Australia’s ‘post-truth’ asylum seeker debate

By Sayomi Ariyawansa
Syrian refugee children giving the peace sign

What will Oxford English Dictionaries’ Word of the Year be in 2017?

For some reason, that question jumped into my head in the first few days of January. I’m not sure why, as I’ve never really remembered the Word of the Year for longer than it took to scroll past the annual announcement online. But last year’s really stuck with me:


Suddenly, I became fascinated with previous Words of the Year. In 2015, it was “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji. In 2013, it was “selfie”. In 2012, “GIF”. Perhaps in those years – had I paid more attention – I would have decried the slow degradation of our collective vocabulary or I may have despaired over heightened narcissism. But now, looking back, those years seem delightful – even whimsical. 2016, on the other hand, is forever emblazoned with the “post-truth” stamp, and there is absolutely no whimsy in this.

For many of us, and especially those reading this column, “post-truth” is a perfectly apt descriptor for 2016. The Oxford English Dictionaries’ defines post-truth as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. “Post-truth” is not a simple euphemism for “lie” or even for “alternative facts”. Rather, the word describes a situation where objective facts are less persuasive – or not even persuasive at all – when compared with calls to existing feelings or attitudes. It is easy to speculate on how this shaped 2016. Both Brexit and the success of Trump rode on feelings of yearning for a return to the “good old days” of simple homogeneity and prosperity that bears little resemblance to the realities of today, nor to those mythical years past.

In Australia, the post-truth mentality asserts itself most stridently when it comes to our perennial national bugbear: asylum seekers. But in this arena, post-truth is far from a 2016 phenomenon: instead, it has characterised the nature of the asylum seeker debate for as long as it has existed.

Despite growing reams of evidence about the abuse, neglect and mistreatment of asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, the cruel and debilitating impact of prolonged or indefinite detention on the mental and physical health of detainees (who include children and infants), and the flagrant and serious violations of international law by the Australian government, appeals to the basest fears of the lowest common denominator win out – every time.

Perhaps the saddest part of our post-truth asylum seeker debate is this: appeals to emotion should be at its heart.

The bogus notion that the government is acting in the best interests of asylum seekers by using a harsh deterrent to prevent deaths at sea is also widespread. This paper-thin excuse for abject cruelty is worn thinner by last year’s announcement that Australia has reached an agreement for a certain number of asylum seekers to be resettled in the United States. Whether or not this agreement is eventually scuppered by Trump, it contradicts Australia’s deterrent rationale and points to a more self-interested “Fortress Australia” motive (also known as the “anywhere but here” policy).

Perhaps the saddest part of our post-truth asylum seeker debate is this: appeals to emotion should be at its heart. Those who spit out the phrase “bleeding hearts” in response to an appeal to human empathy and compassion miss the point entirely.

This is because the very concept of human rights is not grounded in some objective truth about the world or about our species. The concept of human rights is instead grounded in an imprecise but fundamental belief in human dignity. The belief that merely being born and being human means that your existence and your personhood is deserving of protection – that, as set out in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” This belief cannot be subjected to fact-checking or to the scientific method or to some other type of analytical parsing – indeed, to do so would be antithetical to the very nature of it.

While a “post-truth” world looks bleak at the moment, human rights advocates can learn lessons from 2016. It seems that “objective facts” can sometimes fall short when taking issue with entrenched and existing attitudes. Although an “alternative fact” should not go unchecked in public debate, advocates must also harness the power of belief and emotion. Confronting the populist narrative is no easy task, to be sure. But this is the challenge that lies before all human rights advocates today.