Save your empathy for real people with real problems
“She deserves to be here,” sobbed Dani, with her big puppy dog eyes and glossy black hair.
What a tragedy. Cleo, one of the most popular chefs in the Masterchef kitchen, had ignored the rules to prepare both her toffee dish and her chocolate ganache at the same time. Her elimination was inevitable. Her dream was over.
And we all sniffled too, as the ever-stoic Cleo departed the Masterchef kitchen and returned home to her miniature poodles. Ad break. News headlines. Oprah.
For decades we’ve laughed with Oprah. We’ve cried with Oprah. We’ve watched Oprah’s weight go from mini-skirt to muumuu with astonishing regularity.
To thank us for our worship, Oprah this week said goodbye not once but thrice. “You, and this show, have been the great love of my life,” she trembled in her final, hour-long sermon that was so deep with meaning that not even a car could be given away.
And in our hearts we knew she meant every word – this empress of emotion who for decades has counselled and cajoled us, has loved us for who we are and what we might become.
“The great thing about Oprah is that even if you don’t know her personally, you feel like you do,” said another great philosopher of our time, Madonna.
Oh yes, we feel like we know Oprah – and Cleo and Dani. We know them and we love them because they give us what we want: a swift, shallow opportunity to connect and to care.
Everyone wants us to connect/care these days – from TV journalists with their maudlin tones and heart-rending tales, to AFL bosses with their forced apologies, to 15-minute famers on Dancing with the Stars who’ve overcome an eating disorder to feed our insatiable cravings for compassion.
Problem is, we’re kidding ourselves with empty empathy. When it really counts, we often just don’t give a damn.
“I come from South Africa and lived under this, and am every way attuned to seeing racial discrimination,” said UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay in Australia this week.
“There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people, judged by their differences, racial, colour or religions.”
Ms Pillay was of course talking about asylum seekers: “those people” who are considered ungrateful for wanting to kill themselves in our detention centres; and who could soon be shoved out of sight to Malaysia, where they might be whipped and beaten but it won’t be our problem.
On Friday, SA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Grace Portolesi conceded racism also continued to have a “very damaging impact” on Australia’s Aboriginal population, with one-in-five saying they were often treated with disrespect and mistrust.
“What I’m asking our community to recognise is that racism is profoundly experienced by Aboriginal people and that we have a responsibility to face up to it as a community and actively tackle it,” she said.
In the bowels of Parliament House in Canberra, do our political leaders sit around and workshop ways to overcome this distrust, anger and racism? Do they strive to raise the bar on compassion? Do they lead by example?
With the exception of the Greens and some Independents, hell no. There are no votes in that.
They make political mileage out of it, instead, and tell us it’s not really racism we’re feeling about ‘boat people’, but totally understandable fears over the threat to our national borders and an erosion of Australian culture.
UK news magazine The Economist this week published a 16-page report on the state of Australian politics, describing it as a “non-stop Punch and Judy show” with a primary focus on shallow, short-term issues and polls.
It said the Coalition under Tony Abbott “seems to have no philosophical principles at all”.
Sadly, it seems the same could often be said of the wider Australian population. Caring, connecting and crying with Cleo is all well and good. But it doesn’t help the people who really need our compassion.
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