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The democratisation of compassion? A culture of fleeting information and images, evident in the response to the tsunami, threatens to undermine more consistent ethical behaviour.

The 21st century has had its share of apocalyptic scenarios, including the Y2K bug, the spectre of global terrorism, and a plethora of disaster films to name only a few. Despite this, despite even the general acceptance of global warming as a genuine end-of-the-world-scenario, the Boxing Day tsunami came as a sudden shock, both in terms of the sheer scale of disaster and its aftermath--a seemingly unprecedented act of compassion on behalf of the West towards those who had suffered the full impact of the ocean. Indeed, the amount of money pledged by private citizens came as a surprise to aid organizations. Groups such as Medecins Sans Frontieres had to stop accepting money because they simply did not have the infrastructure to deal with such a sudden and large influx of cash.

As the horror began to subside, the response to the disaster itself began to gather praise. Former President Clinton (perhaps unable to let go of his internet boosterism) claimed that the number of e-donations pledged by private citizens marked a new era of 'the democratisation of charity'. In many cases both the liberal left and the right came to agree that the response to the tsunami marked the possible re-emergence of a common humanity. Gerard Henderson even took a swipe in the Age at fellow conservative Patrick West's 'conspicuous compassion' thesis, arguing that after the tsunami, any criticism of Western compassion is 'pointless', even 'counter-productive'. Behind the outbreak of compassionate sentiment there lurked a message--keep politics out of the disaster--this is a humanitarian issue.

Sound familiar? Did we not hear a similar silencing of critical analysis in the name of humanity with respect to 9/11, Iraq, Kosovo and so on? The mainstream response to these events involved the adoption of a universal sense of victimhood. Fatuous remarks such as 'we are all Americans' or 'Australians' after the attacks in New York and Bali worked to suppress other insights into those events. Similarly, the tsunami response, shaped by constant media coverage in a slow news period, was marked by a free-floating and intense sense of compassion--highly selective, short-lived and extremely unwilling to analyse itself. Indeed, one only had to look at the response to George Monbiot's relatively modest observation in the Age that the amount pledged by the US government in aid to the devastated regions of Asia represented merely a day and a half's worth of what it cost the US to occupy Iraq. Monbiot's article drew heavy criticism from letter writers to the Age, and caused Tony Parkinson to claim that Monbiot was 'clamber[ing] over the corpses of 150,000 tsunami victims to make a rhetorical point'. For writers like Henderson and Parkinson, compassion is beyond analysis. Yet the wider context through which we selectively respond to crises like the tsunami, while ignoring others, such as famine and war in Africa, or the way in which populations can consent to large scale inhumane practices--civilian slaughter in Iraq, the adoption and acceptance of torture, the incarceration of refugees--is worth considering.

It has become something of a truism to observe that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The public response to the tsunami, itself a hint of future disasters prompted by global warming, seemed to confirm this. The compassion and generosity of citizens was both inspired and largely structured through spectacle capitalism--money generated through cricket matches, telethon events, rock concerts and so on. Indeed, if you did not pay close attention, you would think that these events were simply business as usual--contemporary Australia enjoying the summer leisure period. A few letter writers to the Age felt slightly uncomfortable that a culture of celebration (boasting how much money we had been able to raise) could co-exist with a process of mourning. This spectacle-generated compassion seemed to correspond to the idea that one could both conspicuously consume and reveal one's humanity at the same time. The degree to which corporate generosity at charity events worked as another form of advertising also revealed how--at the cultural level--little had actually changed.

Neither was it a surprise that the Prime Minister attended many of these events, even becoming guest commentator at a one-day charity cricket match. The generation of aid money from private citizens aligns itself with Howard's aim of winding back the public sphere, of outsourcing welfare to private enterprises buttressed by volunteers, of easing corporate tax in return for corporate charity, and of redefining a nation of citizens into a nation of shareholders. Such conditions make it possible to find occasional outbursts of public compassion but also erode the basis for which a more sustainable and equitable world might arise. It is inevitable that individualised acts of charity will arise in the face of disaster-as-spectacle but this is also a reflection of a context where state-funded foreign aid has declined in the past two decades and where taxes (once the source of aid funding) are no longer seen as a viable revenue base but instead something to be cut at every budget or election, repackaged as bribes to the swinging voter. As UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan England remarked in response to the US's original 'stingy' offer of fifteen million dollars 'we were more generous when we were less rich'.

