Soldiers on the waterfront, they wanna ship me far away… Why Julian Burnside isn’t helping

Refugee camp for Rwandans located in what is n...

Refugee camp for Rwandans located in what is now eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo following the Rwandan Genocide. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Julian Burnside has written another article for The Conversation on, amongst a wide variety of other things, his views about asylum seeker policy.  I’ve written about Burnside’s views before.  Unfortunately for the state of public discussion, we only get two sorts of contributors: the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are terrible; and the people who appeal to their intuitions to assert that all asylum seekers are wonderful.  Neither group is adding much to the policy discussion, thus the incorrect perception that parties are in a ‘race to the bottom’ and other such slogans.

But Burnside’s most recent article demonstrates fairly conclusively the extent to which he relies on the bellyfeel prejudice of his readers.  I’ve taken an excerpt from his article and rewritten them from a slightly different perspective…

For my sins, I became involved in the issue. I was regularly asked to speak, at public events and private, about vaccination. It seemed to me that the key to the problem was to explain the facts. Naïvely I thought that most Australians would recoil at the idea of wilfully exposing healthy babies and children to pharmaceuticals that can carry with them the possibility of serious injury or death.

A couple of unexpected things happened. First, I got a few death threats. It surprised me that, having done a few pretty contentious cases in my career, I should receive death threats for speaking out on behalf of people who were, self-evidently, voiceless and powerless.

And whenever I was quoted in the media saying something outrageous like “it is wrong to take away the need for voluntary consent of parents to perform medical procedures upon their children”, I would receive a torrent of hate mail.

The anger and intensity of the hate mail astonished me then, and it still does. It struck me as remarkable that people would write to a complete stranger in such bluntly abusive terms. And the mail I got was seriously, vigorously abusive.

Since I had set myself the goal of converting all of Australia to understanding the facts, I decided to answer all the hate mail. After all, these people had self-identified as disagreeing with my views. My reasoning, flawed as it looks now, was that if only the people who disagreed with me could understand the facts, then they would come around to my way of seeing things. If enough people changed their views, the government policy would have to change. Clearly I did not know what I was dealing with.

Still, I resolved to answer all the mail I could. Mail that came by post was impossible to answer because, as a rule, people who use the postal service are a forgetful lot who did not include a name or address. But most of it came by email and, even if I did not know the sender’s identity, I could respond by simply hitting the reply button.

I sat up late at night answering emails: thousands of them, mostly abusive. Some of them all in capitals; lots of exclamation marks and lots of very rude words. I am no shrinking violet, but I was astonished by the rudeness of many of the emails I got. Unpopularity brings strange rewards.

Since their complaints fell into a few recognisable patterns, I had a few standard responses. Typically I would grit my teeth and say something like:

Thank you for your email. I gather you do not agree with me. But did you realise that… people should have access to both sides of the debate, some children are more susceptible to vaccine injuries than others,…etc.

If I was surprised by the rudeness and vehemence of most of the emails, what followed was even more astonishing. Nearly all of them responded to my reply…and every response was polite. The responses fell into a few patterns, but typically they said “thank you for answering me, I did not expect to hear from you. The facts you sent me are all very well, but…”, and then they would set out other objections. I replied with more facts to answer those objections.

Over the course of thousands of bits of hate mail, I estimate that about 50% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I agree with you now”; and about 25% ended up saying, in substance: “Thank you for discussing this issue with me. I don’t agree with you, but it is good that you stand up for what you believe”. The other 25% remained entirely unconvinced and, I assume, continued to vote for the Greens.

Here’s a crazy thought.  Why not find a group of intelligent, eloquent, and morally excellent people who disagree with each other, and record them as they discuss an issue in depth?  It seems that we have the technology.

Alas, it’s clearly much easier to just give everybody a megaphone and let the chaos rain down.

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2 thoughts on “Soldiers on the waterfront, they wanna ship me far away… Why Julian Burnside isn’t helping

  1. Pingback: Left on the streets of his dreams he would cry and he’d rage, for the stage… On the Festival of Dangerous Ideas | Only The Sangfroid

  2. Pingback: Trash it, change it, mail – upgrade it… Review of Transcendence | Only The Sangfroid

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