The Trouble with Compassion

by Anastasia Kanjere

This essay was shortlisted for Overland and the NUW’s Fair Australia Prize. You can check out the rest of the shortlist here and read the winning essay ‘On setting yourself on fire’ (it’s really very very good) here.


When Duncan Storrar went on Q&A in May of this year to ask a question he was making a political intervention, a pointed questioning of the justice or otherwise of an economic and a social system. He spoke emphatically. He used his life circumstances as an example: a mobilisation of his own story that was entirely political, intended to make his point resonate.

Unfortunately, what some heard in that political intervention was a cry for compassion. A kickstarter fund was launched; donations started rolling in. First they rolled, then they flooded. Incensed by the sudden fame and positive public sentiment Storrar was enjoying, the right wing press started to dig up what skeletons they could find or invent about him. The Australian was roundly, rightly excoriated for its vicious character assassination of a man who, after all, pays no less tax than it does. But I would argue that Storrar’s political intervention was silenced not by the backlash but by the crowdfunding. Asking for change, Storrar instead got charity.

The trouble with compassion is that it is not always evenly distributed. In order to receive compassion, you had better conform to certain criteria. Better to be white, better not be poor – or, if you must be, better try to be one of those ‘deserving poor’ whose poverty can be forgiven. Supporters of Lynette Daley, the Aboriginal woman murdered under horrific circumstances by two white men, were fundraising for her family at the same time: they noticed with some bitterness that they struggled to attract $500 dollars while the coffers for Storrar were exceeding one hundred times that figure. Compassion isn’t fair, it doesn’t even always pretend to be. Along with the obvious categories that seem to attract more compassion than others, compassion also has an element of random luck – the ‘wild card,’ as political commentator Shakira Hussein called it at the time, of ‘whether or not your cri de coeur happens to get broadcast on national television’.

But compassion as a basis for politics has another fault, and that was revealed in what happened to Storrar next. The thing is, we want something back for our charity. Charity catapulted Storrar into the spotlight – not as a political actor with a question to ask, as hundreds of ordinary people do on Q&A every year without incident, but as an object of compassion: a life to examine and approve of – or not. Once a recipient of compassion, Storrar’s personal history and predilections became fair game. Was this a man, we asked ourselves, who deserved our kindness?

Never mind that he hadn’t asked for it (as many pointed out). Never mind that he shouldn’t have had to ask for it in the first place. A politics of compassion requires a subject: blameless, needy, deserving and grateful. A politics of compassion says that it matters what I think of how Storrar treated or didn’t treat his ex-partner. A politics of compassion says that it matters ‘how the money will be managed’ (this discourse came even from Storrar’s ostensible supporters) – as if the many millions of dollars more wasted on the very tax-breaks he was critiquing are managed well. A politics of compassion makes it, always, our business.

Such scrutiny is, of course, impossible to always live up to. Who could forget the outrage when images emerged of Syrian refugees charging (relatively) expensive smart phones at roadside cafes? Some prescribed more compassion as the cure to this crisis of compassion – pointing out that a smart phone isn’t, after all, so expensive any more, and that at a time of fear and displacement contact is more important than ever. They were probably right. But this kind of argument permits a dangerous logic whereby maybe if someone had just bought the phone to impress their friends, if they had foregone a more sensible purchase to afford it, if they were only using it to play Candy Crush Saga, that this might somehow put their right to flee a terrible war under question.

In her introduction to The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, feminist writer Andrea Smith lays out a critical history of the formation of charitable ‘foundations’ as a means for addressing social ills. Such organisations ‘assist those seen to be “deserving” of assistance,’ she writes; they ‘did not campaign for higher wages… but worked to ameliorate the impact of low wages on communities.’ Some charitable foundations have gone so far as to actively work to break strikes and quiet political unrest, under the rationale that ‘while individual workers deserved social relief, organised works in the form of unions were a threat to society.’ This tendency is crystallised in US taxation law, which prohibits non-profits from direct involvement in political advocacy if they are to retain their charitable status. Charity has sought from its inception, she writes, to ‘ameliorate social issues – in a manner, however, that [does] not challenge capitalism.’

But successful political activism must challenge the status quo, if that status quo is unjust; and it must do so drawing on precisely the collectivism that the non-profit industry has so often worked against.  2016 has seen the development of an inspiring example in the occupation by housing activists of dozens of houses in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs (The houses were left standing, incidentally, as a result of another activist victory against the East-West Tunnel for which purpose they were acquired). Loosely grouped around the already-established Homeless Persons Union of Victoria, the group of activists have engaged in publicity stunts, conducted community events and, of course, provided housing to many who would otherwise go without. Despite this service, the group could by no means be described as a ‘charity’: this for many reasons, perhaps most pertinent among them the fact that many of the organisers are, themselves, currently experiencing homelessness.

