A few weeks ago, Radio National’s Life Matters featured a discussion on the latest refugee crisis, with a focus on the emotional response evoked by the photograph of the drowned Syrian toddler, Aylan Kurdi. While a couple of panellists – and most callers – called for an empathetic response that extended beyond politics, one of the interviewees, sociologist Klaus Neumann, suggested that an emotional reaction is likely to be fleeting, and that we need to go deeper. One of the callers who stood out was a high school teacher who also teaches the children of refugees. She suggested that we need to get to a place where we realise that they are like us, and then added, ‘they are us’.
The aforementioned sentiment sums up the problem with empathy when it comes to comprehending the asylum seeker situation anywhere, and especially in Australia. While it would be ideal to let every citizen have contact with refugees so that they can begin to feel where the shoe pinches, this isn’t entirely feasible given we all inhabit silos of one kind or another. Therefore, the way politicians and the media mediate refugee identities and issues become our only route to walking in the shoes of refugees.
In the case of most right-wing media in Australia, academic research has established that there is a tendency to dehumanise refugees via tactics such as visual framing, not showing individual asylum seekers, and associating refugees with threats to border security rather than humanitarian crises. In other words, the picture of the refugee invoked by such narratives is that of a distant other whose shoes and path are rendered invisible.
When it comes to the nation’s less ideologically conservative media outlets, editorials and features attempt to humanise refugees in order to evoke empathy in the reader/viewer. ‘Is Australia losing its empathy’ (the Guardian), ‘Australians lack empathy for plight of asylum seekers’ (Judith Ireland for Sydney Morning Herald), ‘What happened to our compassion, Australia?’ (Mamamia), ‘Do we need an empathy revolution’ (The Hoopla), and ‘Compassion is the new radicalism’ (Indira Naidoo) – a handful of headlines and statements that are symbolic of the self-identified ‘ethical’ settler response to the asylum seeker issue in Australia. Moreover, feeling empathy is established as the correct reaction to witnessing asylum-seeker testimony in the form of news stories or creative storytelling such as film or visual art.
Within feminist, anti-racist and other social theory, empathy has long been understood as crucial to the attainment of cross-cultural and transnational social justice. However, the evocation of empathy in refugee narratives is often accompanied by a depoliticisation of systemic issues. This occurs by shifting responsibility onto the feelings of the ethical citizen rather than the imperative of international obligations and/or the power imbalance in regional relationships. Through programs such as SBS’s Go Back To Where You Came From, we are invited to walk in the same shoes as the refugee while simultaneously being told that he or she is unlikely to be wearing shoes. The likely response then is to donate our shoes so we can feel better about ourselves, rather than focusing on the feelings of the person under duress.
Alternative media narratives are now beginning to emerge that evoke empathy in the audience while also turning us into a sort of witness to the unfolding of refugee stories. Being a witness entails responding in way that is dialogic and political, and leads neither to apathy nor to consumerist sentimentalism. Media theorist Roger Silverstone suggests ‘proper distance’ as a conceptual means of gaining literacy about the other and transmuting this into a sense of responsibility. Recent multi-platform narratives such as filmmaker Steve Thomas’s Freedom Stories, and volunteer-run Behind the Wire appear to be getting closer to establishing the right distance. Both succeed in focusing on first-person refugee narratives, highlighting both resilience and trauma, and sustaining the debate on asylum-seeker issues in this nation beyond the latest media cycle.
Our responsibility, then, in terms of responding ethically, is to understand that while ‘they’ may be ‘us’, the politics of our respective governments, militaries and media outlets give us very different structures of feeling and belonging. We need to facilitate the production of narratives that are attuned to these nuances, and to be able to give witness outside of the echo chambers that are our social media platforms, lounge rooms and cinema halls.