Nov 7, 2017

Razer: our empathy will not save the souls on Manus

The horror story unfolding on Manus Island is due to a democracy deficit not an "empathy deficit".

Helen Razer — Writer and broadcaster

Helen Razer

Writer and broadcaster

It’s tricky to pinpoint the date on which Barack Obama began his make-over from undistinguished senator to Hillary Clinton’s first great electoral disappointment. But, let’s call it June 16, 2006. Delivering the commencement address at Northwestern University, Obama first uttered a phrase that would be slavishly evoked by love-struck journalists many times. The problem with this nation, said the senator, was not so much a budget deficit, but, an “empathy deficit”.

We can read other very similar claims in the current critique of Manus. The rationale goes: the problem here is not only a lack of government empathy — undeniable, but only part of the horrific policy story — but our individual failure to empathise.

Free Trial

Proudly annoying those in power since 2000.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial to keep reading and get the best of Crikey straight to your inbox

By starting a free trial, you agree to accept Crikey’s terms and conditions


Leave a comment

43 thoughts on “Razer: our empathy will not save the souls on Manus

  1. Andrew

    Helen, I am not clear what you mean when you write “What will save our souls, our consciousness and our good will is a better society. “? Does this mean every nation needs to look inward rather than extend humane treatment toward refugees fleeing brutal regimes? When Germany and other nations are coping with more than a million asylum seekers, is it too much for our fair-go country to look after these souls in a humane way?

    1. Helen Razer

      HI, Andrew. Maybe read the piece again and see my argument.
      Key phrase here is ” I hold the unpopular view that it is not the consciousness of individuals that makes for good societies. Rather, it is the good society that produces individual consciousness. ”
      This is a view developed after the Enlightenment. It belongs to nineteenth century philosophy, by which time societies were much larger and “ethics” was no longer the province of a few rich men.
      Leaving aside that ours is not and never has been a “fair-go country” (not a reasonable thing to say about a place that began with the theft of land) and not even getting into Merkel’s motivations for taking on asylum seekers (she is on recent record as saying highly critical things about “multiculturalism”, and oversaw detention camps for years. Added to which, the things she said about lazy Greeks were racist and unconscionable. Her motivation in a land with sub-replacement fertility and the need for a cheap labour force, plus her will to make Germany an apparently liberal world leader, is all other stuff) my point is that calling people bad racists is just not much chop. Appealing to empathy really does not work as a political tactic. Blaming individuals, who did not bomb the nations whom which these detainees fled, is rum.
      Individual compassion does not change policy. It just doesn’t. You can still be compassionate, anyhow, and believe in terrible things.

      1. Helen Razer

        And of course I think asylum seekers should be permitted into Australia at a much higher rate, sans all the judgey-wudgey about boats.
        (I also think we should stop supporting wars that cause people to flee their homes.)
        I am just sick of this empathy nonsense. Because it clearly does not work.

        1. Helen Razer

          PS The “brutal regimes” often fled are those we endorse, or are a part of.

          1. AR

            The joy of reading MzRaz, one of those unique people who can argue with themselves – and lose, is that she hies to horizons that never were and asks, “Why?”.

        2. Marilyn J Shepherd

          I worked as a researcher and scribe for the Woomera lawyers, I helped get ACM reports and papers to 4 Corners in 2003 for Deb Whitmont’s About Woomera, I worked on line and with others on the sievx story and found that the Australian government left them to drown. I helped with testimony and documents for the People’s inquiry that stands as a permanent record of our crimes and was the prime reason the doco. The Man who Jumped was made, I supplied all the photos and documents of Mazhar Ali’s plight.

          I was the one, with Deb Whitmont and Carmen Lawrence who exposed the death of Fatima Erfani, age 27, on Christmas Island after an untended massive stroke.

          I was the one trawling senate questions on notice and discovered we had been locking up Australians by the dozen, which turned into the hundreds, and led to them finding Vivian Alvarez.

          I was the one Paul McGeough worked with to find the facts of the Bakhtiyari case and their Afghan nationality, the used by the department of fake documents and also Dave Corlett in his book Following them Home, which led to the senate apology to the family.

