The importance of language

I’ve been reading Jim Wallis’ book, The Soul of Politics, and I got to one section and it really struck me how much it related to a recent change in tack in how the Australian Government treats Asylum Seekers. It’s from a section dealing with the inequality between gender, and Wallis tells a story from a report published in Sojourners magazine.

It tells the story about Stroh’s brewery in the US, who started an ad campaign that included some scantily clad women. On 8 November 1991, five women from their bottling plant filed lawsuits, claiming that its ‘sexist, degrading’ advertising campaign encouraged sexual harassment on the job at Stroh’s. One plaintiff, the only female machinist at the plant, said “When the company as a whole is treating women as sexual objects, as body parts, it… sends a message to the employees.” As Wallis puts it, “The company, in other words, gives ‘a big stamp of approval’ to sexual harassment.”

So how does this relate to Australia’s Asylum Seeker policy?

Recently, Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Scott Morrison, directed all departmental employees to refer to Asylum Seekers as ‘Illegal Maritime Arrivals’. The issue here is the use of the word, Illegal.

Morrison says that he is entitled to use the word ‘Illegal’ because it is included in the Refugee Convention. However, the connotations that come with that word can lead to some serious, unintended consequences. And we have already started to see the results of that.

The Guardian is reporting that a Serco officer has been reported for referring to asylum seekers as young as 12 by their Boat Identification number, instead of their name. While the officer has been disciplined, it’s still disturbing news.

When the government says that they are enforcing this language, it is – as Wallis said – putting a big stamp of approval on treating Asylum Seekers as criminals. And when the people who are in charge of the Asylum Seekers are not properly trained, and in locations far from the watchful eye of the Australian Public, it breeds situations where awful atrocities can happen.

Just because there is capacity in the Refugee Convention to use this language, doesn’t mean that it necessarily should be used.

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Author: Ben Clapton

I'm an Officer in The Salvation Army, currently appointed with my wife as Corps Officers at the Rochester Corps in country Victoria (20 minutes out of Echuca). I play violin and guitar, amongst many others, and love golf and running.

1 thought on “The importance of language”

  1. Well said Ben. It is an appalling attitude for our Commonwealth Minister to use and to promote as the most appropriate way to refer to asylum seekers coming in hope of freedom and justice and a fair go.

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