Encouragement for bleeding hearts


Bleeding heartJust as the song of the turtle dove is heard in spring, so the call of bleeding hearts is heard at times when resistance to brutality is gaining traction. The asylum seeker advocates who are now being called bleeding hearts won't be upset, because up to now popular support for the government policies has made protest unavailing. Cracks may now be opening. At all events the epithet is an interesting one and rewards reflection.

To call someone a bleeding heart is an insult, not a description. It has no meaning but does have connotations. It implies that its recipients are driven by sympathy for people who do not deserve sympathy, and are guided by emotion, not by reason. Apart from being weak minded they are also effete and ineffectual. They lack ticker. The phrase evokes popular images of Jesus associated with the Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart. They often represent Jesus as an effete young man pointing appealingly to his wounded heart.

So, all in all, to be a bleeding heart is to be an apology for a virile human being. But for all that most people accused of being bleeding hearts would not want to disown the phrase but to explore its use in order to illuminate the differences between themselves and their critics.

The first point of difference lies in the idea of undeserved sympathy. Critics believe sympathy is something that people must deserve and be worthy of. 'Bleeding hearts' see it as something that we owe to our fellow human beings by virtue of the fact that they are human and in pain. It is a natural expression of a shared humanity.

So it would be proper to feel sympathy for a dishevelled and bloodied dictator after his capture, for example. Sympathy does not imply that we minimise the suffering of his victims or diminish the sympathy we feel with them and our outrage at his deeds. But it does lead us to curb our anger and to ask how it would be right to treat him. Just as it does when we see the sufferings of the asylum seekers on Manus Island and in Australia.

The second point of difference lies in the intellectual rigour we demand of ourselves and of others in considering what it is right for us and our representatives to do. For 'bleeding hearts' the ethical question has precedence over other questions.

In the case of asylum seekers, the ethical question emerges clearly from the shape of Australian policy. This policy rests on deterring people from making a claim on Australia for protection from persecution. Among other things the deterrence involves placing people who have come to make a claim in Australia in camps in nations that will not or cannot offer effective protection. This treatment predictably involves severe harm through mental illness and inevitably leads to deaths.

To inflict suffering on one group of people in order to deter others is a clear case of appealing to a doubtful end to justify evil means. It is ethically wrong because it treats persons as things, subjects as objects. To do this is wrong no matter whether a government or an individual is acting.

That argument is hard-edged because it commits those who accept it to do what they can to remedy the wrong done to asylum seekers. They find the same kind of ethical claim laid upon them (although not the danger) as did the Dutch citizens who harboured Jews illegally during the Nazi occupation.

Those who call advocates for asylum seekers bleeding hearts usually dismiss ethical arguments. Although they may accept in the case of personal relationships that it would be wrong to inflict pain on people in order to deter others, they usually claim without supporting argument that governments are not bound by this or other ethical principles. Nor do they explore the consequences for society of allowing governments to do whatever they like to people as long as they claim it is in the national interest. The rigour of their recommendations to government rests on the lack of rigour in their argument.

For Catholics to be identified with Jesus as bleeding hearts is a badge of honour, especially if the identification is made by way of criticism. But few would see Jesus as the 'pale Galillean' or as effete. Certainly, when he was being executed he seemed ineffective. But the effects of his life and of his association with outcasts outlasted the Empire under which he was put to death. Now, there is encouragement for bleeding hearts ...

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Bleeding heart image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Even as I sang along with Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart" I was thinking "He really needs to Get A Life". I think the asylum seeker issue is complex enough to test people. We are still struggling to understand the complexity of our interactions with indigenous Australians. Isaiah tell us the servant will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets...something for us to meditate on during Lent.

Pam | 05 March 2014  

I would rather my heart have blood pumping than be a dead hole.

Marilyn | 05 March 2014  

I would imagine that the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus means that his heart, traditionally seen as the centre of a person's ability to feel, is pure and thus everything he does is appropriate: very far indeed from being a bleeding heart which connotes overemotionality. Mere cold logic can bring us to the wrong conclusion: we can dispense a facsimile of justice without a smidgeon of mercy. I think the way we process asylum seekers offshore is an example of the way cold, cruel political logic - without genuine, alive intuitive feeling - is applied is an example of this. We tend to be an overly cerebral nation often lacking the genuine ability to intuitively feel and see the other person as a person. To some the prospect of seeing their assumed opponent as similar to themselves is something psychologically impossible to comprehend. I would say this is often true of both sides to any political debate. We should be aware of that paradox and not assume, because we think we are on the "right" side, all our actions are pure and blessed. Proper self-examination and rectification of our errors are matters we often avoid: we should not.

