Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Why We Torture Asylum Seekers, But Were Too Afraid To Ask

Ever wondered why the deaths of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran resonated so deeply, and Reza Barati’s death didn’t? Why News Corp thrives and New Matilda struggles? Clinical Psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson breaks it all down.

The Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate. The bill will broaden powers of immigration detention centre staff to use force and will reduce their accountability, placing detention centre operations outside the rule of law.

The Migration Amendment (Maintaining the Good Order of Immigration Detention Facilities) Bill is currently being reviewed by the Senate. The bill will broaden powers of immigration detention centre staff to use force and will reduce their accountability, placing detention centre operations outside the rule of law.

Having glimpsed immigration detention through the eyes of former Nauru medical staff at a public lecture last week, this is a sobering thought. Speakers described an environment of “dark, chilling lawlessness” rife with sexual assault and abuse, where detainees are known by number rather than name, and where grown women are so frightened that they wet the bed at night.

In a paper on the topic, psychologist David Mandel says, “The function of instigators is not to carry out the harm, but to tune and transmit the messages that will effectively motivate others to cause harm.”

Those with the greatest power to achieve this, he goes on to explain, are those in control of…

Not government.

Not wealth.

But information.

Information… In other words, the media.

LIKE bystanders, the informational instigators’ most potent acts are those of omission: that which is excluded, neglected, de-emphasised or ignored. In combination with acts of commission, such omissions can serve to pacify bystanders into acquiescent complicity, an essential ingredient of any collectively violent act.

Reporting Government claims of having saved lives by stopping boats, while omitting to also report that more lives were lost at sea in 2014 than in any previous year, for instance, is an omission with instigating force. It enables the lie that tunes and transmits the message to do harm – stop the boats.

In one study, for instance, Christians who read articles about Mulsim culture expressed greater willingness to torture Muslim prisoners, using the methods of Abu Ghraib, when Muslim people were depicted as subtly less human. This was achieved by attributing them with fewer uniquely human qualities such as ‘passion’ or ‘ambition’.

For anyone who doubts the power of information it is here. The omission of a few subtle but well-chosen words is enough to manipulate a normal, kindly, well-intentioned person’s willingness to torture. Provided that the victim is Muslim at least.

In Australia, our attitude towards detained people’s fate follows a similarly malleable path. The humanised coverage of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran’s killings, for instance, elicited enormous public anger and grief. The coverage of Reza Barati’s death, in contrast, like that of Aboriginal Australians killed in Australian detention, elicited a less morally outraged response.

Chan and Sukumaran were humanised, as all human beings should be, because they represented the “us” in the “us” versus “them” with Indonesia.

Another morally disengaging omission in the Australian mainstream media is the lack of a thoroughgoing, factual examination of contextual issues surrounding the immigration ‘debate’.

If we are to torture people, shouldn’t we at least cross-examine our rationale?

The fact that our mainstream media declines to do so in any scrupulous way amounts to an absence of moral reasoning. This is another precursor to atrocity, and another morally disengaging means of priming a population to do harm.

Our right to morally disengage gives our collective self-deception a particularly potent and self-aggrandising force. Such righteousness stems from what psychologists call ingroup glorification, also known as collective narcissism, manifesting as nationalism in extreme forms.

The recent sacking of Scott McIntyre provided a lesson in how swiftly the system-justifying self-glorifying narrative will be protected in Australia, especially when the Minister for Communications takes offence.

A government accused of torture passing a bill that increases its powers to use force outside the rule of law is one. Another is the heightened secrecy provisions in a bill passed quickly and quietly last week. The bill grants new powers of surveillance to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection while removing protections and increasing penalties for whistleblowers.

Given the critical role of media in atrocity-instigation, of all the actions a bystander could take, funding independent media is probably the most powerful level at which to intervene.

Read the full (brilliant) article New Matilda HERE, where there are full hyperlinks

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Dr Lissa Johnson is a clinical psychologist interested in the psychology of ideology and politics, and the philosophy and politics of psychology.

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