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Why empathy and compassion matter

LYN BENDER: Empathy has recently seeped into the political lexicon. The Prime Minister, not renowned for his compassion, is widely rumoured to have an empathy coach. The impact of this on policies and decisions, is not yet evident.

LYN BENDER: Empathy has recently seeped into the political lexicon. The Prime Minister, not renowned for his compassion, is widely rumoured to have an empathy coach. The impact of this on policies and decisions, is not yet evident.

Empathy, and compassion, has been excluded from political pronouncements, in favor of words, such as pragmatism, economic rationalism, and national security. These are words that convey toughness, certainty and a refusal to yield.

Above all the economy has been exalted as the arbiter of all, with the market as the tyrannical decider and monarch. The economy is simply the system of production, consumption and trade of resources, goods and services, and its distribution. The market as decider is composed of buyers and sellers. It has no inherent rightness. Nor does it have a moral conscience or that elusive quality of true empathy. The market in so far as it is an entity, values profit and self- interest as the decider. Advertising, and propaganda can be, and are used to promote and distort the so -called independence of the market, as a deity of all things.

The absence of empathy and compassion in policy and the popular conscience promotes much of the chaos, cruelty, injustice and violence on our planet. Such absence:

  • allows US gun laws to remain unchanged over decades despite the prevalence of school shootings and mass shootings in the USA
  • authorizes the bombing of men women and children, known as ‘innocent civilians’ or ‘collateral damage’, in Iraq during “Operation shock and awe” and the 2003 invasion of and ongoing war in IRAQ
  • maintains the indefinite incarceration of Asylum Seekers, many of whom may have been fleeing these bombs
  • remains, in effect. indifferent to black deaths in custody and youth incarceration.
  • cleans up and covers up after an alleged rape in parliament
  • approves and funds the fossil fuel industry despite the clear science that warns us of the dire climate catastrophe that is increasing
  • remains indifferent to the suffering of the poor. while granting to the rich
  • destroys indigenous sacred sites despite First Peoples’ pleas and protests
  • destroys our planet for immediate gain without caring about future generations
  • neglects the aged in aged care to the point where death is hastened
  • Endangers and marginalizes women and minorities.

Returning to the question of hiring an empathy coach for leaders who exhibit an empathy deficit.

In my experience as part of a team, selecting, training and supervising Lifeline volunteer counsellors, they needed to come with values compatible with deep care. They could learn responses and gain skills in counselling, but we sought existing qualities. These included an interest in and capacity to seek to understand how others feel and experience their lives. Deep concern and yet capacity to set firm boundaries to prevent harm to self and others were essential, as was willingness to understand rather than to judge

Biologically fight-flight-freeze is a major survival response that is activated when danger is perceived. But we also have a visceral response of care and nurturance or empathy. This has survival value for communities who support others at times of crisis. Mothers respond to the baby’s distress signals. Even the lactating response is impacted by the infant’s cry.

As Prime Minister, John Howard, (wearing a bullet proof vest)  faced down angry gun owners, and brought in gun restrictions  after the  Port Arthur Massacre, ‘Howard’s compassion was aroused  by a grief stricken country.

The capacity for empathy and compassion is essential for the survival of humanity, the earth and its wondrous ecosystem.

The enemies of compassion are corruption and the glorification of armed conflict. The poisonous fruits, of a cultural empathy deficit, are cruelty, or what Hannah Arendt termed the ‘banality of evil’. Arendt observed that senior Nazi Adolf Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability to think from the standpoint of somebody else.’

He was just doing his job as ordered, seemingly deaf and blind to the horrendous carnage he created.

Lyn Bender
Lyn Bender

Lyn Bender, a sometime freelance writer, has been a practising psychologist for over 31 years. Her most significant professional experience was spending six weeks at the Woomera Detention Centre. 

3 Comments

Thank you Lyn, for such an insightful and clearly stated understanding of what empathy is and what lack of it does.
It is food for thought and action.

Excellent article, Lyn. It puts into context our recent Australian history of political débâcles that are spectacularly explained away in the superimposition of yet another debacle. It’s little wonder that so many of us have so little trust.

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