Edward Fido | 05 March 2014  

I've always said that a society where such phrases as "bleeding heart" or "do-gooder" are used as insults is a society in serious moral confusion and ethical trouble.

Bob Faser | 06 March 2014  

A timely article. As you correctly point out 'to inflict suffering on one group of people in order to deter others is a clear case of appealing to a doubtful end to justify evil means'. Yet this is exactly what the current asylum seeker policies attempt to do.

Maureen | 06 March 2014  

Thank you, Father Hamilton. "It is ethically wrong because it treats persons as things, subjects as objects". Never has it been put more succinctly. I hope this article is read in the A C T!

Caroline Storm | 06 March 2014  

I agree. The terms “do-gooders” and “bleeding hearts” for the supporters of the people smuggling industry is wrong. The term “Hypocrites” is far better. There is nothing good about supporting an industry which has caused the death of so many and which has taken away the opportunity of so many refugees to come to Australia. I am not sure, but there could be a few naive people believing in the lies of a highly motivated and wealthy people smuggling industry support group. I am sure however that most of the supporters are just plain evil profiteers and nothing more.

Beat Odermatt | 06 March 2014  

I'll put my hand up as a scoffer of the bleeding hearts. I don't recognize myself in this portrayal by Fr H. Far from dismissing ethical considerations, it's precisely on ethical grounds that I object to their posturing: my beef with the bleeding hearts is that, as opposed to the Sacred Heart, the bleeding is selective. Thus Sarah Hanson Young, Abbess of the Green Oblates of the Bleeding Heart, is with moral outrage spearheading an inquiry into the so-far solitary death of an asylum seeker since the Coalition took over government. But when 200 people were killed in one boat disaster on her watch, the stoic Abbess managed to shrug it off tearlessly with "Tragedies happen. Accidents happen." And of course, her oblate novices observed custody of the eyes and saw nothing untoward in this. Again, unlike the Sacred Heart, they tend to play fast and loose with the truth. Thus Fr H says: "This policy rests on deterring people from making a claim on Australia for protection from persecution." Actually, it doesn't. No-one in the world is prevented from making a claim for protection in Australia from persecution.

HH | 06 March 2014  

Governments in a democracy are elected to represent the interests of the people. Boat people's stories hide the numbers of people who come here under legal means. When democratic governments give priority to non democratic nations and allow them access to our land and assets based on purely monetary rationale than the national interest is not served . Christ set rules and values on which western democracies were founded. We no longer educate our people how we came to be as we are and we question the short term expediency of decisions that undermine our people. We may again be called upon to be soldiers of Christ literally to a valueless world .

Name | 06 March 2014  

No one would dream of calling Paul Keating a bleeding heart, which is why the use of the term in the title of Don Watson’s magnificent portrayal of Keating is so anomalous. Is Keating the bleeding heart, or Watson? Like many things about Keating, the term is used here ironically and purposively to refute the easy putdowns of his critics. It didn’t matter what changes you brought, you were assured your critics would come out with the old cliché of being bleeding hearts. It’s not surprising it has resurfaced in present day Australia. ‘Bleeding heart’, as I understand it, evolved in Fifties America and was aimed at anyone who, while not being Red, was likely to be Pink. These shades of meaning became so absurdly many-hued as lose all meaning, ditto the extent to which such people might be bleeding. Was it a gush, or just a bruise? Was it just internal, or was it all over the cell floor? In Fifties America you couldn’t afford to be green, or Green, either and the safest thing was to be Black and White. It was also much safer to be White than Black.

COLOUR CHART | 06 March 2014  

The slogan"Bleeding Hearts" is an example of the unending struggle between the "Haves" and the "Nots", and illustrates how the "Haves", who usually have better education and greater determination to preserve their advantages, make use of "spin" to disparage the less endowed, instead of offering a helping hand to those in need.

