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truth overboard Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004


Truth Overboard: What does it Mean for Politicians and Statesmen
to Assume Responsibility for their Words of Mass Destruction?

Paul Miller
Australian National University


1. In the midst of a general ‘crisis’ in the number of boat people arriving in Australian waters, on the 8th of October 2001, the Melbourne Age carried the headline "Boat People ‘Threw Children Overboard’". This was based on statements made by a number of senior ministers in the Howard government, including the Prime Minister himself, in relation to the actions of the people aboard the vessel Tampa; a Norwegian freighter that rescued 438 asylum seekers from an Indonesian fishing vessel in distress at the request of the Australian Search and Rescue Authority. At one level, this headline was simply a continuation of a more general discourse around asylum seekers and border security, which characterised asylum seekers as "outsiders", as different from, and, at times, as less human, than us. While they may not have had guns, boat people were often presented as attempting to intrude on our sovereign space illegitimately as surely as if they were an invading army. They were represented as queue jumpers, potential terrorists, and as either in league with, or the victims of, disreputable people smugglers. But with the ‘Children Overboard’ affair, as if these negative associations were not enough, they were also painted as people who would willingly sacrifice or endanger their own children to force their way into Australia, which, interestingly, also cast their status as ‘genuine’ refugees into doubt. Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, opinion polls showed a majority of Australians to be in favour of taking a hard line against such ethically bankrupt individuals. There seemed to be general agreement with the sentiment attributed to John Howard in Melbourne’s Herald Sun that: "I don’t want people like that in Australia. Genuine refugees don’t do that. They hang on to their children." (Herald Sun 2001)

2. The Government’s stocks rose, to some extent at least, on the back of the tough policy on border protection that events such as the Tampa Crisis were taken to legitimate and necessitate, and they were subsequently re-elected in November 2001. However, just a few months after the election, on 14 February 2002, the Melbourne Age ran a different headline: "‘Overboard claims’ false". This followed the release of a report commissioned by the newly elected Howard Government into the circumstances surrounding the advice that lead to the original claims that children were thrown overboard.

3. Significantly, the report, the subsequent Senate Inquiry, and the ensuing parliamentary and public debate centred on whether the Prime Minister and the government lied to parliament and the Australian people by knowingly making and persisting with the false claim that children were thrown overboard. In particular, the question arose as to whether the false claim had been made for electoral advantage and as vindication for the government’s controversial border protection policies. Hence, the ethical spotlight, powered by the media and with it the public’s attention, now shifted away from the asylum seekers onto the Government’s own behaviour and whether it was guilty of "bearing false witness" in the service of its own advantage.

4. In many ways, this shift was no doubt to be welcomed. However, I will argue that an examination of the parliamentary and public discourse surrounding the accusation of lying reveals a strong sense in which the focus on individual responsibility for the lie resulted in the debate moving away from other important ethical issues in our response to the arrival on our shores of those seeking asylum. In particular, these attempts to locate the wrong of the lie perpetuated rather than resolved the injustices surrounding our response to the asylum seekers, of which the claim that children were thrown overboard was only a part, by obfuscating a broader sense of responsibility irreducible to an individual act. This paper will explore the fundamental injustice of the discourse around the Children Overboard affair and its exacerbation of the larger ethical problems concerning border security. It will also begin to explore the possibility that the notion of "un-assumable responsibility" could usefully reorientate our thinking and open up a different ethical space from which to consider our response to refugees and asylum seekers.

5. This, of course, is not the only basis on which one could revisit the ethics surrounding this response. One could raise many ethical issues from within a framework of rights and/or from a utilitarian or deontological perspective. However, there are two reasons for approaching it from the perspective of "un-assumable responsibility". The first is that the alternative approaches mentioned pre-suppose the existence of some kind of unified rational and intentional sovereign subject. This pre-supposition has come under increasing challenge from a variety of approaches within continental philosophy, including from philosophers such as Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas and Jean-Luc Nancy to name but a few. And if this pre-supposition breaks down, or is shown to be limited in some way, it follows that ethical discourses based on this premise also become suspect. Secondly, because these ethical discourses are founded on the presumption of sovereign subjects, those engaging with the issue of responsibility on this basis often invoke universal laws or rules that draw boundaries around events and apportion responsibility between such subjects. This means that the issue of responsibility becomes entangled within a finitude of demarcation disputes and accountabilities that oversimplify and invariably fail to address the complexities of the unique ethical event. If these criticisms are valid, then the alternative of an ethics based on "un-assumable responsibility" is worth exploring. A critical question in this exploration is whether such an understanding of ethics gives us enough resources to apply in a practical way. Thus, the central questions of this article are how the traditional discourse around the lie fails, and how the notion of "un-assumable responsibility" might be applied in the context of the Children Overboard affair and the issue of the asylum seekers.

6. I will begin by considering the alleged lie in reference to recent conceptualisations of the lie and the place of lying in politics, especially those of Hannah Arendt and Jacques Derrida. Then, having situated the Children Overboard affair in a conceptual framework, I will examine the discourse surrounding it, and the assumptions of sovereign agency that emerge within this discourse, and the implications of this assumption for thinking about responsibility. Finally, having argued that a sovereign notion of assumable responsibility is ultimately unethical, I will begin to explore the concept and application of ‘un-assumable responsibility’ as an alternative in considering the complexities of the ethics and politics surrounding asylum seekers.

