Playing with words to play with lives

Words come with baggage; some more than others; “sinful” more than most; and “illegal” is fast catching up, at least in its application to asylum seekers in Australia.

This, anyway, is where my thoughts wandered as I watched “Philomena” at the cinema recently.


There’s a scene near the end of the movie in which the venomous shipwreck of a nun, Sister Hildegarde, tells Philomena (Judi Dench) that she deserved everything she got – her son sold for adoption, years of servitude in a Magdalene laundry, fruitless search over decades, and being kept in ignorance of his death and burial in the convent grounds.

Philomena deserved all this, Hidegarde ordained, for being carnal (having sex out of wedlock). Her fate was the wages of sin.

Sound familiar?

Maybe not, but I found myself exchanging “sinful” for “illegal” and segueing into the current narrative about asylum seekers in Australia.

Describing asylum seekers – inaccurately – as illegal, is even more insidious than describing the Magdalene girls as sinful.

Why? Many people believe in “sin”, but even more accept the validity of the law; most Australians, for example, would hold the law in some respect and accept that there are legitimate consequences for transgressions.

Extending the narrative, then (in the same direction as the one about sin) those who behave illegally DESERVE to suffer the consequences. This is implicit; it does not need spelling out.

That is, to give this story legs, all you need do is to repeat, over and over, that asylum seekers are “illegal”. Those receiving this message will fill in the blanks.

So, in three easy steps:

  1. Label your target group as sinful/illegal, drawing on the authority vested in you by Church/State.
  2. Treat this group abysmally – because you can.
  3. Sit back and watch as the idea takes hold that people “like that” deserve all they get.

Why do this? Who knows. But even more disturbing is when people (and Philomena is a good example) accept their status as sinful/illegal and start believing they deserve the abuse meted out to them.

I find it unsettling that “Philomena” is described as a comedy-drama. To me it is a tragedy; as is our treatment of asylum seekers…Joan Beckwith.

no illegal

Written By Joan Beckwith, PhD

Playing with words to play with lives was originally published @ 2020 Social Justice and has been syndicated with permission.


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