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How To Stop Caring

By Helen Razer
Artwork by Elliott Routledge

Sep 8, 2015 · 12 min read

Let’s say it from the outset: cancer is shithouse.

Cancer is shithouse and I’m all for the medical miracle that will one day make this disorder seem as old-timey and treatable as the clap. And, yes, it does seem odd to publicly declare the bleeding obvious, because who could truly say they are unmoved by the divided cells of others, save for Ayn Rand or early-era Spock? It is odd to say it but it also now compulsory to do so, as I recently learned from the telly. There, the advice to ‘show you care’ about cancer and other matters is given often.

Every spring in Australia, the Cancer Council gives itself new promotional life with Daffodil Day. One buys a daffodil or its plastic replica and funds go to an organisation we must suppose is working hard to send cancer the way of syphilis and buboes. To object to this exchange, of course, is silly. But to ask questions of a charity advertisement that demands ‘show you care about beating cancer’ is not.

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To be asked to ‘show you care’ is not the same thing at all as being asked to care. Care, or charitable giving in itself, is not figured as the primary reward here. Nor, for that matter, is the possibility of actually beating cancer. We are not asked either to act morally or to consider the moral consequences of our actions — and casual students of philosophy will recognise these two options as those taken from ethics’ big duopoly. What we are being offered and asked here — to reap the social rewards of seeming to care — has no recognisable basis in ethics. If this proposal to ‘show you care’ is founded in anything, it is fashion. This is conspicuous compassion.

To be as clear about my tolerance for those who buy and sell these opportunities to ‘show’ ‘care’ as I was for my dislike of cancer: please, buy a daffodil this spring. You could even wear it prominently. There are individual ethical reasons, despite the ethics-free nature of the promotion, to do so and we could argue, I suppose, that this ‘show’ of ‘care’ might symbolise real care to others who might be momentarily cheered by our display. We could argue that even if one does buy a daffodil simply to signify care and not actually feel it, one is simply adopting the dominant consumer behaviour in order to live quietly and not to stand out — a completely rational urge. We could argue that the Cancer Council is justified in selling its daffodils as a totem of concern. If that’s what people are buying these days, why not? The work, after all, of the Cancer Council is not to babysit our morals but to actually beat cancer. If our fetish to ‘show’ our ‘care’ as though it were a prestige scarf helps buy some oncological research or lobbying, who am I to bang on and on about the emptiness of the campaign and of contemporary life itself?

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Anyhow, persons have been whining about the emptiness of life and the insincerity of human behaviour forevs. Life will always feel a little empty, humans will always be a little insincere and there will always be those who seek benefit or disguise by showy do-gooding. The only thing that is noteworthy or new about the Daffodil Day slogan is how it lays bare our urge to do as we long have done and sometimes show virtue — look at how compassionate I am! — for personal gain.

But the question of whether we are showing good will or acting from good will is not something I’m particularly keen on addressing. If you want to assess the moral difference between the two, behold, as aforementioned, the foundational thoughts of Jeremy Bentham (there’s no difference!) and Immanuel Kant (the difference is immense!).

I don’t want to poke fun at people who lay on the cosmetic of compassion with a trowel. Let them have their selfie.

Rather, I want to look at the effectiveness of compassion itself. So, for the sake of argument, think of what we call compassion here as ‘genuine’ compassion, and not its conspicuous, marketable cousin. Let’s pretend that there is some compassion in the world that is as real as it is selfless. And then, let’s begin to consider that even this compassion is kind of useless or, at least, less useful than many suspect.

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The problem with compassion is not its insincerity. The problem with compassion is not how the Cancer Council has exploited it. The problem with compassion is not how much of it you, your mates or individual persons have in supply. I’m absolutely sure you’re all fucking lovely. The problem with compassion, as it is intended or enacted, is that it is seen as a social solution.

There have been a good many books and articles published of late on our ‘narcissistic’ age, our selfishness and how we’ve all gone to shit in the habit of self-absorption. I have read several of these works and as tempting as it is to agree with their central proposition that most people have disappeared so far up their own sphincters they can no longer ‘care’, I won’t. And this is because I believe that moral reproach of the individual makes far less sense than holding the social to account for the individual it created.

