Saturday, May 23, 2015

Is Australia as bad as IS? Skewed criticism may leave you wondering

Perpetrator of crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and cultural genocide. Documented serial violator of international law and the most fundamental human rights. Complicit in territorial aggression.

All these accusations, and countless more like them, have recently been made by mainstream commentators, respected academics and official international figures.

Of whom do they speak? Australia, of course.

But does such insistent, brutal critique create a misleading picture of actual moral performance?

Relentless, powerful criticism

Many readers will be familiar with these accusations. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers attracts well-publicised accusations of crimes against humanity and prompts serial reports of its serious breaches of human rights. Australia has recently been accused of racist and discriminatory acts of cultural genocideethnic cleansing and “acts of war” for proposals to remove basic services to its remote indigenous communities. Australia’s (lack of) action on climate change allegedly amounts to crimes against humanity and its involvement in Middle East conflicts is tantamount to the crime of aggression.

Image result for australian flag pics

A country to be proud of? 
Meanwhile, major human rights reports highlight a “grim outlook” for Australia.

It is little wonder that respected international figures should thus mention Australia in the same breath as brutal regimes like Islamic State (IS), Syria and North Korea.

Actual moral performance

With all this in mind, you might be surprised where Australia sits in global human rights rankings. Australia consistently places in the very top echelon of such rankings, as seen herehere and here. Equally, it is a strong performer on governance valuesdemocracy indexes and combined measures of happiness.

Why do such comparative measures matter? After all, what possible solace can it be to someone suffering from violations of their rights to recognize that other places are even worse?

Yet comparative measures are important. They can remind us that key parts of our system are working, and therefore that reforms must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. They can underscore that other alternative forms of government may risk a step backwards more than a move forward.

More generally, when we see how much every state struggles with protecting rights, we begin to conceive what a powerful moral challenge we have set for ourselves. In 1748 Montesquieu could observe that, despite ordinary people’s love of liberty, and hatred of violence, most peoples in the world lived subject to despotism. His words still ring true today. Constructing political systems, run by fallible, diverse human beings, that reliably protect rights is notoriously hard to do.

It is true that none of this will (or should) impress any single person or group actually getting their rights violated. Calling attention to specific rights-violations and demanding targeted reforms remains as important a task in a country like Australia as in Syria.

But as well as focusing on discrete issues that are going wrong, sometimes we all need to make over-arching judgments about whether the state warrants our support and allegiance. When faced with things that are going badly wrong, we need to know whether we need reform or revolution. If our problems are systemic, then we probably need the latter. And when faced with opportunities (such as sending Australian troops as peacekeepers to Timor-Leste, or securing a seat for Australia on the Security Council) we need to be able to judge the likelihood that our state actors will behave well, or whether they will abuse their power. Both these sorts of issues require over-arching appraisals of how the general system is working.

(Of course, we should equally pay attention to comparative measures when they give us less happy news. Comparative measures can alert us to ways that other countries have made improvements or resisted changes that have led to their better performance (e.g., in their treatment of refugees and indigenous peoples).

What explains this gap between the critiques and Australia’s actual rankings?

As I have already stressed, one can be comparatively a top performer and still be plagued with serious problems, including serious rights violations.

But instead of using language appropriate to talking about serious problems, commentators routinely invoke notions of horrifying criminality. Through talk of genocide and atrocity, commentators often fail to distinguish between, on the one hand, savage slaughter and full-throttle repression and, on the other, rash, botched, insensitive, unilateral, penny-pinching, ham-fisted or politicised responses to genuinely tough ethical questions.

I must stress that to say that X is not Y, where Y is horrifyingly bad, is not to say that X is good, acceptable, or even legal. Nor is it to say that we do not need to urgently change our involvement in X. X may be bad and we may need to do everything we can to prevent it. But the distinction between the wrongs of X and horrors of Y may still be important. For too often acts of horrifying evil do happen in our world, and our responses to such evils cannot be the same as the way we respond to more everyday failings. We need to preserve a language that expresses the urgency and consensus appropriate in the face of acts of genocidal evil and intolerant slaughter.

But the problem of hyperbolic assertions in discrete cases is only half the issue. Even when the problems are described in appropriately measured tones, the debate can still be skewed towards criticism. Political discourse, media and activism all tend to focus on crisis, sensation and scandal.

