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Two sides to Morrison's Rohingya tears



In the Christian tradition, weeping is commendable. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and at his friend Lazarus' death. In a habitual reversal of conventional wisdom he is also credited with saying, 'Blessed are they who weep and mourn.'

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during question time at Parliament House on 26 November 2018 (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)It is no wonder, then, that Prime Minister Morrison, who makes no secret of his Christian faith, should have wept, and later acknowledged his tears, when seeing the plight of Rohingya refugees held in Myanmar. His self-revelation, however, was strongly criticised from two sides.

Many who were appalled by the sufferings inflicted on people who seek protection in Australia under a policy for whose design and administration Morrison was responsible, saw his reported tears as hypocritical. Others criticised him on the grounds that such expressions of feeling are out of place in public officials. Their office requires a toughness that will not be shaken by empathy for those affected by policies in the national good.

Both Morrison's response to the suffering of refugees and his critics' varying responses to his tears merit reflection, not because the incident was of high significance in itself, but precisely because it is so ordinary. Most of us, recalling our own behaviour whether expressed in tears or in dismissal of them, would be forced to say, 'There despite the grace of God went I.' For that reason the incident is worth teasing out.

Philosophers and teachers of good writing make a useful distinction between sentiment and sentimentality. It may be helpful in this case. The distinction, of course, can be used in self-serving ways, because it is not neutral but is value laden. Sentiment is generally regarded as good. Sentimentality is always seen as bad. Because sentimentality is a pejorative word, people accused of it will usually try to deny the charge.

As is the case with most such opposed terms, the difference between sentiment and sentimentality has been defined in a variety of ways. The most helpful description is based on whose feelings we focus on when confronted with the situation of other people, whether fortunate or pitiable.

When we focus on the feelings of others, enter them and respond to them directly, we may talk of sentiment. But if we focus on our own feelings, assessing how we should feel and respond and adjust our emotional response accordingly, that would be called sentimentality. Our feelings do not enter the lives of others but separate us from them. Our interest ultimately lies in getting our feelings right, not in responding to the experience of the person who occasions them.


"It is no coincidence that those most opposed to sentiment in public life are often the most committed to policies of social control."


The classical example of sentimentality understood in this way is the ogre headmaster of school stories who tells the boy whom he is beating, 'This hurts me more than it hurts you.' The sentiment is entirely self-focused and self-regarding with a manifest lack of empathy with the experience of the boy. It would be regarded as hypocrisy, perhaps hiding darker motivation.

It is understandable that Morrison should be accused of hypocrisy when he simultaneously weeps for the plight of some refugees held in punitive places while being responsible for the infliction of similar pain on refugees who are Australia's responsibility. But the accusation suggests that there is a clear and necessary disjunction between being moved in an overseas refugee camp and being rigorous in administrative decisions about people in Australia's care. That needs to be established.

The criticism of Morrison might also suggest that the alternative to sentimentality is the kind of toughness which dismisses sympathy and any expressions of fellow-feeling in public life as soft-headed and inappropriate. All sentiment is out of place in the formation of a realistic political policy.

Whatever the merits of this mindset, and I believe them to be few, it is not really the opposite of sentimentality but another form of it. The rigorous determination not to be moved from a course of action by weighing its human consequences may arise from a self-regarding focus on one's own response and out of fear to empathise with others. It is a response, not to sentimentality, but to sentiment of any sort which might weaken one's control of the situation and of oneself. It is no coincidence that those most opposed to sentiment in public life are often the most committed to policies of social control.

Tears can reflect many things: sympathy, as in the Gospels, or the loss of purpose. But the absence of tears can also reflect many things, sentimentality among them.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during question time at Parliament House on 26 November 2018 (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Scott Morrison, Rohingya, Myanmar, refugees, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Fr Andrew sometimes we can all afford to weep. Being confronted with genocide made the US soldiers weep when they liberated Belson and Auschwitz. Bob Hawke wept as he watched the tanks roll over the pro democracy demonstrators in Tienanmen Square. In Matthew's day, Rachel weeps yet again: this time over the slaughter of the children at Bethlehem. I suppose the irony is that Scott Morrison reappointed the dry eyed pitiless head kicker Dutton to crush any sentiment that might arise over Manus and Nauru. And he sent Abbott on a reconnoitre who came back saying it was a holiday camp. Its good to weep. Its also good to get your priorities right and remember charity begins at home.

