The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance

As the PM’s staff start drafting her Harvard commencement address, they might want to allow for a more critical reception from the overseas media than say 18 months earlier.   The questions are getting more pointed.

Douglas Murray, writing in London’s Daily Telegraph for example, comparing the paths taken by Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau, asks:

Who knew that empathy wasn’t enough?”

And follows with:

“Two leaders who got to their positions by showing how much they can emote, how much they can feel, how much they care, now appear to be in the worst positions of almost any head of government in the democratic world.”

Of course leaders need to show they understand those they represent, not least when they take an unpopular approach.  And empathy and compassion are useful tools to this end.

But without consistency, they can become misguided at best, synthetic at worst.

Nor is consistency easy.  Trudeau seems now to be regretting his initial badging of protesting truckers asa few people shouting and waving swastikas”.   Ditto Ardern’s somewhat more coded – and more patronising – reference to an “imported protest”.

Perhaps a more measured condemnation of disruption, softened by an encouraging reference to “mostly peaceful protest”, would have struck a more conciliatory note.

If you use empathy as a tool to divide you from the deplorable, you must make the right call consistently.  Murray again:

“ … the problem is that when you have presented yourself as the most moral person in the land – the most feeling, the most understanding – and portrayed all your critics as Nazis, it is hard to move to ground we might once have called common.“

Empathy is only one of the tools of political leadership.  Others listed by Murray include “grit, capability, adaptability and expertise”. 

Interestingly, he does not have room for clarity in the list.  

Contemporary historians would not classify Margaret Thatcher as a conspicuously empathetic politician by today’s standards.  But she clearly enunciated a political model where personal reward was determined by economic contribution, while social priorities competed for a limited bucket of spending. 

It’s a world away from the have-it-all-through-government approach of Ardern, Trudeau, Biden and, casting a wide net, Britain’s Boris Johnson.

Murray intuits that compassion and empathy – at least in an extreme formulation – are having a last hurrah.  He might add that the party was financed by the economic legacy of Thatcherite predecessors.

Which challenges the next generation of politicians to come up with a successor.

Themes of economic restraint, practicality, better incentives, adjustment to a more hostile world, less intellectual arrogance and misplaced social engineering look to be in the mix.

Some focus on the constitution might also be timely?  The last major attempt to help the electorate get things right was MMP.  After thirty years, its concurrent empowerment of lawyers and interest groups does not seem to have served the purposes of classical liberalism well. 

Some American or Swiss-style limitations on the reach of the state might help ensure that future expressions of compassion and empathy are less profligate and more tempered by interest and reality.

One thought on “The limits of compassion are clearer at a distance

  1. Harvard might want to reconsider. The likes of Ardern and Trudeau are on their way out. Who wants to hear a has-been politician? Performative empathy will not meet the challenges of an increasingly more dangerous and chaotic world. Not that there’s anything empathetic about coercing your citizens by threatening their jobs and social freedoms to receive a vaccination some clearly do not want for whatever reason. It’s actually a breach of international human rights law.

    Liked by 1 person

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