A couple of years ago I wrote a post about Paul Watzlawick et al's Change and the idea of first and second order change. The idea has kept on being useful since I remembered it, so recently I got my hands on a copy of the book to read it again. Along with it I also bought a book by Watzlawick called Ultra-Solutions: How to fail most successfully.
This little booklet is an exploration of the kind of solution which "not only does away with the problem, but also with just about everything else, somewhat in the vein of the old medical joke - operation successful, patient dead...". It is a light-hearted romp through the pitfalls of rigid or inadequate thinking, using as its framework the witches and their mistress Hecate who tempted Macbeth, and who continue to tempt us in our day to adopt strategies just as seductive and self-defeating as that followed by Shakespeare's tragic hero.
In each short chapter he deals with a mental pitfall. The search for security and certainty. The idea that more of a good thing must mean better. The idea that if something is bad, its opposite must be good. The idea that there are only two options in any situation and we must choose between them. The idea of the "zero sum game" in which someone can win only if someone else loses. The idea that we know what other people are thinking. The idea that disorder can only lead to more disorder. The idea that our wise rulers must force us to do things for our own good, no matter what the cost. The idea that if we keep searching and striving we will eventually achieve perfection. Each of these temptations appears wise and good, but wreaks terrible destruction.
As I was reading it this week, I was also following and taking part in the story of the High Court's finding that Australia's offshore detention of asylum seekers is legal, and the subsequent debate over whether 267 asylum seekers, including 37 infants, should be deported to Nauru as a result. Of course I think they should be allowed to stay, and on Monday I joined over 1,000 people on the steps of Brisbane's Anglican Cathedral to make the point publicly.
I struggle a lot with this issue. On the one hand, it's encouraging to play a tiny part in something like the Sanctuary movement because it's a source of hope. When people from all walks of life and of all ages, from the left or the right, agree that this simple act of humanity is the right thing to do, I feel that maybe kindness will prevail after all . Then again, all the attempts to make this point over the past few years, whether for specific individual refugees or at a policy level, have been met with stony political silence and a continued ratcheting up of cruelty. I find it easy to despair.
As I was reading Watzlawick, it stood out just how much our current refugee policy is an ultra-solution, how much Hecate and her witches are having their way with our political leaders.
They are searching for security and orderliness, fearing that a disorderly immigration process will create social chaos. They don't realise first of all that life is chaotic no matter how much control we attempt to exert, and that out of this chaos creativity and new solutions can arise which are beyond the power of governments to predict or create - or indeed to prevent.
They believe firmly that refugee policy is a zero sum game, that the only way to prevent some asylum seekers from drowning at sea is to make others suffer on land. They are unable to see that there may be a way to prevent both kinds of suffering at the same time.
They believe that there are only two options, the current punitive regime or an open border regime in which our country is overrun by uncontrolled immigrants. They are blind to any idea that there may be a middle course in which the situation is managed without harsh policing.
They think they know what motivates asylum seekers and the people who run the "people smuggling" trade, and that they can manipulate their behaviour with the right set of sticks and carrots - mostly sticks. They fail to take account of the fact that human motivations are diverse and rarely unmixed, and that the intense creativity of human beings will find ways around the barriers we put up faster than we can create new ones.
They believe that they are wiser than everyone else, and that they need to apply force to make everyone conform to their wisdom. If their efforts are not working, they just need to apply more force until their solution is forced through. Anyone who thinks differently is obviously a foolish idealist who has no idea of the real world.
They believe that if their solution has only partial success then they need to do more of it, or do it harder, or convince others to do it as well, to make their success complete. They don't realise that the "success" of our detention regime depends on others not doing the same, that if everyone did it the system would break down completely.
The result is indeed an ultra-solution, a solution which cures the illness by killing the patient.
Mandatory detention has long been a solution in search of a problem. These days when anyone proposes showing some level of mercy to those in detention, our leaders are quick to claim that they are doing what they do to prevent asylum seekers from drowning at sea. This is a recent innovation. John Howard, whose government was the first to introduce offshore processing, justified it with a typically belligerent assertion of security and orderliness: "We will decide who comes to this country and the manner in which they come". His Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock talked about the unfairness of boat arrivals "jumping the queue" for scarce refugee places. The solution remains the same, only the problem changes.
The trouble is, in the process of solving whatever problem it is we think we are solving, we do so much collateral damage.
We subject adults and children to a harsh, frightening regime of detention. We irreparably damage their mental and physical health, leaving a long term problem for them and for someone (we're not sure who) to deal with long into the future.
We store up enemies for ourselves, broadcasting the idea around the world that we are a cruel, racist nation. When at some present or future time we ask for humanitarian treatment of our own citizens, we leave ourselves open to those who could help us reminding us of what we did to their citizens.
Indeed, we begin to turn ourselves into that cruel nation. We stoke the fear of the outsider, the view of refugees as people who are probably not genuine, who are gaming the system. The more we close our borders, the more we close our hearts, depriving ourselves of love and community in our search for security. Our attempt to make ourselves safer makes us more fearful.
In the end we do have more to fear, because systems in our community which were once designed to provide support are now designed to intimidate and control. Large parts of our immigration system have been transformed into a paramilitary organisation called the Australian Border Force, with uniforms and a mandate to deter and control. Instead of the first question when we meet asylum seekers being "how can we help you?" it becomes "do you have a valid visa?". Instead of its main contractors being human service organisations and multicultural community groups, they are security firms.
We are gradually depriving ourselves of the means of compassion. Now situations which can easily be resolved while the person remains in the community become excuses for detention, apparently just because we can. A system which was designed to deal with boat arrivals is increasingly being applied to people who have overstayed visas, or breached visa conditions. The logic of deterrence is slowly spreading.
Hecate would like us to give up in despair and allow her to have her way. However, so far it's not working. Despite her pretensions to wisdom, she has been unable to prevent ordinary people from seeing that the solution makes no sense, from looking past the bluster, the simplistic thinking, the "either-or" of our current ruling philosophy. We see around the country ordinary doctors and schoolteachers saying "no goal can justify making children suffer", ordinary families saying "well, someone could come and live with me". We see that so many of us have friends and neighbours who are refugees and that it is only natural for us to help them - and for them to help us.
We can only hope and pray that eventually sanity prevails, that we can change course in time to save the patient.