In Politics there are lies and then there are Lies

7. In politics there appear to be ‘lies’ and then there are ‘Lies’. Hannah Arendt in 'Truth and Politics' suggests that 'lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician’s or the demagogue’s but also of the statesman’s trade. (Arendt 1993: 227) The necessity of the lie in the political sphere derives from its performative nature. The lie, as it is traditionally understood, is an action that is based in and confirms human freedom. The liar, motivated by their passions and interests, intentionally lies in an attempt to change the world. It is thus a part of the political realm for Arendt which is precisely the domain of action par excellence. This can be contrasted with truth, which simply ‘is’ independent of action and interests, and thus falls outside the political realm. Arendt goes further to suggest, that truth is not only outside the political realm but is at war with it, and thus no friend to politicians. This is because politicians, who are interested in changing the world, encounter a stubborn immovability in truth that is resistant to such change. The only action available to the politician to combat truth is the lie. Thus, the lie is the necessary tool of the politician.

8. The justification for the lie as a tool of the politician is another matter. The justification seems to stem from two sources. The first is that politics deals with the truths of facts and events which Arendt distinguishes from the rational truth of philosophers. Facts and events are more fragile and open to manipulation through lies and the power of politics. Indeed, there is a tendency for the truth of facts and events to drift towards mere opinion in the political sphere. In this world of opinions, one is justified in putting a subjective spin on things; in fact one cannot avoid it.

9. Secondly, traditionally the lie might be justified in politics in terms of the interests of the state.

To be sure, state secrets have always existed; every government must classify certain information, withhold it from public notice, and he who reveals authentic secrets has always been treated as a traitor. (Arendt 1993: 236)

Although, of course, not everyone would agree that lying for the public good is justifiable. Kant in his article "On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns" (1797) argues that lying under any circumstances is unjustifiable and that the philanthropic lie is based on the false premise that we can know the ends that will result from either lying or not lying. Sissela Bok in Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life (1978) devotes a chapter to this issue. She argues that while those who govern often invoke a right to lie in the public or national interest, that neither their altruism nor their good judgement can be taken for granted. Too often national interest has proven a façade to hide self-interest, and good judgement proven to be in error. She also suggests that the practice of political deception by leaders, even for altruistic reasons, can easily be the start of a slippery slope towards corruption and distrust. The kind of paternalistic attitude by those who govern that underpins ‘the noble lie’ is particularly questionable under democratic conditions where representation and consent of the governed are important principles. Thus, Bok suggests that as a minimum in democracies the ground rules for any deceptive practices along these lines should be debated and agreed to in advance.

10. These arguments notwithstanding, the claim that there is some kind of affinity between politics and the lie along the lines that Arendt suggests is a strong one, and even those who would argue that there is no justification for lies in politics, do so against the background of this affinity.

11. Indeed, one very telling intervention by the Speaker during the Children Overboard affair gives us some insight into the place of lies in the political language game in Australia.

Speaker: There are several other points that ought to be made. All members are aware that the use of the term "you lied" is unparliamentary. New members may not be aware--–and I have to say that I checked this with the Clerk–that speaker Snedden has also ruled:

The consequence is that I have ruled that even though such a remark may not be about any specified person the nature of the language [the Government telling lies] is unparliamentary and should not be used at all.

I am indicating what is part of House of Representative Practice before I recognise the member for Lalor, not wanting to interrupt her during her debate. (Hansard: 14 Feb 1992)

12. This ruling by the speaker that both the phrases "you lied" and "the Government [is] telling lies" are unparliamentary, has been made with reference to the standing and sessional orders paragraph 76 that states "all imputations of improper motives and all personal reflections on Members shall be considered highly disorderly." It is curious in itself that in the sphere of politics where actors are so frequently motivated by their passions and interests that there is a rule that disallows calling such motives into question if they are considered improper. While there might be many explanations as to why such a rule exists, its application to the lie has been quite consistent over the years and requires that the member making such an accusation withdraw it unconditionally.

13. In the case of the lie, at least three reasons stand out as possible explanations for its exclusion as an issue for debate in parliament. The first derives from Arendt’s argument that politics and the lie are inseparable. If this is so, it would be counter productive to admit an accusation that could easily be made at any time and of any politician. It makes sense to have an agreement amongst politicians not to take each other to task for such common and universal behaviour. Even so, this itself could be seen as a form of self and public deception, as it covers over the fact that the lie is commonplace in politics by making it invisible. The second has to do with the style of the political language game, which, as Arendt suggests, tends to use ambiguity and obscurity as a way of avoiding outright lying, and shifts discourse into a grey area where facts become opinions. In this limbo, where there are no truths, there are also no lies. Finally, the third, is that while politics might be the realm of action based on motives and intentions, motives and intentions are hard to prove in any definitive way; a point which we will return to in our analysis of the traditional lie in the next section. This inability to prove the intention to lie means any debate around whether someone lied or not could go round and round in unproductive circles. Such a situation in a sphere of action like politics would seem to be ultimately unsatisfying.

14. Yet, if we accept the case that politicians regularly lie, to such an extent that they can’t even use the word in parliament, what makes the children overboard accusation special? What makes it a capital ‘L’ lie rather than just another ‘necessary and justifiable’ lie?

