There’s a lot wrong with ‘Children in Detention’

On Saturday Words/Matter saw a half page advert in the weekend SMH, with a call to all members of Federal Parliament from the leaders of Catholic Religious Australia “to release children and their families from immigration detention” in time for Christmas.

The ‘advert’ headline read “A Christmas Gift of Freedom For Children in Detention”

Their plea is clearly well intentioned and urgent, for a country which is the only nation in the world to lock up children without trial and ‘indefinitely’, as part of its mandatory asylum seeker policy. And there is no wish to suggest this call is unwarranted here.

However, from a framing perspective, intended to motivate and ‘move’ people (both emotionally and politically), the headline carries its own undoing.

Let me explain my thinking. What are the immediate associations we have when we think of children and “detention”? School kids, right. And which sort of children end up in detention at school? Naughty kids, right. And is detention so bad for them? No, it’s a good lesson and, as far as punishments go, it’s really very benign, right.

See the problem. As a call for people (and especially hard-nosed politicians) to acknowledge how vile this practice is and to motivate that something be done to undo this situation, the frame is all wrong.

Semantically, and as such cognitively, ‘children in detention’ are probably there because they deserve it, right? And it really isn’t such a bad experience anyway, because it will teach them some important lessons about not ‘bucking the system’, right?

How much better – more passionate and therefore more motivating – the plea would be if it referred to the fact that these children are “locked up without trial”, or “imprisoned”, or “incarcerated”. It’s just another example of how much words really matter.