Even academia is not immune. Social “critique” rightly bears a special place in academic life, but can direct attention towards what is going wrong, rather than what is going right.

Some of these practices – for example, politicians’ confected outrage – are lamentable. Other practices, such as academics and independent bodies speaking truth to power, are vital. Nevertheless, these many different phenomena combine to paint a misleadingly depressing picture of the country’s moral landscape.

Aren’t there benefits to this negative focus?

Even if the picture is skewed towards critique, real benefits arise. A negative slant can head off the natural tendency towards romanticizing one’s own community. Such a tendency can tempt us towards ugly nationalism or delusions about inherent cultural superiority.

Having high local expectations can also help secure important reforms and prevent complacency. For example, by congratulating ourselves on our high global rankings, Australians might spurn the call for new human rights legislation — even though this might be a powerful method for responding to the serious problems we do face.

But at what cost?

Hyperbole can undercut support for important causes when objective, balanced argument would work better.

Rather than changing their behaviour, people might switch off from critique. They might see the United Nations and human rights itself as nothing but unrelenting sources of shame and rebuke.

So, too, other countries can easily brush aside Australia’s entreaties to respect rights and international law. Who are we to preach to others — like Russia or Indonesia — if our own brand is irreparably tainted (as Iran recently queried)?

But perhaps the most serious ramifications of this cultural phenomenon lie in the potentially corrosive effect on ordinary people’s moral character.

Like every society, Australia needs to encourage reasonable allegiance and commitment to its social and political processes. We are all shocked when young people choose to betray Australia’s values by joining a genocidal regime like IS. Yet our own “public relations” efforts showcase our flaws, not our successes.

If people give up on the society around them, then they can tend to excuse their own moral failings and self-righteously disconnect from political life. Why play fair if the system is corrupt?

Finally, while it can feel good to scold wrongdoers, encouragement often works better for achieving results (and if we really care about human rights, isn't that what really matters?). As Thomas Merton once said: “In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him.” If Merton is right – and nothing I have ever seen in my many years of debating morality with others suggests he is wrong – then moral outrage and a relentless focus on what is going wrong are utterly unhelpful ways of convincing people to do better. A much better policy involves stressing how much people are doing right, and how noble and tolerant many of their values and actions are, and then moving to consider whether the current problem-areas can be improved to the same standard.

Indeed, convictions about the high standards of one’s institution or community can themselves motivate a ruthless and energetic stance toward ridding that institution of wrongful behaviours or elements. Australia’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General David Morrison, now-famous speech on sexism in the Australian Army provides a striking illustration. 

Summing up

In the current environment, Australians would struggle to feel any kind of “cultural ownership” of human rights. This is a real shame. From the most inauspicious beginnings, Australians have built their country into an extraordinary, albeit uneven, human rights success story.

They should be inspired to go on living up to their status as one of the leading protector of human rights worldwide.

(A shorted version of this article was previously published at The Conversation.)


Michael Cowley said...

Hi Hugh

I've been chewing on this argument for a while since you posted a version of it on the Conversation - I didn't really want to step into the bear pit of that comment thread.

While I agree that hyperbole may not be generally useful and that there are much greater violators of human rights in the world, I think there are a number of points you did not adequately cover.

While genocide is a very emotive term and may not be entirely technically correct for the specific cited case of "proposals to remove basic services to its remote indigenous communities", if you look at Australia's record as a whole and particularly the results of that policy over the last two hundred years, I think genocide is a justified description of the outcome. We (broadly speaking) killed a culture and stole its land and are living in its ruins, in a very real sense. Some of the tactics used against the indigenous population of Australia (up to and including outright massacres) are not that far from those in use right now in Syria, and while we may not be using those tactics any more we may not have made sufficient reparations for what we did.

This morning while listening to a podcast ( about the treatment of WWII German prisoners under Geneva convention rules in the US while US servicemen (and US citizens of Japanese origin) were not accorded the same treatment, my other problem with your argument crystallised in my mind.

I don't think you are paying enough credit to the need to combat state (and corporate) propaganda and the natural xenophobic tendencies of people. We are able to treat asylum seekers as we do (just as the US was able to treat Japanese-Americans similarly appallingly) because those people have been othered - in large part thanks to government efforts to enhance (or at best not to combat) racist and/or xenophobic attitudes.