          It does need more than empathy, it needs the ability to get the embarrassing shit on the public record so no-one can ever, ever forget.

          I found along the way that some who help refugees expect life long adoration, I don’t, there is always another story which I go about with quiet cold blooded determination.

          Like the lie of the smugglers which finally saw the courts stop jailing innocent Indonesian crews and showed that we were jailing kids in adult prisons.

          How much help did I ever get from the media? Well Michael Gordon sat on the last story for months before a lawyer in Brisbane leaked it, 100% of the rest of the media tell me international laws and treaties are ”my opinion” but it’s hard to see how this statement from the UNHCR in 2000 is ”my opinion” as they claim even after I read it to the lazy scum.

          3. The Protocol against Smuggling, for instance, contains a number of provisions which may impact on smuggled asylum-seekers. The authorization to intercept vessels on the high seas, the obligation to strengthen border controls and to adopt sanctions for commercial carriers, or the commitment to accept the return of smuggled migrants may indeed affect those who seek international protection. A number of comparable provisions of the Protocol against Trafficking may have a similar effect.
          4. During the sessions of the Ad-Hoc Committee, UNHCR therefore emphasized the need to reconcile measures to combat the smuggling of migrants and the trafficking of persons with existing obligations under international refugee law. The Office welcomes the adoption of a saving clause in both Protocols, designed to safeguard the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, in particular in relation to the principle of non-refoulement.
          5. In addition, UNHCR appreciates the adoption of provisions for the protection of smuggled migrants, such as the obligation of States Parties to take appropriate measures to afford smuggled migrants protection against violence and to take into account the special needs of women and children. The Protocol against Smuggling is also clear in that it does not aim at punishing persons for the mere fact of having been smuggled or at penalizing organizations which assist such persons for purely humanitarian reasons. Indonesian fishermen do not deserve to be charged or jailed.

          1. AR

            Marilyn – much respect, truly. You are relentless and cop no crap.
            May I wish you some rest, thou good and faithful soul.

  2. Mike Smith

    It is quite likely that Obama is a virtuous man.
    Ouch, Helen. That resonates with:
    “So are they all, all honorable men—”

    1. Helen Razer

      See also our man Brecht:

      Hear us then: we know
      You are our enemy. This is why we shall
      Now put you in front of a wall.
      But in consideration of
      your merits and good qualities
      We shall put you in front of a good wall and shoot you
      With a good bullet from from a good gun and bury you
      With a good shovel in the good earth.

  3. john amadio

    “Personally, I hold the unpopular view that it is not the consciousness of individuals that makes for good societies. Rather, it is the good society that produces individual .
    consciousness” I can see the logic and merit in that view but how do we develop the ‘good society’ if not through activism, education, campaigning for human rights and a decent society, peaceful activism that seem to win the day (to some extent) for civil rights in the 1960s. etc? Somehow, we need to move societal consciousness away from being so ‘me centred’ to a bit more ‘other centred’
    I think history shows it can be done.
    In may not help the blokes on Manus? Not sure but, there are a hell of a lot people not happy in the way the govt is handling this issue. I think emailing, ringing MPs, contacting media, lobbying friends to action, public demonstrations etc all help raise the collective consciousness and maybe, if we are lucky, make us a better society and maybe, with some luck, help these blokes.
    I think the young folks on Q and A showed what might be possible if they are influenced towards being ‘good’ members of society etc. There is a ray of hope.

    1. Helen Razer

      At no point did I suggest that collective action was a bad idea. The opposite.
      A machine needs a machine to combat it. And history has shown us that. The power of kindness? I dunno where we have seen compassion change much.
      This is not to say things are hopeless. It is to say that the very selfishness you decry (“We need to be better people” is a form of individualism) must be seen as useless.
      And you don’t need a majority agreement to have a mass movement. And you don’t need everyone to “go clear” and suddenly become non-racist. (again. How anyone achieves this is unclear.)
      We need to concede that our individual will is as nothing, and it is only through broad action, where the self (whether this is the nice protester, or the self for whom they are protesting) is set aside in favour of an outcome.
      I am just saying all this empathy stuff is useless.

