The abuse of human rights on Manus island by the Australian government is the logical outcome of more than a decade of the strategic dehumanisation of people seeking refuge in Australia that has been achieved by appealing to the colonial-hangover xenophobia that permeates our culture.
At this point, the extreme disregard for these people has pierced the Australian social conscience. Articles like this one in The Guardian reflect the potential for change in the attitudes held towards the plight of the refugees who remain on Manus. However, while daily rallies are being held, and are able to be organised quickly with the assistance of efficient usages of social media, there remains an unarticulated sense of pessimism about their effectiveness, and a tacit knowledge that regardless of outrage, these abuses will continue unabated.
The reason for this, I suspect, is the spectacular failure of the Iraq war protests in 2002 and 2003, where we learnt that no matter how many people showed up, capricious political will remains unaffected. At the same time, those in political power (and especially in Australia) learnt that when it comes to some issues, particularly issues that occur elsewhere, and aren’t perceived to directly affect the lives of the majority of people living in Australia, the will of the people, as expressed through protest can be ignored, dismissed and forgotten. The political impotence of the protest was established.
We can even see this in the support for same sex marriage, events for which were referred to as “rallies” rather than protests, and run as festivals of agreement, affirmation and “love” rather than as a direct confrontation to political will. Other political movements in recent years have been characterised by the articulation of support or affiliation on social media, the effect of which is primarily furious agreement between “friends” at the obvious expense of any real awareness of opposition.
In discussions where Manus is raised, mimicking social media performance, we agree that it’s horrible, unbelievable, and then the conversation moves on. The impotence in that discussion is palpable. There is an ethical weight to the issue, we know we are complicit by living in peace, enjoying relative freedom from governmental abuse, but this is inflected by an understanding that there is nothing we can do. So we acknowledge and move on, fatigued by anxiety and in some senses, tacitly waiting to be allowed to forget.
Maybe Manus is the tipping point. Perhaps those abuses are too extreme, too at odds with the conceit of western democracy for us to stand, and perhaps popular protest that has an effect on political will can be reborn.
Hopefully that, to mangle an expression I have become attached to lately, is the hill our collective apathy dies on, but without a clear, politically beneficial motivation, it’s hard to imagine protests again leading to political change.
And I really hope I’m wrong.