I am late to the party, but such is the way with slow thinking (surely, one is fashionably late to any good party?).
Jeff Sparrow’s Overland response to the broadly left-wing demand for an apology from Peter Dutton over his recent comments on refugees added another facet to the increasingly apparent split in progressive politics between those who maintain that language matters, and that there should be some sort of social accountability for language that marginalises and dehumanises particular groups, and those who argue that such focus on language distracts from the goal of setting an alternative agenda whereby the material conditions of marginalisation and dehumanisation are eliminated. Whilst it is a commonplace in university cultural studies that language does violence because of the primary role that language plays in shaping our experiences and perceptions, the latter group argues that language itself is not the violence, or at the very least, that demanding language change without making demands on material conditions is doomed to fail as another exercise in mere symbolism.
Sparrow’s argument that an apology wouldn’t actually do anything to help the asylum seekers Australia has locked up indefinitely or kept in deliberately precarious situations, even within the country is a sensible point. We need more than nice language. Imagine, instead, if Dutton had praised the contributions of refugees to Australia, but went on to maintain that the only way to ensure that this could continue would be to keep the current “zero-tolerance” policies of offshore detention, boat turnbacks, keeping a militarised border protection civil service etc etc. This is, and has been for a while, the main rhetorical stance taken by the Liberal National Coalition and the Labor Party – that being tough is the real compassion and we can’t listen too closely to any pesky human rights commissioners and international human rights monitors about the well-documented harms to asylum seekers, or indeed any contortions of the law done for the sake of absolute border security. This supposedly more acceptable language that has been sanitised and distanced from the effects of its argument is precisely what has been used to construct the acceptable face of Australian refugee policy.
However, whilst I agree with Jeff Sparrow in dismaying the continual wearing away of the institutions that engendered solidarity and were able to successfully fight for improvements to collective conditions, I think the line between language and materiality is actually very blurry in this instance, particularly when we consider the impact of language on law, which does create, shape, and order material experiences. He is probably right that a demand for an apology is a demand for nothing – if it did eventuate, any potential salve the words would offer could be easily undercut by insincerity, and what would an insincere mumble do to redress the harm caused? However, even if the action demanded is flawed, the instinct to criticise the language does correctly identify Dutton’s words as not mere words, but a material attack on a vulnerable class of refugees, whilst also dragging in other migrants. Language matters in being one of the conditions as to what material consequences happen in politics and law.
In the legal realm, language is material, metaphors become real and the construction of subjects and objects in language create the entities that law then plays with. Language matters because it simultaneously conveys an understanding of what the conditions of the world are and creates that world. To dwell on symbolism, representation and the crimes of language to the exclusion of other outrages against the material conditions of life may be counterproductive in other areas of activism, but in legal analysis, it is vital to understanding the full extent of law’s domain, and how it is that things are ordered within that domain.
It can be death by a thousand definitions when those with the power choose to dehumanise, devalue and cast suspicion on you. What matters isn’t even whether most people believe the politicians when they say that “x-people will steal your jobs and are illiterate and criminal and etc”, but that they are creating and broadcasting particular assumptions about the world, which they can then use to justify policy and legal change consistent with that world view. That the material life of policies is to cause immense harm to people who fall under them is of secondary concern.
In filmmaking, we ideally keep only that which conveys the themes of the story in the frame, and we leave out everything else – we’ll follow the hero’s journey and that of their immediate circle but ignore all the other extras that die or the disturbing implications of the hero’s triumph in the end. One materiality is prioritised over others in the language of film – it matters *more* what happens to the hero than to anyone else. In refugee law, humanitarian concerns are framed out by political language and compassion is framed as wrong-headed weakness. Border control and economics are framed as the only relevant and sensible concerns. (On sensibility – what is sensible is what can be perceived and language often frames what is sensible).
An apology mightn’t do much good in the circumstances, but that is because the harm extends beyond what can be rectified in words and the harm began long before this specific set of words. A way of judging the value of human beings is revealed. These values are what has been setting the direction of our laws.