“Burn the Witch! Burn the Witch!”
These words have come to mind lately, as I’ve watched a number of Pakistani friends of mine get deported, for reasons nobody is quite clear about.
It might not be immediately obvious to everyone – the connection between Australian Immigration policy and the time-honoured tradition of witch burning, but I’m thinking of a scene out of that archetypal Britsih comedy, Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
If you remember the scene, the villagers are excitedly preparing to lynch some poor female, who is busily protesting that she is not a witch, when they are confronted by King Arthur and Sir Bedivere, who claim that there are ‘ways of telling whether she is a witch’.
Sir Bedivire then guides the willing villagers through the proper logical processes by which they can determine the guilt or innocence of the accused woman.
“What do we do with witches?”, asks Sir Bedivere.
“Burn them! Burn them!”, the villagers eagerly reply!
“What else do we burn?”, asks Sir Bedivere.
“More witches”, somebody cries out (for which they receive a thump on the head), after which somebody ventures to offer what is deemed to be the correct answer, “wood”.
“Therefore”, asks Sir Bediviere, “why do witches burn?”
There is a long period of silence, until someone tentatively suggests – “because they are made of wood?”
This breakthrough in villager logic then allows them to continue with the trial, where the issue now becomes how to determine whether the accused woman is made of wood.
It’s all good clean fun of course, unless you’re on the receiving end of this sort of logic.
“All wood burns”, says Sir Bedivire, “therefore all that burns is wood”.
This doesn’t really work as a piece of logic of course. All of Saddam Hussein is on trial at the moment, but that does not really mean that all people currently on trial are Saddam Hussein. Some people seem to have missed this.
‘All terrorists are Islamic’ – so the argument goes. ‘Therefore all Islamic people are suspected terrorists’.
That’s not really called logic. It’s called stupidity or scapegoating.
As it is, not even the first part of the statement is true. All terrorists are not Islamic.
As I understand it, terrorism was brought back into vogue in this generation by the Tamil Tigers, who are Hindus. And frankly, the terrorism I’ve been most familiar with over my lifetime is that which has come out of Northern Ireland, where they’re all good Christians!
Even so, even if it were true that all terrorists were Islamic, that would not make all Islamic people suspect!
I see the same logic employed in the recent decision made by Qantas and Air New Zealand, where they have banned men from sitting next to unaccompanied children on flights.
‘All child molesters are men’, says the argument. ‘Therefore all men are potential child molesters’.
Again, the first premise in the argument is not true of course. But even if child abuse were an exclusively male problem, this does not mean that the male population as a whole should be held responsible for the actions of a few.
All men are not abusers. All gay people are not carrying HIV AIDS. All Islamic people are not terrorists. Somewhere along the line we’ve made a fundamental error in logic.
Of course, in the end, it’s not a logical problem, is it? This scapegoating and prejudicial targetting of minority groups is not unfamiliar to us. It’s a classic strategy through which communities avoid taking responsibility for the real problems that are tearing them apart, by blaming it all on a target group that can’t defend itself.
We have real problems in Australian society – real problems! Our children are running amok. The traditional institution of marriage just isn’t working. The gap between rich and poor seems to be growing ever wider, and we seem to have forgotten how to dialogue with eachother, except through our legal representatives.
Our culture and our way of life have never looked so fragile, but we’re not going to solve these problems by burning a few witches!
A wise man once said, ‘For every complex problem, there’s always a simple answer, and it’s always wrong‘. Never has that been more true than it is today.
We are facing complex problems in Australian society that have taken many years to create. We are not going to be able to undo them through burning a few witches or deporting a few Pakistanis. The real question is whether we are willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to address the deeper issues.