Have you ever thought about the way that language is used to frame our understanding of ourselves and other people? It wasn’t many years ago that public transport systems moved from calling people ‘passengers’ to ‘customers’ – a transition that reflects the privatisation of these services, and the now primarily economic nature of the relationship between the service user and provider.
On a global scale, we principally use the language of nation-states to frame self and other. These are not empty frames, but full of meaning, rights and responsibilities. Nation-states ascribe citizenship, enact power, arrange economies, provide healthcare and education (to varying degrees), determine freedom and influence (consider the power of a British passport over, say, an Iranian one), and control the movement of goods and people.
But what happens when people challenge this nation-focused way of divvying up the world? How do we see the nationally non-compliant, and how does that influence how we ourselves are then framed?
In our Identities article, ‘Framing asylum seekers: the uses of national and cosmopolitan identity frames in arguments about asylum seekers’, we explored how different framings position not only asylum seekers, but also Australia. Over the last two decades, politicians and popular media framed asylum seekers as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’ using ‘people smugglers’ to take advantage of Australia and threaten ‘Australian values’. To identify solutions to the ‘problem’, the federal government convened an expert panel. It invited submissions from the public. Fifty-one advocacy, religious, political, legal and ethnic community organisations responded, mostly arguing in favour of more open border policies to welcome asylum seekers. We analysed these submissions, looking particularly at how responsibility to others was framed in terms of identity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common framing was national. What was surprising was that the nation-state was used to argue for acceptance, rather than rejection. Submissions suggested that the ‘average Australian’ did not share the government’s views, but wanted a ‘fair go’ for all, including asylum seekers. Australia was framed in terms of its national values of decency and compassion, and the argument focused on inclusion rather than exclusion.
Secondly, Australia was framed as a ‘regional leader’ – the wealthy, stable, ‘lucky country’ in a region of poorer nations, with a related responsibility to take its share of the refugee load. This celebratory framing hinted at Australia as a ‘civilised’ ‘Western’ country, surrounded by the ‘less civilised’ Asia Pacific region, with an obligation to ‘lead by example’.
Finally, some submissions focused on the universal nature of asylum seeking, and the government’s responsibility to accept those in need based on universal principles. Here, Australia is framed as a global citizen, with concomitant civic responsibilities to engage with what is a global issue. Rather than a nationalist focus on security and political expediency, a cosmopolitan ethic is called for. A more limited version of this argument was that Australia needed to avoid appearing inhumane on the international stage.
Thus, submissions used multiple identity frames, but whether it was Australia as a country of humane values, Australia as regional leader, or Australia as globally responsible citizen, the focus remained on Australia. This reinforces a slightly self-congratulatory tone, supporting nationalism rather than cosmopolitanism – doing the right thing because of what a great nation we are. The nation thus continues to be a powerful frame through which arguments are made – even when advocating for the non-citizen and cosmopolitan ends.
Like the language that frames transport workers and passengers, determining identities and relationships in fundamental ways, arguments for more cosmopolitan, globalist actions continue to rely on the frames and language of nationalism. This ironically reinforces the power of the nation-state, even in the context of a ‘post-national’ phenomenon such as people moving across national borders to seek asylum.
Blog post by Catherine Austin and Farida Fozdar, The University of Western Australia, Australia
Read the full article: Austin, Catherine & Fozdar, Farida. Framing asylum seekers: the uses of national and cosmopolitan identity frames in arguments about asylum seekers. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2016.1214134