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Some thoughts on compassion

Our fears towards asylum seekers are unfounded, but they are enough to sway elections writes Professor Emerita Marian Quartly.

Psychologists argue that the world is suffering from compassion fatigue – secondary traumatic stress caused by overexposure to suffering. That’s got to be a first world problem! The poor worked out long ago that compassion was an emotion enjoyed by the rich. Compassion for the sufferings of the poor allowed the rich to gain the kingdom of heaven by helping the deserving – just a bit – without doing anything about the cause of their problems. To do that would have meant stopping being rich. Compassion was a way of allaying the guilt and fear that went with unacknowledged power. What Gramschi called ‘false consciousness’. And it still is.

Let’s look at compassion and refugees. Let’s acknowledge first up that we have a huge problem world-wide: wherever the borders of a stable, prosperous nation state are accessible to people from failing states stricken by poverty and conflict. From Mexico to the Mediterranean. Everywhere poor and oppressed people are moved by hope, desperation and envy to try to share the privileges and liberty of the rich. Who respond with fear, anger, guilt and compassion. OK, compassion is a better response than fear and anger. But these emotions are all of the same cloth, they all work to hide a basic contradiction. Failing states – failing for whatever reason – cannot satisfy the hopes of their citizens. And stable states cannot open their borders to all comers without self-destructing. Without getting into the issue of how far the west is actively exploiting the east and the south and the middle, it is clear that compassion is again closely allied with guilt.

Let’s look at Australian compassion and the refugee problem. Hardly a numerical problem in world terms, but enough to sway elections. Enough to rouse passionate anger amongst those who feel that their hold on the good things of Australian life is too tenuous to share. And angry compassion amongst those who cannot bear to hear yet again about drownings at sea and riots at so-called detention centres.

The compassion that focuses on individual suffering is blind. Blind to the motives driving the refugees: pity makes victims out of women and men who are in their own terms heroes seizing every opportunity to shape their fate. Blind to the political, social and economic ills that make possible death at sea the best option. Blind to the other half of the contradiction: the good things about Australian life are only ours because they are defended by means that cause suffering to would-be Australian citizens. Means like turnback, detention, deaths at sea . . .

Compassion is clearly a better response than anger. But a clear-sighted compassion should recognise that the immediate problem of the people trade requires some form of deterrence, and the longterm problem requires action to improve the political, social and economic conditions that drive people to become refugees. Not to mention the need for regional action, additional support for UN action, and an increase in the Australian intake of refugees, however they come.

And what about the angry Australians who fear the competition of newcomers for those good things of life that are not fully theirs? Their fears are not unfounded. Australian schools, hospitals, roads, public transport – all these are overcrowded and underfunded, and the economically vulnerable are the first to feel the loss. Once again it appears that the poor are always with us. Once again compassion is the easiest option for the powerful.


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  1. Michael LaFave

    This a soundly reasoned and sobering analysis, setting forth the tragic dilemma which now confronts many refugee destination countries. Right now in USA, the acrimony that has been ignited in the Republican presidential race about Mexican border security is likely to make this the issue that determines who wins their party’s nomination.

  2. Kaye Lee

    Whilst I understand the sentiment of the article, for me, compassion is entirely the wrong word. The etymology of “compassion” is Latin, meaning “co-suffering.” Compassion implies an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering.

    There is no compassion shown towards asylum seekers who attempt to get here by boat. We don’t care what they are fleeing. We don’t care about what we are turning them back to. We don’t care what happens to them in detention centres or on the high seas once turned back.

    There is no compassion shown towards the people of the countries we bomb in our “war on terror” or those families whose children are being seduced by internet predators to sacrifice themselves in a meaningless bloodbath.

    There is no compassion for those whose homes are being inundated by rising seas because coal makes us rich. There is no compassion shown to developing countries when we slash foreign aid to historic lows.

    If the rich want to gain the kingdom of heaven by showing compassion to the deserving, they are going to have to learn what compassion means. They will have to understand the concepts of fairness, justice and interdependence.

