevant suggestion a philosopher could make. However I believe everything we do is ethical and that our ethical philosophy ultimately decides how this world works. (That’s another blog post I’m working on at the moment).  

Ask yourself, how differently would just your next day be under Kant’s golden rule or Jesus’? Ask yourself soon what difference each rule would make when applied to our world economy and our treatment of refugees? As melodramatic as it sounds it is true that many millions of people are extremely and endlessly suffering under Kant. What would we have them do unto us if we were in their position?

Friday, November 2, 2012

A current cry for help.

We are not independent thinkers as a species. We all tend to check in with people around us about what to notice and how to interpret information. When everyone is scurrying for cover we at least look up and check if a storm is coming. But if nobody else is alarmed we don’t worry ourselves.

This tendency can cause problems. We know that a person is less likely to receive assistance when calling for help the more people around. This is partly because, before acting, people check in with others around them to see how those people are interpreting the cry for help. (After all it could just be someone playing silly buggers and calling for help from a tickle attack.) Unfortunately we check in with others surreptitiously. This looks just like a person who has already decided the cry for help is not important. Seeing that in each other strengthens that interpretation until we are all less likely to act. 

Certainly this reliance on each other is something that increases when information is ambiguous or confusing. This is why when people are in trouble it can be a good idea to scream Rape or Fire rather than Help. Anything that reduces ambiguity will increase the chance of assistance. Increasing confusion however is a tactic to ensure nobody responds to the cry for help.

Who would want to increase the chance that nobody responds to a cry for help? There are three groups who would. They include anyone who might be causing and benefiting from the harm, anyone who might be in a position to help but not want to and in the broadest group anyone who is beholden to either or both of those groups and wants to keep them happy/placid etc.

Eg. If Jeremy is being attacked and calls for help;
  • obviously his attacker will want any bystanders to feel confusion over that call (lest their intervention cause the attacker grief),
  • a bystander will also want to feel confusion over that call (lest they have to intervene which would be dangerous)
  • a parent will want their child to feel confusion over the call to minimize their distress and keep them moving to school on time.
  • a hotdog seller will want a potential customer to feel confusion because they don’t want them distracted from buying a hot dog,
When we are the bystanders to a cry for help this third group who just want to keep us happy, (represented above by both the hot dog seller and the parent,) are everywhere around us. They are everything that has a vested interest in us just moving in the direction we were previously going.

Does it matter if we don’t reply to a genuine call for help? There are many spiritual traditions that say it deeply matters. In Celtic paganism reincarnation is understood as the cruelest form of justice. If we ignore a call for help then we can expect to be the one ignored when making such a call in our next life so that we learn what we have done. This is similar to the philosophy of the Tarot where we are souls on an upward journey of maturity, bound to learn the hard way what we ignore the first time around. Our souls are floating back up to God and keeping them down only leads to tragedy.

Buddhism makes similar claims, sans God though. Even more explicitly in Buddhism the tragedy of an immature soul’s existence is not necessarily that we have ill health or bad luck; external causes of suffering. It is that we are like petulant children feeling our smallest woes as unbearable and our greatest pleasures as not good enough. We suffer because of our immaturity. Hence maturity of the soul is its own reward.

In Christianity our judgement for ignoring a cry for help is much more final. We are to face a reckoning in which our creator identifies them-self with those who were in need. Those who ignored the cries of the hungry or the oppressed have ignored God. They will be treated as strangers by God in heaven.

Personally I admire the ideas of the Stoics. In their philosophy our decisions in matters such as these define who we are. The question then isn’t what do we want to do, but who do we want to be, or even who are we? Are we the sort of person who doesn’t respond to a cry for help? Or are we the type who is willing to risk foolishness and danger in coming to someone’s aid? This self definition is considered more important that the “secondary” consequences of our actions, whether a heavenly reward or a better reincarnation or even the benefit to those calling for help. I know who I want to be.

