This post is a long one, sorry, but stick with it! I really believe this is something we need to make time for.
Recently, I was looking for inspiration for a part of my novel where one character interrupts a battle to give a passionate speech that marks the beginning of the road to peace. One of the first results when you Google “speech about peace and war” is Martin Luther King Jr.’s little-remembered 1967 speech opposing American involvement in the Vietnam War, ‘A Time to Break Silence’.
I had no idea that reading this speech would change the topic that I would blog on today.
“A time comes when silence is betrayal. In Vietnam, that time has come for us.” – Martin Luther King Jr., ‘A Time to Break Silence’, 1967
Many of you, upon reading the title of this post, assumed that I’m talking simply about my profession of editing. “I say there are bad stories being written out there, and we gonna git ‘em fixed!”
I wish I was.
In the world today, as there has been every year since the dawn of man, there are bad stories being written. By governments and individuals. By my government in Australia. By individuals who I know who think that the government is doing the right thing.
And I need to talk about it. I need to tell you about it. I need to talk about why we are writing a “bad” story and how we can edit it so that we aren’t ashamed of what we have written.
“I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” – George Orwell, ‘Why I Write’ Essay
What constitutes a “bad” story in the world?
A bad story is one where human rights are deprived without reason.
Let me tell you a story. A man I know, let’s call him “Harry”, is a refugee who has been allowed to enter Australia under the old system of ‘bridging’ visas.
But one day, the government in Australia decided that temporary protection visas were a bad way to deal with immigrants who had arrived by boat. So they changed the visa system. Thankfully, Harry still had a visa. He began making friends in his local community and even found an Aussie man, let’s call him “Tom”, who helped him do many things like build his legal case to apply for a permanent protection visa.
One day, Tom got a call from Harry.
“I’ve been called in for an interview about my case. I have to go to the immigration centre for the interview,” said Harry.
“But you didn’t have any interviews scheduled for your case for another six months yet,” said Tom. “So to be safe, please tell them to wait, and not collect you until I am able to come and go with you to this interview.”
So Harry and Tom went to the immigration centre to attend the interview together. When they arrived, the immigration officers were not happy to see that Tom had accompanied Harry.
They said, “We need to conduct part of the interview privately, using a translator, so that Harry is not having to speak in English. Tom, you have to wait outside the room.”
Tom wasn’t sure about this, but Harry went in with them and Tom waited outside. The officers took Harry into another room, and down a long corridor, and out the back of the building, and into a waiting van. The van drove Harry straight back to the detention centre.
Today, he is still in the detention centre.
Prior to all this, Harry lived in a refugee camp in a country somewhere in the Middle East, and then he travelled by boat to Singapore, and then again to Australia. Both voyages were long and treacherous, and many of his fellow passengers did not survive the crossing. He was put in one of Australia’s detention centres, where he waited for three years. During that time, many friends died of heatstroke in the toughest of conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.
Finally, he received good news – his case had been processed! The officers had decided that he was legitimately at risk of death in his home country, so he had received a visa to live in Australia. But because he had arrived by boat, the terms of the visa meant that he could not work or study.
But that was okay, because he was safe. He had a new home. He had been living in Australia legally under that visa for three more years when he was taken back into detention.
So how did Harry end up back in detention? This is a bad ending to his story.
If Harry had been granted permanent protection and allowed to live in Australia for the rest of his life, with a chance to work and earn his place in this new land, then this would have been a good story. Protagonist flees danger and overcomes many obstacles to be rewarded with a fresh start in a safe country. A happy ending.
Let me tell you another story. A woman I know, let’s call her “Sally”, has a similar visa to Harry.
She is living in a community in Australia with her husband when she finds out that she is pregnant. She has an uneasy pregnancy because the immigration centre keeps calling her to ask her questions about her husband’s case. One week after her baby is born, officers come to her house and take her husband away. They say that he is at risk of breaking the terms of his visa, so he has to be put into detention again.
Sally’s husband was not a visa risk. He had a wife and baby here. He was going to be killed in his home country. There was no way he was going to do anything to jeopardise his family staying in this safe country.
Unfortunately, because of her background in a war-torn country, Sally has post-traumatic stress, so when her husband is taken away she is very anxious and becomes suicidal. She struggles to care for her newborn baby. She and the baby get to see him once a week. The community rallies around her, but she is essentially alone.
This is a bad story because the antagonists (the officers) have not acted logically. Every character should have a reason for their actions, but here, the antagonists’ reasons are made up.
If Sally’s husband is allowed to come home before it is too late, this will still be a bad story. No person should have to go through what Sally has gone through. No happy ending will ever be enough to erase the antagonists’ actions.
These are real stories. I have changed names and details to protect these people, but these are real things that the Australian government has done to real people.