    How would our politicians like to be dragged from their beds and flown to a tropical gulag where they are held indefinitely in tents and shipping containers despite committing no crime, no mistake other than seeking a better life?

    Do to others what you would have them do to you.

  3. sandrasearle

    Well said Kaye Lee. They are definitely my sentiments. The old saying “Do as you would be done by” is something that was instilled in me by my folks & I just wish that more people would use that principle throughout life.

  4. Kaye Lee


    My father was a lapsed catholic but big on quotes. He instilled that one in me too.

    Another of his favourites was “Give me the courage to change what I can and the strength to endure what I can’t.”

    In my autograph book he wrote

    “In this life of froth and bubble two things stand like stone – kindness in another’s trouble, courage in your own.”

    At his funeral a mate said “If Jack had tuppence you knew you had a penny.”

    Even though he died in 1997, his voice remains strong in my heart.

  5. mark delmege

    what mind numbing eye wash

  6. stephentardrew

    Well said Kaye Lee. Totally agree.

  7. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    The problem of refugees, including those whose motivation is economic, and those displaced by war is enormous. It requires a global approach, not just in finding homes for them but in changing the conditions which have caused them to flee.
    Education, redistribution of wealth, fighting corruption are some of the avenues to move towards change.
    People are much more inclined to fight when they see others who appear to be much better off and who fail to share.
    There are no easy answers ever to such massive problems but we need to start trying to make a difference before it is too late.

  8. Harquebus

    “The Australian conservatives have had less trouble than their Labor counterparts in formulating brutal policies indifferent to international law. Theirs is an insular world, where patriotic insensibility comes first. There is even a question to ask whether Australian conservatism genuinely exists, being, as it were, an extremist collective of contradictory free marketeers, climate change deniers and border purists. The one thing that can be said about them: They are convinced by what they are doing.”

    “Turning Back Boats” and The Human Rights of Refugees to Australia

    In this article, the last sentence states:
    “The police-state secrecy that attends the entire discussion about vessel interceptions, the darkly hilarious press conferences where ministers and officials refuse to disclose “on sea” operations, speak of the camel whose nose is fast coming into the tent of democracy. In good time, the tent may well collapse.”

    Can someone please tell me what the camel reference means. Thanks in advance.

  9. fearlessfreddy

    The trouble is, you can not know what visa a person has – temporary or permanent- by looking at them. Crowed trains have fee paying students, 457 temporary workers, back packers , visitors including relatives of Australian citizens, Some of the “foreign faces” are Australian born, not refugees or asylum seekers. Labor and Greens together have a major challenge of educating the ignorant electorate before the next election!

  10. Kyran

    As an immigrant to Australia in the late 60’s, it wasn’t hard to see the fear of the ‘locals’ against immigrants, who were going to ‘take our jobs, take our wealth’. Most of it was directed towards Greek and Italian immigrants, the ‘wogs’. Into the 70’s, we had Asian immigrants, mostly Vietnamese, who quickly became the target of the fear campaigns. Subsequent decades brought new immigrants. The difference between then and now is that we used to have leaders who would point to the inarguable fact. That these groups enrich our society, economically and socially. That these groups contribute to a diverse and unique Australian culture, a cultural montage.

    The opening premise “Psychologists argue that the world is suffering from compassion fatigue” is reflective of a malaise that seems to infect every layer of society. There is an undeniable humanitarian crisis across the globe, with the current levels of people seeking asylum now exceeding the numbers after the second world war. Back then, the political response followed the humanitarian need. It seems our global political response to a humanitarian problem these days is to let someone else deal with it.

