March 2023


More than a feeling

By Don Watson
Jacinda Ardern leaves parliament surrounded by journalists and MPs

Jacinda Ardern leaves the New Zealand parliament for the last time as prime minister, January 25, 2023, Wellington, New Zealand. © Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

The “hard decisions” of our political leaders too rarely emerge from a belief in our shared humanity

In 1917, the American writer Susan Glaspell published her take on the detective story, a genre that, since Edgar Allan Poe, had belonged all but exclusively to men. She based her story on a murder case she had covered as a reporter. It went like this: On a cold day in rural Iowa, a man has been found in his bedroom strangled with a rope. The victim’s wife has been taken to jail for questioning. The local sheriff and another gentleman of merit look for the familiar clues – signs of forced entry, struggle, missing property. The eyes of their wives meanwhile are drawn to the domestic things. They notice the derelict stove, the jars of preserved fruit that have shattered in the cold, the sudden change in stitching on a half-finished quilt. They figure the woman’s life had been hard, and her husband uncaring. Overhearing their remarks, the men wonder how, even in the face of murder, women will “worry over trifles”.

One of the women recalls that when the wife was young, she had liked to sing. They remember not long ago a man travelling around selling canaries, and they fancy the wife might have bought one. They come upon a birdcage with a broken door, and inside, wrapped in cloth in a glory box and unobserved by the men, a canary with a broken neck.

In 1917, the murder of a man by a female intimate was relatively uncommon, and it is relatively uncommon now – relative, that is, to the murders of women by their male intimates. (In the United States, on average, three women are killed by their partners every day.) Glaspell’s men say they are sure the wife killed her husband, but they cannot find a motive. Hearing this, the women quickly hide the dead canary.

Glaspell called her story “A Jury of Her Peers”, an irony she must have intended, because women in Iowa and most other states could not then serve on juries. Propter defectum sexus – a “defect of sex” – rendered women too “fragile” to safely endure the “offensive” matter in criminal cases, especially those involving crimes against women, and too “sympathetic” to reliably judge the guilt or innocence of those alleged to have committed them. Then there was the related fact that, properly, women belonged in the home, with quilts, preserves, stoves and children, and all the other things to which fragility and sympathy are suited. It must have been the same considerations that prevented the appointment of female judges in Iowa and other states before the 1970s.

It is true that in the United States, and elsewhere in the world, women now have powers and rights, including the right to serve on juries, that Susan Glaspell’s generation did not. From some angles – not those, of course, onto Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, et cetera – their liberation from the dumb patriarchy and their rallying presence in the avenues of power and influence inspire hope. And yet, more than a century after Glaspell wrote her story, among the 35 countries of the Americas, just three have female presidents or prime ministers. Europe has female leaders, but it also has male authoritarian thugs either in power or in menacing proximity to it, and Britain’s non-authoritarian male PM is that increasingly familiar character in democratic politics, a multimillionaire taking a break from Goldman Sachs. Of more than 50 countries in the Asia-Pacific, only five have female leaders. There were six until New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern resigned.

In Glaspell’s subversive half-forgotten tale, the women play the role – without the smug verbosity – of every male investigator since Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, and their husbands play that of his earnest but ineffectual Prefect of Police, or Sherlock Holmes’s equally pedestrian sidekick, Watson. Instead of the detectives’ marvels of deductive reasoning, Glaspell’s two women find the answers through sympathetic understanding of the world as it is, people as they are, life as it is lived.

The key word is “sympathetic”: sympathy and imagination, its dependant. The men (like Watson and the Prefect) take for the whole world only the veneer that their unconscious assumption of dominance allows them. Weighed down with self-importance, infarcted by cliché and the ritualised procedures of authority, for them the domestic realm and the soul inhabiting it is a parallel universe, invisible and beyond understanding.

Whatever drove her to resign – exhaustion, policy failures, far-right lunacy, misogyny – for a while, Ardern reminded us that kindness has a central place in politics because it has an essential place in human lives. Perhaps it was an illusion, a being in which we wanted to believe, like a mermaid on a rock. But Ardern did seem to lack all vanity and affectation, bombast, cunning, brutishness or any of the other qualities we associate with power. Her authority, while it lasted, derived from a kind of charismatic decency.

