In June 2023, after Peter Dutton stated his opposition to the Voice to Parliament because it risked dividing Australians “down the middle”, Anthony Albanese accused the Opposition Leader of being “totally devoid of empathy”. The imputation was that those who reject the proposed constitutional change are suffering from a defect of character—specifically, the inability to empathise. To all appearances, it had never occurred to Albanese that the Opposition Leader had rejected the proposal based on rational consideration of its pros and cons. Rather, opponents of the Voice were morally suspect and perhaps even sociopathic, because isn’t “devoid of empathy” a description of a sociopath?
The Albanese view that the Voice is largely about empathy, compassion or kindness is widespread among “Yes” proponents. In an ABC op-ed on the Voice, Stan Grant opined, “any consideration of justice for Indigenous people begins with compassion for suffering”. Such views are not confined to the political Left. For Joe Hildebrand (a “right-wing spambot” according to Overland magazine), the Voice is “a chance for the many to show kindness to the few”. None of this should be surprising, for in recent decades the notion has gained traction that empathy is a sure guide to good policy.
This essay appears in September’s Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
During his presidency, Bill Clinton claimed to feel the pain of so many people that he was pilloried even among liberals as “a virtuoso empathiser”. In recent decades, empathy’s most voluble spokesperson has been Barack Obama. In his best-selling memoir, The Audacity of Hope, he wrote, “A sense of empathy is at the heart of my moral code”, and in a speech at Northwestern University in 2006 he said, “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit—the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us.” In another speech, he even promised to select Supreme Court judges based on their empathy levels towards teenage mothers. However, the rhetoric of compassion has also gained currency on the Centre-Right. The former British Prime Minister David Cameron famously declared, “A modern compassionate Conservatism is right for our times.” Where the hippies of the 1960s believed that “all you need is love”, the modern politician is more likely to believe that “all you need is empathy”.
However, my examples already highlight some of the problems with the concept. First, even its most enthusiastic advocates find it a more demanding taskmaster than expected. Obama discovered this himself when he reversed his early support for gay marriage based on the response of black church-goers. And this shows one of the biggest problems with empathy. Is the empath to “put himself in the shoes” of the aspiring gay spouse or of the social conservative who values traditional marriage? It is simply not possible to put yourself in everyone else’s shoes simultaneously, so empathy becomes a bit of a non-starter in terms of creating good public policy.
In his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom makes a similar point regarding police relations with the black community:
Commentators on the left argue that the police don’t have enough empathy for black teenagers, while those on the right argue that the critics of the police don’t have enough empathy for what it’s like to work as a police officer, having to face difficult and stressful and dangerous situations.
Bloom’s book systematically lays out the case for what he terms “rational compassion” over empathy, exposing numerous flaws with the belief that empathy is the best guide to morality and public policy. As we head towards a referendum in which Australians are being told that empathy demands a “Yes” vote on the Voice, it has many salutary lessons. I will make further reference to Bloom’s book, but I will first visit Australian high schools, where I have seen first-hand how corrosive empathy truly is, when it is capriciously and irrationally applied.
In the education sector, empathy has gained increasing prominence in areas as diverse as curriculum design, student welfare and classroom management. No less a document than the Australian Curriculum mandates that teachers devote class-time to developing empathy. The latest version asserts: “Empathy assists students to develop a sense of solidarity with others through imagining the perspectives and experiences of others as if they were their own.” While this sounds neutral on the surface, parents should consider the Left-wing bias of Department of Education mandarins. This bias guarantees that some people will be deemed more deserving of empathy than others. Consider a recent article from Professor Amanda Keddie of Deakin University in which she asserted: “In relation to gender justice, teaching for empathy is important because it invites boys and men to imagine standing in the shoes of girls and women.” If this hasn’t made the political agenda of empathy clear enough, then the part where she asserts that empathy means making boys uncomfortable should do the job:
Teaching for empathy in gender transformative ways is discomforting because it is focused on unsettling taken-for-granted and deeply embedded views, emotions and actions. It involves inviting boys … to critically reflect on their gender privilege and their complicity in reproducing gender inequality. It involves difficult and confronting conversations.
Here we see the Orwellian nature of “empathy” in the hands of social justice agitators. Just as “freedom is slavery” in Nineteen Eighty-Four, for Professor Keddie empathy means confronting boys about their privilege and accusing them of complicity in sexual violence. Plainly, the pedagogy of empathy is a Trojan horse: it is marketed as something warm and positive but, as applied by neo-Marxists, it is an excuse to run struggle sessions. Many readers will recall the incident at Bauer College in Victoria in which boys as young as twelve were asked to “stand in solidarity and apologise to the female gender on behalf of their gender”. At the time, people may have assumed that the incident was an aberration, but the language of “solidarity” is taken straight from the Australian Curriculum. Moreover, the apology was coerced in the confrontational and unsettling manner which Professor Keddie advocates. In the hands of ideologues, “empathy” becomes a synonym for the infliction of pain, discomfort and public humiliation.