    “Compassion is clearly a better response than anger.” Absolutely. My take is that most people are reasonable, capable of understanding that people in need are just that, in need. Most people I meet are capable of understanding that, if they were the ones seeking help, they would expect some help. For what it’s worth, I think there is a slowly growing anger towards our ‘leaders’. Their collective inability to see any issue as being other than political (pick a subject!) whilst living extravagantly on the public purse is hypocrisy writ large. The ‘compassion fatigue’ could be dealt with easily, if only we had leaders. Thank you, Professor. Take care

  11. Matters Not

    If the camel once gets its nose in the tent, his body will soon follow.

    In other words the phrase means that what is happening now could just the beginning of what will happen.

    Historically, a man seeks shelter from a sandstorm in his tent but leaves his camel outside. The camel asks permission to put his nose in the tent, and the man gives it. The camel then progressively asks permission to put more and more of his body in the tent and finally the man has to leave the tent because his camel is taking all the space.

    The moral of the story is “Don’t allow even small malpractices, because they will grow big eventually.”

  12. mars08

    The moral of the story is “Don’t allow even small malpractices, because they will grow big eventually.”

    Oh… like don’t demonise, marginalise and dehumanise ONE isolated, powerless, marginalised, defenceless group… lest other small vulnerable groups suffer the same fate…


  13. Harquebus

    Thank you Matters Not.

  14. hughwebster2014

    We are all the same – we all came from AFRICA !

  15. jimhaz

    [If the camel once gets its nose in the tent, his body will soon follow]

    Like we saw with the ALP’s attempts at more compassion with refugees post Howard, until it became clear that the camel’s nose had to be pushed back out of the tent.

    [Compassion is clearly a better response than anger.]

    I’m sure that would work against Abbott and his SS front bench.

    Unlike many of the polarised here, the emotion-based fundies who just know compassion is glorious, I really find this whole issue of determining what the wisest compassionate actions to take rather difficult. The reality is that one would need to be a god to determine the best possible form of compassion, which could potentially include giving no aid whatsoever.

    I tend to go back to what is most fundamental the overpopulation of the world, in which case the wisest action would seem to be to limit immigration/refugees so that your own country has the capacity to adapt in the future where all trends point to a far more resource strained world. Then there is the IQ and EQ brain and entrepreneurial spirit drain that results from wealthy countries immigration programs.

    Unmoderated compassion is a big problem. All actions of compassion come with an opportunity cost, thus it is necessary to be moderate in one’s compassion. The Greeks would not be in such strife were had their prior governments been less reactive to calls of compassion from voters and so it goes for every developed country now in debt (and so very many are) – international debt financing is not a good thing whatsoever for developed countries. In the US it was housing loans to the poor. Here international debt financing leads to housing price inflation which leads to poverty for many.

    What I would agree with is that a desire to be compassionate should the initial approach to any human problem, however that compassion does not always have to be actioned via kindness in the here and now, it can involve “tough love”.

  16. kathysutherland2013

    My Dad rarely used the term “asylum-seekers” – he preferred to talk about “people who come to our country for help.” His feeling was that when people ask for help, you give it. He was a very conservative man, but was always angered at the idea that there should be a “policy” about helping people. He died a couple of years ago (at the ripe old age of 91) and, in his will, left some money to an organisation that helps asylum-seekers. I do miss him.

  17. Terry2

    Our political leaders have gone out of their way to tell us that the detention camps on Nauru and Manus Islands are subject to the sovereign laws of the respective countries.

    In recent days, three “expatriate” men employed by a security contractor at the Manus camp and paid by the Australian Government, were caught naked in a building at the camp with a local woman in what is now being alleged as drug or alcohol fuelled gang-rape.The three men were hastily spirited out of PNG and back to Australia before the PNG police force could interview them.

    So far, demands made by the PNG police to return these men to PNG have been ignored by Minister Dutton.

    Hmmm, so much for sovereignty !

  18. paul walter

    I missed this little conversation but think it well worth considering. From this point I’ll commend Rosemarie 36, because I still think certain nuances are lacking in the heart on sleeve approach with its perceptions of how many others view the overall problem with scepticism rather than racial antipathy, given the way power is constituted and dispersed though the neo liberal world.

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