Empathy: Dutton, Abbott, Brandis, Hockey, Triggs and Nasir

I’m moved to write after reading and hearing so much about the Rohingya refugees.

So here we are, caught with leaders so lacking in demonstrating empathic skills that they are self righteously exhibiting their views without much of an inkling of how they are being perceived as “out of touch” or downright cruel. I’m sure they feel really misunderstood.

Unfortunately, I believe they have a responsibility to shed their experience of being victimised and to act both compassionately and in the interests of Australia. The possibility that both can be achieved simultaneously seems to elude them – probably because of black and white thinking and their assumption that they should be “protectors” above all else.

Simon Baron Cohen has studied empathy from many aspects including psychoneurobiological perspectives and from a sociological stance. His work is comprehensive and lauded. In his book “Zero degrees of Empathy” (review here) he explains that violence isn’t really possible without some deficit in empathy, so our society wouldn’t actually be here if our leaders were well endowed with empathy. We are a conquering patriarchy and it’s not possible to kill others unless you objectify them in some way.

For me it’s the shift from “They are a fellow human being- a mother, sister, father, child of….” to “They are a threat” which removes the human-ness from the considerations. Our leaders do this so blithely I don’t think they realise, or they might justify it as being “objective, strong, responsible” or other euphemisms that we find hard to challenge- they are so ingrained as positives in our thinking. Ironically, I am doing the very same thing to our leaders by labelling “them”. Using the word “they” is the first sign of “othering” and I’m doing it throughout this post. Hmmm… how patriarchal of me! Mental note- book in time for reflection.

Fortunately we survive as a society by also having the empathic nurturers- we need them to apply virtuous care to the young, the unfortunate, vulnerable and oppressed. These nurturers usually moderate those lacking in empathy. We rumble on with this constant tension and paradox. The worst case scenario is when the low empathics get unprecedented power. Gillian Triggs knows this and is being very brave and ethical in her resistance to the attacks on her office’s work. I wonder when Abbott will let slip his true beliefs about Human Rights like he recently did with his ideas about wind turbines being ugly and noisy. (As an aside, for a well researched report on the hidden health and economic cost of coal see here)

E.on's coal-fired Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station in Nottinghamshire

Pretty aren’t they? Coal fired power station from Guardian article. Photograph: David Sillitoe/Guardian

But I digress. I suspect Abbott’s thoughts on Human Rights would be something like.. “human rights can be problematic and some people (insert favoured population based on his self description here) deserve more rights than others”. Orwell’s Animal Farm was so prophetic:  “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”

Even an Immigration Minister’s Spokesperson can publicly articulate the need for compassion towards asylum seekers;

“For me it is about humanity. We must show empathy to fellow human beings who have difficulties at sea”

Wonderful to read this. Maybe the person who said this; Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir, could persuade our Australian leaders to adopt this maxim. Then I would be proud.

I feel so powerless about this. We should be rising up as a community to demand that this cruelty stop with asylum seekers, not to mention the erosion of opportunities for our young, our students, our single mothers, unemployed and those who are psychologically suffering.

And now my personal dilemma- if the right to be understood was a human right, why do I see our leaders as “different”? It’s something about them using/abusing power. Advocacy for the less fortunate involves a prioritisation of “deservedness” which is not necessarily fair either. Perhaps equal human rights should apply once we have equity in basic human rights.

In the meantime what to do about our leaders vs the refugees?

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