15. I would suggest that Arendt too provides us with the beginnings of an answer to this question in her analysis of the modern lie. Arendt distinguishes the modern lie from the traditional lie through its attempt to destroy rather than simply hide the truth of the matter. This is possible because the modern lie involves the mass manipulation of image and context through modern communication techniques and media, rather than simply a single untruth that might become apparent through its incongruence with its context, or by discovering a refuting fact of the matter as in the traditional political lie. Also, while in the case of the traditional political lie, the liar is aware of the truth, Arendt suggests that in the modern lie the manipulation may be so complete that the liar also engages in self-deception. Let us briefly consider the Children Overboard affair then, not as an instance of a traditional lie, but as an instance of the modern lie, which appears in a context that begins with the rescue of over 400 boat people seeking asylum in Australia by the vessel Tampa.

16. When these asylum seekers arrived on Australia’s doorstep demanding hospitality, the overwhelming response of the nation rested on claims to national and individual sovereignty. These boat people were cast as outsiders seeking to impose themselves and challenge the Australian way of life - and yet they demanded a response. They were in Australian waters and at a pragmatic level at least, the situation needed to be resolved. Coming from a place of ownership and fear of loss, Australia, through its government, exerted its sovereign power and took a hard line on border security. It wanted these Others and their claim on Australians to disappear. But how could this egoistic response be justified and made legitimate?

17. An important part of the solution to this justification problem was for Australians to convince themselves that these Others had no rights to make their demands. Under the logic of national sovereignty, these boat peoples status as uninvited asylum seekers automatically called into question their identity and legitimacy, and excluded them from a whole range of political and legal rights that would normally be extended to citizens of Australia. However, as human beings in need, they were still entitled to other more basic human rights and ethical consideration.

18. In this context, the claims that these people threw their children overboard was a ‘truth’ Australians wanted to hear; a ‘truth’ that further undermined these asylum seekers moral claim by exposing their inhumanity and lack of fitness to be called Australian. These Others were not only non-citizens but different and fundamentally lesser beings who had consequently forfeited their human rights. In this way, the Children Overboard affair was not an isolated claim, but a part of a complex, media-supported image of those undeserving Others that provided the justification for denying any call for hospitality; an image in which the larger truth of the matter about these asylum seekers as fellow human beings had already been lost, if not destroyed, in what looks like an instance of Arendt’s modern lie.

19. The discovery and now accepted ‘fact of the matter’ that children were not thrown overboard came as a shock. It was an ‘unwelcome truth’ that threatened to expose a convenient artifactuality (Derrida 2002a) that underpinned this modern lie. Derrida uses the term artifactuality to indicate that the actuality or reality of public space and politics is in some way made. He writes,

[Actuality] is not given, but actively produced, sifted, contained and performatively interpreted by many hierarchizing and selective procedures-false or artificial procedures that are always in the service of forces and interests of which their ‘subjects’ and agents are never sufficiently aware. (Derrida 2002a: 86)

This concept of artifactuality has a striking affinity with Arendt’s image making in the modern lie, in that both recognise the performative nature of public space, emphasise the role of modern media and technology in creating this space, and admit the possibility of the ‘subjects’ unintended complicity in participating in this space. Even so, for Derrida, artifactuality is a condition of actuality in general, rather than being particular to the modern lie. That is, for Derrida the actuality of modern public space will always have the feature of artifactuality, actuality will always be constructed. And while Derrida champions a critical stance, characterised by "works of resistance and counterinterpretation" towards both actuality and artifactuality, this can never overcome the general feature of artifactuality itself. In contrast, for Arendt, the stubbornness of truth provides an absolute foundation that threatens to break through and expose the image and dispel it.

20. This ‘unwelcome truth’, then, challenged not only the ‘fact of the matter’ but the whole web of unintended complicities that formed the foundation of our response to these asylum seekers. In particular, the sifted and constructed image of the asylum seekers as morally inferior beings undeserving of hospitality was cracking, and with it the justification for treating them in a ruthless and inhumane way.

21. This legitimation crisis was potentially a turning point in the discursive response. The fragility and uncertainty of the characterisation of and sovereign response to the asylum seekers had left open the possibility to revisit the constructed image of them and re-open the original ethical question of how to respond to fellow human beings who call on us for hospitality. This, however, would have required us to acknowledge our own self-deception and complicity in creating and accepting this image. That is, we would have had to recognise the modern lie for what it was. Rather than taking this path, in the main the public and parliamentary discourse pushed on with, or in fact retreated into, issues of sovereignty. It turned its blinkered gaze onto the facts of the matter around the now false information and the alleged lie in an attempt to localise and apportion responsibility. In this way, we could stay in denial about the role the overall image of these people played as a foundation for ethically questionable decisions and policies surrounding them, and instead seek refuge in the fact that either we were lied to, or that someone was genuinely mistaken about the children being thrown overboard. Thus, rather than being thrown into relief as an instance of a modern political lie, the Children Overboard affair was treated as if it were an instance of the traditional political lie that could be localised in the sovereign subject.

22. In this way, the discourse around the lie, which we will now consider, kept the propaganda image and the modern lie largely intact and covered over the larger ethical issues surrounding the asylum seekers. By deconstructing this discourse, I will attempt to demonstrate that by limiting the discourse in this way, we did not come to terms with either the ethical import of the lie itself, or the broader ethical event surrounding our response to asylum seekers. Instead, I will argue that to do justice to this event, we need to move beyond the traditional understanding of the lie, responsibility, and the sovereign subject into the realm of ‘un-assumable responsibility’.

