In Defence of Empathy

Elizabeth Green


In the wake of the NSW and Federal Election, where the voices and hopes of young people seemed to be lost, where we felt that those who were older had deemed themselves wiser, and turned their backs on our future, it’s easy to slip into political paralysis, to not want to continue on. Despite online warriors of justice declaring that only the battle was lost, not the war, it feels like action after action is a waste of time and energy. Apathy replaces anger. You may as well enjoy the final wasted days before paradise is paved. The world’s fucked anyway, we’ve got a few years left on the clock, so why not spend it rolling in capitalism’s spoils. Oh, that’s right. We don’t even get that now.


The crush of those two defeats for anyone who cares about the environment, or racial minorities, or those with a disability, or poor people, or queer people, or school kids, or universities, or your bus driver, or anyone who’s not a six-house-owning-negatively-gearing-fuck-off-I-need-franking-credits-to-afford-weekly-holistic-Bikram-yoga type of person, is a fucking hard pill to swallow. This isn’t a pill that Australia alone is left to choke on. The rest of the world is screaming for the Heimlich.


How can this happen? You ask. How can they not know that what they’re doing is wrong? You wail. You have every right to. The world has decided to wade into something uncomfortably sticky. The seemingly never ending type of stick that doesn’t come off in the wash. Populism, ethno-nationalism, far-right politics, and the alt-right (the scene kid of the political spectrum) are undeniably on the rise. We’re now stuck in a cycle of incredibly contested, high-stakes, people-might-die-if-these-guys-get-their-way style elections. Thinking, nah, no way we’d vote him in. We vote him in. We wail and despair and continue to to wonder why people celebrate the world burning down.


But what is happening to us? Are we losing our empathy? Well, according to some experts, the answer is yes. Data analysed on over 14,000 US College students by the University of Michigan found that empathy levels were 40% lower in 2009 when compared to 1979. Researchers pointed to excess media consumption as a possibility for this shift. In a world where we’re constantly pummelled into the ground with news of economic adversities, corrupt politicians, and people running around like a chicken that just got its head chopped off by a terrorist, it’s hard to admit that you aren’t exhausted. Compassion fatigue, a phenomenon that psychologist Charles Figley describes as, “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” Not only are we being told about the millions of people suffering at any given moment, we’ve got our own shit to deal with. The national youth unemployment rate is hovering at around 11%, more than double the national unemployment rate of around 5%. It’s hard to care about others all the time when you’re trying to study, get a job, and work to death. You can’t do anything to help, no one is listening. So, switch off your empathy and click on the telly, watch another episode of MAFS. You can always tune in to the suffering later.


Pity the poor bloody buggers on the other side of the earth, country, or street. Pity yourself. You and me are the ones who’ve got to pick up the pieces.


Despair not (well, not completely anyway) because despite feeling like the whole of Australia is conspiring against you, it’s only a part of Australia that is. Hard to swallow pill: ‘Your country is actually not completely a bigoted shithole, they mostly just didn’t want to pay more taxes.’ The rest of Australia isn’t as bad as you think it is. Queensland isn’t as bad as you think it is. Empathy goes both ways. People from all over the political spectrum are experiencing stagnating wages, the world burning up, and feeling like everything is going to shit. Bigotry needs to be stamped out, but the vast majority of people vote with their pocket, and don’t really care for a lecture about how they’re a shit person because they voted for a tax cut. Yes, Adani will be disastrous for the environment and coal should be phased out, but there are people who work in the coal industry, and have done so their whole lives. They’re going to fight to keep their jobs, no matter if kids in Newtown deem them to be the antichrist. Progressive politics has too long relied on ‘smart’, inner city, know-it-alls who despair at the uneducated masses who are ‘fucking up this country’. By pushing away those who have a different idea about things, or who simply don’t know, progressives are isolating themselves from people who would listen, if only they weren’t being screamed at. Australia is still capable of great and fair politics. We kicked Tony Abbott out, and that’s a start.


The late Bob Hawke, loved by those on both sides of the political spectrum, is quoted as saying: “Do you know why I have credibility? Because I don’t exude morality.” It is our empathy, not righteousness, that unites us, and allows us to make change for the better. You can be angry. Anger is important for change, and there are a lot of fucked up things in this world that need it. But don’t act like you’re better than someone else because they’re stuck in the wrong echo chamber.


Now I know I sound like a mother-fucker who just rocked up to a beach bonfire with no shoes and an acoustic guitar, ready to sing Kumbaya, or worse, Wonderwall. Maybe I am. But I don’t believe that Australia has gone to shit just yet.