Empathy after Labor's knife fight


The battle between the supporters of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd was a nasty affair. Its protagonists, with the famously gracious exception of Anthony Albanese, deployed words as meat cleavers and baseball bats. It is hard to see that good will come out of it for anyone.

But its defects did again provoke wistful reflection about the qualities that might enable public conversation to contribute to an enhanced sense of human possibility.

Empathy is particularly important. It helps us to understand where others are coming from, even if we disagree with where they want to take us. If we are empathetic we can see the world from another person's perspective.

If we lack empathy, we will be likely to dismiss our more formidable opponents as idiots or brutes. This has consequences. If they are idiots, we can dismiss their perspective as unworthy of consideration. If they are brutes, to consider their perspective would put us at moral risk. Both attitudes are problematic.

The most significant problem with a lack of empathy is not that it is unkind to our opponents but that we ourselves are hobbled. Yet empathy seems almost invariably to go missing when people respond to forceful and opinionated figures of authority in churches or other organisations. They can speak of no one and of nothing else and have no energy to commend better views or better ways.

By dismissing their opponents as idiots or brutes they cede the field to them.

If we regard people with whose positions we disagree as idiots, we inevitably underestimate them and fail to recognise the coherence of their strategies. We also delude ourselves that once they have gone from the scene our own more enlightened views will prevail. They won't prevail if our opponents are more committed to their opinions and strategies.

If we dismiss our opponents as brutes, too, we simply give them power. We see ourselves as the helpless victims of their savagery, so failing to see the limits of their power, the extent of the power that we ourselves have, and the possibilities that are open to us. In most Australian organisations, even the most brutal of leaders are unable to use racks and thumbscrews on the recalcitrant.

Lack of empathy is a luxury we can afford if we have decided our dreams or our groups are no longer worth fighting for. But if we still believe they matter, we need to enter the world of our opponents, to see which values we have in common and which we differ about, and how we can lead the agenda.

In public conversation sympathy is also important. Empathy alone can be a cold virtue. If we understand how our opponents' minds are working, we can use our understanding to destroy them. Sympathy leads us to identify with the humanity of the person whose mind we have entered. It will impel us to visit our political opponents in hospital and to support them in personal tragedies.

In public conversation sympathy also allows space for a larger perspective. To identify with the flawed humanity of another human being makes it difficult to see them as either perfect fools or perfect brutes. It enables us to recognise the personal and social factors that limit their capacity to do harm.

Inadequate though our candidates for national leadership may be, they do not have the makings of a Stalin, a Pol Pot or a Pinochet. Nor does our society provide the conditions under which such people could flourish.

In political conversation empathy and sympathy can temper policies that are economically or socially destructive. If we neither understand how people come to act as they do nor have the capacity to identify with them, we shall regard them as idiots or monsters. We shall then spend vast amounts of public monies on such counterproductive measures as locking them up and depriving them of responsibility. In short we shall ourselves act as idiots, to the detriment of our society.

A public conversation in which empathy and sympathy are deployed is not as exciting as one fought with meat cleavers. But both qualities are necessary if the conversation is to serve the public good. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Labor leadership



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Existing comments

This Labor fiasco has highlighted a core moral bankruptcy at the heart of the party. As a thinking human being I could never see the last week as anything as a game of expediency, lies, bludgeoning and Machiavellian plans. I realise now as never before that truth does not matter to the Labor leadership. Fortunately it still matters to much of the electorate.
Skye | 01 March 2012

Thank you for your positive reflection and suggestion of what is needed for the future, Andrew. I heartily agress with you.
William Ousley | 01 March 2012

"If we dismiss our opponents as brutes, too, we simply give them power." Fr Andrew, I guess you were tearing your hair out then when Eureka Street headlined: "Tony Abbott's Missing Moral Core" ? Physicians, heal yourselves.
HH | 01 March 2012