This situation is obviously one that causes some confusion amongst those who are accustomed to people experiencing homelessness being a demographic which they speak about rather than speak to. The silencing of the political voices of the homeless was highlighted by activist Turei of the HPUV, in his article responding to the director of housing’s demand that he and fellow activists vacate the occupied houses. The director had sought to differentiate, in his letter, between ‘homeless people’ and ‘protestors’ – as if the former could not possibly be at the forefront of a successful political campaign.  ‘Apparently homeless people aren’t able to participate in democracy, to exercise our right to protest,’ Turei wrote. ‘I’m not sure who the director thinks the members of the homeless persons union are, but if he needs a clue, there might be one in the name.’

This is another limit to the politics of compassion: it presumes always that those who see, act, and decide – those who feel the compassion or don’t – are not those for whom the compassion is felt. Compassion flows from the powerful to the needy: it should be accepted with gratitude or with silence. That the needy might speak back is unthinkable, provoking consternation in some and outright aggression in others. When activists from the HPUV gate-crashed the mis-named Vinnies CEO ‘Sleepout’ (actually the CEOs sleep in a large shed next to the Melbourne Convention Centre), they were met with hostility. They had to gate-crash because they weren’t invited: homeless people were supposed to be the silent and grateful recipients of this performative display of charity, not political actors who might have their own suggestions and solutions. Eventually the police were called to forcibly remove them; one CEO snickered audibly as a time for leaving was negotiated that time must mean nothing to the protestors as ‘they’ve got no jobs’. Actually, had he bothered to do any reading at all on homelessness before the event he could have learnt that as wages fall and housing prices rise so too does the phenomenon of the employed homeless. Alternatively he could have summoned the compassion necessary to empathise with the twin miseries of unemployment and homelessness. But it would seem that not everyone had heeded the event organisers’ imperative to ‘Rethink. Relate. Respond.’ A politics of compassion invites these kind of performative displays of charity on the basis of a care that is wafer-thin and fragile.


Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stoops to put a $5 note into a paper cup in front of a man sitting on the footpath. Note the roll of $50s tucked unobtrusively away in his other hand.

‘We must look beyond the figures and see the people living in this desperate and soul-destroying situation,’ declares the event’s promotional website. Responding uncharitably, I would like to ask: why? Why do we need to look beyond the figures? (They are bad enough). Why do we need to see the people? I don’t need to know anything at all about someone in order to be opposed to their being homeless. And as the activists pointed out, homelessness has no need of increased visibility (another one of the event’s stated aims). Anyone who has spent any time at all in Melbourne’s CBD of late has surely witnessed the fact that many sleep rough each night. In fact, just weeks before the ‘sleepout,’ The Age reported on a surge in hostility and violence towards homeless people after a negative media campaign targeting allegations of aggressive pan-handling. Visibility doesn’t always mean greater protection or support. It is in particular an odd aim for an organisation that works against homelessness, since one of the many privations that the situation entails is a lack of privacy. But the point is: visibility is rendered necessary by a logic of compassion. We have to see – to witness – in order to be able to care. It is precisely this process that catapulted the private details of Storrar’s life onto the front pages of national newspapers: the need to scrutinise the recipients of our charity. Unlike justice, compassion has no pretensions of being blind.

To critique a politics of compassion becomes more necessary than ever when we come face to face with precariousness as the new normal of work and life – even for some of the most privileged of workers. Writing in Overland, NUW national secretary Tim Kennedy reports that in Australia, an estimated 40% of the workforce is in precarious employment. While his union has worked to expose the particular exploitation of low-wage workers in precarious conditions – in industries such as agriculture, food production and ware-housing and distribution – he adds that ‘… it would be a mistake to think that unlawful treatment and the general indignity of precarious employment is isolated to particularly low-skilled and vulnerable environments.’ Freelancing, contracting, short-term work and never-ending rounds of redundancies and lay-offs are also commonplace in all but the very most privileged tier of workers – if you’re not a CEO, you’re probably affected.

When work is so precarious, life becomes precarious. The phenomenon of widespread personal and household debt – which has grown alongside the precarity of labour – also contributes to a reality of life as deeply insecure. In his 2013 book The Making of Indebted Man, sociologist and philosopher Mauricio Lazzarato writes that debt structures our contemporary lives to the extent that its absence becomes unimaginable. We are homo economicus, indebted humans: constructed by our relationship to debt. This has practical outcomes in terms of our economic and political decisions, but it also affects our emotional selves. Debt creates us as insecure subjects: guilt-ridden, imagining ourselves as always already indebted and in thrall to our debt.

