Once upon a time Australia used to have a Federal Government department called something like “Department of Customs and Immigration” … something like that. It’s now called the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
Of particular interest, with respect to the use of language, is the language around “borders”.
One of the agencies in the DIBP used to be called the Australian Customs Service until 1 July 2015. One imagines it did the things you traditionally expect a Customs service to do. And that’s an excellent starting point for attention to the effect of language on your imagination, the setting of the context and the establishing of the culture of our society.
When you think of “Customs” what activities come to mind? If you saw someone working for Customs, how would you imagine they would be dressed? How might they speak to you? How would they perceive their job and, more importantly, what might they consider to be the priorities of their job?
If you were given the job of running the Australian Customs Service, what priorities would you establish? What would be the contribution of the service to the nation’s general physical and psychological health? What would be the priorities that directed the allocation of funding?
On 1 July 2015 the agency got a new name – Australian Border Force.
Now when you read that name what is in your imagination?
Re-ask yourself all the questions above – but this time from the perspective of someone working for Australian Border Force. What does that do for your personality and your attitude in the job? If you were in charge of running that agency, what are your priorities now?
To guide you through a more specific example, where do the words “border force” direct your attention? How much attention do you have for protecting Australia’s livestock and crops from invasive pests and diseases, for example, now that you work for Border Force?
When you find yourself working for an agency with “force” in its name, how does the hearing of that word affect your body? Does it change your posture? Does your muscle tone change? If you saw someone seeking refuge in our country – someone whose life was genuinely at risk in their homeland – to what extent do you seek to understand them now that you work for Border Force (as it’s now commonly referred to)?
As a member of the public how do you regard living in a country that has an agency called Border Force? Do you feel safer? Are you able to maintain the same quality of compassion for others in genuine danger when you think about Border Force?
Words in our language are only meaningful because they are associated with sensory representations: that is, the word “Customs” can only be meaningful if you have some associated combination of some or all of an image, sound, body sensations, smells and tastes. “Force” is a different word and it has different meanings from those of “Customs”. It has those different meanings because of the different images, sounds, feelings, smells and tastes you associate with “Force”.
Because of that, it has to change how you think when an agency changes its name from Australian Customs Service to Australian Border Force.
For each of us, then, the question is: is the change in you a healthy one? And, collectively, is the change in our society a healthy one?