Lying, Intentionality and Sovereignty

23. One striking feature of the discourse surrounding the Children Overboard affair is that consequentialist arguments were largely ignored in the public and parliamentary debate around the alleged lie, even if they played a part in any of the decisions of the individuals involved. Although there are the occasional utilitarian allusions in some of the rhetoric around strong border protection policies, for example Howard suggests "They did not vote on the issue of whether children had been thrown overboard; they voted on whether or not they supported our approach to border protection" (Hansard, 20 February 2002), the debate in the main was not around whether the lie could or could not be justified in terms of outcomes and/or happiness calculations. As such, it is not a case of a traditional lie in the interests of the public good. All sides, including those accused of lying, seemed to accept as a starting point that it would have been ‘wrong’ to lie in this particular instance. So the debate was around whether a traditional lie was even committed, rather than whether it was necessary or justified.

24. The tack taken by John Howard, then, was to deny the lie by proclaiming the good faith of himself and his ministers. In effect, there was no lie, only a mistake made in good faith. John Howard on tabling the report on the advice around the Children Overboard affair in parliament, states:

Howard: It is clear from the report, which I will table during question time, that the original statements made by Ministers regarding children being thrown overboard were based on reports and advice received. They were provided in good faith to ministers by serving officers of the defence forces and were used in good faith by ministers. (Hansard 13 Feb 2002)

The concept of "good faith" is at the centre of the discourse around the (traditional) lie. The critical question becomes whether the ministers concerned knew the relevant facts and then deliberately ignored or distorted these facts to parliament and the public in service of their own political project, thus acting in bad faith, or whether it was a case of the ministers acting in good faith, merely passing on what they were told only to discover later that this was wrong.

25. In the ‘History of the Lie’ Derrida also makes much of the distinction between good and bad faith and examines it as a fundamental question. This emphasis on bad faith, reflects the central role that consciousness and intentionality on the part of the lying sovereign subject plays in our traditional understanding of what Derrida calls the frank lie. He defines the frank lie as follows:

To lie would be to address oneself to another (for one lies only to the other; one cannot lie to oneself, unless it is to oneself as another), in order to direct his way a statement, a series of statements (constative or performative) that the liar knows, consciously, in explicit, thematic, current consciousness, form assertions that are totally or partially false. (Derrida 2002b: 34)

Note the emphasis here on the intention and consciousness of the liar. It is not enough for one to assert something that is totally or partially false; this could be simply a mistake or error of an epistemological nature. What distinguishes the frank lie from an error, and places it in the ethical domain is the intent to mislead. Thus the distinction between a false assertion made in good faith, and the lie made in bad faith. In this way, the issue of bad faith is pivotal to both the definition and deconstruction of the frank lie. In Derrida’s analysis of bad faith he suggests three conditions must be met for the lie to be a lie, and the lie to be in bad faith: the liar must be aware that the people being lied to expect and trust that the liar will tell them the truth; the liar is aware of the fact that they intend to make others believe something that is not true; and the lie impacts negatively on the other in some way.

26. John Howard’s understanding of the concept of the lie and the subsequent discourse surrounding it is very consistent with Derrida’s attempt to capture the traditional understanding of the lie in his definition of the frank lie, as there is also a reliance on this distinction between good and bad faith. While I think one could debate the first and third of Derrida’s necessary conditions for bad faith in general, all three conditions are at play in the Children Overboard affair. That is, the government knew, and the public would expect, that the government should tell it the truth about these kinds of issues, the government should have known if it was attempting to make the public believe something that wasn’t true, and there were arguably a range of negative impacts resulting from the misinformation.

27. John Howard’s ‘good faith defence’ centres on the second of these conditions. He would insist he met the first of these conditions in that there was no breaking of the commitment ‘to tell the whole truth and only the truth’ to the public, indeed this is exactly the commitment that was kept at the time of the initial claims. Unfortunately, this truth just proved to be a mistake in light of further evidence; an honest mistake resulting from the fallibility of knowledge and truth itself. If indeed it was a mistake, the second condition of bad faith in this case was not met. There was no awareness of making the public believe something that was not true, and no intent to deceive. On this understanding John Howard could at a minimum rightly claim not to be acting in bad faith.

28. However, at the heart of this position and the definition of the frank lie is the traditional metaphysics of an ethics grounded in the free sovereign subject and causality. The sovereign subject uses the lie as a linguistic performative aimed at changing the world (the belief’s and actions of those to which it is addressed) in the direction intended by the liar. As with other sovereign actions the question of whether some action or event is ethical, and whether and how much any individual sovereign subject should bear responsibility, rests in the analysis of the cause/effect or means/ends trace from intentionality through to effect on the world. The individual is responsible to the extent that an event is caused by their intentional sovereign actions. In the case of the lie, responsibility and accountability are apparently localised and contained because, as John Howard again indicates in parliament, the trace is quickly reduced to the epistemological and intentional state of the individuals concerned.

Howard: The reality is that this whole debate is about the state of knowledge of myself and the minister and others at the time of the election. That is what it is about. (Hansard 21 Feb 2002)

29. Despite, locating the responsibility for the lie in the knowledge, intentions and good faith of the sovereign subject we are no closer to pinning it down. This is because, as Derrida suggests, the trace from the ethical event to the intentionality of sovereign subject is labyrinthine. It is not an easily defined path, but an ambiguous and entangled web that can never be teased apart. Attempts to isolate any single thread will always do damage to the web as a whole. Nevertheless, if one begins with the sovereign assumption this is exactly what must be done.