These stories don’t belong in Australia, a democracy, a country of freedom. These stories belong in a dictatorship or a totalitarian regime.
These stories belong in our dark past – the days of the Stolen Generation, and before that the days of the White Australia policy, and before that the days when we slaughtered the Aborigines and planted our flag in these shores and mountains and deserts. This isn’t the first time we’ve done this, so why can’t we learn from history and move on to something better?
These stories shouldn’t be happening in our own community.
You can help stop this happening.
You can edit these bad stories and make sure they have a happy ending.
What can I, one lone writer, do to edit these bad stories?
I propose that there is one thing that every human can do, and one thing that only writers can do.
Every human can build social justice into their life, and into the life of their nation. They can do this by petitioning their government to change its unfair practices. They can work to raise awareness and slay apathy among their fellow citizens until change is demanded by a passionate majority.
You can sign petitions. You can tell the Australian government, “Enough is enough. Stop mandatory detention of asylum seekers.”
Whether you live in my country or not, I need you to petition our leaders.
Here’s a petition you can sign this week:
This week I’m asking Senators to vote “no” to the bill that Immigration Minister Scott Morrison would like to push through the Senate this week. If accepted, the bill will remove references in Australian Law to the UN Convention for refugees, redefine “refugee”, reinstitute temporary protection visas (which are linked to mental illness), and give the Minister for Immigration an almost complete immunity from accountability for decisions made in relation to asylum seekers and refugees. This kind of power should never be given to one individual or one office.
It’s easy to add your name to the petition and will only take you a minute. Just ask the senator to vote “no” to the Migration and Maritime Powers Bill. Use this link:
Speak up for those who have no voice.
Here’s the email that I sent to my state Senator about Minister Morrison’s Bill this week:
Subject: Please vote no to Morrison’s human rights violations
It’s really important to me that you vote no in the upcoming vote on Minister Morrison’s bill, the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment Bill.
This bill affects the basic human rights of refugees – those who have come to us for help and are helpless to enforce their own human rights.
Why will this bill hurt the helpless?
1. Temporary Protection Visas will be reintroduced.
2. The Government will remove references to the UN Refugee Convention from our law.
3. We would risk sending people back to harm.
4. The Minister can detain people on the high seas.
5. Applications for protection will be “fast tracked”, which means that refugees’ cases don’t get the legal attention and translation that they need.
6. The Minister can limit the number of people who receive protection.
Thank you for your time and attention. This is a really important issue for me and lots of my friends and I hope that you can take action on our behalf in this vital matter.
Mrs Tirzah J Ryan
You can also write letters. Omar Ahmad gave an inspiring TED talk in 2010 called ‘Political Change with Pen and Paper’. Omar was the beloved former mayor of San Carlos, California, and he knows how to get your politicians to pay attention to the issues you care about. He says that writing a monthly, handwritten letter – old-fashioned correspondence – is more powerful and “more effective than email, phone, or even writing a check”. He even gives four simple steps to writing a letter that works.
How to build social justice into your writing:
Now, writers can do all of the above, and we also have the ability to do something else.
It’s blindingly obvious, but few of us do it.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.” — George Orwell
Lauren Beukes at 2014 BWF in the ‘Burbs 2014, said, “I’m angry about everything, all the time. Because justice is a fairytale, and I don’t know how to solve that.” She was talking about domestic violence cases in South Africa. There, under-resourced cops are unable to stop killers until it is too late, and courts of law are unable to try most offenders because the only evidence is usually the inadmissible testimony of the dead victim told to those who knew her.
As a result of this, Lauren worked hard in her writing to make the victims “real” women that we would care about, flaws and strengths and all, before they were attacked. She also chose to write the violence in her books really violently, and from the victim’s point of view, in an attempt to shock us, the reader, out of our complacency. I don’t condone this because no one needs to read this, but I hope you still hear her point: We see so much violence on TV that we are now desensitised to the personal nature of violence against women.
Why should you care?
It is one hundred times easier to talk about writing about social justice than it is to just do it.
Australia is one of the richest nations in the world, but we take on the fewest number of refugees per capita. We’re also one of the largest nations in the world – we have space. Not all of it is useable, until we can find a way to live easily in the desert, but even without the desert, we still aren’t even close to filling all of our habitable space yet.
By comparison, Pakistan is one of the world’s poorest third world nations, but they take on the largest number of refugees every year. That’s not even a “proportional” statistic – Pakistan willingly lets in more people in need than any other country in the world.
When we made the conditions what they are on Nauru and Manus Islands, why were we surprised by the news that the people accommodated there had rioted, and burned down the buildings of our detention centres, our jails? It was a desperate cry for freedom. John F. Kennedy said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
I’d like to do some direct paraphrasing and quoting from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech now, because he has put it more eloquently than I can, and his heart clearly spoke the same truth that my heart is crying out to speak.