Rbert Liddy | 06 March 2014  

Thank you Andrew for another insightful article. I have a statue of the Sacred Heart in my office. With HH, Hugh Henry I have been influenced by Heart Spirituality. Hugh, in your comments apart from self-identifying as a scoffer of bleeding hearts and some concluding comments that seem to favour those who land in Australia by plane rather than by boat, you do not address the central point Andrew Hamilton is making. I suggest that you need to exercise some custody of the mind in your thinking. Criticising the actions and observed attitudes of a Greens Senator with clever religious imagery does not address the serious moral issue that Fr Hamilton raises. Hugh Henry, I do not believe that you countenance the idea that it is ever justifiable for persons to be used instrumentally in the service of some broader policy objective. Each and every person is a subject. To use subjects as instruments, no matter how noble the cause, is always wrong. Hugh I suspect in your heart you share this view. John Francis Collins

John Francis Collins | 06 March 2014  

What a pity Tony Abbott's Jesuit education seems to have faded from his mind in regard to social justice and the Sermon on the Mount.

Chris | 06 March 2014  

It is difficult not to feel powerless in the face of both major parties agreeing to punish asylum seekers. There seems to be some groundswell protesting the inhumane conditions they are subject to, which, hopefully, will grow. Last weekend rallies and candlelight vigils were held in different parts of the country. Participating in these events encourages us to feel some hope.

zia | 06 March 2014  

This discussion brought to mind a quote by Martin Luther King in Adam Kahane's book Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change - “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic.” The great challenge of our times is working out how to effectively balance both power and love.

Donella Johnston | 06 March 2014  

Yes, as I predicted, the scoffers at bleeding hearts are either making their admissions or denials - and I'm sure they could mount an ethical argument to justify the crucifixion of Jesus - well, it did after all provide a great point of unity to build up the Roman Empire.

AURELIUS | 06 March 2014  

Another great article Andy. I really do believe that generations to come will be asking how we could let this happen. Better to be a bleeding heart than a bleeding monster I say!

katrina | 06 March 2014  

AURELIUS . "well, it (the crucifixion of Jesus), did after all provide a great point of unity to build up the Roman Empire"....??. It was not the crucifixion of Jesus that provided results, but his spiritual message of Universal Love,especially for the poor and persecuted. When Jesus was taken by the soldiers, there was no popular outcry. But his message was embraced and gave rise to "The Way", which laid the basis of Christianity. We seem to have forgotten our fundamentals..

Robert Liddy | 06 March 2014  

Donella Johnston 06 March 2014 " The great challenge of our times is working out how to effectively balance both power and love". Exactly !! The first step is to realise this. The hard part is to put it into practice.

Robert Liddy | 06 March 2014  

Is is unjust that supporters of the people smuggling industry, claim that their compassion is greater than Christians who support Tony Abbott stopping the boats, Humble Christians with genuine compassion for genuine refugees, continuously pray that once Tony Abbott stop the boats, Humble Christians with genuine compassion for genuine refugees continuously pray that once Tony Abbott stop the boats , desperate genuine refugees stuck in UN refugee Camps for many years will settle in Australia, thanks to the prayers of humble Christians.

Ron Cini | 06 March 2014  

HH, Of course anyone can make any claim they wish. In our country Australia ,people seeking asylum here, make the claim for refuge.. Our government sees fit to ignore these claims, and instead puts these people in prison..We are even so selfish that we use poorer countries than us, to relieve us of our responsibilities. We even build the prisons for them .. sub-standard prisons which would be unacceptable in Australia. I am certainly not proud to be such a selfish Australian, and deplore the Government's response to these claims. . .

bernie introna | 06 March 2014  

Ron, it is nothing to do with people smuggling, there is no smuggling, there are refugees exercising their legal right to come and ask for protection.

Marilyn | 06 March 2014  

'To inflict suffering on one group of people in order to deter others is a clear case of appealing to a doubtful end to justify evil means'.. . thank you, Andrew . . you've given me a response in a nutshell. Excuse me while I go and learn it off by heart. I think we're going to need it.

glen avard | 07 March 2014  

"Of course anyone can make any claim they wish." So, Bernie, Fr H is wrong on that point, OK? Thanks for that. Now, your next statement: "Our government sees fit to ignore these claims". Wrong: everyone who has arrived by boat is having their application processed. "... and puts these people in prison". Huh? They are not in prison! 1. Those being detained are free to leave at any time, if they wish to quit Australia as many have. No inmate of a prison in Australia has that choice.2. Moreover, these people are not being punished any more than you or I are being "punished" having to wait in line for our passport and visa to be checked at the international gateway of the airport. They know the process, and they freely choose to undergo it. 3. Lastly, unlike prisoners, those among them who are genuine asylum seekers from persecution will be thankful they are in the camps and not back home. I don't know if you're a bleeding heart, but you're certainly playing "fast and loose with the truth" here, as is a hallmark of theirs. Ron Cini, spot on.

