Obedience and Moral Disengagement: Australia's Refugee Policy

Liam Petterson

Otto Adolf Eichmann was a Nazi lieutenant colonel who was executed in 1962 for committing crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. The Israeli prosecution successfully argued that Eichmann was a sadistic monster who was a key logistical figure in organising the mass exile of Jews to concentration camps. However, Jewish-American political theorist Hannah Arendt caused great controversy when she argued, in her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, that he was more akin to an ‘uninspired bureaucrat’ than a twisted, malevolent barbarian. Eichmann, she contended, essentially sat at a desk, performed dull office tasks and followed orders from Nazis above. This is the ‘banality of evil’.

Stanley Milgram sought to dissect this obedience in the notorious Milgram experiment. Two people enter a psychology laboratory to take part in what they think is a study of the effects of punishment on memory and learning. One is designated as the ‘teacher’, and the other is the ‘learner’. The teacher witnesses the learner being strapped into a chair that is equipped with an electric shock device. The teacher is then moved to another room, and instructed by the experimenter to deliver a list of word pairs to the learner. If the learner gets an answer wrong, the teacher is required to deliver electric shocks of increasing intensity. The teacher does not know that the learner is an actor, and is not actually receiving the shocks (but is screaming nonetheless).

The experiment found that most people, when instructed to, shocked the learner all the way up to the highest level – 450 volts – despite the learner’s audible screams. Indeed, Milgram posits that ‘it is the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority.’

Drawing on Milgram and others, Bandura’s Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency posits that in order for evil to occur, one must ‘minimise the agentive role in the harm one causes’. If we feel like we are not directly causing harm, we are spared the feelings of guilt and shame that come with immoral actions. One must consider their actions to be a function of the directives of authority rather than being personally responsible for them.

Milgram attempts to explain the reasons for such blind compliance. One major explanation lies with the ‘narrowing of moral concern’. The teacher becomes so engrossed and immersed in the procedural mechanisms of the experiment that they lose sight of the broader moral implications of their actions. The obedient ‘teacher’ sees themselves as unaccountable; they are merely following orders. The most common response of teachers was to attribute all responsibility to the experimenter.

It is easy for us to sit back and denounce the actions of the teachers and claim that we would never do the same. However, that is exactly what many of us are inadvertently doing to uphold our current regime for processing people seeking asylum.

We, the Australian public, have thrown our support behind mandatory indefinite detention. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that offshore processing is necessary to deter people smugglers, and to save lives at sea. We have displayed a remarkable narrowing of moral concern and disconnect from our actions. Because I am not on Nauru inflicting harm on people, I mustn’t be responsible, we believe. As Liam McLoughlin from Junkee points out, ‘Because everyone is responsible, no one feels responsible’.

Authority figures use euphemisms such as ‘border protection’ and ‘national security’ to obscure the unpleasant truth that boat turnbacks are designed to ensure people seeking asylum die elsewhere, and journalistic restrictions attempt to make sure we don’t see what happens on Nauru – if we can’t see it, we won’t have to feel guilt or shame. And if we don’t feel guilt or shame, we don’t feel responsible. In May of this year, a boat carrying people seeking asylum that landed in the Cocos Islands was sent back to Sri Lanka – they were all immediately arrested by the Sri Lankan government. By supporting the Pacific Solution of mandatory indefinite detention in offshore processing camps, you are not Hitler. You might not even be Eichmann. But you are a link in the chain of evil.

The point of Nauru is to ensure we can’t see the learner in the other room. But we can hear their screams; in May, Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin set themselves on fire. Set themselves on fire. We know that detaining people indefinitely makes people sick.

There is a better way than mandatory indefinite detention, boat turnbacks and offshore processing. A comprehensive regional plan to provide safe migration architecture for people seeking asylum would remove the incentive for people to get on a boat in the first place. Establishing UNCHR run processing centres in countries east of Afghanistan (the main corridor which people travel to Australia) would ensure that people have a safe option, and could be subsidised by the money we would save by closing Nauru ($1.2 billion a year).

Further, after initial health and security checks, we could fly people from the UNCHR centres to Australia and allow them to live in our communities while their applications are being decided. Indeed, people seeking asylum have so much to contribute to our communities, as is emphasised in the I Came By Boat poster campaign. It features people like Munjed Al Muderis, an osteo-integration surgeon who attaches robotic limbs to amputees, and Fern White, a dentist and a yoga teacher in Port Melbourne.

Milgram says that ‘even Eichmann was sickened when he toured the concentration camps, but to participate in mass murder he only had to sit at a desk and shuffle papers’, and C. P. Snow, in 1961, claimed ‘…more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have ever been committed in the name of rebellion.’ So don’t be the ‘teacher’ in Milgram’s experiment. Don’t passively follow orders. Don’t be part of the chain of responsibility.

Unlink yourself and demand change.

(Image Source: Independent 2018).

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