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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Lost for words

The following is a response to a frightful, xenophobic, and (forgive me) un-Unitarian article in a recent publication from a sister church here in Australia: "Australia Under Threat". Thankfully, it's buried on page 4. You'd need to read it, if you can bear it, to get the critique:

Peter Crawford’s Literary Offences

Dear Sun editor:
I refer to Mr. Crawford’s recent article in the SUN (“Australia Under Threat”, The SUN, Dec 2015-Jan 2016).

I am unaware of what, if any, editorial policies govern the inclusion of material for this publication. Policies may be predicated the broadest definition of free speech Mr. Crawford both misquotes and mistakenly attributes to Voltaire. If so, it may be a good idea to consider the difference between liberty and license (that we are not free to deceive, or to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre full of impressionable people, and rightly so). Yet he is given license to do both these things in your pages. But more on that later, as freedom of speech is one of the many red-herring arguments Mr. Crawford scatter-shoots across the two-page spread the editor has allowed him.

Or perhaps, editorial policies are predicated upon a PR model—material most likely to attract and resonate with like-minded people. If so, I would be interested to learn the publication’s distribution numbers and market area reach. As it happens, this issue reached my desk at the Adelaide church, and I shared it with a few congregants who, like me, searched Mr. Crawford’s article in vain for anything resembling content that might attract and resonate with those likely to happen upon Unitarian publications. Still, good to get all views in, I’m sure.

Whatever the editorial policies are, it is clear that rhetorical standards higher than middle school are not among them. Indeed, having taught undergraduate writing at universities for many years, I should have been compelled to hand this back as a ‘fail’ if it had been submitted by any of my students. The essay is replete with factual error or misdirection, logical fallacy, and emotive dog-whistling, but is sadly free of much evidence, balance, or knowledge of the broader context of his subject. The net effect is of shrill, bilious, fear-mongering that leaves the reader suspecting that Mr. Crawford merely needed to get something off his chest, and could perhaps benefit from a few sessions of counselling. He is clearly frightened out of his wits, but his two-page nervous breakdown will be edifying to precisely no-one else.

He begins defensively (never a good rhetorical move), devoting the first two-and-a-half paragraphs to inveighing against political correctness, insisting it muzzles the very freedom of speech he is exercising by writing that it is doing so. Well, clearly not. Or perhaps he has simply been frustrated by being unable to get his views aired on the outlets his freedom of speech has been unconstricted by. The literary offenses in this article may give an indication as to why the ABC has not knocked on his door for comment. How is he or anyone expounding similar views ‘persecuted’? In any case, it would be tedious to list the more widely-read ‘honest comment’, very like his own, that does indeed get published. Andrew Bolt’s regular column is but one example, and, one imagines, an inspiration for Mr. Crawford.

That circularity is not the end of Mr. Crawford’s difficulties with logical argument. Straw men litter the essay. There exist, apparently, immigration lobbies, sleep-walking politicians, unwitting refugee advocates, European political elites, and a tyrannical UNHCR. None of these shadowy cabals apparently have any redeeming points of view worth considering. False choices abound: ‘if I don’t get to air these views, human rights agendas aren’t meaningful.” “If you do not accept we are under threat of a terrorist attack, you are delusional or in denial.” “Charity alone discharges our international responsibilities.” “Refugees brought by smugglers are ‘impostors’.” We are in a simplistic either-or land throughout the piece. But nuance is an enemy to gaseous polemic.

Circularity and false choice are not the least of Mr. Crawford’s offenses to logic. Far worse is the ‘slippery slope’ or ‘thin  end of the wedge’ fallacy that he saves for his emotional coup de grace: we will be ‘targeted’ by ‘millions’ of ‘self-proclaimed’ refugees (as if there’s any other kind until they are verified, but well…), creating a ‘huge’ culture that will lead to ‘out of control’ changes leading to Islamist cultural domination.

What is clearly ‘out of control’ is Mr. Crawford himself. His disdain for providing examples, data, or any clarifying, compelling evidence for his strident, overblown claims. With a student essay with words count limits, limitations of space normally allow some leeway here, but since giving him space is clearly not The Sun’s problem, this can hardly be an excuse. There are:

·        No examples of persecution of honest comment

·        No data on Iraq/Syrian intake to establish his claim that it is increasing to ‘unabated’ levels

·        False claims that the Paris attacks were carried out by refugees who gamed the system

·        No specifics on how far ‘downward’ we should revise refugee intake.

·        Terrorists in Australia’s jails: how many? Evidence that refugee intake is to blame?

Tellingly, the one piece of hard data is an opinion poll from The Australian newspaper, which poll suggests Mr. Crawford speaks for the (70%) majority opinion…of readers of The Australian, he fails to add. It is hard to imagine that anyone with a grasp of the politics of the contemporary media landscape could fail to recognise that our national paper of record has consistently presented ‘honest comment’ that encourages these very views, thus shaping the terms of the debate. It would be tiresome to point out that a popular opinion is not necessarily a correct or informed one.

Perhaps if Mr. Crawford turned his attention from The Australian to actual peer-reviewed academic material on the topic, a more balanced treatment of the subject might appear in your pages. Perhaps if he were a student of the history of Australia’s complicity in creating a region so politically troubled, he might accept the simple cause and effect that if you bomb people, they tend to run, that if you topple their governments and exploit their resources and demonise them, they get angry at you.

But somehow, I doubt it very much. This article is clearly an emotional exercise in discharging Mr. Crawford’s anger and belligerence, larded as it is with scare-words like: threat (in the title and many repetitions), menace, folly, rife, wicked, impostors, unwitting, appeasement (that’s for you WW2 fans), terror, lies, never-ending influx, and on and on ad nauseum. I can reduce the sub-textual effect of his language to one word: “Boo!”

His solutions to his case for a local DefCon2 are to abnegate our responsibility under international agreements Australia not only signed, but co-authored. In effect, he encourages a national violation of law, or at least a 180-degree about-turn. For the vaguely guilt-ridden, he proposes throwing some money (no details on how much per person) at charities managing unmanageable human flows. Because what’s at stake here is OUR comfort on the North Shore. Free from fear of others, free from remorse of conscience. But it needs to be pointed out that if fear made us safer, Mr. Crawford should at least feel secure. But he clearly does NOT feel secure, and this unexamined assumption absolutely undermines and makes ridiculous the trouble he has taken to try to baffle and scare us with this article.

When I used to hand back such ‘fails’ to undergrads, the most usual bleats were “I worked so HARD on it, how can this fail” and “You just don’t agree with me, that’s why you failed me!”. Yeah, nah. I’m not convinced, and that’s because you haven’t convinced me, and you started this by picking the topic. To head off further embarrassments like this article, I might suggest an editorial policy that maintains at least a 1st-year undergraduate standard of competence in making a point with clear reasoning, evidence, and the courtesy not to employ manipulative shock tactics. The ‘Australian civilization’ Mr. Crawford worries so much about, and has self-appointed as spokesman for, would be better served.