30. The sovereign subject relies on isolating this thread or trace to change the world through their sovereign agency, and the third party relies on following the trace back from the ethical event to the intentionality of the sovereign subject to separate out their culpability. But from both the first and third person perspective the trace is impossible to isolate. The ethical event is infinitely complex, and will always exceed any reduction to a single cause/effect chain. In the case of the frank lie and the Children Overboard affair this is most evident, as Derrida suggests, in the difficulty in proving the lie.

31. In this respect, the parliamentary discourse around the Affair had a very consistent pattern. This pattern consisted in the Labor party producing facts of the matter and asking questions of the Prime Minister about these facts in an attempt to single out John Howard’s locus of responsibility and ‘prove’ that he knew that children weren’t thrown overboard at the time he made the claims. John Howard on the other hand sought to narrow and minimise his responsibility to his personal intentions, states of mind, and good faith, arguably the only things strictly within the domain of his individual sovereignty, and the defining features of the frank lie. Thus when certain facts of the matter were ‘proven’ or agreed - from the original claim being false and the photographs not depicting what they were originally purported to depict, through to the Prime Minister’s discussions and relationships with a range of people such as Jane Halton, a senior officer of his own Department - the Prime Minister continually retreated back to the area of his personal responsibility as a moral agent, and would not entertain any attempts by the opposition Labor party to get him to assume broader responsibilities relating to his role as the representative of a sovereign power.

32. The point here is not to suggest John Howard was either right or wrong in attempting to limit his sovereign responsibility to its narrowest possible ambit. Rather, this possibility of distancing oneself from any strand that is teased out of the irreducible ethical event is implicit in the metaphysics of the ethical sovereign subject. As Derrida suggests, a person accused of lying can always say "what I said is not true; I was wrong to be sure, but I did not mean to deceive, I am in good faith." (Derrida 2002b: 34) It is perhaps not surprising then that in Parliament John Howard comes to the same conclusion.

Howard: Let me say again to the Leader of the Opposition: I have absolutely no fears about anything that will come out on this issue. I know in my heart that I have not deceived the Australian people. I know that. (Hansard 19 Feb 2002)

Note that even if this position is adopted by the sovereign subject it does not stop others from allocating responsibility and apportioning blame. In juridical practice, this is done all the time. Regardless of the claims of the person accused, they are found guilty or not guilty and are disciplined and punished accordingly. So in this case, the public could, as perhaps many have already done, judge that John Howard lied based on the circumstantial evidence presented and ignore his sovereign protestations about ‘good faith’ altogether. But this would be to impute responsibility rather than for it to be assumed. That is, third persons could ‘find him guilty’ and hold him responsible for all practical purposes, but this is not the same as him assuming responsibility. He could be voted out of office, punished, and written into history as the Prime Minister who lied to the Australian public about the actions of the people aboard the vessel Tampa. However, he could never be forced to accept the guilt and assume, or take on, the responsibility he had been deemed. He could continue to protest his innocence and endure any practical ramifications of such judgements under sufferance. Yet it remains open to third parties to allocate and apportion blame to John Howard as they see fit. But this imposition of responsibility would itself be an injustice in at least two ways.

33. Firstly, even when viewed from the perspective of the traditional lie, it is clear that the ethical event of the Children Overboard affair cannot be reduced to the sovereign actions of one or two individuals. That is, the alleged lie needed much more than the words and intentionality of the sovereign subject for it to become an ethical event. It required the structures of the public service and defence forces, the mass media, a certain position by the Opposition, a raft of concepts and language such as sovereignty, boat people, and border protection, a certain historical situation, a public complicit and susceptible to such a lie, and much more. All of these things are well outside of the assumption and control of any individual sovereign subject, and even if in some omnipotent way they were fully conscious of the all the intricacies of this context, the individual could not be justly held responsible for this context. Reducing the complexities of the ethical event of the lie to the responsibility of an individual simply ignores or misunderstands the other ethical issues that this event raises.

34. Secondly, judging John Howard and attributing practical responsibility confuses ‘ethical categories with juridical categories’ (Agamben 1999: 18). This confusion arises in conflating the ‘force of judgement’ and the law, with truth and justice. Kafka’s The Trial draws out this distinction rather chillingly, where a man, Joseph K, is arrested, accused, tried and condemned for a crime of which he is unaware and didn’t commit. It demonstrates how the ‘force of judgement’ can be radically separated from ethics and ethical categories. While the stark separation that Kafka illustrates is not always so clear, the very possibility of such a separation should make us wary of mistaking the one for the other. In the case of the Children Overboard affair, this means that the judgement that John Howard is responsible for a lie should not be confused with an ethical resolution to the event of the lie. Indeed, such a judgement is itself a violence that seeks to force an infinitely complex ethical event into the small box of individual sovereign responsibility.

