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In praise of the human kind

  • 31 May 2024
Even in her eighties my late mother would spend hours at cafés in her Melbourne outer suburb, which had a reputation for being rough and not just around the edges. She would scoff at any suggestion that this might not be the safest behaviour with the dismissive line, ‘I just love people-watching’. Social psychologist Hugh Mackay has been people-watching for more than 60 years. At 86 he has published The Way We Are: Lessons from a lifetime of listening, a compendium of his choicest insights on Australian life quarter-way through the new century. Mackay-watchers will not be surprised to discover that this volume contains a panoply of wisdom and thoughtful observations on everything from poverty and cancel culture to ‘speech music’ and the likely root cause of misogyny.

Credibly classified on the cover as ‘Australia’s leading social psychologist’, Mackay bases his worldview on the Aristotelian premise that man is a social animal, from which it follows that for us humans moral actions are those that affect others (lying, cheating, stealing or — a shout-out to our country cousins — coveting our neighbour’s ox).

The book’s philosophical arc bends towards the imperative of practising kindness, but — as you would expect — his reason for such a stance hinges on facts rather than mystical wish-fulfilment. Living as we do in what he defines as the Age of Opinion, Mackay’s opinions stem overwhelmingly from a rich fund of such facts. Example: ‘Neuroscientists can point to the cooperative centre of the brain … Those same neuroscientists tell us there is no “competitive” centre in the brain.’ His conclusion: to care about others is being true to our biological nature.

Sprinkled with quotations from famous thinkers down the ages — Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson included — The Way We Are nevertheless speaks directly to these postmodern times. Although it can be regarded as a work of sociology, an autobiographical undercurrent is never far from view.

In succeeding chapters, the reader, who may have only known this author as an occasional ‘talking head’ on TV, learns he is a choir member (he points out the evident health benefits of group singing), an undogmatic person of faith, and wise as well as erudite.

Philosophically, he comes across as religiously humanist (and, if you think about it, there is no reason why that should be an oxymoron). While his faith flavours the whole work, Mackay devotes one chapter (Six) to spirituality. Typically, he