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Australian of the Year's strong case for empathy

Justin Glyn |  31 January 2016

Australia woke on 26 January to the news that David Morrison had been named Australian of the Year. One of the most striking features he displayed, both in winning the award and in his acceptance speech, was empathy — the ability to enter the world of others. Though a man, Morrison shot to prominence by condemning sexism and sexual violence in the military — including as an instrument of warfare.

David MorrisonIn his speech, he began by noting the undoubted fact that Australia Day, by its nature, is not regarded with unalloyed pleasure by Aboriginal Australians, for whom 26 January speaks to a history of genocide, dispossession and ongoing discrimination.

His stance on diversity, on combatting discrimination of all kinds, pulled no punches in enumerating the types of discrimination which still exist in Australia and the self-interested reason why we should care — excluding some from society impoverishes us all, by depriving society of the benefits which each individual can bring to it.

Sadly, the empathy he displayed is a quality in vanishingly short supply in public discourse. This is not only an Australian problem, and cannot be divorced from the rise of the human rights movement.

One of the great contributions of Western philosophy to human thought has been the emergence of the individual as a focus for concern. I am not merely a member of a group, a plaything of kings or emperors, but an individual with thoughts, feelings and an interior life all my own.

Descartes' cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) is shorthand for the idea that this interior life itself is the basis for how we approach the world and, from our point of view at least, the very warrant for the existence of the world. The individual is important, has rights.

The trouble is that unless we can put the individual on a broader canvass, our world view is incomplete. I am important, but unless you are recognised as being just as important as I, then you are just a plaything for me — disposable at will. My rights are bounded by your rights, your value as a person.

The 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noted that the I think of Descartes totalises — it reduces everything: God, other people, to a subset of I. We are only opened to the world beyond us if we are able to accept others on their own terms, without reducing them to what we want them to be.

This is Morrison's point, too: While the collective cannot be allowed to destroy the individual, the whole is, at the very least, the sum of its very diverse parts. If we include everyone, on their own terms, then everyone's gifts can come to the fore and enrich the whole.

All of this may sound obvious to the point of being trite. We do, however, need constant reminding of the importance of other people's points of view. Levinas spoke in the aftermath of the Shoah, the massacre of over six million Jews by Hitler.

And yet still reductive thinking about other people will not die. Indeed, it seems to be hardwired into modern humanity. Aboriginal people are still often told to 'get over' over two centuries of hurt, even though (as this brilliant but searing cartoon points out) people do not say this to those commemorated on ANZAC Day or their families.

At least some of this desire to reduce and control the Other and their approach to the world is surely born of fear. The response to the refugee crisis in Europe and (somewhat less understandably) the United States as well as Australia's own policies in this area are sold on the basis of a dreaded tidal wave of unfamiliar humanity coming to take away people's way of life and security.

The hopes and fears of individuals facing intolerable circumstances are thus mulched into a grey tsunami of fear and indifference.

And it works. Politicians who would bar the gates, turn back the boats and pull up the drawbridge are on the rise in many countries which have previously prided themselves on tolerance and diversity.

And yet, if empathy fails, then the society which they claim to be protecting is also in danger. The rights of the individual only hold their magic as long as everybody acknowledges them.

If we undermine them then not only do we create an impoverished society but we also force those we exclude to create their own systems and support groups which will, themselves, likely be based on hostility, fear and the experience of exclusion.

As the Australian of the Year himself put it, 'The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.'


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.



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Submitted comments

The day before Australia Day, I saw a beautiful women walking down Oxford St, Paddington. Our eyes meet. I knew who she was. Cate is the true Australian of the Year, because behind every great man, and in this case, David Morrison, stands a great women. Thank you Cate.

AO 29 January 2016

I think the selection of David Morrison as Australian of the Year and the reactions to it, including that of Cate MacGregor, show how divided we are on who should get this award and what they should do in office. This is something which needs to be debated openly and without malice in the public forum.

Edward Fido 31 January 2016

I would guess that the objections to David Morrison have to do with the fact that he promises to be one to challenge us, as a people, to be more just, empathic and tolerant. Seems some people don't want that. I had never heard of David Morrison until I heard him on radio last year talking about how he changed to understand sexism and the steps he took to change the defence forces. I was impressed. He came across as thoughtful, humble, willing to listen and learn and not afraid to speak the truth. We need more leaders like him.

Janet 01 February 2016

The Australian of the Year should not push a personal agenda to the exclusion of all other Australians as we have seen with the last few. Once the year has passed nothing definitive seems to have been achieved by any of them.

john frawley 01 February 2016

'Descartes' cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am)' The 'ergo' is misleading, implying a rational mediating leap from awareness of personal thought to existence. "I think" is better put as "I AM -thinking". It is an immediate awareness of self as existing and of exercising personal contact with something 'other'. Thought must have subject (or object), or both depending on terminology. It is always an interpretation, dependent on the condition or disposition of the person involved. " this interior life itself is the basis for how we approach the world and, from our point of view at least, the very warrant for the existence of the world." Aboriginal people need help in rising above their limited inherited understanding of Reality, just as much as 'we' need to do the same with our inherited limited (and thus faulty) understanding, to which we have been so conditioned as to think it is the only acceptable interpretation. The beam in our eye blinds us to the speck in that of others.

Robert Liddy 01 February 2016

We live, therefore we learn. I hope the general has truly learned, even if lately, and that he will sound less like a commanding officer talking to the troops as the year unfolds.

Noel McMaster 01 February 2016

A thought-provoking and timely article. Surely the saddest and most contradictory feature of our refugee policy is the faux empathy we display in locking up people behind razor wire, taking hope out of their lives, subjecting them to mind-destroying treatment, then congratulating ourselves for having saved them from drowning. This monstrous lack of empathy deserves a label that no one has invented yet.

Brian 01 February 2016

David Morrison may have empathy, but he doesn't have empathy for more than half of Australia's population who voted to keep Australia a constitutional monarchy. He doesn't have empathy for couples who for generations have married the traditional way. Also being a general and relying on a subordinate to write his Australian of the year's speech is very strange. Remember he changed the rules by allowing soldiers to wear their uniform at the Mardi Gras parade. A soldier's uniform is sacred.

Ron Cini 01 February 2016

If I was a soldier being sent into battle and risking my life, I would expect my commanding officer to also face the same risk of death - and that means being honest and stating clearly his personal views. Morrison's vote in any referendum on a Republic is worth the same as mine. The issue is not whether someone's view is "political" or not - everything is political. The issue that this man has the maturity to speak his mind, and the faith in Australian society that we are big enough to deal with diverse views.

AURELIUS 03 February 2016

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