  4. Mandy

    Mm. Democracy. Government by, of and for the people. Though majorities elect those who govern (if you’re lucky), even such democratically elected bodies then seem to govern for the minority (largely those with power and/or money) at the expense of ‘good’ societies. On the table at the moment are many issues where the majority of voters are totally at odds with government decision-making, including the appalling treatment of refugees on Manus, the equally appalling treatment of our first people and also of our ever-more fragile environment. Even in the face of defeat at the next election, there is enough sway from influential sectors of the population to turbo-charge this seeming suicide pact.

    1. Helen Razer

      We’re Twinsies, Mandy.

    2. AR

      Alas, mandy, that is just not true – the overwhelming majority voted, 70%, for parties proclaiming their adherence to detention pour discourage les autres which, under Geneva Conventions is prohibited as text book communal punishment, a war crime.
      Where’s a handy war when we need one?

      1. Mandy

        G’day AR, this in Feb in the SMH:
        ‘Australians overwhelmingly believe keeping asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru indefinitely is cruel, but are evenly split on whether they should be resettled in Australia, a survey has found.’ And just need to point out the fall-out from war crimes in, lately, Syria, Myanmar, but you know, the roll call is lengthy and little seems to happen to these regimes responsible for such war crimes there or here except, if people are lucky, the NGOs go in to mop up the blood. Not many regime leaders behind bars. And the long lasting consequences are yet another generation or two of forever traumatised, disenfranchised innocent people who may, or may not have had a say in the leadership status of the perpetrator of their fate in the first place.

        1. AR

          And yet Oz voters continue to return T1 & T2, not a cigarette paper between them on so many issues, from refugees to social equity to the environment.
          Figures are a bastard – 70% vote for the wholly owned subsidiaries of the BigAr$ed end of town, 10% for even more despicable objectives, 10% vote Green, 5% never show up at the ballot box & 5% deliberately spoil their ballots.

          1. Mandy

            Yup. What to do?

  5. Dog's Breakfast

    “What do we do? Make everyone wear a goodness awareness ribbon”
    or a Star of David, perhaps.

    I’m on board Helen, without necessarily having or requiring a view on whether individual consciousness makes for a good society, or the other way around. I do suspect, from sheer weight of experience, that the overall goodness, and high education, of so many has lead to nothing, or even worse has come at the same time as the decline of our spirit.

    I also don’t necessarily agree with Jonathon Green’s assessment. When 90%+ people opposed our involvement in the Iraq War, and JWH took us there in any case, on false information, so he could be George Bush’s jnr’s man of steel, so began the end of involvement of the masses.

    We have been beaten down over decades of government trampling over the individual, blushing coyly at any large corporate or lobby group that gives them a wink and/or a smile. We are the downtrodden, even those of us doing well, and we are being beaten down further with real wages stagnant, prices of essentials increasing and being told that inflation isn’t rising because kewpie dolls are now half the price they used to be. We are being worked to death, or are having to supplicate ourselves to get an extra casual shift. It’s depressing times on so many fronts.

    And a decade of railing against our treatment of asylum seekers, having to explain again and again that they are not ‘illegals’, has just left so many of us weary.

    I don’t have an empathy deficit, I’m just tired, and hitting my head against a brick wall didn’t seem to help me much, so I tended to stop, when my conscience would allow me.


    1. Helen Razer

      No. I don’t mean a good life makes for a good person, specifically. Clearly, it does not. But the conditions of a society, in our case, one that is predicated on the idea of competition and profit, creates consciousness.
      We even see this consciousness appear among pro-refugee advocates. They say, “see asylum seekers can be mayors” or “asylum seekers are good for the economy”.
      SO even an organisation that is “good” can have their consciousness formed by the society in which they live.
      For me? I don’t really care if an asylum seeker becomes mayor or increases GDP. I don’t even care if they are the sort of person inclined to fart publicly. I just care that we accept that there are 60 million of ’em and that whether we like it or not, they gotta come. Maybe we can fix the infrastructure in their home nations we bombed while they’re over here?

