In 1988, the British journalist Christopher Hitchens went to Prague. He had one aim: to be the first visiting writer not to mention Franz Kafka. Then he was arrested. When he asked why he was being detained, he was told he didn’t need to know. His story ended up mentioning Kafka after all.
Here is a similar exercise: write about the linguistic bastardisation of the Australian refugee debate without referring to George Orwell. You can try, but the facts will get the better of you in the end.
“Politics and the English Language”, a short essay knocked back by the first magazine to which Orwell submitted it, is famous for its 70-year-old warning against the anaesthetisation of language. Our politicians have instead treated it as a how-to guide.
In the past few weeks a whiz-bang phrase has received a lot of attention: “enhanced screening”. This was the name given to the four questions asked of asylum seekers on a boat on the high seas to determine whether they were genuine refugees. The questions were asked over video link.
The word “enhanced” here reminds me of that line from The Princess Bride: “I do not think it means what you think it means.” Or as Orwell put it: “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s order that departmental and detention centre staff refer to asylum seekers as “illegal maritime arrivals” is of a similar genre. There is nothing unlawful about people claiming asylum, with or without visas. This is a tenet of international law, enshrined in Australian law. For this government every day is Opposite Day.
That is one species of language abuse. Here is another. Two weeks ago Morrison introduced a new “national interest” test for permanent protection visas.
It’s a simple test. If giving you a visa would undermine the national interest, then you don’t get one. The national interest is undermined if the provision of a visa will “provide a product for people smugglers to market now or in the future”, or “erode the community’s confidence in the effective and orderly management of Australia’s migration program”.
Phrases do not get this woolly by accident. They reach for the heights of meaninglessness with a very clear aim: to allow the minister to make whatever decision he wants, without the constraint of any overly specific word.
Then there are those words, Orwell notes, for which “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different”. For Morrison that word is “successful”.
Last month David Speers of Sky News asked Morrison “if a boat from India gets to Christmas Island, is that a success for them?” Morrison non-responded: “It’s my intention to ensure that no venture successfully makes it to Australia.”
There is a simple problem with all this, which is that it allows ministers to jump out of the way of incoming questions with ease.
Take this Morrison answer when asked what arrangements exist for asylum seeker boats from India: “Well, without specifically talking about any single country, we would engage with any other countries that we would need to engage in relation to our operations. That has been our practice ’til now and that certainly would be our practice moving forward.”
There is not a dash of meaning in those two sentences. They are what Orwell described as “a prefabricated henhouse”, in which words chosen for their meaning are replaced by phrases tacked together like Ikea parts.
But the sharper problem with this forensic butchering of the English language is that it wilfully confuses discussion and prevents consideration of what the government is doing. That was Orwell’s most damning point. Terrible things could be defended, he wrote, “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face”. Hence the descent to euphemism and vagueness.
This is the dishonesty of the Australian debate. Waleed Aly is right when he says we refuse to face up to what a policy of deterrence actually means: treating people who have come by boat as badly as possible in order to prevent other people risking their lives coming by boat. It is the equivalent of whipping jaywalkers.
When actual cruelty is on display, disputes over language may seem petty. But as voters we have a responsibility to try to comprehend what is being done on our behalf and why.
The Coalition is not alone in clouding the argument. The phrase “enhanced screening” made its debut on the political stage under Labor. (I was working in government at the time.) Both major parties say “border protection” as if this were an episode of Game of Thrones and we were facing marauding armies of giants. Meanwhile, the Greens refuse to talk about the hundreds of lives lost to drowning when offshore processing was dismantled, while using terms like “dangerous” to describe everyone’s approach but their own.
Not every politician is equally culpable for the state of asylum-seeker policy. The government determines policy, and this government has raised the cruelty stakes. But everyone has a responsibility to stop the linguistic make-believe.
Asylum-seeker policy is diabolically difficult. Whatever choices we make demand moral trade-offs. That will be the case as long as human beings are forced to flee hellholes in which their lives and liberties are under threat.
As citizens, we owe and are owed an honest discussion about those trade-offs. Right now the public debate is like a conversation in sign language conducted in the black of night: the participants can’t understand each other, and everybody else has stopped trying.
Joan Didion once wrote that self-respect rests on “the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life”. This facile refusal to speak plainly deprives our nation of that opportunity.
While others are not faultless, it is Scott Morrison who is acting in our name. As long as he refuses to clearly describe what that action is, the words “Orwellian” and “Kafkaesque” will never be far away.