Knowing and not knowing: denial and asylum seekers

In a recent Overland article, Christopher Mayes noted the way the ‘officialise’ of Operation Sovereign Borders ‘creates realities that permit us to do some things and not others.’ It’s worth thinking more on the effects of such language, particularly after Morrison’s appearance at the Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

Since Mayes’ article, Morrison launched an extraordinary attack on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s President Gillian Triggs. On 30 July on the ABC’s 7.30 program, he was asked about comments Triggs had made concerning children and mothers detained on Christmas Island.

Triggs had visited detainees on Christmas Island sixteen days earlier, accompanied by the paediatrician of more than thirty years standing, Professor Elizabeth Elliott, as part of the Commission’s Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Their visit came four months after the inquiry team’s first visit to Christmas Island, in March 2014.

After the July visit, Triggs and Elliot publicly commented that virtually all of the then 174 children detained on Christmas Island were sick, that 13 women were under constant suicide watch, and that the day-to-day medical care on the island did not include specialist mental and health care.

Morrison responded:

I don’t think there is evidence of the claim the Human Rights Commissioner has made, in the way she has made it. These are difficult environments and appropriate care is provided by our people. I think they’re quite sensational claims that have been made and she herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there and provide that care on a daily basis.

Morrison’s comments were extraordinary not only because they attacked Trigg’s credibility, but because they were a statement of denial, an attempt to assert that the evidence gathered by eyewitness investigations by two inquiry team visits over a four month period was simply not true.

It is impossible to believe that the minister was not aware of the findings of these visits, which are publicly available and received media coverage. In March, medical members of the inquiry team recorded high levels of distress, head banging, self-biting, developmental delay, and regression (such as bedwetting) in the children detained.

By the second visit, four months later, the welfare of detained asylum seekers had deteriorated further. The inquiry team spoke with children who had developed bed-wetting and stuttering, suffered nightmares and flashbacks, had withdrawn to their rooms or refused to eat. Professor Elliot described the symptoms she saw as ‘consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder.’ She also noted the high rates of distress, anxiety, depression and self-harm, and the crowded, dirty and unhygienic conditions of the camp.

Even the government’s own data shows the high levels of distress among detainees, with 128 children and 89 adults self-harming over a 15 month period to 31 March 2014 on Christmas Island.

While we could simply dismiss Morrison’s comments as political lies, manipulation, spin or deliberate misinformation, it’s important to examine what this language of denial attempts to create.

The sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his book States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, examines denial at the level of government, society and the individual, and asks a series of questions. What do we do with the knowledge of suffering of others? How do we react when government, society or individuals deny the existence and significance of this suffering?

Cohen notes that once we understand what denial is – the assertion that something is not true, did not happen, is not known about, or does not exist – the content can be questioned. He describes three types of denial: ‘literal denial’ (it did not happen or does not exist); ‘interpretive’ denial (it happened, but its meaning is different than appears); and ‘implicatory’ denial (it happened, but its significance is different than appears).

Morrison managed to combine all three modes of denial in his attacks on Triggs. He denied the evidence (literal denial); acknowledged the ‘difficult environment’ requiring ‘appropriate care by our people’ (interpretive denial – ‘if there is sickness among detained children, our people are providing appropriate care’); and asserted Triggs’ concerns were ‘sensational claims … she herself is not a doctor and we have medical people who are there…’ (implicatory denial – discrediting Triggs and the significance of her reports).

Similarly, the language of Operation Sovereign Borders shows Cohen’s various types of denials: those based on the ‘denial of injury’ (no one suffers, or if they do, it’s their fault); the ‘denial of the victim’; and the ‘condemnation of the condemners’ (those that speak out against denial).

Abbott’s remarks ‘that everyone in these centres is there because he or she has come illegally to Australia by boat … [t]hey have done something that they must have known was wrong’; not only blames people arriving by boat for their detention but also uses their means of arrival as the basis for denying them protections afforded under international law.

The phrase ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ attempts to deny their human identity, while Morrison’s attack on the ‘sensational claims’ of Triggs condemns those who speak out in defence of the sufferers.

The Commission’s inquiry plays a critical role in challenging the bureaucratic and denial language of our politicians and revealing the conditions in detention facilities. The way evidence heard before the inquiry is shared is also important.

The day after Morrison’s comments, the inquiry heard damning evidence of suffering in detention centres and the severe lack of appropriate medical care. This evidence was made instantly accessible by live tweets from the inquiry room, with parts of the hearings streamed live, recorded, and made publicly available.

These technologies allow anyone with access to the internet to hear and watch in ‘real time’ the evidence of suffering in detention, and the chronic lack of care. As well as refuting the language of denial used by Morrison and Operation Sovereign Borders, technology also creates the possibility for a wide audience to acknowledge the significance of this suffering, and then to act upon this knowledge.

Questioning denial language surrounding Operation Sovereign Borders challenges the reality this language attempts to create – that the suffering of people in detention does not exist, or its significance is minimal and we should be indifferent to it.

In addition to the inquiry, reality television shows, humanitarian organisations, community groups and advocates create opportunities for us to see, and empathise with, the journey of asylum seekers to our shores. It asks the audience to not look away from the suffering of others, and to recognise its significance.

This touches upon Cohen’s theory that at an individual and cultural level, denial can also be ‘neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie…there seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.’

At an individual level this includes ‘turning a blind eye’ to the visible reminders of homelessness, poverty and suffering. The visible information is there, ‘we are vaguely aware of choosing not to look at the facts, but are not quite conscious of what we are evading. We know, but at the same time we don’t know.’

Questioning the denial language of Morrison and Operation Sovereign Borders challenges the ‘reality’ they create of appropriate treatment and care being provided to those arriving on our shores. It also refutes their inference that we should be indifferent to the suffering in detention that is exposed. It allows us to acknowledge and empathise with the hopes, needs, and suffering of those seeking asylum, and then to do something it. As Cohen puts it, doing ‘something’ about suffering we know about doesn’t demand ‘extraordinary heroism,’ but it does require not being silent about it in our everyday lives.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Pia Riley is a freelance writer with a background of working in humanitarian law and policy.

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  1. Pia, what a well written, insightful article.
    My question is what can we DO about it?
    With the leaders of govt determined to give this situation the 1984 Ministry of Truth treatment, who do we turn to who can actually take some action?

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