Features Australia

Feeling the guilt

Increasingly, the West is succumbing to the vicarious virtues of the politics of ‘feelings’

19 September 2015

9:00 AM

19 September 2015

9:00 AM

The picture of the dead Syrian child is a high water mark of the politics of feeling. In a world of hollowed out identities, particularly in the post-religious societies of Europe and Australia, the one place people can find a sense of authenticity is in their feelings. The government’s response to accept twelve thousand Syrian refugees, while an act of great generosity, is partly a surrender to the burst of sentiment.

The United States, with a population thirteen multiples of ours, is accepting ten thousand and the United Kingdom, attempting to remain steadfast amid Europe’s tumult, is taking twenty.

Compassion towards asylum seekers is the summit of status seeking through outward displays of perceived authenticity, a ladder beginning from virtuous food consumption through to climate sensitive transportation choices. Challenging such positions arouses visceral reactions because they are confrontations of the sacred, but in modern, secular forms. This quality for its adherents is a clue to its totemic power.

The British sociologist, Will Davies, in a new book bemoaning happiness measurement titled The Happiness Industry, describes feelings as the new religion and increasingly as the only test of whether something should be allowed. American psychiatrist David Burns names this tendency as emotional reasoning, ‘a tendency that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are – I feel it, therefore it must be true.’

The selling of asylum is much like other products – the capital comes from Western cities in the form of money transfers from relatives, the management comes from the people smugglers, tbe brand of the defenceless, persecuted victim is propagated by the cultural classes of rich nations and the cheap labour, in this case doubling up as client, is the human cargo from the developing world.

It is also why when the myth is exposed, the cognitive dissonance is so intolerable that it is instead projected through accusations of racism, bigotry and ignorance, just as it was from Islamic leaders and progressives towards the government’s initial lack of reaction regarding Syrian refugees.


It cannot be accepted that perhaps the child’s father, who had already been settled in Turkey, was playing the system and calculated that his best chance at settling in a more prosperous country was to send his wife and children in a leaky boat to the shores of Europe. (There are even allegations he himself was the people smuggler.)

Exposing such a fact is a magnified equivalent of exposing to consumers that Coke is in fact sugary water with artificial colouring and not a marker of youthful, leisurely possibility.

The opportunistic practice has been stopped in Australia to the universal chastisement from progressives. But history may well prove Abbott and his forebears prescient as European leaders jockey for meaningful leadership in the face of what Dutch politician Geert Wilders, called an ‘Islamic invasion.’ Australia’s border protection policies may prove to be among its most influential exports.

David Cameron’s language has been considerably more sober than the likes of Angela Merkel. Leaked documents from defence chiefs in the EU also suggest moves to enact more military style interventions to stem the flow of boats, unsurprising given arrivals trebled within a month when Italians rescued over a thousand asylum seekers in April.

The problem for policy makers is that sober analysis of what is fast becoming the most pressing non-traditional security challenge for Western governments, that of unplanned, undocumented migration, is forever made murky by the growing politics of feeling. Identifying with perceived victims gives people a sense of vicarious virtue.

The industry of vicarious virtue is also becoming one of the greatest markers of white privilege, all while the same groups accuse supposedly white, conservative men of abusing their power. It seems if you engage in outward expressions of white guilt, differentiating yourself from the terrible and ignorant people that don’t, you can be comfortable in enjoying the advantages. The compassion competition that asylum seekers generate is one of the great markers of white guilt and it fuels greater resentment in the ordinary people who can see no markers of their supposed privileges in a rapidly changing world, only scapegoating.

The truth is that there are real risks in accepting larger numbers of Muslim refugees and suggesting this might be the case should not be an immediate trigger for accusations of racism or heartlessness. Setting aside the far greater funds that settling thousands more refugees will require and the statistically higher chances they will have of being out of work and requiring welfare, let us remind ourselves that terrorism is primarily the conflation of personal with political resentments. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Australian citizens involved in Islamic terrorism have been derived from refugee populations, primarily Lebanese but increasingly Afghan and Iraqi. Monis, Sharrouf, Haider were all from this category. The same groups are over-represented in criminal activity.

It is not because refugees are evil, but it is because migrants with pre-existing skills find it much easier to rise up the social ladder, a process which makes personal resentment much less likely to simmer. Muslim refugees are then most likely to conflate any personal resentment with the grievance ideology of Islamism. Such considerations are appropriately being taken into account in deciding the make up of the Syrian refugee intake.

The resettlement funds Australia spends on each refugee, rated by the UNHCR as the most generous in the world per capita, can also generate significant resentment among other ethnic groups or disadvantaged sections of the community such as Aborigines, further threatening social cohesion.

These trends are not observable to the inner city demographic groups who are rarely living and sharing resources adjacent to immigrant communities. But they can be content with their feelings, which is increasingly what is viewed as most important.

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, media commentator and author

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