Theories of identity, the soul, God and reincarnation however can be put to one side. Obviously our response to a cry for help matters to the person making the call. That person is someone as real as us and as real as our own children. It is central to our most basic awareness of social reality that we recognize our self and other people as morally similar. All our thinking rests on a presumption of sanity and this, our response to a person in need, is that cornerstone of sanity. Hence we must think from an empathy with others or not think at all.

The last few paragraphs may seem like I am belaboring the obvious. Of course it is good to help others in need. I haven’t said much more. However I hope I’m making the point that this is perhaps the ultimate concern of any ethics, whether theistic or non-theistic. By comparison, questions of whether you look after your health or keep yourself sexually pure, both of which seem to dominate our ethical discussions, are really vanities. They are selfish concerns.  I point this out so that when we ask ourselves how we respond to a call for help hopefully we can remember the magnitude of what we are discussing. This is our soul’s journey, our relationship with God, our very identity, and our sanity at stake. This ought to be the most pressing business of our lives and of our society.

There are real and pressing calls for help being made to us. One in particular has been on my mind; the cry of people who are refugees seeking a better life in Australia. Our Labour government, supposedly our left wing and progressive alternative for government, have recently been making changes to our country’s immigration policies. In particular the Australian Gillard government has pursued off-shore processing. Their new camps are designed to have deliberately inadequate provisions. The purpose of that inadequacy is to deter boat arrivals. Worst of all however is the suspension of the processing of refugee applications in those camps. This constitutes indefinite detention in conditions worse than most jails and for no crime. Indefinite detention particularly is a major contribution to suicide risk. It runs contrary to hope to have no idea of the length of your incarceration.

Let’s be perfectly clear here. This is not an untargeted attack on refugees. This is an attack directly aimed upon the poorest and most likely to be killed if they don’t come to Australia. Most applications for an Australian protection visa occur when applicants arrive by plane with valid visas. They then apply while here for asylum and stay in Australia outside detention on a bridging visa while their application is processed. They are not treated as a threat. Most of those applications however are refused as ineligible.

By contrast anyone arriving by boat can currently expect to wait for ever. Given that they are fleeing persecution they are not likely to be able to obtain visas from their countries. They are not likely to be able then to travel by plane. These are the people we mark as threats and send to offshore camps. However the percentage of these people (when their applications have been processed) who have been recognized as “genuine” refugees under Australian law is between 70 and 97 percent.

I am a bystander to these calls for help. I am looking to my fellow Australians for how they are interpreting them, as they are looking at me. Our inactivity is being read by each other as the message that there is nothing to worry about. That is helped along by our own interest in not helping these people. We have other things to do. It is easier to embrace confusion about the issue.

We are not aided in this by both our major parties sharing policy on this matter. Nothing has changed since when both major parties would have considered indefinite off shore detention appalling or since when only the Liberal party supported it. However now there is a blinding reinforcement that this is acceptable in almost any direction we look.

The long Christmas season is also about to start up. Christmas holds a range of vested interests in our doing nothing other than purchasing and partying. The Christmas sales, celebrations, tourist season, all have their own direction they want us to be heading in, towards the cash register. Even the adoration of baby Jesus operates as a distraction in this season from who needs our help. It’s just like more entertainment. On all these channels the cacophony of Christmas is going to support confusion over refugees. That confusion breeds inaction which can be filled with the consumptive action of Christmas instead.

I don’t know exactly what form of assistance I can render those asking for help. How do I, get my government to;
  • at least improve conditions off-shore;
  • ideally bring back on-shore processing where people can quickly move into the community if they pose no risk;
  • provide more staff to process claims quicker and;
  • recognize that indefinite detention is not a policy option at any time ?
My confusion breeds inaction which inspires the same in others. When Christmas sucks our time, energy and excitement into its own clutches there will be very little left for this call for help. That’s unless we do something potentially unpopular and derail this Christmas with a constant search for clarity on the needs of refugees. We have our own and many others’ vested interest in confusion to challenge.

But if we do nothing who does that say we are? If we embrace these current immigration policies then what would we say to a Creator who suffers for it? What journey does that put our soul on? How sick is our society and our selves if we can do this? Given how much is at stake can we do anything but everything to end our confusion and act on these calls for help?