He said, “Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought.” But we Australians actually have a great history of opposing our government’s policies. So why aren’t we fighting them over their human rights violations, of all things?
We need people to care about this issue enough to challenge the government over it. We need people to care about this issue as much as or more than they do about the other issues that they currently spend all their time asking the government for.
We need people to care more about the rights of others than they care about their own rights to a fighting fit military, pensions for politicians, and superannuation for CEOs.
Some Australians may imagine that they can have a government which practices “domestic good and foreign evil”, as King put it. They might think that our government can keep separate the abuses it is performing on outsiders and the wonderful things it does in educating our kids and providing subsidised healthcare for our elderly. But that’s not how the human mind works. Humans aren’t made for such “double book-keeping”.
We should be afraid for ourselves if this is what our government will do to those in need of its help.
“Justice is indivisible. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
I can acknowledge that right now, I may be in a minority view. Advocating for other people to come into our land and seek peace here and share our resources may still be something that many Australians are not willing to do. Even saying, “The government isn’t dealing with the refugee problem as well as they could be,” was still a marginal view until recently.
But if I stay silent with my minority view, then I have imprisoned Harry just as much as the immigration officers have. If I stay silent, then I have taken away Sally’s husband and caused her to live in fear.
If Australia’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Detention Centres. “This country can never be redeemed so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
Let me explain my motives in explicitly Christian terms.
Even if “human rights” had not been declared by the UN, there is a higher power who would still be concerned with the suffering of his helpless children, those who have been cast out of their homes by war and racism and religious prejudice. Even if there was no international treaty on the rights of the child, our heavenly Father would still be crying out for us to provide food and water and shelter and protection for the lost children of our world.
Because we have been given much, we are called to give much. We are called to stand up for the weak, the voiceless, the victim. And no law, no visa policy, no political jargon, and no media discrimination, can make these humans any less our brothers and sisters.
What do the refugees think of us, as we ally ourselves with land owners? In their trials and their appeals, they hear us say, “You aren’t really afraid; you don’t really need to live here with us. And there is no room for you here, anyway. Go back where you came from.”
Just as with every other totalitarian regime, our government has first dehumanised its enemy – “boat people”, “illegal immigrants” – in order to justify committing atrocities against them. And no one will argue with them, because these asylum seekers, these people in need, are no longer real people in the public mind.
Many people I’ve spoken with say that the countries who create these refugees are the real problem. “We shouldn’t let these people in,” they say. “Instead, we should force their countries to do the right thing for their own people. We should create economic sanctions and limit trading.”
Talk about a band-aid.
The countries are a bigger problem, yes, but they are not our problem. Our problem is the people who have already come to us, and will continue to come to us – the people who need a safe home.
We have been called to be the Good Samaritan. Will we instead be the Pharisee, and walk across the road to avoid our dying neighbor? Will we turn a blind eye? “There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”
But this is not something that only Christians should care about. The duty is universal. In every major religion on earth, speaking to Muslims and Hindus and Jews and Buddhists and more, the golden rule is this: “Show love to others just as you would want them to show love to you.” And showing love means opening up our country to those who need it just as much as we do.
“I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this ‘war’ is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace and freedom and justice in the entire world.
How will you speak up to change the story of the voiceless this week?
This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2014. Reblogging is always highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.
December 2014 Author Update of this post:
Here’s the latest petition related to freeing asylum seekers from unjust Australian laws: http://getup.to/MLCGCx9MSNqk This petition relates to Hamid’s death on Manus Island. The text below comes directly from the GetUp petition:
A more compassionate Australia
Hamid Kehazaei, a 24-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who had been detained on Manus Island, recently suffered a cut to his foot. It’s reported that Hamid sought medical attention for days, and was denied, resulting in acute septicaemia. Today we learned that, after being transferred to a hospital in Brisbane for his critical condition, he has been declared brain dead.
This incident is unimaginable for Hamid and his family – and our thoughts and prayers are with them right now. And while we have no control over this preventable tragedy, we do have agency to influence what happens next.
We will not stand by while asylum seekers are treated with inhumanity and contempt, in our name. Enough is enough. We must stop these deaths as a result of the cruelty in our detention centres. We need to shut down these centres, and ends the cruelty that occurs in them. Sign this petition now, before we have it presented in Parliament, and help show Australia’s politicians that we won’t stand for this bloodshed in our name?
The petition to close down the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres is a collaboration between GetUp, the Refugee Action Coalition, Doctors for Refugees,ChilOut, the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council, Unions for Refugees, and numerous groups and individuals fighting for compassionate and humane treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.