Lazzarato draws on Nietzsche, who writes that the debt relation ethic relies on a notion of guilt – observing the similarity between the German words Schulden (debts) and Schuld (guilt). The logic of debt resituates the precarity of life under neoliberal late capitalism onto the fault of the individual, who is guilty of owing, guilty of spending beyond her means, guilty of insufficient flexibility to survive in the debt economy. Under this logic, risk is privatised as debt; which is in turn individualised as guilt.

Imaginings of compassion can act as a relief from the guilt ethic of the debt relation. The rhetoric of care, generosity and worthy vulnerability is soothing to the all-pervasive sense of guilt that Lazzarato describes as endemic to late capitalism. Compassion works as a sweetener to this world of precarity and debt and the insecurity, uncertainty and guilt they entail. The logic of compassion allows us to imagine a fairer, kinder world that is just within reach. We don’t need to worry, the politics of compassion reassures us, about the fact that CEOs earn almost 100 times the wage of the average worker – or many more times that again of most of the 30,000 people experiencing homelessness on any night in Melbourne. Those CEOs are attending sleepouts to raise funds and awareness: look! They really care.

Actually, by the way, they don’t sleep ‘out’. They sleep in a shed, protected by fences, in expensive sleeping bags, wearing expensive camping gear. They don’t invite police to wake and harass them, nor drunken private school students to bash and steal from them. The extent to which they are actually replicating the experience of homelessness is nothing but insulting.

Lest I be criticised for my unkindness here: I know that Melbourne winters are very cold. I know that being rained on would turn a rough night into a really awful one. And I know that of course no-one wants to be hassled by drunks or by police. I absolutely understand all of those things. But here’s the kicker: the fact that I understand all of those things is the same reason that an event like this is completely self-indulgent and unnecessary. Of course no-one needs to actually sleep in an unheated space to appreciate the fact that cold is cold (the Bureau of Meteorology provides us with this information on a 24-hour basis, no self-mortification required). Of course no-one actually needs to be rained on to understand that rain is wet. Of course no one actually needs to be woken in the middle of the night by people who mean you harm and against whom you have little to no recourse to comprehend that such would be a nightmarish experience. And, in fact, no-one even needs to be persuaded of any of these things; because after all, all we need to do to verify that homelessness is, in fact, a problem is to listen to homeless people – very few of whom recommend the experience.

So what the politics of compassion is not is a politics of justice. A politics of compassion says that maybe – if we are presentable and relatable and blameless enough, if the right people hear about our plight, if we can market ourselves and our histories right – maybe we will be rescued from poverty and precarity by the kindness of others. A politics of compassion says that inequality is something we should all feel sad about, because the people who suffer from it are human beings: look at this example A smiling for the camera and this example B who has been through this and this and that and loves dogs and is only 21. A politics of compassion says that ‘we should all do more,’ but doesn’t say who we are, or what we could do, or what we are already doing to perpetuate the circumstances we are bemoaning. A politics of compassion refrains from pointing out that if several hundred very wealthy and powerful people really wanted to do something about homelessness, they could probably come up with something much more effective than snoozing in rows in a large shed and tweeting a lot about the experience.

A politics of justice, on the other hand, says that we should be angry. Our response to the outrageous and growing rates of homelessness in an extremely wealthy country should not be sadness – as if homelessness were a bolt of lightning that came out of nowhere to hurt some people and leave others unscathed. It should be anger. A politics of justice would allow us to say: I don’t care how old you are or what your hobbies are or if you’d be someone I would get along with. I don’t need to know your life story or have you smile wanly into a camera. I believe you deserve shelter. I believe you deserve a minimum wage, a life of dignity, access to medical care. I believe you are owed it and I know that society can afford it. I don’t think these things need to be bestowed on you on an ad hoc basis by charitable organisations pocketing substantial government cheques in return for their ‘kindness’.

Without such a politics of justice it is difficult to argue for the things we need as things we deserve: secure employment, affordable housing, freedom from debt. Embroiled for too long in the logic of neoliberal late capital – a vice barely sweetened by its kinder face of occasional, contingent compassion – even the left-leaning among us need to be reminded of the possibility that huge, wealthy employers might owe some consideration to the workers they have left without work. We need a politics of justice to allow us to see the inequalities of wealth and power as not right; and attempts to rectify them as struggles for rightness, rather than for kindness or beneficence. We need a politics of justice to see solidarity in our struggles – to resist the tendency of a politics of compassion to define us by our charitable status: by whether giving ought flow from or towards us.

Without a politics of justice we can’t fight. Without a politics of justice we are all Duncan Storrar: a begging bowl to be evaluated for worthiness, our subjectivities suspect, our histories fair game, our questions – no matter their salience – unheard.


While this piece was sitting in the Submittable queue, Ann Deslandes published an excellent piece in Overland called “Against Empathy”. Great minds, etc, etc – but her piece is wonderful and you should read it.