And from our need to see and feel sympathy. She said that a leader could be “kind” and still be strong. She spoke of empathy, which is a perfectly good word, but it is the less fashionable sympathy that we offer people in misery and strife, and it is sympathy that makes us choke. Ardern radiated human sympathy, and at critical moments in her country’s history she gave it concrete expression.

To paraphrase the enlightening David Hume: sympathy is indispensable to moral judgement and therefore to a decent – and functional – society. He was not alone in believing there is more than self-interest at work in human behaviour, and that the capacity to “receive” the feelings of others is its principal counterweight. Hume’s contemporary, Adam Smith, a sort of Creation Figure to a generation of economic rationalists, wrote a book on the “moral sentiments”, and with an eloquence unknown to his 20th-century disciples: “… in order to enter into your grief I do not consider what I … should suffer, if I had a son, and if that son were unfortunately to die: but I consider what I should suffer, if I was really you, and I do not only change circumstances with you, but I change persons and characters.”

The whole of democratic politics rests on the assumption that human beings “feel” for one another, and political rhetoric is, necessarily, peppered with appeals to fellow feeling. But our leaders have an awkward relationship with sympathy. On the one hand, the gains to be made from identifying with happy souls, or commiserating with those who are bereft, make irresistible political sense. True, there is always the mortifying prospect of botching the project and appearing insincere, even when you’re not, but even greater is the danger of seeming indifferent to the mood of the people. When they are not being called “rank populists”, skilled commiserators are praised for “being in touch”.

But leadership also demands that for the general good the “feelings” or “passions” of the citizenry must sometimes be trampled. One lot of people must be chosen over another. When it is not called a callous betrayal, this is called “making the hard decisions”.

But to take sympathy out of the political system, which means also taking out consideration of circumstances, is much like taking it from the justice system. It reduces the capacity for moral judgement. Put aside the complexities of their arguments and the differences between them, and Hume and Smith come down to saying that insofar as reason and sympathy govern human behaviour, both are equally necessary to a good society.

There are consequences for abandoning either one of the two. Imagine, for example, if instead of dumb brutality and the ruthless pursuit of self-interest, 19th-century European settlers had tried to reach a sympathetic understanding of the people they were pushing aside. Imagine the lives saved, the culture and languages retained, the knowledge gained, the recognition in the Constitution and the first parliament, a treaty. Imagine the money saved – the “efficiency dividends”.

And imagine if in the great drive for reform in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decades of this one, instead of reverting to the 19th-century dictum that “the first principle of economics is that every agent is actuated by self- interest” governments had retained at least a few threads from the moral economists they so strenuously abandoned. It is hard to know where to start with the “hard decisions”, the rationalism that gave us privatised or hollowed-out education, health, power generation, aged care, CSL. No doubt there were efficiency dividends. Imagine how long we would have to wait for a new Camry if we were still making them here. The shocking prices we would have had to pay.

It was in pursuit of efficiency dividends that the designers of robodebt decided sympathy could go to hell and hundreds of thousands of blighted lives with it.

That the scheme known as robodebt was illegal is almost immaterial: it is much more telling that the people who conceived and operated it, including ministers and prime ministers, suspected (does anyone think they didn’t know?) it was illegal, but reckoned it better not to check. Better, because “cracking down on welfare cheats” was going down well in “key” electorates. And the narrative was helped along, as minister Alan Tudge’s former media adviser Rachelle Miller told the commission, by providing select media with “case studies” containing citizens’ personal information to deter people from speaking publicly about their treatment.

Robodebt is where the notion of “legitimate authority” comes unstuck – less because the system was illegal than because it was cynical, punitive, heartless and political.

Observers of the royal commission will have noticed that Miller was not the only woman involved in the nastiness. The head of the department (we might call her Sheriff) was a woman, there were senior Liberal women in the vicinity, and women were no doubt among the bureaucrats cranking the machine. We should not think this surprising. What Smith said of merchant monopolies – that they seldom meet without the conversation ending in a “conspiracy against the public” – has been observed sometimes near water coolers in other realms of influence.

The citadels of power are stubborn, seductive, devilish, cunning, and every sign of progress comes with a faint echo of the Soviet journalist reporting as the German army stormed east: “The severely battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.”

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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