HH | 07 March 2014  

Good article Andrew. However I wonder whether the word empapthy rather than sympathy might better describe our position?

Harry Lucas | 07 March 2014  

HH, I disagree strongly with your perceptions of detention centres, as well as your other point, . about being as free as we are. , inasmuch as of course they can go home, back to persecution. We don't have to make that decision. your lack of understanding of the plight of those desperate enough to try to get to Australia by boat ,astounds me.. I beg to differ `with your claims !!

betnie introna | 07 March 2014  

Right on! I am not a Catholic and even though raised a Christian I have no religious faith these days (a friend sent me this article!). But I was only thinking recently that the term bleeding heart must have originated from Catholic/Christian imagery of both Christ and his mother, which often portrayed them in this way to signify their immense compassion - surely a great Christian virtue that so many alleged Christians seem to have lost. So next time someone uses the term pejoratively we should ask "is it Christian compassion you so dislike?" As for me, Christian or not, better a bleeding heart than one made of stone, and better a do-gooder than an evil-doer. I would love to see these terms rehabilitated. There will always be very different views on social policies but society can only be improved by ceasing the vilification of the compassionate. Fortunately the most compassionate have far more strength and wisdom than the thoughtless name-callers. Thank you for this article.

Liz Downes | 09 March 2014  

"governments are not bound by this or other ethical principles"[Mein Kampf???] "For Catholics to be identified with Jesus as bleeding hearts is a badge of honour" [Naah-Traditional Catholicism] http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-k-F235gYYwo/ThBsQbnguTI/AAAAAAAAAZk/d9E34USse4s/s1600/heart+of+jesus.jpg

Father John George | 09 March 2014  

Except, Bernie, you've twisted my words: I didn't say they are "as free as we are". I said just as having to wait in line at the airport for passport clearance is not punishment, neither is having to wait in line to be assessed as a refugee or asylum seeker. I understand the motives of those trying to enter Australia by boat. Some are fleeing persecution. Others are seeking a better economic life. Either motivation is understandable. But the hundreds of millions spent on the current debacle (thanks to Labor/Greens "bleeding heart" politics) which the Coalition is slowly but surely rectifying in an ethical way could have been spent on increasing the intake of refugees who have been waiting their turn in overseas camps for years. But bleeding hearts politics from the left has meant diverting huge dollops of our humanitarian budget on mopping up after its mistakes. And tragically for more than a thousand souls, it's too late for that. If the Howard policies been maintained, there would now be no Christmas Is, no Manus Is with it tragic death, many more refugees settled in Australia, and 1100 more souls alive today. Have you ever seen a bleeding heart admit they were seriously wrong and apologize? Send me the footage.

HH | 09 March 2014  

Great article inspiring and encouraging all to speak up and out against these brutal policies - honouring all bleeding hearts!

cecile yazbek | 12 March 2014  

My heart bleeds... there's gotta be a better way!

Val | 13 March 2014  

Maybe it's time for an association of bleeding hearts. Any interest? Andrew Hamilton has given us a meaty article to begin with as a focus on "rehabilitating these terms" as proposed by Liz Downes in you comments

Mary L. | 14 March 2014  

Thank you. I am very happy to be a 'bleeding heart'. Our treatment of those who seek asylum is inhumane.

Mary McFadden | 24 March 2014  

Not that anyone has said to my face, but I would most certainly be labelled a 'Bleeding Heart' - which says a lot about those who consider that they aren't. I remain a proud and loyal bleeding heart...rather a bleeding heart than a bleedin' fool!

Michelle | 03 July 2014  

The point Andrew overlooks is that bleeding heart do gooders often do more harm than good. The open door to refugees under Labour (and more recently Merkel in Germany) has resulted in thousands drowning in transit. Andrew conveniently overlooks this ethical dilemma.

Tom Drake-Brockman | 25 June 2017  

Thanks Andrew for this timely piece. Four years on and your words will echo in my Facebook and Twitter feed on the Feast of the Sacred Heart 2018. Today I join people of good will in Brisbane as we celebrate the Luminous Lantern parade to welcome refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Tony Robertson | 08 June 2018  

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