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We can’t conceive pain of refugees

Why SBS’s “Go back to where you came from” is so valuable.

Kevin Fitzsimons

‘People don’t do conceptual,’ was one of the best pieces of advice I received early on in my marketing career. It took a while for me to grasp the value of the advice and even longer to apply it.  My resistance stemmed from a stubborn, perhaps naive belief that one should be able to persuade others with the power of ideas alone; that the people around the table had sufficient imagination to take the germ of what could be a successful project, and share my faith and confidence to see it complete.

 

When my concepts failed to find traction I assumed it was because those ideas were poor. Or that I had done insufficient preparation or didn’t have the wit or confidence to sell those ideas. Undoubtedly, there were occasions when this was true.

 

But here was someone who was a brilliant salesman - someone who could sell coal to Newcastle, a man who was equal to any lawyer when it came to mastering and advocating to a brief - telling me, don’t bother, people aren’t interested in a concept.

 

My mentor’s advice was that you can’t waste a good idea by sharing it at the embryonic stage. You’re asking for it to be shut down. Rather, develop the idea to a point where its value is so obvious, so compelling that you'll get the buy-in you need. Moreover, by doing this extra work on your idea before revealing it to others, you demonstrate to others your commitment to your creative calls.

 

This advice comes back to me again and again as I watch SBS’s Go back to where you came from.  In the first episode we saw numerous debates between (and note for fairness I’ve used the pejorative term for both groups) the bleeding hearts and the hard-hearted.

 

The bleeders tried to explain to the hard hearts about the pain and suffering that drove refugees to get on a boat and come to Australia; that there isn’t some orderly queue that these people are hopping ahead of; that denying them refuge is not the more humane solution.

 

It was to no avail. The hard hearts could not be persuaded. As far as they were concerned, Australia’s policy was tough but fair; that it is a deterrent that is saving lives.

 

The starkest illustration of how ‘showing’ is the only way to get ideas across was the speed at which hard hearts softened in the face of the reality of the situation. Take Andrew, the teacher. He clearly felt his original position was built on solid rock; that he had approached the issue in an intellectual and compassionate manner; that he had concluded after much soul-searching and with a heavy heart that a tough policy was right.

 

But how soon were these arguments flattened, blown away, vaporised.  Andrew pretty much joins the bleeders before the end of the first episode. It was nearly enough for him to hear the stories of newly settled refugees, to take onboard their awful plight, to see they were no different from us. And by the time we were half way through the second episode, Andrew had turned into a veritable St Paul. His conversion on the road to Damascus was complete. Indeed, his capitulation was a source of great annoyance to Kim, the hardest of the hearts. As they left a Jordan refugee camp, Andrew visibly moved, she told him, “your opinion is changing all the time.” His response, “I’m discovering I’m human,” was met with a sharp retort from Kim, “I’m discovering you’re annoying.”

 

A conversion longer in the making, but no less remarkable was that of Jodi, a mum from Adelaide. Jodi has a younger sister, Renee, who is a bleeder but Jodi was hard, giving Kim a run for her money at times. She saw queue jumpers and Australia being invaded.  At first she wasn’t impressed by the show’s attempts to change her mind. Whilst others were feeling the strain and cruelty of a trip on an infamous Australian Government orange refugee lifeboat, she seem to enjoy the journey and was dismissive of the conditions.

 

But she changed her mind after hearing a Rohingya teenager tell of the kidnapping and murder of his group in Thailand by traffickers and after watching a video of a mass rape. The penny dropped that these people are in absolute terror for their lives, and that taking a boat to escape was a reasonable course of action.

 

The final unanswered question in advance of tonight’s episode is whether Kim will surrender - will she become a bleeder? Perhaps. If not, that’s sad. But the happier news is that most Australians can be persuaded if they can be shown the truth.

 

31/7 Postscript: The final episode aired last night. Alas, despite moments of empathy, Kim remained resolute. But the others' commitment to compassion was only deepened.

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