Doctor in neuropsychiatry, Steve Stankevicius, who recently worked at the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital looks at how we deal with our natural empathy towards asylum seekers, in particular, baby Asha.
IT HAS been interesting to witness the reaction to my Sydney Morning Herald piece 'Baby Asha decision sets risky precedent'. Within it, I thought out aloud, perhaps irresponsibly, about whether the decision to not return Asha’s family to Nauru was a wise decision. Would their release to community detention motivate others to take the same path towards better living conditions?
Unfortunately, many have pigeon-holed this question as a "children overboard" argument.
Even more interesting is how it is equally being used to support polar opposites of the debate — either a warning that immigrants are disproportionately child-maiming criminals who do not deserve asylum, or a reminder that any such pause for thought is a plea to shut the door on immigration in disguise.
Unlike the “children overboard” reasoning, I do not advocate that harsh measures should be adopted to deter the arrival of refugees, nor should these people be dehumanised and demonised. I have considered real consequences in the real world, and unfortunately that world currently includes Australia’s immigration laws and detention centres.
Whilst I hope these odious political creations will evaporate in the very near future, at the moment they represent the ethical space through which we are trying to navigate.
Psychiatrists commonly find themselves in the business of mitigating self-harming behaviour. Though we frequently see such cases in the emergency department, the patient will not always be admitted, despite their requests. Rather than believing admission to hospital would fail to alleviate their distress, the doctor’s reason is frequently based on the forecast that it would result in a poorer outcome for a particular patient in the long-term.
Admission can reinforce unhealthy behaviours, and can hinder the development of resilience and coping mechanisms that would promote the most fulfilling life outside of hospital (though this is not to say that it is incumbent on refugees to develop such resilience). Being myopically empathic in these scenarios – to respond to someone’s distress and fulfil their wishes acutely – is not always the best option in psychiatry.
I questioned the ramifications of Asha’s fate not because I am in some way sympathetic to the government's immigration policies. It is precisely because I acknowledge how horrible conditions are in Nauru; the impact it has on ones well-being, and how it contributes to the development of depression, anxiety and PTSD. I acknowledge how much one would want to get out of there and never look back.
Where racists and bigots have used my piece to prop up their views, I will point out that they will continue to make their horrid noises whether misusing my article or someone else’s, cherry picking and distorting along the way. Secondly, the response to these bigots is to point out where their interpretation is wrong. It should not be to cleanse public discourse of any argument that requires nuance.
Complex issues require complex answers, and we won’t get anywhere if our conversations continue to be held hostage by racists, bigots, religious apologists or regressive leftists.
The pitfalls of emotional empathy is an important topic to which we should all be vigilant. Humans evolved to interact in small tribes, deal with medium-sized objects moving at slow speeds, and conceptualise days and months rather than decades and millennia.
Just as our brains are not naturally equipped to deal with the very small in quantum mechanics or the very large in cosmology, we are not endowed with the innate cognitive toolkit to deal with social, political and economic problems that have come with a global civilisation.
These problems require something extra — they require special tools of analysis, whether that be in the domain of physics or morality. It reminds us that gut reactions and emotions will not necessarily lead us to the right answers, and in some cases can reliably lead us to the wrong answers.
Emotional empathy alone will not solve the refugee human rights crisis. Whilst empathy shines the spotlight on people in need, it is narrow, biased and short-sighted. When people are given a story of a sick individual in need of an organ transplant, we will tend to move the person up the waiting list at the expense of others.
This was my concern about Asha’s case. Is our spotlight of empathy moving her up the list at the expense of others in the surrounding shadows?
It is possible, however, that by extending our empathy to an individual it can spread to a group that the individual belongs to. For example, many historians argue the end of slavery in the United States was in a large part instigated by Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which depicted the reality of slavery through a single story. Stories like Asha can be our "Uncle Tom’s Cabin".
Empathy can kindle the flames of compassion, but we require someone to thoughtfully and dispassionately fan those flames in the right direction. Left to our own devices in a third-world country, we would disproportionately give to an individual. Charities use an individual’s face to invoke emotion and concern, but they distribute funds in a less biased and parochial manner.
We can use passionate empathy, however irrational and biased it may be, in a thoughtful way. Protesters can provide humanistic fuel to an organisation that stand for what they believe in, but can implement change in a measured and strategic fashion. Just as a charity distributes money in a way an individual could not, organisation such as UNHCR and the Refugee Council of Australia can distribute the good intentions of protesters in a meaningful way. With Asha in mind, support one of these organisations.
Steve Stankevicius is a Brisbane doctor in neuropsychiatry who recently worked at the Lady Cilento Children's Hospital in child psychiatry.
You can follow Steve on Twitter @SkepticalShrink.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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