If you have guessed that Aboriginal Studies also features a thoroughly ideological notion of empathy, give yourself a gold star. A good example is a recent study by four Australian academics, Burgess, Thorpe, Egan and Harwood, which argues that the current Australian Curriculum is characterised by “stereotypes, misconceptions and silences” about Aboriginal people. As an alternative to this supposedly white supremacist document (penned by mostly Left-wing academics), they recommend “on country” yarning circles with Aboriginal elders, in which educators develop “conscientisation”. Conscientisation is not an indigenous concept but rather a coinage of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian Marxist education theorist, and it refers to the process of educating (that is, indoctrinating) students to believe that their society is oppressive, so that they are motivated to dismantle existing social structures.
What would “conscientisation” look like in an Australian context? The authors recommend that pre-service teachers undergo “on country” training in which they listen to the stories of Stolen Generations survivors and family members. As Lisa, one of the trainers, said, “I feel that the only way we’re going to move forward is through education, and by people learning and understanding that we must develop empathy.” In this formulation, empathy is one-directional rather than mutual; it requires that members of the oppressor class (namely, non-indigenous teachers) listen unquestioningly to campfire stories from inter-generationally traumatised indigenous people. Teachers must not only empathise with these tales, but accept them as a compelling justification to become activists for racial equity. It should surprise no one that the empathy and “truth-telling” envisaged by this curriculum focus entirely on the transgressions of “settler colonials” and make no mention of violence, misogyny or abuse within Aboriginal communities.
Why is empathy such a problematic concept? Bloom goes straight to the point:
Far from helping us to improve the lives of others, empathy is a capricious and irrational emotion that appeals to our narrow prejudices. It muddles our judgment and, ironically, often leads to cruelty. We are at our best when we are smart enough not to rely on it but to draw instead upon a more distanced compassion.
Among Department of Education apparatchiks, it seems that their goal is making empathy as narrow and prejudicial as possible. In their view, empathy is about teaching boys as young as twelve that they should atone for their male privilege. It is about telling non-indigenous teachers that the stain of their whiteness requires atonement through activism. It is about asserting that the feelings of social conservatives are completely undeserving of consideration.
In schools, the humanities are utterly infected by this politicised notion. Nevertheless, it should not be concluded that mathematics and the sciences are unaffected, for empathy arguably does most damage in the area of behaviour management (once known as classroom discipline), which is now increasingly regarded as an elaborate facade behind which racist educators persecute students from racial minorities.
During the 2010s, there was a flurry of books which argued that systemically racist American schools were funnelling African-American students into the criminal justice system. A typical example was The School-to-Prison Pipeline by Christopher A. Mallett, which argued that African-American students were being “ensnared in the criminal justice system because of excessively punitive disciplinary policies in schools”. Observing growing disparities in the rates of suspension and expulsion between black and white students, many academics concluded that this was proof of systemic racism. By 2014 the Obama administration acted, banning suspensions except as a “last resort”. No empathy was shown to the hard-working students from all racial groups who would now be subjected to more disruption from unruly classmates.
So how might “rational compassion” have looked as an alternative to the reactivity of empathy? The first strategy would have been to ask more questions about the supposed school-to-prison pipeline. For example, administrators should have asked whether students from all racial minorities were punished at higher rates than white students. In 2017, a study found that Asian students were significantly less likely to experience school punishments than white students, calling into question the whole narrative that pro-white bias was to blame for discrepant suspension rates. Yet by this point, suspensions had been severely curtailed, showing the knee-jerk reactivity which empathy encourages.
Within a few years, empathy-based policies were also infiltrating Australian schools. Throughout 2022 there was increasing media concern about the alleged over-representation of indigenous students in school suspensions in Queensland and South Australia. School principals were under pressure to reduce the use of suspensions and other punitive measures. This happened in an environment where Australian classrooms were becoming particularly rowdy. A 2019 study by PISA, an international body rating educational attainment, ranked Australia seventieth out of seventy-seven countries on classroom discipline. It is obvious that more lenient punishments for disorderly students will contribute to a further decline in classroom discipline, showing the negative consequences that flow from excessive empathising.
Farcically, even as student discipline was becoming laxer, scrutiny of teacher misconduct was increasing. This too was a function of the empathy craze that was sweeping education departments. The notion became prevalent that students were not to be upset by any aspect of their school experience. In order to minimise the risk of teacher-inflicted trauma, bureaucrats started insisting that all student complaints be investigated. In no time, teachers were being investigated over non-offences, like separating talkative students or marking exams too harshly. At one school where I worked, an accomplished teacher was dragged into numerous mediation sessions by a Year 7 student whose complaint was simply that she didn’t like the teacher. Such situations have become common in Victoria, where the department increasingly investigates teachers on the basis of vexatious and trivial complaints.
