Post 2: On Australians’ attitudes to asylum seekers and the nature of evil

by Erland Howden

Following my news media research into the issue of asylum seekers and refugees, two themes emerged that I wanted to pursue in more depth with a review of scholarly articles.

First, public attitudes toward refugees and asylum seekers, looking at what drives people to develop their views and what might be contributing to the dehumanisation of people fleeing war and persecution. Second, I wanted to pick up the thread of the discussion around ethics and personal responsibility that McLoughlin (2016) touched on in his New Matilda article, The Banality of Peter Dutton.

Not all negative: Macro justice principles predict positive attitudes towards asylum seekers in Australia, Anderson J., Stuart A. and Rossen I. – Australian Journal of Psychology, 2015

Anderson, Stuart and Rossen (2015) published an article in the Australian Journal of Psychology that unpacks the first issue in a very interesting way. In my research I discovered a number of articles (eg. Trounson et al, 2015) that dealt with the psychological drivers of negative attitudes toward asylum seekers, but Anderson, et al (2015) was the first I could find that took an alternative approach and sought to find what could be a predictor of positive attitudes toward asylum seekers.

What is pertinent to highlight in the first place is that the authors declare in their conclusion a specific intent for their research to contribute to the “development of communication designed to reduce prejudice towards asylum seekers.” As a visual communication designer with an interest in changing Australia’s negative attitudes and treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, this highlighted for me that I was potentially a key part of the intended audience for the research.

The more widely published psychological research around attitudes toward asylum seekers, as discussed by the authors, centres around suggesting

“that prejudice is derived from threat- and competition-based dual processes, which relate to authoritarianism and traditionalism (i.e., right-wing authoritarianism, RWA; Altemeyer, 1981), and hierarchy and inequality (i.e., social dominance orientation, SDO; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999), respectively.” (Anderson et al, 2015)

However, the authors of this study have identified that macro justice principles – in other words, “the belief in equal distribution of resources across a society” are potentially a stronger predictor of positive attitudes toward asylum seekers than SDO or RWA are of negative attitudes. The caveat to this conclusion, aside from some common considerations such as sample size, is that the study sample was undergraduate psychology students from an Australian university. Given the conclusions, it bears considering this research with a sample more representative of the broader Australian population, but in the context of Visual Communication and Emergent Practices with its focus on a youth audience, this research provides an excellent starting point for consideration of design and communication interventions that could have a positive impact on Australian attitudes toward asylum seekers and refugees.

Are Arendt’s Reflections on Evil Still Relevant?, Bernstein, R. – The Review of Politics, 2008

On the second theme that emerged from my news media review of this issue – ethical consideration of the nature of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees – I uncovered a discussion of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on evil in the recent context of large refugee and stateless persons populations by Richard Bernstein (2008) in The Review of Politics. To first contextualise this paper, it assumes a basic knowledge of Hannah Arendt and her writing – Arendt was the New York Times journalist who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in describing the character and actions of Adolf Eichmann, from her observations at his trial as a Nazi war criminal in Jerusalem in 1961 and subsequently wrote at length on the nature of evil, genocide and human rights. What is particularly relevant about Arendt’s writing to today’s context, as Bernstein (2008) points out, is that she discussed “the emergence of masses of refugees” as “one of the most intractable problems of the twentieth century.”

This paper brings into sharp relief two aspects of the refugee and asylum seeker issue in the Australian context that I found highly compelling.

First, that asylum seekers are uniquely vulnerable, sometimes as stateless people, not just to the horrors of their initial persecution or the perils of their journey to seek asylum but vulnerable also to abuse, mistreatment and the denial of dignity through their lack of belonging to a “political community that will protect and guarantee one’s rights as a citizen.”

“This is the condition where one becomes superfluous – a situation that is at once precarious and extremely dangerous. This is why Arendt argued that the most fundamental right is “the right to have rights”…” (Bernstein, 2008)

Second, the foundation of decisions and responsibility of political decision-makers that have overseen the torture, abuse, mistreatment and arguably internationally unlawful internment of asylum seekers, particularly in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Indeed, to extend the question, considering why the conditions themselves or the subsequent categorisation by a UN body of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers as torture, did not result in, for example, mass resignations from the Department of Immigration and the cancellation of contracts to manage the detention facilities by private contractors. Here, I think it bears quoting Bernstein (2008) directly in one of his concluding paragraphs:

“This is the primary lesson of the banality of evil. One does not have to be a monster, a sadist, or a vicious person to commit horrendously evil deeds. Normal people in their everyday lives, “decent citizens,” even respectable political leaders, who are convinced of the righteousness of their cause, can commit monstrous deeds. The bureaucratic and technological conditions of modernity make this phenomenon a much more likely and dangerous possibility. But, as Arendt emphasizes, this does not mitigate the accountability and responsibility of those who commit such deeds. Arendt wants us to confront honestly the “paradox” that even though normal persons may commit horrendous deeds without deliberate intention, they are, nevertheless, fully responsible for these deeds and must be held accountable.” (Bernstein, 2008)

McLoughlin, L. 2016, ‘The Banality Of Peter Dutton’, New Matilda, 25 May, viewed 30 July 2016, <>.

Anderson, J.R., Stuart, A. & Rossen, I. 2015, ‘Not all negative: Macro justice principles predict positive attitudes towards asylum seekers in Australia’, Australian Journal of Psychology, vol. 67, no. 4, pp. 207-213.

Trounson, J.S., Critchley, C. & Pfeifer, J.E. 2015, ‘Australian attitudes toward asylum seekers: roles of dehumanization and social dominance theory’, Social Behavior and Personality, vol. 43, no. 10, pp. 1641-1655.

Bernstein, R.J. 2008, ‘Are Arendt’s Reflections on Evil Still Relevant?’, The Review of Politics, vol. 70, no. 1, pp. 64-D.


Author: Erland Howden

Designer, photographer & facilitator. Vego foodie. Passionate about environmental justice, community organising & travel.