What I am saying, of course, is: it’s all society’s fault. What others might say, including many of the authors of these scholarly or popular works, is that the contemporary lack of compassion is, if not absolutely the fault of the individual, then their responsibility to cure in order to save society. The same society, in more socially engaged texts like Anne Manne’s The Life of I, that robbed them of compassion in the first place. So the solution to many of the problems of the ailing world which has robbed us of compassion is the cultivation of compassion. In short, a compassion drought is the problem and its answer is a vale of compassionate tears.

Calls for the compassion antidote come as dependably as famine. Obviously, the Dalai Lama is a big fan and this past February, President Obama called for it at the UN. Even Prime Minister Abbott invokes it from time to time and just about everyone on my social media feed — none of them, to the best of my knowledge and hope, Coalition voters — regularly mention its dearth. The world would be in a far better state, they say, if only there were more real compassion.

As I am neither Ayn Rand nor Vulcan, I will not attempt to find fault with compassion per se. The case for compassion is made clearly when it is absent in acts like Anders Breivik’s mass murder of his age-mates in Oslo or when it is present in our smallest acts of love. But, the very widespread belief that real compassion can have real, large-scale results is bunkum on several counts. Where I want to find fault is with the idea that a privatised virtue, like compassion, can produce a public good.

If I were the type who gave a shit about showing that I care, I would at this point tell you that I am very, very compassionate and often hug the homosexual, celebrate diversity, rescue financially embarrassed otters, etc.

As I have no interest in decorating with daffodils, I will simply tell you that my aim is to distribute to every global citizen enough to eat, somewhere regular to sleep and sufficient time and material goods to live a mostly tolerable, occasionally joyful life. This aim, however utopian, is dispassionate. To think of it as compassionate is, I claim, counterproductive.

We have already seen, as in the case of the Cancer Council that fake, commoditised compassion can work perfectly well to achieve good, if modest, ends. While the appeal to ‘show that you care’ speaks miserably of the Council’s faith in the possibility of anyone actually caring, it will likely produce a good, if modest, result. Real compassion, on the other hand, can, and often does, produce shithouse results.

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If, like me, you spend a little too much time on the internet, you could not have failed to see the work of one Jason ‘Radical’ Russell. A peppy musical Christian about an octave and twenty dance moves short of ever getting the job he clearly wanted on Glee, Russell started what became the #Kony2012 hashtag with the production of a very compassionate YouTube video. This video, intended to highlight the horrific crimes of ultra-extreme warlord dickhead Joseph Kony, was viewed many millions of times. ‘Let’s make Kony famous’, he said. It was very clear that Russell, who suffered an extreme and public fit of nerves in the wake of his success, was very compassionate. But it was also clear that he was pretty thick. Russell made Kony famous but Kony, who had already been indicted for war crimes in The Hague and declared a terrorist by the US state department and other bodies with much more real power than YouTube, had fled Uganda some years before the release of the popular video, to which the Ugandan government, itself a corrupt force, had reportedly offered assistance. Kony was long gone and already widely censured and so, compassion for his victims, who lived or died in a country full of many government terrors, was misplaced. At best, Russell had done nothing more harmful that compromise his own mental health. At worst, he’d been an unpaid propagandist for a bloodthirsty regime.

And speaking of undemocratic fiefdoms, what’s with that Dalai Lama? One minute, he’s all ‘cultivate loving kindness’ and photo ops with Richard Gere. The next, he’s campaigning to be the unelected theocratic overlord of Tibet. And, yes, I know China isn’t exactly the People’s Compassionate Republic either, but that guy has some mildly fascist tendencies when it comes to exerting his compassionate will on his serfs.

And speaking of serfs, most of the member states of the UN are serfs to the US. It’s odd that ‘compassion’ is mentioned so much by a hegemon that displays so little of it. The UN’s most meaningful organ, the Security Council, gives veto power to just five nations. All these nations have cast questionable vetoes but we don’t have time for that so let’s just look at the ‘compassionate’ nation’s record. Or, for the sake of brevity, one instance. When the Security Council criticised the killing of UN employees by Israeli forces and the destruction of the World Food Program in Palestine, the US vetoed. However compassionate you believe the UN to be, you can’t say that it voting against censure of its own destruction is particularly useful.