      1. Helen Razer

        May I also add that “women’s full participation in the workforce is good for the economy” is also something that gets right up my ginger.
        I mean. Participation in the workforce is, generally speaking, good for no human. We’d all like a few more days off.

  6. Dog's Breakfast

    Also, yes, so much of what passes for government policy is actually to appease a very small group of recalcitrants who disbelieve that climate science is of any consequence, or that a coal mine shipping through the GBR is a great idea if it pays 1000 people.

    Too much of our policy is being directed towards a fringe group in mainly Qld and to a lesser extent WA, afraid to stand up to anyone suggesting that science is probably worth following, and that perhaps we should find better employment opportunities for people so they don’t feel obliged to back a coal mine in the boondocks.

    So much wrong, so little time.

  7. Charlie Chaplin

    Do you know what makes me shudder the most about liberal notions of the power of one? It’s the only version of leftist politics millennials have ever heard and it isn’t leftist at all.

    1. Helen Razer

      It’s okay, Charlie. The kids are reading their Marx again.

  8. Damien

    So we just need politicians that don’t use lowest-common-denominator scare campaigns to score cheap political points, or, to put it another way: politicians who don’t want to get elected.

    I await the follow-up article detailing specifically how to magic such people into government. Does it involve fairy dust and unicorns?

    In the meantime all the tireless refugee activists and aid workers striving to achieve actual outcomes should give up their pointless empathy and be sure to read yet another practical and useful thinkpiece from Ms Razer.

    And as for those ordinary folk who are bursting with pride at our diggers’ valiant sacrifice on behalf of Israel at Beersheba…they need not think any deeper than “people who kill other people are heroes if they are on your side”.

    Because everything is really the governments’ fault. And thinking makes your head hurt.

    1. Helen Razer

      You really are a bit of a turd.

      1. Inscrutable

        I think you are missing Damien’s point. It’s nice to philosophise, but, what will actually change things?
        I think the empathy of committed people is part of the answer. But, it’s getting information out to the general public and what it means for their society that is the key (what’s in it for them?) If the general public can’t see what’s in it for them, they’ll continue to be mostly disengaged.
        I’ve had conversation’s with people who are strongly against “boat people” but when I ask them about the condition’s the refugees endure, they either aren’t aware or don’t believe the few reports they’ve heard. When I ask them what should be done if the reports are true, they are much more constructive about what should be done.
        I’m not part of any refugee advocacy, but, I empathetic enough to ask questions because of what it potentially means for our society….

        1. Draco Houston

          Both you and Damien are equating giving a damn about these people with actually doing things. Frankly, it is an insult to the people actually doing things. I care a lot about this issue but that does nothing, and it doesn’t put me on the level of say, Asher Wolf, who not only cares but also actively works towards a resolution.

          Reading this article as a call to sit on our arses is baffling.

          1. Inscrutable

            My point was that calling for a better society is nice but what steps need to be taken for that to happen? It actually takes a whole bunch of people working towards a common goal to educate everyone else. How is this to happen? So individuals do matter as long as they ultimately coalesce.
            And no, I wasn’t equating my very limited and sporadic efforts with those who are actually devoting very large parts of their lives to the issue…

          2. Draco Houston

            Surely we can aim for loftier goals than educating the population? Does the right need to educate everyone on their entire program and include everyone in the strategy as willing participants? As we’re both, for whatever reasons, in agreement that the refugees deserve much better treatment, while the government is not, and we aren’t alone in this, while Manus and Nauru exist, I’d say no.

            What the advocates of death camps have on their side is the concept of national borders, something otherwise decent people support for some odd reason. They can open concentration camps to defend the absolute control of the border by the state, because this is what you do with immigration departments.

