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Selective compassion

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 27 February 2009

The community and political response to Victoria's bushfire tragedy has borne out two concepts - that compassion is a relative concept, and that Australia has a very ugly vengeful underbelly.

The circumstances of these fires - affecting mainly Anglo-European Australians living in bush blocks and in small country towns - are those with which many Australians can easily identify and empathise. It is our people who have suffered.

But consider this. For many years the Australian community - the very same people, including our political and media leaders, who are today wearing compassion on their sleeve - backed a policy which saw thousands of desperate men, women, and children who risked their lives to come to this country in leaky boats, detained behind razor wire in the South Australian desert and on godforsaken Pacific islands.


Many of these asylum seekers, particularly the young, have experienced immeasurable physical and mental suffering as a result of conditions of incarceration which, like the bushfires last week, shone the international media spotlight on Australia.

There was, in that case, with notable exceptions, little collective compassion for these people who, like fire victims, had lost everything. It is ironic, and sickeningly so, that some on the media are now calling fire victims “refugees”.

Compassion is a relative concept. It is much easier to be compassionate when the person suffering looks, speaks and lives like us. We can identify with that individual. Our response is not laced with any sense of fear or suspicion because these are people like us, who live like us.

Compassion, said political theorist Hannah Arendt, is inherently selective. And in a sense that is its great limitation and potential evil. That this is the case was manifested in the appalling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

White America cared little about the plight of the mainly African American population displaced by that disaster. One can speculate quite reasonably as to whether or not the Australian body politic, media and broader community would have been as moved if the bushfires had wiped out an Indigenous community or an area of Australia where the population was mainly Middle Eastern.

The true test of a nation's capacity for kindness and giving is not in an easy case like the Victorian bushfires, but when it confronts us. When we cannot readily identify with those who are suffering, but yet can let go of our fears and our hard-wired stereotyped thinking, and extend our generosity to them.


Recent history would suggest that we have some way to go in meeting that challenge.

As we do in understanding fundamental rights. The vigilantism that has accompanied the arrest and charging of Brendan Sokaluk with arson offences last Friday week has shown the world just how ugly and ignorant many Australians can be.

The conduct of the tabloid media, and social networking sites like Facebook, in allowing comments that clearly constituted threats to kill and incitements to violence - both serious criminal offences - has been shameful. The media has a responsibility to ensure that it does not create violence - and in this case, it failed to meet that responsibility.

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First published in the Hobart Mercury on February 23, 2009.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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