35. So if responsibility cannot be assumed through the force of judgement of the third person, what if the sovereign subject himself/herself accepts responsibility? What if the liar admits the lie? In this case the subject in traditional discourse might be said to assume responsibility. But this too would be to operate from a juridical understanding of responsibility where one acts as a guarantor of one’s actions (Agamben 1999: 21), such that one judges and allocates responsibility to oneself. This would still deny the un-assumable nature of the ethical event, in which the lie itself exceeds any notion of sovereign responsibility. This excess could be said to occur at two levels. The first level I have already noted, where the event consists of a web of factors that go beyond any individual sovereign intentionality and cannot be teased out from each other. Thus, even a self-judgement does the injustice of over-simplifying and making finite the ethical event.

36. The second level goes to the very heart of the metaphysics of the sovereign subject itself and challenges the very possibility of an independent autonomous intentionality. This in turn poses the question, to what extent can a sovereign individual be held responsible for their own intentionality? While in the logic of the traditional frank lie this responsibility is a given, the introduction of the notion of self-deception in Arendt’s modern lie raises serious doubts about sovereignty, human freedom and the whole concept of the lie, which Derrida suggests, Arendt herself doesn’t fully explore. He states that "the concept of the lie to oneself, of self-deception, for which Hannah Arendt has an essential need to mark the specificity of the modern lie as absolute lie, is a concept that is irreducible to what is called, in all classical rigor, a lie." (Derrida 2002b: 57) This is because it is a knowing intentionality that marks the traditional lie. Thus, one cannot lie in the classical sense and at the same time lie to oneself. The problematic of the so-called modern lie that includes the notion of self-deception, again as Derrida suggests, requires a different analysis and understanding. An analysis and understanding that takes us beyond the metaphysics of the agency of the free sovereign subject and intentionality altogether.

37. In this light, consider this response from John Howard in relation to a request for further information by the Opposition in the parliamentary discourse:

Howard: Can I say, having sort of, as it were, been given some different advice–conflicting advice–from this general area in the last 48 hours, I want to be absolutely certain of the advice I get before I reply to the question…..I am not making any commitment to do that today, because I intend to be absolutely certain of the advice I get before I open my mouth on the subject. (Hansard 19 Feb 2002)

This ‘absolute certainty’ of advice seems in stark contrast to the level of certainty he required to make claims that children were thrown overboard. Even if he didn’t lie, could John Howard have deceived himself in accepting the advice about children being thrown overboard so easily?

38. Perhaps as Arendt suggests, "the strength of their arguments lies in the undeniable fact that under fully democratic conditions deception without self-deception is well nigh impossible." (Arendt 1993: 256) Arendt is suggesting here, that because the modern lie in a democracy is about creating a whole image, context and reality aimed at deceiving a country, that to do this convincingly those attempting to create such an image must first deceive themselves. In this way, we can see that if John Howard and his government were trying to create this image of invading outsiders that threatened Australia’s sovereignty for whatever reasons, they could easily have suspended their need for certainty, and fooled themselves into believing reports that children were thrown overboard.

39. In any event, it would appear that there are good grounds to not only admit the ambiguity of any sovereign trace in the traditional lie, but also the fragility of the sovereign subject itself. It also calls into question our whole understanding of the traditional or frank lie, which depends on an ontology of the sovereign subject.

Responsibility Overboard

40. Our analysis of the concept of the lie leads to a somewhat difficult position. The position is difficult because the very assumptions that intuitively make "the lie" a lie in the first place, that is, the sovereign subject and their intentionality, have been called into question. But having at least cast doubt on our intuitive ethical understanding of the lie, what kind of account remains? In particular, what becomes of the responsibility for the lie and its subsequent outcomes now that it is un-assumable by or un-locatable in the sovereign subject? Can an account of responsibility as un-assumable provide a sustainable alternative in this case?

41. Importantly, the deconstruction of the lie and sovereignty does not necessarily lead us in the direction of denying responsibility altogether. It might be argued that denying sovereignty and intentionality effectively lets the individual off the hook. It may be argued that since the event and responsibility for it always exceeds the individual, then the individual cannot be held responsible for their actions. Consequently, the whole notion of ethics and responsibility breaks down. But this argument conceives of responsibility, and the ethical subject’s relationship to it as one of sovereign ownership. It still sees responsibility as a finite package that needs to be given to someone: the problem then is simply that there is no-one who it can "legitimately" be attributed to. Responsibility lies unclaimed in the "lost property" room.

42. However, this critique of sovereign responsibility does not exhaust our theoretical or ethical options. Instead it can lead us to reconsider ethics and responsibility from first principles. In Otherwise than Being, Levinas takes us beyond the sovereign subject and explores a subjectivity and an ethics that begins with a primordial response to the Other. On this view, similar to Judith Butler’s in Excitable Speech (Butler 1997), the "I" of the subject is brought into existence by the call to respond to the Other. For Levinas it is the face of the Other that demands this response, and for Butler it is to be addressed in speech.

43. The kind of subjectivity Levinas draws attention to is a subjectivity evoked by the Other and for the Other. This subjectivity is held hostage to the Other who demands the impossible. They demand that this subject ‘assume’ the ‘un-assumable responsibility’ of responding to them. But because this response can only ever be finite, it will always be inadequate. The call for response by the Other is infinite and always exceeds our capacity to respond to it. Thus the subject is forever being called into existence to offer a finite hospitality that never provides complete satisfaction. To quote Levinas, "the I always has one responsibility more than the others." (Levinas 1985: 99) In this sense it entails a patently unequal relationship, where the call of the Other always takes priority. On this account, then, rather than the demise of the sovereign subject leading to a denial of responsibility, Levinasian subjectivity signals the necessity of an excess burden of responsibility, a burden that goes far beyond any level of responsibility expected to assumed by a sovereign subject, which, as we have seen, limits and apportions responsibility on the basis of a trace back to sovereign intentionality.

