Officialese and sovereign borders

Scott Morrison’s recent performances at press conferences have taken on a Dadaist quality. The repetition, stock phrases and non-sequiturs of Morrison’s bureaucratic officialese has elements of the absurd.

Question: So could you clarify sir for us at what point does an event become a significant event involving a boat on the water?

Minister Morrison: When you see me here standing and reporting on it.

Question: And you are standing here reporting.

Minister Morrison: I am not. I am saying there is no such report for me to provide to you today.

Decontextualised, Morrison’s speech is humorous. But in the context of desperate people seeking the safety of our shores, we need more than comedy. It is important to note the way this language creates the reality in which the violence of Operation Sovereign Borders can occur unnoticed.

Hannah Arendt, the German-American political theorist and subject of a recent film, noted the importance of language for disclosing reality in which certain thoughts and actions were made possible. Words do not just convey information about our intentions, but reveal and create the reality in which we act and think.

Language enables us to think and engage in the world with others in creative and new ways. A limited language, however, limits these possibilities of thinking, especially from the perspective of others. It is this limitation that Arendt (in)famously heard during the trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann was the Nazi lieutenant colonel responsible for managing the logistics of transporting Jews and Untermenschen (inferior people) to the camps. He was brought to trial in Jerusalem in 1960, after being caught by Mossad in Argentina.

Reporting on the trial for The New Yorker, Arendt controversially characterised Eichmann as neither an idiot nor a monster, but a bureaucrat and family man who claimed to try and live his life according to Kant’s categorical imperative. But how does a bureaucrat commit such crimes against so many people?

Part of the answer is language. The language of the bureaucrat – officialese – sets the parameters for thought and creates a world for the speaker where some things can exist and others can’t. The bureaucracy – literally, rule of the office – and its limited language buffered Eichmann from understanding what he was doing as brutal murder. This is how Eichmann maintained that he ‘never killed any human being’, despite being central to the logistics of the greatest mass killings in human history.

Arendt describes a scene during Eichmann’s trial where the judge cannot understand one of Eichmann’s clichés. Eichmann cannot explain what he means using any other words and apologises saying, ‘officialese [Amtssprache] is my only language’. The point Arendt takes from this exchange is that Eichmann’s language and thought is comprised of clichés and officialese. This limited language renders him incapable of uttering different sentences, thinking new ideas or understanding another person’s perspective.

The longer she listened to him, Arendt felt that ‘the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’ The official language of the bureau created a world for Eichmann where he didn’t need to encounter the presence of others because those others did not exist in that world. He was not killing human beings, but managing and coordinating. The numbers on pieces of paper on his desk were not people that he could communicate with but abstractions to be administrated and transported.

What does this mean for Operation Sovereign Borders?

Firstly, calling someone a Nazi is itself cliché and rarely moves the discussion along. But this doesn’t mean we should avoid listening for the echoes of the past in practices of the present.

I am not suggesting that Scott Morrison is a national socialist or even a racist. But there are similarities between what Arendt identified in Eichmann’s language and the language of border protection.

The language of Operation Sovereign Borders erases the human elements that we can relate to, leaving only abstractions and qualities to fear. Within this reality only certain thoughts are possible.

‘People smugglers’ with their ‘business models’, ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ in ‘suspected illegal entry vessels’, ‘on water matters’ that can’t be discussed unless they ‘involve safety of life at sea’, and ‘enhanced screening processes’ that separate ‘illegals’ from ‘genuine refugees’.

This bureaucratic officialese masks the reality of Operation Sovereign Borders and allows the unthinkable and unspeakable to occur. It allows us to believe that wealthy economic migrants are jumping queues, yet restricts thought about actual living conditions in the offshore concentration camps. It permits us to speak of self-harm as ‘moral blackmail’while silencing discussion of the severe lack of appropriate medical care in the camps. It encourages fear of the unknown but denies the possibility of empathising with wellbeing of others.

The impenetrable officialese of Operation Sovereign Borders doesn’t allow us to think of the hopes and dreams of the people coming to our shores or floating on our waters. People with hopes and dreams are not in the boats. ‘Illegal maritime arrivals’ are in the boats, and their hopes and dreams? Well, to quote Morrison, we can’t ‘speculate on hypotheticals’.

We should lampoon Morrison and the officialese of Operation Sovereign Borders. Arendt mocks Eichmann’s clichéd speech throughout her book. Humour has an important role in critiquing our politicians. But we need to be aware of the more troubling effects of language for thought, reality and our relations to others. In Arendt’s terms, we need ‘to think what we are doing’. To do this we need to be aware of the way our language creates realities that permit us to do some things and not others.

Christopher Mayes

Christopher Mayes is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine (VELiM) at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on biopolitics and continental philosophy approaches to bioethics. Information about his research and publications can be found here. He is on Twitter as @chrisrmayes.

More by Christopher Mayes ›

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  1. I love the Monty Python type discourse going on here. It’s just like the argument sketch

    “M: I came here for a good argument!

    O: AH, no you didn’t, you came here for an argument!

    M: An argument isn’t just contradiction.

    O: Well! it CAN be!

    M: No it can’t!

    M: An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.

    O: No it isn’t!

    M: Yes it is! ’tisn’t just contradiction.

    O: Look, if I *argue* with you, I must take up a contrary position!

    M: Yes but it isn’t just saying ‘no it isn’t’.

    O: Yes it is!

    M: No it isn’t!

    O: Yes it is!

    M: No it isn’t!

    O: Yes it is!

  2. The only thing that I would add is that the “inability to think” is a deliberate thing and the creation of such language is deliberate and is intended to solve a problem, the problem being that I think of myself as a good person and, if I really thought about it I know the actions I am taking or enabling are wrong. Thus there is a clash between my actions and what I think of myself and thus the language is created as part of the justification process for my actions and thus I can think of myself as a good person again.

    Eichmann is a really good example of it. He knew what he was doing was wrong but to be “successful” in the system he lived in he had to be a Nazi and which meant taking part in the holocaust but he knew that Jews were being killed but this clashed against his belief that he was a good person. Thus he had to tell himself that he was not directly involved and thus he was not killing any Jews so he could be both “successful” and good.

    We have two choices in this life, we can be successful in a material sense or we can be successful in a human or moral sense. Along the lines of you can not serve both God and money you can not be successful materially and be a good human. To be successful materially requires that you hold the belief that others are more deserving of the comforts life has to offer, to be a good human you have to believe that all are equal and are equally entitled to these things. Most choose to be successful materially.

  3. The word psychopath comes to mind, there is a distinct lack of empathy with these people that are responsible for the butchering of and terrorizing and entire nation BTW. That they have not be held to account is due to a capitulation by academia and upper middle class professionals whose comfortable lifestyles come before principle.

  4. Thanks for writing this! The circumstances within which we now find ourselves as a nation, are in my opinion, extremely troubling.

  5. I’m at present battling a big energy corporation; they’re trying to force me to fix up a mistake that they’re responsible for and I’m refusing to be depersonalised and manipulated. Much of what’s been said above applies. The numbers on their desks are not people, they are fodder for this big profit-making machine. Communicating with them is done by button pushing and code words and they in return see the cutomer as a button to be pushed. They assume the customer will act as instructed and if you don’t they have no idea what to do. Their system comes to a standstill.

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