Hyperbole may not be the most effective means of reaction against propaganda, but it's an entirely understandable reaction all the same when you are frustrated by what you see as unfair or untrue hyperbole going in the other direction.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment. Thoughtful as ever.

Yet we no doubt have deep disagreements on these issues.

I wonder if I can ask you what you would say if generalizations and allusions were leveled at another country, or indeed religion. Imagine if someone said to us that ‘Islam is a dangerous religion’, and they then started bringing up historical events that in various respects resembled parts of the Nazi genocide.

In that context, I can see me immediately stressing that we need to be very careful in making large-scale generalizations and assigning collective responsibilities, especially when we are making serious moral accusations. This is so even when we are speaking of contemporaneous events, much less introducing historical events. And I would stress that it is not enough to say that some actions were ‘not that far from’ very bad actions, or had a similar outcome. In making strong moral accusations about another religion, I would argue, fuzzy reasoning isn’t okay, and that we want to specify exactly what happened, under what circumstances, and what all the relevant moral factors were before making any strong accusations about individuals, much less a collective.

Wouldn’t you, like me, want to say all of these things in response to this imagined person making a worrying generalization about a religion in this way? I feel sure that you would.

Yet these are all the things I want to say in response to your post, and for exactly the same reason. Moral accusations are serious business, and need to be done with care and sensitivity – even if the ultimate judgment is to be a damning one.

To me the two situations look entirely symmetrical and that the same carefulness and sensitivity is required in both. (Am I missing something? Some distinction between the cases?)

I say this not in wanting to downplay your rightful concerns about the human capacity for xenophobia and racism, but in the very spirit of those concerns (and I would add, humanity’s broader capacities for out-group hatred and intolerance).

Hasty generalizations regarding the moral status of collective groups is exactly the modus operandi of intolerance. A hyperbolic, outraged accusation by Group A of Group B's moral status makes all of Group A more distrustful of Group B, and makes all of Group B angry and aggrieved – until Group B fires back and the whole spiral begins.

Michael Cowley said...

Reading my comment again I can see I did a poor job of communicating what I wanted to say.

I dismissed the points where I agreed with you in two clauses even though there was barely a claim that I disagreed with, and wrote "there are a number of points you did not adequately cover", when I really meant something more like "there are a number of things that will immediately be shouted back at you by the kind of crowd that inhabits the comments section at the Conversation, and here are two that I think deserve some consideration in your argument even though they don't change the thrust of what you say".

So, it's completely my fault that you perceive deep disagreements, but if it sounded otherwise I want to be clear - you are right to decry the hyperbole that you describe in your post as lamentable.

My point, poorly and too briefly made, was more that humans often fall short of measured discussion about emotive topics, and my sympathies (and own failings) are more in a certain direction even though I aspire to true neutrality and a certain detachment (an idealistic goal impossible in a fallible brain hosted in a meatsack of hormones).

I am more likely to be argumentative about hasty generalisations and moral accusations made when they are made about groups without power (or at least in a problematic power relationship) or under threat in a particular context.

So I am more likely to argue with someone over a generalisation about all refugees being terrorists or Islam being a religion of violence if the generalisation were being made in the context of a debate about immigration in Australia, than I would if the remark about Islam were being made in a conversation with a Muslim over lunch in Abu Dhabi (where I might be more likely to complain about a generalisation about Western imperialism, for instance).

That's my emotional response - whether it is an effective strategy (or morally justifiable) is another question.

I'd love to think that "appropriately measured tones" were the most effective strategy, as hard as they are to achieve at times when tough topics are being discussed. However I'm not sure that the empirical work has been done to establish that, and I am sure that try as I might I'm not always capable of such measured tones anyway.

Are we just discussing matters of taste in the meantime? Or am I being utterly wrongheaded in demanding an empirical answer to a question of moral philosophy?

Either way, thank you for your most thoughtful response.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike,

Thanks again for your further thoughts. I can see our disagreements are much less than I first supposed. (So that’s a relief.)

(Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Your post certainly did require some thought!)

I agree with you that context matters, especially when (as in the example I gave) we are in personal conversation with someone. You are right that an accusatory generalization is more worrying when, a) it is made from a member of one group about another group; and b) when that member (or group) wields power over vulnerable members of the other group.

