After hearing that the Coalition had returned to power, at least 12 of the refugees still languishing in offshore detention have tried to take their own lives.
Many Australian voters are mourning the lost opportunity to take decisive action to curb global warming, find humane solutions for refugees held on Manus Island and Nauru, and provide relief for those closer to home who have been denied the spoils of a neo-liberal economy. For them, the election turned on deep moral issues on which the nation now stands deeply divided.
These divisions aren’t just about party politics. Labor or Greens voters may claim progressive credentials based on a commitment to social justice. But ‘small l’ Liberals have historically supported humanitarian causes, which they typically locate within a more reformist agenda. Even if disagreement remains about how to ameliorate it, causing egregious harm to people and the environment should raise alarm bells across party lines.
One question gnawing away at those of us who identify broadly with progressive politics is how so many of our compatriots could have consented to what we see as a program of large-scale harm. Is it just that they don’t care?
Since World War II, a substantial literature has sought to explain systemic processes such as moral exclusion and obedience to authority that can be mobilised within democracies to justify large-scale harm.
One example is the work by American social psychologists Kelman and Hamilton on what they call “crimes of obedience”. These occur wherever large numbers of people consent, actively or tacitly, to actions that would normally be considered morally wrong.
Start with fear
But what happens to transform what is normally morally wrong into acts that can be widely condoned? What are the necessary conditions for large numbers of people to consent to crimes of obedience within a democracy?
Firstly, there should be widespread fear and insecurity. Rapid cultural, technological and economic globalisation has indeed generated ontological insecurity in many people at this point in time. Moreover, neo-liberalism has deliberately amplified financial insecurity as a matter of ideology.
Overlaid with a dose of neo-conservative nationalism, there’s a ready supply of ‘others’ who we can blame for our own predicament, while conveniently ignoring theirs.
These ‘others’ are subjected to sustained processes of neutralisation and dehumanisation through political rhetoric and media representations. Neutralisation renders invisible subordinate populations such as drug users, the homeless or unemployed, whose needs are persistently ignored. More visible groups may be dehumanised through repeated labelling in public discourse as ‘illegal’, ‘criminal’, ‘scroungers’, ‘bludgers’, ‘dangerous’ and unworthy of our moral concern.
Once rendered invisible or unworthy, harmful interventions or continued neglect can be justified through processes of authorisation. Populations are subject to sustained messaging from sources they consider to be authoritative, convincing them that strong action is needed to protect them from the threats these groups pose to their physical or financial security.
Once rendered invisible or unworthy, harmful interventions or continued neglect can be justified through processes of authorisation.
Individuals may start to notice some signs that harm is occurring to other people or the environment. Native species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate. Weather patterns are increasingly catastrophic. Disturbing reports are filtering through that children on Nauru have been irreparably damaged. We may see Australians on low incomes who are unable to pay their bills or being ruthlessly pursued by Centrelink for real or supposed overpayments of their benefits.
Authoritative voices then reassure us that these measures are necessary and justified to keep us safe. Urgent action on climate change is unnecessary and will cost them their livelihoods. Resettling detainees here will let criminals loose among us. In fact, resettling them anywhere will restart the boats and cost even more lives. Unemployed people should try harder. The government knows what it’s doing, and is on a mission to protect us.
Enter the Saviour
The conditions are now in place for a charismatic leader to assume the role of Saviour. The credentials needed to fulfil this role will no doubt vary across cultures and over time, but it’s no coincidence that the ‘miracle’ of Scott Morrison’s re-election has spawned headlines across multiple Murdoch media outlets anointing him 'The Messiah from the Shire'.
In case these tactics of authorisation prove insufficient, processes of distanciation can be mobilised to obscure chains of responsibility. Outsourcing – the modus operandi par excellence of neo-liberalism – provides many opportunities to do just that.
The distress caused by ‘Robodebt’ is due to technical and administrative failures, not a matter of policy. Environmentally destructive coalmines have been approved on the basis of independent reports by experts, not at the whim of ministers. And the health and wellbeing of offshore detainees are the responsibility of the PNG government, while details about the day-to-day management of the centres by private security companies are subject to contractual confidentiality.
The conditions required for crimes of obedience to occur are well understood and documented. But this doesn’t mean we’re on an inexorable slide into a moral abyss. Kelman and Hamilton argue that individuals they identify as ‘value-driven’ are the most likely to recognise and resist consenting to crimes of obedience. Those they classify as ‘rule-driven’ will probably go along with the majority around them, while ‘role-driven’ individuals, who readily align with figures of authority, may be enthusiastic supporters.
This goes some way to explaining why people with strong commitments to the values of social justice or liberal humanitarianism are speaking out about the large-scale harm they foresee following the outcome of the election. It may also help to explain the visceral distress that many of us are feeling about what the election has revealed about our fellow Australians.
Analysing the election outcome as an example of crimes of obedience doesn’t imply that personal values and orientations to authority alone are the answer to preventing avoidable harm to people and the planet.
But it might help those of us struggling to understand the electoral choices that so many of our fellow Australians have made, to see the underlying processes that may have contributed to this outcome.