If there’s one single characteristic that defines the Abbott government, and increasingly the ALP opposition, it’s their utter lack of care for people who are in some way vulnerable.
One might once have been tempted to use the phrase “lack of compassion” but it’s been rendered almost meaningless through overuse, and besides, in the current political discourse the word “compassion” carries negative value, being framed as a weakness unless directed towards victims of plane crashes, and hostages. Almost everyone else faced with difficult circumstances is implicitly blamed for finding themselves in them, denied care, and all too frequently punished.
The public attitude politicians seem most to represent is one expressed to me on Twitter yesterday, after I’d remarked that it was time to leave Craig Thomson alone as he looked like a man at the very end of his rope and enough is enough. He’s putting on an act, he’s putting it on, a couple of people responded. And you know this how? I felt like replying, but didn’t, thinking it pointless to attempt to challenge that level of ignorance in 140 characters. I’d be at it all day to no useful purpose.
He or she is “putting it on” is a phrase that has always been used by people with a particular mindset towards anyone who reveals vulnerability. It’s used repeatedly about asylum seekers who express their distress through the only means available to them, their bodies. It’s used about people who attempt or express the desire to attempt suicide. A variation of the phrase was used by the former headmaster of Knox Grammar Ian Paterson, about a boy who was being sexually abused on his watch, when he claimed the victim was a “drama boy.”
This lack of care has brought us to situations such as this one, in which a five-year-old child currently in Darwin with her family, has attempted suicide because she so fears being returned to detention on Nauru. I’m waiting to hear Peter Dutton declare she’s “putting it on.”
For mine, this attitude reveals a great deal more about the person expressing it than it does about the object of their derision. It tells me they are bereft of imagination, and incapable of thinking themselves into another person’s shoes, even momentarily. It tells me they are terrified of vulnerability and must attack anyone who confronts them with it, however distanced from that vulnerability they may be.
Consider the mental attitude of a person who is compelled to declare on social media that an individual unknown to them is “putting on an act” when he says publicly that he is close to suicide. It is this mental attitude that forms the Abbott government’s demographic, and to whom the government plays with callous contempt for any vulnerability it does not consider legitimate, that is, vulnerability experienced by anyone other than the group with which the government identifies.
The conservative mind dehumanises those it does not perceive as one of its tribe, because it does not consider the concerns of “outsiders” as valid as its own. The Abbott government exemplifies this in its attitude to tax reform for example. Consider this piece by Ross Gittins on Treasurer Joe Hockey’s budget spin, skewed to benefit the tribe to which Hockey belongs, at the expense of those who are most financially vulnerable and thus, outsiders.
No matter where you look in government and many opposition policies, you will find they have in common lack of interest and care for the vulnerable, and overwhelming bias towards groups they consider their own. The Abbott government’s attempts to push through a budget almost universally regarded as unfair, and its attribution of that failure as a failure to properly “sell” unfairness, reveals everything you need to know about the conservative mind. They couldn’t sell unfairness, which is their ideology, so they need to work out how better to do that in the future.
There’s a building body of opinion that the conservative mind is incapable of compassion for any other than those it recognises as its own, and the attitudes and actions of this conservative government, and to an increasing degree our supposedly left-wing opposition, fit this conservative ideological profile.
This harsh and unyielding position, erroneously claimed as strength, extends itself beyond the immediately human to vital matters such as climate change, with Abbott’s reputation as the world’s worst climate villain perfectly expressing conservative contempt for the vulnerable situation of the very planet on which we must all exist.
We need politicians who can cope with vulnerability of all kinds. It isn’t so much compassion we need as intelligence, and particularly active emotional intelligence, of which compassion is a part. I doubt there has been a time in our living memory when Australian politicians have been further from this intelligence, or a time when it has been more dangerous for them to be so.
They’re “putting it on” is a particularly invidious perspective to take on the vulnerability and distress of others. It’s ignorant, it’s defensive, it’s dangerous. If you can’t deal with the sight of another’s vulnerability that’s your problem, not theirs. Vulnerability is not legitimised or delegitimised by the social class to which you belong. When a government can’t deal with vulnerability of all its citizens it is not a democratic government. It’s an ideological tyrant.