I see no need for empathy in condemning a philosophy or political manifesto that is clearly inimical to the welfare of other people. Official US Government reports now tell us that there are nearly 50 million Americans living below the poverty line - and the Republicans want to deny them medical benefits; Australia is receiving something like 6000 refugee seekers a year, a negligible number - compare many European countries - and neither Labor not Coalition can lift themselves above the level of self interest; Gillard speaks of loyalty and unity after the perfidy of 2010 - Christ did speak of whited sepulchres and hypocrites; manufacturing is despatched overseas while boards and executives grant themselves obscene rewards - the list is endless. No sympathy, no empathy for this behaviour.
John Nicholson | 01 March 2012

This is a most perspicacious elaboration of the balance between empathy and sympathy and how such balance is more likely to bring agreement than it is to bring conflict and division. The most perfect example of the need for both is seen in the failure of the public debate on abortion and euthanasia on the part of the pro-life forces who have never shown empathy with nor sympathy for their perceived opponents and have effectively lost the debate. I am reminded, Andrew, of your article in Eureka Street of Dec 7, 2011. "Why I don't preach on abortion". Your article today is the perfect template for the basis of preaching on such controversial issues in a secular society and for having a point of view which will be heard. It is also the template which fails to be applied in the controversial issues that beset our great Church today. It is the template used by Christ himself and, as sure as God made little apples, managed to gain a huge following! Please start "preaching" on these issues.
john frawley | 01 March 2012

It would be wonderful if one day we could have politicians with empathy and sympathy and with honesty. It seems in the meantime that we have to deal with apparatchiks. There is absolutely no respect for politicians these days and media initiated shoot-out between Rudd and Julia made it hard to decide if we had seen a comedy or a tragedy. A few glimmers of hope were provided by Anthony Albanese. He gave the impression that we still have a few humans amongst the apparatchik robots in Canberra.
Beat Odermatt | 01 March 2012

Thank you, Andrew, for your thoughtful comments, After the last week these things needed to be said.
Margaret Gibson | 01 March 2012

Fr. Andrew, I agree with the theme of your article. However, I do not agree that the Gillard Rudd leadership contest was nasty; it is part of the democratic process and most of the words used were nothing more than theatre and should not be taken seriously. The only nastiness was the trivial and celebrity nonsense coverage by most of the mainstream media. I believe that Rudd resigned as foreign minister and challenged Gillard because of the mischievousness of most of the mainstream media, which was having a damaging effect on government functions. Notwithstanding that most Australian people are decent and hardworking, I believe that most have very little understanding, empathy and sympathy with each other. We have developed a culture of individualism and have lost our community spirit. We do not have time to listen to each other and have very little tolerance for the opinion of others. It always bemuses me that a lot of Catholics have little empathy with people who practice other religions because they think their religion is the "one true way". I believe that the ideals of all religions are similar. Most people have little time for discussing ideas, moral philosphy and ethics. The popular philosophy in Australia is secularism and materialism, with little interest in spirituality.
Mark Doyle | 01 March 2012

The people harden their hearts towards their leaders as each new development in the story is brought into the light. But one of the main causes of this hardening of hearts is the storyteller, not the actual people we are being told about. The media’s relentless desire to find a story and expose every weakness in our leaders’ characters turns any real understanding of what is going on into a permanent saga of ambition, deception, plotting &c. from one day to the next until the people are heartily tired of the whole miserable business. Julia, Bob, Tony, Kevin, Anthony – who are these people exactly? Characters in a drama generated from day to day by people in the media, many of whom are plainly moral cowards of a sizeable proportion, who could never achieve what our leaders are prepared to do. And they never let go, because the media are part of the story themselves, or pride themselves that they are. Exposing government and opposition to ridicule, making our leaders into B-grade parts who cannot think straight, is a sport for the press gallery. While this routine goes on, empathy and sympathy are just words in a dictionary. Does the media really care?