It may seem churlish to suggest that the reason the West responded to this tragedy (as opposed to tragedies in the Sudan or the Congo) was because of the tourist connection to places such as Thailand and Indonesia--but one can hardly ignore what Jeremy Seabrook called the 'hierarchy of death' evident in much of the news reporting. Sometimes this was subtle, as in media warnings that the footage of Sri Lankan villagers searching and weeping amongst piles of corpses might disturb those watching at home in the West--a choice unavailable to those actually searching for their dead. At other times this was clearer--foreign tourists amazed by the generous hospitality of locals despite the tragedy--the very tourists whose governments at home reveal an increasing propensity to incarcerate any survivors of human or natural tragedy when they arrive as refugees.

Indeed, if globalisation enabled a sense of connection with strangers to occur it also played some part in worsening the effects of the Tsunami. Global tourism, perhaps a significant factor in drawing an empathic response to those suffering in one part of the world and not another, has changed the living conditions of many coastal inhabitants in Asia so as to worsen the effects of natural disasters. Caspar Henderson has observed how natural defences against a seaquake such as mangrove swamps, coral reefs and sand dunes have been cleared away to make room for commercial hotels and resorts. Fishing communities across Asia have been forced to relocate to unprotected areas as the tourist industry comes to occupy safer territory. These natural defences have also been destroyed by a combination of climate change, unsustainable fishing practices (dynamiting reefs) and flows of mud and sewage from deforestation. Indeed, the calls to create a high-tech warning system to protect coastal regions from future disasters might note the degree to which such regions have had their defences undermined by the expansion of tourism and export markets, both of which seek to exploit the ocean's resources.

Of course, the contradictions of globalisation are deeper than this. The very process that enables us to fix upon and intensively empathise with strangers for a short time--a culture of fleeting information and images--also threatens to undermine our sense of a grounded being, able to sustain more consistent forms of ethical behaviour. Behind any act of spontaneous generosity today lies a fundamental instability--a 'nation of shareholders' held hostage to the flux of the market, housing prices, interest rates, education fees, transient forms of work and so on. Our sense of common humanity, once generated by common ways of being in the world, by more stable patterns of work and life, is thinned out by a more precarious sense of a life which could at any moment come unstuck--unemployment, depression, lack of connection with place, the erosion of community. This fragility is extended when more and more of our 'lifeworld' is generated via fleeting attachments to images and information. The successful person in such a society is the active hyper-individualised consumer. At the other end lie the socially and economically marginalised. The former shares little empathy with the latter. The backlash against the welfare state, against those less fortunate than ourselves--the unemployed, refugees, Aborigines and so on--is to a large extent a consequence of this instability and fragmentation. The more we are locked into such forms of living, the more a climate of insecurity amenable to backlash and resentment ensues. Is it not possible to see the compassion generated towards the victims of the tsunami as a kind of return of the repressed--a spontaneous compassion that is the exception, rather than the norm--in the same way that the public mourning of Diana merely punctuated the hardline policies of the Thatcher and Blair governments?

In six months time how will the current manifestation of compassion be sustained? Will it respond to the more 'banal', less spectacular, but ongoing structural crises that confront the world and which are sustained by our current modes of living--global warming, the oppression of the global South, the decline of natural resources? Or will it side once again behind the forces of Empire (military and economic) that occupy and invade in the name of humanitarian compassion?

Simon Cooper is an Arena Publications editor.
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Title Annotation:Cooper's Last
Author:Cooper, Simon
Publication:Arena Magazine
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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