44. On a Levinasian account of ethics then, it is the retreat into sovereign subjectivity and its underlying metaphysics that denies this more originary responsibility and ethics. As itself a response to the Other, it is a violent displacement or denial of the otherness of the Other that reduces our encounter with the Other to the sameness of the egoistic sovereign subject. The egoistic interest in being and its own projects ignores our infinite responsibility to the Other.

Being’s interest takes dramatic form in egoisms struggling with one another, each against all, in the multiplicity of allergic egoisms which are at war with one another and are thus together. ….Essence is thus the extreme synchronism of war. (Levinas 1981: 4)

This is clearly evident both in our response to the demand for hospitality by the asylum seekers, and in the discourse surrounding the lie. In both cases, ethical issues were considered through the lens of finite and competing sovereign interests and positions rather than any encounter with or generosity towards Others. How can Australia maintain its borders and land? Did John Howard lie to us? How do these problems affect me? Indeed, the ethical space of sovereign metaphysics cannot encounter the Other at all, except in terms of its own interests. Even altruism, understood from the perspective of a sovereign metaphysics, must first be taken on as one of ‘my’ projects.

45. Our traditional understanding of the lie, the discourse surrounding it, and its manifestation in the Children Overboard affair take place on this battle ground. Thus the problem with the lie from a Levinasian perspective comes down to the sovereign subject’s lack of encounter with and response to the other as Other. The lie, as we have seen, by definition comes from a place of ego based subjectivity. Furthermore, even if John Howard did act in good faith and did not lie, the Levinasian ethical position would pose the question as to whether his initial encounter with the asylum seekers, and the subsequent claims that children were thrown overboard, was a genuine response to the Otherness of the asylum seekers. And even if it was a genuine response in Levinasian terms, this would not be the end of the matter. John Howard would still be called upon to "assume" the "un-assumable responsibility" for the error and to continue respond to the face of the Other. More telling still, while good faith would not exempt him from this ethical obligation, mounting a "good faith" defence in the terms of the traditional lie is to return to the realm of Being and the struggle of egoisms.

46. In this way, the debate over whether John Howard and his government lied about the children being thrown overboard or not continues a fundamental violence and injustice. It obfuscates more originary ethical concerns and avoids taking on the un-assumable responsibility of a response to the Other. The asylum seekers had already been encountered and subsumed under the heading of border protection and labelled as outsiders under the power of the sovereign "nation" and egos involved. This was the original bad faith move and the subsequent possibility of the lie therefore is also in bad faith as both operate at the level of being. For as I have suggested, even if the lie was proven and John Howard or the government held accountable, it may have been too easy to neatly close off the issue rather than turn back to the originary problem of hospitality. After all, it would not be our fault that a politician lied to us and misled us. Case closed. Thus even our discourse that on the surface wanted to hold the liar accountable may have done the asylum seekers a double injury as it simply perpetuated our responding to them from a sovereign ethical space.

47. This of course leaves some pressing questions. How might the discourse around the Children Overboard affair have been different if one adopted a Levinasian understanding of ethics and the logic of hospitality and un-assumable responsibility? Does Levinasian ethics have the resources to provide any practical guidance on these sorts of issues, or does it simply lead to a ressentiment in the face of our inability to live up to the demands of others? To answer these questions, we need to understand how any necessarily finite and conditioned response of hospitality can still do at least a partial justice to the infinite and unconditional hospitality of the ethical moment. However, this task is not an easy one, and Levinas himself eschews any such attempts. In Ethics and Infinity Levinas states somewhat at odds with earlier indications in Totality and Infinity: ‘One can without doubt construct an ethics in function of what I have just said, but this is not my own theme.’ (Levinas 1985: 90) Thus, there is a real question as to whether an ethics of function is either possible or would genuinely do justice to Levinas and his own project. Would the development of such an ethics build on or distort Levinas’s position? In any case, such an ethics would look nothing like the kinds of ethical doctrines founded on the sovereign ego such as deontology and utilitarianism.

48. What Levinas offers then is a phenomenological understanding of ethics that enables a different comportment towards the Other. While not providing a prescriptive ethics, it can re-orientate us so that our response is directed away from ourselves as egoistic sovereign subjects and towards the Other. In adopting this orientation we can increase the probability that all our actions, including those in the political and public sphere will reflect what Levinas calls the ‘good’, that is, a response to the Other. It should be noted that there is no guarantee that a genuine response to the Other will be what is considered normatively ‘good’. The face of the Other both incites violence and murder for Levinas while at the same time preventing such acts. Thus, an ethical response in Levinasian terms to the asylum seekers, would not necessarily have meant offering a blanket acceptance of all asylum seekers into Australia in an act of infinite altruism. Such a policy of hospitality, if based on ideology, also comes from a place of sovereignty, where the particular otherness of the Other is replaced by a generalised other who as a matter of principle must be welcomed. Rather, Levinas’s good is the very possibility of an ethical relationship; a relationship that engages and responds to the uniqueness and particularity of the Other.

49. I would like to conclude by gesturing toward what such a different comportment might mean and suggesting how these gestures might bear on the Children Overboard affair and the case of the asylum seekers.