John Frawley, I must respectfully disagree with your assessment of pro-lifers and their tactics. Having just in the last day or so had a most stimulating conversation with a large group of them who give of their free time year after year to operate a 24/7 pregnancy counselling service, I came away profoundly humbled to be in the presence of, frankly, unsung saints, who go to the limit to empathise, sympathise and offer concrete support to their clients (and save lives thereby.) They won't receive the OAM. They won't, arguably win the "debate". But let's face it - neither did Christ while on earth. But on the level of public debate: I've also walked in Marches for life where people (including the above) are spat upon and verbally abused in foul language, and huge shrieking audio systems mobilised by pro-choicers to deny the democratic right of prolifers to merely give voice their views on the steps of Parliament House. So, how do we "empathise" here? Not speak out? Not hold marches? Not write letters to the editor pointing out factual and logical fallacies? Is this the advice you'd have given to a Martin Luther King or an abolitionist of yore? Are you sure such tactics would have defeated the Victorian legislation? And tell me, what constitutes an "empathising" 7-second byte for the nightly news from a pro-lifer, on the rare occasion they are granted leave to comment?
HH | 01 March 2012

Mark Doyle believes that most Australian people are decent and hardworking but have very little understanding, empathy and sympathy with each other. Is he serious? If that was really the case our society would fall apart by about oh say April. It is true we live in a culture of individualism, but it does not logically follow that we have lost our community spirit. That’s certainly not my experience, at all.

Individualism is a problem when it turns into selfishness and rejection of other individuals, and we see enough of that, for sure, but it’s hardly the whole story. As for religion, there is a problem with anyone (religious or not) who cannot find empathy with people who practice other religions because they think their religion is the "one true way". Singling out Catholics for censure here is not helpful, though there are some that are painfully chauvinistic as distinct from boastful about their religion. But Mark, in my experience I have to say that people do have time for discussing ideas, moral philosophy and ethics, if they want to. The popular philosophy in Australia is secularism and materialism, maybe maybe not, but it does not follow that there is little interest in spirituality. Australia is a profoundly spiritual place and behind most news stories every day what I hear see feel touch is hunger. Hunger for the spirit. Now it’s back to my cup of tea. Thank you for listening.
PHILIP HARVEY | 01 March 2012

Dear HH - I too am an admirer of pro-lifers and have been for many years, serving on various committees and participating in public anti-abortion activities both in the medical and legal world. My point was that the debate has been lost in favour of abortion in this country. In NSW, abortion is freely advertised in the yellow pages in large colour advertisements despite the fact that abortion is still illegal in criminal law and punishable by 14 years imprisonment. Victoria and Queensland have in the last year,as you know, modified their laws in favour of abortion. South Australia has provided legal abortion for a couple of decades. Abortion is freely available without fear of criminal procecution for the abortionists throughtout Australia.

My point is that the battle has been lost. A big part of this loss has been the fact that the Pro-life movement in its early days always adopted an antagonistic approach to abortion which immediately precluded any debate and closed the door to any possibility of getting its own philosophy across. (I was guilty of this approach for many years). The Catholic Church rarely spoke out publicly, afraid to be seen as "wowsers" by the secular press, afraid to be lampooned publicly as many anti-abortionists were. No other "Christian Churches" spoke out publicly either. We even witnessed a Catholic nun running an abortion clinic in New York and a professor of obstetrics in this country publicly advocating and doing abortions when it was against the law .What we now see is, as you describe, pro-lifers acting with empathy, compassion and understanding after the war was lost. This earns admiration and changes attitudes.

My point is that Andrew's article today shows a way to debate that might be more efficacious in these matters of public morality in the future. It won't be long before we have to do it all over again with euthanasia. Keep up the good work, HH, but keep in mind that great student of human nature, Billy Shakespeare,who drew the blueprint for what Andrew has written today in his story of the demise of Julius Caesar. "We have come to bury Caesar not to praise him" Praise (or empathy with) and sympathy for (I'm on your side!)is a powerful weapon, HH, and a very good distraction for its recipient.
john frawley | 01 March 2012

It's disappointing that all this has occurred, based as it has been on the assumption that Kevin Rudd leaked damaging material during the 2010 election campaign.

If anyone had been paying attention to the phone hacking scandal in the UK, they'd recall that Elle McPherson dismissed one of her personal assistants on the assumption that the assistant had leaked damaging information to newspapers owned by News International, the UK arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

It now turns out that News International personnel had hacked into the assistant's phone.

Who's to say they haven't done the same thing to the phone of a K Rudd staffer, or something?

The phone hacking affair has a long way to run.
David Arthur | 01 March 2012

Dear Andrew,
Lacking IRONY we will believe the lies and half-truths that our politicians tell us....leading to wishful rather "wistful" reflection.