The Age reported a 600 per cent increase in fitness-to-teach investigations by the Victorian Department of Education between 2017 and 2021. 1055 teachers (roughly one of every 127 teachers in the state) were formally investigated during 2021. While allegations of abuse need to be investigated seriously, most of these cases involved minor complaints about the judgment of teachers. As a teachers’ union representative, Deb James, noted, many teachers have been “stood down for months or even years for reprimanding students for poor behaviour, for intervening when a child’s physical safety is at risk, or for not selecting a student for a sporting team”. In other words, many of these teachers were viewed as being insufficiently empathic, of putting matters of discipline, fairness or merit over possible hurt feelings. Many teachers live in fear of disgruntled students making complaints about them, typically backed up by parents who believe that their child should never be upset, no matter how delinquent they may be. The million-dollar question is how teachers are supposed to grade assessments, select students for sports teams, and cast roles in musicals and concerts, without causing upset to anyone. Yet this is the ludicrous demand now being made.
But does it really have to be this hard? While bureaucrats play “mother hen” over increasingly minor upsets, competent parents have long since learned to accept some discomfort in their children. Bloom, again, makes this point well:
A parent who lives too much in the head of his or her child will be overly protective and overly concerned, fearful, and uncertain, unable to exert any sort of discipline and control. Good parenting involves coping with the short-term suffering of your child—actually, sometimes causing the short-term suffering of your child.
Unfortunately, we live in a society in which a substantial proportion of parents and administrators now “live too much in the head” of anxious adolescents. Over time, I have come to recognise two main signs of excessive empathisation. The first is stridently demanding that discipline, grading or meritocracy be dismantled in the name of compassion. The second is a lack of discussion about the social benefits of order, academic achievement and student assessment. A useful example is the Guardian article, “Stress Is Taking a Disturbing Toll on Year 12”, by a teacher, Ned Manning:
Anxiety and depression seem to be part and parcel of the contemporary HSC and that, frankly, is totally unacceptable. The manifestation of this increase in anxiety issues has been truly frightening. Some students have been so affected by anxiety that they have been unable to leave their homes.
There is an enormous body of empirical data proving the importance of student assessment for effective classroom instruction. Indeed, as assessment expert Anne Davis has observed, “quality assessment can have a greater positive impact on student learning than any other intervention”. To surrender the benefits of quality assessment in the name of reducing anxiety would be a prime example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Furthermore, there are enormous social benefits in identifying our brightest scientific, mathematical and creative minds and directing them into careers where they can use their talents productively. Opponents of examinations routinely ignore these empirically grounded considerations. This mollycoddling is not preparing students for life—one of the core purposes of schooling and parenting—but shielding them from what life is going to present to them.
For years I was puzzled by the performative contradictions of educators. Bureaucrats empathised with serially disruptive students but showed little concern for those they disrupted. We had serious opposition to quality assessment, despite its manifest benefits. Schools preached empathy but named and shamed some students for their alleged privilege. I eventually realised that perverse outcomes are inevitable in an empathy-based framework. Bloom discusses clinical studies in which high-empathy individuals opted for unfair outcomes once the suffering of a particular person was spotlighted: “Empathy’s effects, then, weren’t in the direction of increasing an interest in justice. Rather, they increased special concern for the target of the empathy, despite the cost to others.”
This is exactly the dynamic I have been describing. Academics highlight the suffering of a particular group—whether black students, disabled students or those with social anxiety—and then suggest dismantling systems on their behalf, despite the enormous benefits they confer. This is not an aberration but a predictable outcome of using empathy in lieu of rational compassion. Decisions should be based on an impartial consideration of what best for all stakeholders—not the suffering of whatever victim group activists have been spotlighting.
All of which serves as a warning as we contemplate the referendum. For years, teachers have been told that an empathic education system will empower everyone—and the exact opposite has happened. Australia has plunged in international rankings, as our classrooms have grown disgracefully undisciplined. Mental health has got steadily worse, even as teachers used a lighter and lighter touch in classroom management. Yet nothing has been learned from the failure of empathy-based education.
Aboriginal disadvantage is being cast by the “Yes” campaign as a matter of empathy, and anyone who criticises this irrational approach is accused of being hateful. Sean Kelly wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Hate ha[s] recently been ‘raining down’. Will the empathetic side of Australians push back against it, overpower it and—in the final vote—defeat it?” This is the narrow, prejudicial face of empathy in full flight. Anyone who doesn’t want to meet the demands of the spotlighted victim group—in this case, indigenous people—must be a bigot who is raining down hate. Funnily enough, the advocates of so-called “empathy” engage in non-stop vilification of their political opponents.
Rather than being browbeaten by the spokespeople of coercive empathy, thinking people should ask serious questions about the Voice. How much will it cost each year? Who gets to define who qualifies as Aboriginal? Why will the Voice to Parliament be any more successful than previous failed bodies like ATSIC? How can we ensure that it isn’t taken over by activists who are rhetorically savvy but unable to solve problems? One thing is for certain: we cannot leave it to the advocates of empathy, for they have convinced themselves that asking tough questions is unkind, having never learned the lesson that empathy is not a sound replacement for rational compassion.
Raymond Burns is the pseudonym of a teacher with many years’ experience in Australian high schools. A number of his articles have been published in Quadrant, including “Indigenising the Curriculum in Our Schools”, which appeared in the April 2023 issue.