        2. Helen Razer

          I am not missing Damien’s point, as he has made it lately very frequently.
          It goes like this: “That’s all very well and good little missy with your chocolate rivers and rainbow fairy dust but I think you’ll find you do not live in the real world, like manly Damien.”
          FFS. It’s an 800 word article intended to interrogate much of the media around Manus. If you want solutions, sorry. Diagnosing a problem, sure. I can help with that. And a great part of the problem is “calling out” racism in others. In making the presumption that politicians do represent the people.
          Turdy over there is being all “real world” and saying that we must accept that politicians will use these asylum seekers as political fodder. I do not accept that. I urge only to collective action, which is only made possible by the understanding that people have their consciousness formed by the societies they inhabit. And are unlikely to respond to being called deplorable.
          Turdy has it in for me and provides nothing useful, other than to call me utopian and naive. He did it here again. If you read his take, you will find it far moire pessimistic and cynical than anything I have said. All I am urging is to call power to account. I made that clear. This relentless guilt-tripping of others will not free one soul. I am aware there are advocacy organisation who do this (not RISE, who are good) and “call out” a lack of compassion. I am saying this is useless. Because it is.
          How to fix the world? Don’t accept it as it is and reject the individualistic claptrap about compassion. There’s a starter. It’s him snorting the fairy dust, not me. And, seriously, that dull old tactic of telling a writer that THEY can’t criticise because THEY are doing nothing. It is really so dire.

      2. AR

        Which unfortunately does not indicate any expository inaccuracy.

  9. Draco Houston

    Agreed, Helen. Though we could all stand to take more direct action against this (not to disparage the action already taken), that is still a matter of collective will not individual good will.

  10. Will

    Arendt’s critique of Marx is correct, devastating, and unsurpassed (except as regards the unravelling of its implications), and actually turns upon what amounts to his dismissal of empathy. Marx conceptualised a properly liberated society as one that no longer needs politics, with government famously reduced to the mere administration of things (the very first blueprint for neoliberalism?). Arendt countered: but we aren’t just material things, in our very essence we are political animals, and politics is the activity of ongoing reciprocal empathising between conflicting moral outlooks for the sake of human coexistence. Even a truly communist society, Arendt is saying to Marx, will have to cope with the constant of humanly-embodied moral contradiction and hence political disagreement – and yet Marx’s reductively materialist (and hence idealist) critique of capitalist society inescapably terminates in extinguishing of the political from human affairs. Don’t be in too much of a hurry to dismiss political empathy, Helen, because as you’ve seen in the responses here, people do instinctively tend to regard its expression as much, much more than a mere liberal opiate for the masses. As Arendt rightly knew.

    1. Helen Razer

      Yes, Arendt was a humanist, and had a great distance from Marxism. But, she was famously good at depicting (as Germans are) how one can become a part of a machine.
      Marx was also a humanist. And never said that the material was all. When he speaks of the base and the superstructure, he talks about an “interweaving”. The relationship goes both ways. He was not, as is commonly thought, a brutal materialist. He was a dialectical materialist. And did have a thing or two to say about our “spirit-essence.”
      I am not making the case that empathy is bad. It is human. I feel it strongly myself. The view (which Arendt holds, and with which I disagree, my great respect for her notwithstanding) is that empathy can be used instrumentally.
      Actually, Rai Gaita, a great Arendt fan, disputes this in some of his later writing.
      All this “if only we felt compassionate” stuff is fine. There is just no way to ensure the passage of compassion into practice.
      And I hate to say it, but I have met politicians who are genuinely compassionate, not even cynical, and still believe in a turn back policy. They are compassionate. They are also wrong.
      I know the instinct is to believe that one’s emotions are profoundly important. The reality is, they’re not.
      As for the view elsewhere in this thread that we are all complicit and must take on this burden. I just don’t get it. Yes, we must act if we feel strongly. That is ethical. But, how to act against every injustice? (Without a mass movement.) And how in the name of heck is everyone, even the very powerless, responsible? I don’t get it. At what point and at what age does one become “complicit”?

Leave a comment

Share this article with a friend

Just fill out the fields below and we'll send your friend a link to this article along with a message from you.

Your details

Your friend's details