Claude Rigney | 01 March 2012


This is what happens when we have no empathy, we have paid for the refugee prisons in Indonesia for the past 12 years, we pay the guards and the police so this death is on our hands.

But we don't care here in Australia because our leaders cannot walk a mile in other people's shoes.

Marilyn Shepherd | 01 March 2012

John, I'm afraid we still disagree - again with respect. The fact that abortion is legal now has absolutely nothing to do with any alleged broad-brush failure of the pro-life movement at any stage. Roe v Wade was not lost because someone didn't sit down with the full bench of the USSC and empathise with them. Same with the 1969 Menhennit ruling in Victoria. Etc. Moreover, "Failure" in the secular sense does not indicate a wrong choice of strategy: as the doomed career of the prophets and Christ himself attest. Thirdly, we're not up against mere earthly powers here - but Someone else.

You're right about the institutional Church squibbing, of course. That was going on from the stupid sixties - in fact right from the time when that cabal of modernist theologians sat down with JFK and taught him the fictitious but incredibly convenient distinction between his "private" Catholic beliefs and his "public" duties as POTUS. The Church should have nipped that in the bud. But didn't. Bishops and priests of the Church should have put huge efforts behind educating the faithful in traditional sexual morality and supporting pro-life efforts at all levels of society. They didn't. It was left to desperate beleaguered groups of lay people, often sneered at by know-all theologians, and avoided by bishops like the plague, who had to take up the cause, a la Joan of Arc. The notion that something in their tactics was what caused the secular failure is, I believe (not that you intend it, of course) a terrible and totally unwarranted slur.
HH | 01 March 2012

The essential flaw in Dr Hamilton's essay is that he presupposes good will on the part of one's political opponents. If that is lacking, it's difficult to see the place for the empathy which he seeks. To take some extreme cases, I really don't accept that empathy would have been particularly useful or successful for those dealing with Hitler, Stalin or Pinochet. On the local scene, it must be acknowledged that those who were opposed to Mr Rudd had a long experience of his personality, his modus operandi and his attitude towards his colleagues -- not to mention his capacity as the leader of a government. And when, finally, many of them spoke -- as they ought to have done in 2010 -- about those realities, they were characterised in the media as "venomous", "vitriolic" and so on: the usual media hyperbole, in other words. It is also useful to remember that when people make decisions in elections [always a fraught matter when, ultimately, multiple issues and attitudes must be conpressed into a binary choice], they do so in terms of their attitudes towards both sides, positive and negative. The question becomes: do the positives outweigh the negatives or is it that the negatives outweigh the positives? Those commending Mr Albanese need to keep in mind that other ministers had already spoken the truth as they saw it, so he could avoid speaking bluntly about what he had experienced; that, further,his own political attutude to the PM and her background would have been no less a determinant than any positive feelings which he might have had towards the claims of Mr Rudd. In politics, as with families, it's often very difficult for outsiders to know what is really going on "inside" [beware taking "sides" in a divorce!]. In this particular case, many an "insider" has observed that Mr Rudd is popular with those who don't know him but not at all with those colleagues who do -- a case, perhaps, of "street angel but house devil" as my late mother used to say. In other words, philosophical rumination has often to abutt -- sometimes roughly -- against quotidian realities.
John Carmody | 02 March 2012

Oh, how I wish for a bloodless coup led by Bob Brown whereupon he installs himself as a benign dictator for a good decade or so.
AURELIUS | 02 March 2012

Thanks Andrew. I agree with your sentiments. I would add that the whole Kevin Rudd issue so to speak, could/should have been managed by the the Cabinet. It is very sad that Rudd, his wife, and many ALP federal MPs had no idea he was about to be "dumped" until a few hours before it happened. Neither did the Australian people! Why the hell were his impulse control behavioural factors, his failures to communicate, and so on, not dealt with very early in his leadership as PM?! Rudd, one of our brightest PMs ever, should never have been brought down the way he was. Such a thing should never happen again.... Hopefully, elder statesman Bob Carr, a former great and popular Premier, will have a positive impact on this ALP government, and turns things around for the better. I believe he will.
Louw | 04 March 2012


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