Although widely held as a nonpartisan solution to suffering, compassion can be monopolised and politicised. Even when it’s real. Prime Minister Abbott has said of his government’s asylum seeker policy that ‘the most compassionate thing you can do is stop the boats’. Of course, you can hold that the compassion of privileged nation states or of Tony Abbott or of anyone, really, is tainted by self-interest. You can hold that true compassion will lead one to the moral good in which you happen to believe. But, I don’t know how you’d go about proving that, Immanuel Kant.

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I suspect Tony Abbott genuinely believes that an end to people smuggling is a compassionate act. Honestly, I suspect most politicians of compassion. And I understand that this is not a popular view and that my Facebook feed routinely says ‘OUR POLITICIANS HAVE NO COMPASSION’. I believe this to be untrue. Any youngster who gets their first parliamentary press pass is in for a shock when they talk to these people and realise that the overwhelming majority of them are there to do good. Sure, their good aims may be compromised by deals and interests and careerists, but good is what they are nearly all there to do. A lack of compassion is not their problem. An abundance of ideology, unexamined or otherwise, is their problem. And compassion forms an essential part of that ideology.

My experience of politicians, which extends to occasional meetings even with the neo-conservative type whose compassion is reserved only for those they feel are ‘deserving’, tells me that they are compassionate. My reason tells me that even if all politicians are not compassionate, they will see or inadvertently use compassion as a liberal weapon.

As I have already displayed my arse to Obama and the Dalai Lama and that nice guy who made that stupid video, you are probably prepared for me to call Mother Teresa a bitch. ‘Never worry about numbers’, said Terri. ‘Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.’

This is the stinking problem with stinking compassion. While I appreciate the beauty of the idea of the Holy Spirit, I also despise the way that liberalism and the mass culture it created has modified this idea in its filthy guts. Yes, it’s all very well and good to help the person next to you but, I’ve just determined that this is currently my neighbour Craig, an up-and-coming financier. If I were to compassionately help him, I would find myself working to install an offensively ugly front yard water feature. This help would deprive others of a labour for which Craig can well afford to pay, hasten the disappearance of flower-filled, bird-attracting gardens and produce a need for chlorine and the possible devastation of my irises. (I don’t grow daffodils.)

So, frankly, fuck Craig. And fuck Mother Teresa, while you’re at it. And the Obama Lama and Tony Abbott and the stupid UN. And, your Facebook feed which tells me that compassion is what is needed to solve the world’s problems.

Your home, your work and your life are littered with objects and services whose provision caused harm. You cannot be reasonably expected to feel compassion for every soul and body ruined and, heck, if you did, you’d be in bed with drip-feed Zoloft, crying out for compassion. But, the fact that you cannot always see the person or animal or part of the world harmed by your activity — they’re not likely to be next to you, after all — does not permit you to feel compassion in order that you may not think about the nun’s despised ‘numbers’.

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This revulsion for numbers and this privileging of the individual next to you above all else is liberal compassion, by way of Christian compassion, as we have come to offer and know it. But in a mass culture, it makes little sense to demand knowledge of the single martyr, the starving child or the brave victim to produce ‘compassion’.

I understand, of course, that individual stories of suffering — those that make us feel like the abused is next to us — have some limited use. These may move some people to action but they move all people to the Teresan belief that ‘numbers’ are something we just shouldn’t count. Better to make ourselves feel better with acts of compassion than calculate the cost of a world that is fucked not because of a compassion drought, but because of a liberal ideology that speaks in the terms of care and compassion itself.

Development is compassionate. Even though Uganda is bloody because of it. The UN is compassionate. Even though Palestine is bloody because of it. Helping Craig is compassionate. Even though his water feature is fuck-ugly.

Compassion can bite the arse I have freshly displayed to the fascist Dalai Lama, people with cancer and idiots en route to beatification. You can say that I lack compassion if you wish. And you can believe this lack of compassion, and not the unequal power relations upheld by its fans, is the problem. But, I believe you’d be wrong. I suggest you look at the numbers.

For much of the 1990s, Helen Razer could be heard blabbing on the ABC’s youth network, Triple J. While the national broadcaster still occasionally permits her to talk in exchange for money, she is now chiefly engaged in the work of writing on social and cultural matters. She works with Crikey, The Saturday Paperand a range of publications who permit her to say terrible things. Her fifth book, A Short History of Stupid,remains a best-seller and was recently shortlisted for the NSW State Library’s inaugural Russell Prize.

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