The use of language to create visual spectres is an effective approach for politicians, their supporters, and allied interest groups to develop a narrative that can become the media narrative.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a work report related to asylum seekers in Australia, and had noticed two significant changes made by the Australian Federal government to legal and bureaucratic terminology. First was a change to the term used for those who arrive by boat from ‘Irregular Maritime Arrival’ to ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival’. The aim of this was to legitimise PM Tony Abbott’s assertion of the illegality of arriving without a visa, which legally speaking isn’t true.
Second was the renaming of the ‘Department of Immigration and Citizenship’ – which oversees asylum seeker applications – to the ‘Department of Immigration and Border Protection’. This reinforces the shift from multiculturalism and legal process to gatekeeping, which began under Howard, revived by Gillard and Rudd, and now simply confirmed by Abbott. Even the costs of changes to departmental website, new logo, stationary and letterhead, updating of legal documents, and new business cards often proves expensive, but is trumped by politics, regardless of accuracy.
These changes institutionalise an image of asylum seekers as criminals deserving to be sent to the Pacific version of Devil’s Island. The irony of sending ‘criminals’ to a South Pacific prison colony seems lost on the Australian public.
Political convenience can also treat similar humanitarian cases differently. Consider the S.S Exodus, the people-smuggling boat run by the Jewish Haganah containing European Jewish refugees captured en route to Palestine by the British in 1947, which has become symbolic of a humanitarian cause. Comparatively the Hazara,the vast majority of Afghan people who arrive to Australia by boat and have experienced centuries of persecution and genocide up until today, have an equal case for humanitarian protection. But due to political reasons, public bigotry, and the need of politicians and media to gain an audience, the narrative suggests a “wave”, “swamp”, “flood”, “surge”, or other water-based metaphors coming to take our jobs and blonde virgin daughters.
Key to a successful narrative is a convincing visual spectre which we can project our own hopes and fears. The image of asylum seekers reflects a fear of the foreign other coming to dominate us. Locally, one of the most successful narratives is the fear of a large, interventionist state.
The most prominent concept is the ‘Nanny State’ – the use of state coercion to achieve results. The visual spectre reminds me of Hyacinth Bucket: telling you how to do things and being overbearing. This narrow definition only touches on perceived state intervention in personal choices rather than one that includes accumulated state powers such as spying and collection and storage of internet data. Instead this is limited to purchases, parenting, and dietary choices where freedom is treated similar to personal consumer choice and verging on paranoia. A “quick, hide the non-regulation lightbulbs or the state will collectivise our children” school of thought.
Another successful narrative, on the size of the state, uses language suggesting a large state as akin to a morbidly obese person. Less Nanny State, more ‘Fatty State’. When the public sector is deemed too large, it’s referred to as a ‘bloated bureaucracy‘, akin to an overweight person winched out of the house by crane. Solutions entail weight loss metaphors: ‘belt tightening’, “a leaner, more efficient state”, ‘trimming the fat’ through cutting backroom administrators and to free up or hire front line staff
If you assume the state was similar to an obese person, administration is the ‘fat’ and the front line staff the ‘muscle’. Weight loss requires healthier eating, exercise, and in some cases a stomach staple or liposuction. In reality, redundancies aren’t necessarily healthy choices. Redundancies often shifts admin to remaining staff, who work on tasks previously done by backroom staff. To cope, a government department may hire contract workers or temps at a higher price, albeit usually short term. Governments may subcontract state responsibilities to not-for-profits, not as partners as before but to carry out state functions, political agendas and admin for cheaper notable with the successor to NZ AID, the Sustainable Development Fund. Then there’s private consultants hired to advise redundancy processes, who are expensive and often have offered bad advice such as “pray, do yoga, and get a pet” – the equivalent of a dietary coach who suggests a lemon cleanse diet for a month. This part of the solution equivalent to wearing spanx: no ‘fat’ is really lost, more or less rearranged into more convenient areas.
Interestingly, right wing governments who use this approach also tend to favour more accountability measures for government spending which requires even more admin, often done by front line staff. With National Standards in primary school, teachers must spend more time measuring progress of every child against standards, which means more admin and teaching preparation. Metaphorically, fat can useful when exercise can transform it into muscle, but removing fat can hinder muscle performance and growth.
This metaphor undermines state functions with exactly what it promised to eliminate, like a bad diet and exercise plan. The linguistic metaphor works because of a body conscious society, in which our own fears over our weight are used to describe the state where even the littlest thing is unhealthy “pork”. In that sense, ACT and the Taxpayers Union claims of pork and waste are often the equivalent of the yelling of militant ‘fat camp’ coaches with a strict sense of outward discipline but with occasionally let slip.
Political language can be dangerous when used improperly. The narratives of the asylum seeker and the state trivialise rational debate and confine it to narrow ideas of legality, scope, and size based on prejudice and political convenience. In the case of asylum seekers, political agendas, media simplicity and public prejudice have institutionalised unhealthy realities. One person’s suffering is another person’s criminal punishment. The Nanny State concept is narrow and selectively misses the point about a broader encroachment of state power from all sides. The linguistic ideal of a state akin to a near zero body-fat All Black is a projection useful in a body-conscious society. The state could improve, sure, but isn’t obese. Both physical and metaphorical bodily ideals of perfection are deluded, unachievable, and unhealthy. Inclusive narratives with apt metaphors help, narrow ones are more likely to hurt people.