I’ve always had a tricky relationship with politics, simultaneously fascinated and repelled by it. My earliest political memory is of Gough Whitlam standing on the steps of Parliament House, roaring for the crowd and the TV cameras after his government was summarily, undemocratically and illegally dismissed by the Queen’s representative in 1975. I became a little bit radicalised as a teenager during the later years of the Bjelke-Peterson regime in Queensland, although that was partly to bait my father, who stood by his country roots and the National Party until the end. I got slightly more radicalised at university where I became involved in student politics, although that was largely because it provided a handy distraction from the grief and an outlet to vent some of the rage I’d been suppressing all through my teenage years. The experience ended in tears all round and after that, I resolved to stay away from politics.
After I left university, I joined the Queensland public service in the post-Bjelke Peterson era, riding a wave of structural reforms intended to address embedded corruption. It gave me a chance to see something of politics from a different angle. I wasn’t particularly inspired – it largely confirmed my view that most of the time, the best people either self-select out of running for political office in the first place or they become so hopelessly compromised quickly after being elected that they either fall into despondency and quit or they join the forces of darkness. But I still found the drama of politics bizarrely entertaining and I still voted.
That was until the federal election of 2001, which I call “the Tampa election”. You can read about it here, but here’s a quick summary: in August 2001 over 400 Hazara people fleeing ethnic cleansing by the Taliban in Afghanistan were rescued by a Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, off the north-east coast of Australia. After taking control of the Tampa at gunpoint, Australia denied the Hazara entry and sent them to a hastily-created offshore processing facility on Nauru, a tiny dot of land in the Pacific Ocean. Then 9/11 happened and the conservative government joined the “coalition of the willing” and headed into the November 2001 election on a wave of propaganda designed to secure votes by creating fear. So they called asylum seekers “illegals” and “queue jumpers” and told a bunch of other lies designed to suggest asylum seekers were potential terrorists. The opposition party stayed largely silent and said nothing to challenge the lies.
I was so appalled, I wrote all over my ballot paper and voted for Jed Bartlett (the fictional President from The West Wing). And so began a long period of political apathy. I stopped watching and reading the news. After spending a good chunk of my university education studying government and citizenship, I didn’t vote for more than 10 years. In short, I descended into denial… but here’s the tricky bit: I dressed it up as spirituality. I actually had myself believing, for years, that refusing to be informed about what was happening in the world indicated I had somehow transcended ordinary reality… and that this was a good thing. This week, I finally recognised this story for what it is – a subtle form of smug, self-righteous moral superiority that is profoundly unhelpful, both for me and for the world.
Anyone who follows me on Facebook might have noticed I had a ‘moment’ last weekend, triggered by human rights lawyer Julian Burnside’s latest opinion piece on the current state of peaceful protests by asylum seekers held in offshore detention on Manus Island. It’s not pretty: many are on a hunger strike and several people have sewn their lips together in an attempt to draw attention to their ‘situation’. And their ‘situation’ is this: they’ve managed to flee their (usually war-torn) home country (often risking their lives escaping religious and/or political persecution) and get to either Indonesia or Malaysia, where they’ve given the rest of their money to people-smugglers, gotten on leaky fishing boats and risked their lives again to sail to Australia to claim asylum. But when they got into Australian waters, they were taken to an offshore detention facility where they are now held in squalid accommodation and tropical heat for an indefinite period of time with almost no access to legal support, inadequate healthcare services and very little information on the status of their applications for asylum. The media can’t get in to report what actually happens on Manus Island, while the Australian Government deliberately and repeatedly refers to all asylum-seekers as “illegals” – despite the fact that in seeking asylum, these people have done nothing that is illegal. Meanwhile, Australia is in blatant contravention of international law on human rights and the treatment of refugees to which it is a signatory.
It’s hard not to feel angry and that was the first emotion to show up (it’s here again now, as I write this). Partly because, shocking as it is, this isn’t remotely new – it’s been going on for years and both major political parties are complicit. (While we stay silent, we’re all complicit to some extent.)
After the anger came fear. The most recent Australian election featured a competition between both major parties over who could promise greater mistreatment for asylum seekers. I feel afraid about what is happening in my country. If this is how we’re treating the most vulnerable human beings now, what will become of us?
Then came the grief for the men and the women and the children who have died while in mandatory detention for doing nothing wrong. And then the guilt for ignoring this (and other issues I claim to care about) for so long… for rolling along inside my comfortable life, doing nothing while the world burns.
While I was trying not to face and feel this lineup of emotions, another set of fears arose: that if I don’t do something – ANYTHING – these unpleasant feelings will rise up and overwhelm me. So I started thinking hard about what I could do, which is usually a red flag for me. And then an earthly angel I once met reminded me to stop and get quiet and find the still place beneath all the feelings. Because that’s where right action can be found, she said.
So I sat and got quiet. And beneath the anger and the fear and the grief and the apathy and the guilt there was something else… shame. In my experience, it’s the least pleasant emotion to feel and the one most of us avoid at all costs. But I’m feeling it this week, burning. It asks difficult questions: what kind of culture are we creating? What kind of monsters are we becoming? Why haven’t I truly felt this horror (and others) before now? Why have I stayed silent? And the really hard question: what’s the link between our collective willingness to ignore the mistreatment of innocent people and my willingness to ignore what Andrew Harvey calls “the heartbreak and unconditional helplessness [my] ego’s strategies have been created to mask and avoid”?
I started to see a whole new level of symbolism in the image of a mouth sewn shut.
I also started to see the gift in shame. I realised that, if I could find the courage to face and feel my shame, it would give me both a gateway to forgiveness – starting with self-forgiveness – and the foundation for compassion. Because if I can see clearly and forgive my own faults, maybe I can see yours too. And then I started to wonder – what would it take to get to forgiveness and compassion for the perpetrators of horror?
Because I know for sure I can’t have a positive impact if I’m driven by shame. If I’m despising the politicians who’ve implemented these policies and seeking to humiliate them, I’m just creating more shame. It might give me a temporary feeling of victory, but it will be hollow. It takes courage to get clear about what action will help me feel better by venting in this moment, versus having a real effect sustained over time. And it takes faith to trust that cultivating an ability to fully feel – without collapsing into – my own shame may be the most powerful action I can take right now.
So these are my tinybrave moves on asylum seekers. First, I’m about to start voting again. Because opting out definitely doesn’t work and selecting the ‘least worst’ option can sometimes provide a means to minimise collateral damage. Second, I want to be an informed voter. So I will start consuming news again, paying careful attention to what’s going on in my body as I watch/read it, noticing the impulses to shut down and numb out and taking the time to really sit with the emotions the news triggers. Third, I’m going to start doing metta (lovingkindness) meditation for myself, for everyone living on Manus Island – both detainees and prison guards – and for Tony Abbott. The last one won’t be easy, but I’m determined to try it… for both of us.
Fourth, I’m going to start working with other people, helping them cultivate a capacity to open their hearts to their own suffering and to the heartbreak of the world. I’ve dedicated most of the past five years to walking myself through this heart-opening and although it’s a work in progress, I’m about ready to start sharing what I’ve learned with those who want to hear it. Because we desperately require a critical mass of open hearts to create the change we’ll need to save us from ourselves.
At some point, there will be more I can do. For now, this is all that’s clear. So this is where I start.
PS. If you’re interested in a far more articulate and nuanced view of how asylum seeker policy is changing Australian culture, I highly recommend this piece by Julian Burnside. He’s pretty amazing and possibly should have received a Knighthood this week, instead of this guy… but that’s the state of politics down here. God help us.