Frank Armstrong | 28 November 2018  

Being born one year before someone else's death can make for informed reflection by the former on the latter's life and work. Unfortunately the latter cannot return the favour. In the case of Charlotte Bronte (1816-55) and Jane Austen (1775-1817) we have only Charlotte's words which are: Miss Austen, being, as you say, without 'sentiment', without poetry, maybe is sensible, real (more real than true), but she cannot be great.

Pam | 29 November 2018  

Brilliant, as always, Andrew.

Paul Crittenden | 29 November 2018  

Weep for: - those seeking asylum in Australia but have been languishing in off-shore hell-holes for years - the islanders who are seeing their homelands 'going under' as sea level rises - the victims of extreme weather events, now increasingly extreme as global warming increased - the millions of people who will have to try to relocate because of impending catastrophic climate change - those who will die because of Australia's cut-backs in overseas aid, now standing at a lowly 22 cents in $100 of Gross Domestic Product - the millions who have died or been displaced because Australia has foolishly followed the US into wars including in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan - the state of Australian politics where ministers refuse to answer questions but respond by throwing mud at their political opponents - the way our democracy is being undermined by political parties accepting large donations from vested interests such as the big polluters, and effecting allowing them to write the party policy on related issues - the hypocrisy of so many 'Christian' Australian politicians whose values are so far from being Christian - a Government that will have Parliament sit for only 10 days before the next election.

Grant Allen | 29 November 2018  

Thought-provoking piece, thanks; but what tends to be ignored in analyses of these particular issues is the "dominant sentiment" of Australian governments and that is over the drowning death at sea of potentially thousands of innocent people if the refugee boat movements were not brought under control. In this view, the holding of refugees in offshore detention was a lesser saddness. And in both quantity and quality, the fate of those on Manus/Naru are orders on magnitude better than that of the Rohingya; indeed they are just not comparable in scales of horror, danger, violence, starvation etc.

Eugene | 29 November 2018  

It is indeed worth "teasing out" Andrew, thankyou. The tears were, in this case, of the person occupying the Prime Ministerial office. When I last looked at our Constitution we, as electors are also "in office", and we are those to whom this man in his office is accountable. The discussion is well begun by you. I could wish that Mr Morison did not adopt the "meme" of piety "dropping to his knees in tears". But Mr Morison as a member of Parliament and of a notorious Parliamentary "side" knows just how much our Commonwealth and his party and the "other side(s)" as well, and us too, are all embedded in and contributing to, in one way or another, a global refugee scandal/crisis that has been long with us. (remember Tampa, recall SIEVE X), Might he have better said that he would hope as a Christian that we as a nation should be "dropping to our knees in prayer" about this global tragedy for which we remain accountable and which we don't seem to be making much headway? If Mr Morison is to adopt the "meme" of piety he needs quiet advisors that understand just how this Commonwealth, and his "side" of "both sides", as of us all, are still thoroughly accountable coram Deo. Thankyou. Keep up the teasing reflections on the ordinary.

Bruce Wearne | 29 November 2018  

Mr Morrison may have been momentarily moved, but his actions as a Minister and now PM have demonstrated his hypocrisy. His are what my grandmother would have labelled 'crocodile tears', perhaps indicating fleeting feeling but, ultimately, having no substance. Eugene excuses him and others by referring to their wish to avoid drownings/deaths at sea; however, that is just another example of hypocrisy. The policy of punishing a few, by keeping them in detention, in order to deter others from coming to this country is abhorrent and unjustifiable. I am not persuaded that the politicians making this claim care whether people die, as long as it doesn't occur in their jurisdiction, on their watch. Surely, there were alternative courses of action if there was genuine compassion behind the policies pursued so vigorously by Mr Morrison and his colleagues?

Myrna | 29 November 2018  

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