This issue of context/power you raise is an important one (and it is interesting that no-one brought it up in The Conversation comments).

I think some people might tend to excuse hyperbole and skewed reporting on just these bases, and so I do want to follow this thread by noting three somewhat countervailing points: reasons why we should be wary of thinking that context excuses misleading rhetoric and exaggeration.

First, power shifts from one context to the next. It is rarely a simple matter of every member of one group holding power over every member of others. Each group has powerful and vulnerable members in different contexts, meaning that a member of a generally vulnerable group may in a certain context wield great power over a vulnerable member of another group. (These changes in power can occur in stark cases when someone picks up a weapon, or crosses a border.) As a result, a misleading generalization made in one context may not seem dangerous, until the power dynamic shifts.

Second, in our globalized world, information moves across contexts, especially when it is set down in written form and available online. So an article in The Guardian, or The Conversation, or a UN Speech, or an academic’s/politician’s public position (all types of communications I link in the above examples) can be read by many different audiences. Equally, a member of Group A might take on board the information as fact, and then relay it to a member of Group B. So hyperbole intended to make Group A take more seriously its own moral failings may easily fall into the hands of members of Group B who use it to damn Group A as evil monsters.

Third, the question of ‘who is vulnerable’ is *itself* a judgment made on the basis of these sorts of accusations. So in order to know which members of which groups actually are vulnerable, I need to have access to proper information and objective judgments. If I have been presented with skewed, hyperbolic claims about atrocities, then I will wrongly evaluate the vulnerability of a given group – potentially leading me to then justify further skewed and hyperbolic claims about atrocities to that group.

Hugh Breakey said...

Hi Mike (Cont'd...)

You go on to raise a separate point about the consequences of such language. You are correct that I don’t have any strong empirical evidence that ‘honesty is the best policy’ in this context.

My main argument is that I think we should try to avoid giving hyperbolic and misleading accusations because doing so is intrinsically disrespectful to others and to the truth. Exaggeration and knowingly presenting a skewed representation, especially about important moral matters, are types of lying and intrinsically wrong. (Wrong ‘deontologically’, in the philosophical terminology.)

So if I think the main reason not to do this is simply that it is intrinsically wrong, then why do I bring up consequences at all?

I mention the consequences because I think the main reasons against my position and in favour of a skewed focus are consequentialist. That is, I think that someone who wanted to justify their acknowledged hyperbole would say, ‘yes, but it is necessary here to achieve certain results (such as preventing complacency or thwarting vicious nationalism)’.

So my intention is putting forward plausible consequences pressing in the other direction aims to show that it is just as possible our hyperbole is making matters worse as much as better. If it’s hard to judge our action’s ultimate consequences and their effects for good or ill, then I think it’s reasonable to say we should fall back on common-sense moral action-constraints (like, ‘tell the truth’).

In terms of plausible consequences, I guess it does matter exactly what our purpose is. If our wish is to rally those who think like us to action, then I suppose hyperbole might have beneficial consequences. Equally, if the behaviour we abhor is very marginal, then our collective outrage might impact on the perpetrators’ sense of isolation from the community, and drive them to change.

So it will be a complex question whether the situation entails that misleading emotional rhetoric can be expected to garner good results. But I remain wedded to the thought that, if what we want to do is change someone else’s mind, and they appear to hold a thoughtful position with widespread endorsement across their community, then I struggle to see how making a knowingly skewed and exaggerated accusation of their group’s moral status can have any result other than making them offended and defensive (both of which all but guarantee we will not succeed in changing their mind).

In other words, I can’t pretend that doing one’s best to treat others judiciously, and only making careful, thoughtful judgments of their behaviour, will actually help you change their mind about a serious moral issue. But I am 100% certain that failing to do so, and knowingly making hyperbolic, exaggerated and skewed accusations about their moral failings, will absolutely guarantee you will fail to change their mind.

Michael Cowley said...

It's clear that, although I would have never wanted to justify hyperbole or flat-out lying with a "it's for their own good"-style argument, I was drifting pretty close to saying (and feeling) something like that while trying to recognise human weakness and faulty reasoning.

Thank you so much for taking the time to make such a considered response, and one that's pointed out a possibly dangerous failure mode of the way I think.