We Don't Have A Refugee Problem. We Have A Cultural Problem

We have to help people feel part of a society that cares for all of us, not just the few.

19/05/2016 4:08 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST
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The only way we can create the circumstances where Australians will welcome refugees the way we know we want to is to build an inclusive society here at home.

Is Peter Dutton's repugnant "they took our jobs" rhetoric an example of racism dressed up in economic insecurity? Or is it a factor of economic insecurity tending towards a racist conclusion?

A clear lesson from history is that times of economic stress very frequently see an increase in racist policies, from limiting migration to internment, from explusion to genocidal acts.

The fact that racism is commonly associated with economic circumstances is often glossed over because of a concern that it leads to a conclusion that poor people are inherently racist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Again, history shows us innumerable examples of marginalised people protecting other marginalised people against the depredations of powerful elites. In fact, what happens time and again is that leaders use these circumstances to drive wedges between groups of marginalised people in a deliberate "divide and conquer" move.

If we're looking for a systemic response to Australia's so-called "refugee crisis", then this is where we should start looking.

We don't have a "refugee problem". Any conversation based on the premise that we can solve this "problem" by slightly increasing our refugee intake, or tweaking the way we respond to refugee arrivals without addressing underlying systemic economic and social issues, buys into this frame.

We don't have a "refugee problem". We have a problem with inequality and disenfranchisement. We have a problem with social integration, with people genuinely feeling that our society and politics shuts them out, fails to value them.

And they're right. It does. And that, I believe, is what we have to address in order to close the camps and #bringthemhere.

More than attempting to convince people that refugees will become productive members of our society -- which they overwhelmingly will -- we need to shift the view that productivity is all that matters. In this context, the "jobs and growth" mantra which is being endlessly repeated through this campaign is a key part of the problem. The world view -- parroted by Liberal and Labor, business, unions and social services -- which narrows the value of each person to no more than what they can sell their labour for, what they contribute to the economy, reinforces the problem.

More than attempting to reassure people that refugees are not illegal, dirty or dangerous, we have to help people feel part of a society that cares for all of us, not just the few. Indeed, we need to build that society, because currently we don't live in it. Only by doing that can we remove the power of those deliberately sowing hate and empower those seeding compassion.

These are not just "feel-pinions". They are conclusions based on considerable research.

Psychologists have long studied what has been termed a "cultural norm of self-interest". They have identified that, despite clear evidence that humans are deeply social beings, guided by urges to support and protect each other, our capitalist society tells us that these urges must be, in fact, selfish urges. Studies have shown a clear tendency to deny altruistic motives in others -- and indeed ourselves -- and to construct stories which explain generous and compassionate behaviour in terms of self-interest.

Recent research by the Common Cause Foundation has isolated a fascinating explanation for this. In a very large-scale study, they found that, while around 75 percent of people feel personally motivated by "self-transcendent" values such as compassion, universalism and care for others, they do not attribute the same values to society at large. A similar proportion of people believe politicians, the media, business and society at large to be driven by more self-interested values such as wealth and power.

Crucially, this research found that the greater the difference between people's own internal values and their estimation of the values of society at large, the more disconnected, disempowered and disenfranchised they felt.

We do care for each other. But powerful drivers in our society tell us that we are, and should be, selfish. From Prime Minister Turnbull telling us we shouldn't be "misty-eyed" to a bombardment of advertising telling us to buy buy buy, from the dominant economic theories telling us that individual self-interest is all that matters to hearing ourselves addressed as consumers rather than citizens, we are told that the values we hold dear should be suppressed.

And, because we are, in fact, such social beings, we listen. And we find ourselves ever more disconnected from each other, ever more susceptible to the wedges driven between us.

This is the reality that sits behind our "refugee problem".

Despite all the Very Serious People telling us day in day out that there is no alternative to harsh deterrence measures, the fact that desperate people continue to get in leaky boats to try to reach our shores shows that deterrence doesn't work. And, if you stop for a moment and try to put yourself in the shoes of those people, you will understand why.

The only way we can truly deter refugees is to make ourselves more terrifying than what they are fleeing. In our increasingly tiny and interconnected world, the idea that Australia can be a fortress island is ludicrous, naïve and, frankly, a dark vision of the world that most of us abhor.

The only way we can create the circumstances where Australians will welcome refugees the way we know we want to is to build an inclusive society here at home, to replace the social and economic drivers of selfishness with a culture that matches the values we hold. To support and resource universal education and health care. To give everyone a guaranteed minimum income. To fight back against advertising's privatisation of our public and private space. To insist that those with the resources contribute to support those without.

Putting ourselves in others' shoes is what we must do -- building empathy, not just for refugees but for each other already here. Our society tells us not to. Our leaders in politics, business and the media tell us not to.

But it is what we must do.

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