50. Firstly, while Levinasian ethics is an ethics of particularity and cannot tell us the best way to respond to the Other in any programmatic way, in each case, our response to the Other must be uniquely determined as part of the infinite ethical encounter with the face to face (see for instance Levinas 1979: 187-209). In the case of asylum seekers, to do complete justice, each refugee would need to be encountered and responded to in their unique Otherness, and indeed as a unique Other, each may have called for a different response. Levinas realises this might not be practical in the formulation of governmental policy. Yet, he insists that ‘Justice, exercised through institutions, which are inevitable, must always be held in check by the initial interpersonal relation.’ (Levinas 1985: 90) This then gives us a very strong distinction between ego based sovereign interactions and genuine encounters with the Other and a strong injunction against the former. Rather than encountering the Other through the finite filters imposed by a knowing conscious ego, and thus not even admitting the otherness of the Other, Levinas’s philosophy demands a primacy be given to the recognition of the other as an absolute Other calling for hospitality. In relation to the asylum seekers, this change in affect would have totally resituated the problematic, not so much by telling us what we should have done, but by ruling out any response that came totally from a position of sovereign self interest whether individually or as a nation. At a minimum it would have required a genuine engagement with these asylum seekers as people rather than as simply invaders. I think it unlikely that the Australian public would have been so inclined to believe these people would sacrifice their children if they hadn’t already been reacting to an image and representation of these people rather than the face to face. In keeping with this orientation the discourse would have been around how best to offer hospitality rather than how best to exclude them.

51. Secondly, given that Australia’s initial treatment of the asylum seekers was not from this ethical space of hospitality but from a position of sovereign interest, could the response and discourse around the alleged lie itself have been different if Australians and their representatives had adopted the Levinasian affect? Again I would suggest the answer is ‘yes’. Rather than once more acting from a position of sovereignty and reducing the event of the false accusations that children were thrown overboard to the actions of certain sovereign individuals such as the Prime Minister - so that they could be judged, blamed, and held accountable, but not change the fundamental orientation and policies towards the asylum seekers - all Australians would have heard the call to bear the burden of the ‘un-assumable responsibility’ of the event of the lie. The discourse might have centred on the next response to the excess of this ethical event, and even exposed aspects of the artifactuality that surrounded it. The members of the government might have considered that by making these claims, whether deliberately or not, they were unjustly demonising a group of people and preventing both themselves and/or the public from a genuine ethical encounter with them. The members of the opposition might have considered why they didn’t offer any different policies or challenge the ungenerous characterisation of these asylum seekers before the election. The members of the media might have considered their role in reporting, influencing and perpetuating language games to the public. And every Australian might have asked themselves, why it was so easy for them to accept the image that the politicians and the media were presenting of these people, and the ungenerous and inhumane border protection policies to which they were a party. While suggestive rather than prescriptive, this kind of thinking and discourse around the lie has three critical advantages over the traditional discourse as it played out in parliament. It would have broadened rather than narrowed the discourse around responsibility, it would have kept the issue open and demanded further response rather than allowing closure on the issue, and it would have lead back to the original ethical concern of our hospitality and response to the faces of the people aboard the Tampa.

52. It could be argued that this re-orientation and comportment is not enough for a comprehensive applied ethics in the political arena, and additional resources are needed to further develop such an account. I think there is a strong argument for this view. While Levinas develops an ethics based on the phenomenology of Otherwise than Being, it would seem necessary in the realm of finite actions and responses to express this phenomenology in the realm of Being. However, to do justice to Levinas such a move in this direction would have to invoke our relationship with the Other, and the ‘un-assumable responsibility’ this entails, as the dynamic impetus behind our action. Derrida is perhaps the best example of a philosopher who takes us in this direction. His notions of deconstruction and aporia seem to capture to some extent the dynamic tension between Otherwise than Being and Being. In relation to situations like our response to asylum seekers, Derrida points out, there is an aporia contained in the notion of hospitality. That is, absolute hospitality requires me to ‘open up my home’ and ‘that I give place to them (the Other)’, thus ‘The Law of Hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right, with law or justice as rights.’ (Derrida 2000: 25) While I agree with Fiona Jenkins that Derrida risks separating ‘the ethical moment of absolute justice’ from ‘a political-pragmatic order of right’ (Jenkins 2002: 128), the relationship between the two is important for the practical application of Levinasian ethics.

53. In conclusion, I have argued that the traditional discourse surrounding the Children Overboard affair failed to engage with the event of the lie and more broadly with the ethical event of our response to the asylum seekers. Further, I have suggested that the notion of ‘un-assumable responsibility’ and a Levinasian view of ethics could re-orientate us towards these events and at least provide a different space in which to explore them. In this context, the discovery that children had in fact not been thrown overboard was an opportunity. Not to unmask a liar, but to shatter the sovereign discourse around Australia’s response to these people, and for each Australian to ‘assume’ the un-assumable responsibility demanded by an encounter with the Other.


Paul Miller is a Doctoral Candidate in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University. His doctoral thesis is currently entitled ‘Shifting Boundaries: An Ontology of Being-with’ and he is particularly interested in questions around ontology, ethics, politics and sociality. Email:

Author’s Note

I would like to thank anonymous referees for their comments on this article. Their feedback raised many important points and interesting challenges that have helped improve the paper and given me avenues and ideas for future research.


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