Empathy in Australia: a progressive seminar



On Wednesday night, 24th February, the School of Life hosted the event ‘Empathy in Australia’ at the Melbourne Town Hall.  Peter Wingate and I joined 2000 Melbournians in an insightful and inspiring three hours of EMPATHY.

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CEO Kate Hamley and Victorian Coordinator Peter Wingate at the Empathy in Australia seminar.

So, what is empathy?


The first speaker and host for the evening was Roman Krznaric, author, cultural thinker and founder of the Empathy Museum. Roman explained the two kinds of empathy.

The first was ‘affective empathy’, which is where an emotional response is shared between two people.  It is the contrast to sympathy, in which an emotional response is not shared and is only felt by one of two people.

The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy; where one can see the world from another’s point of view, or ’walk in their shoes’.  

Roman provided the example of two toddlers. The little boy is crying.  The little girl is not.  The little girl feels empathy for the boy, and brings him her favourite toy to comfort him.  This is affective empathy (yes, the boy is still crying).

The next situation occurs a few months later. The little boy is crying. The little girl is not. The little girl feels empathy for the boy, and brings him his favourite toy. This is cognitive empathy (now he is comforted).

Though they don’t understand the terms, children show us that empathy can be taught and learned.  Roman identified two barriers to empathy: stereotypes and assumptions. The more we assume about people and judge others, the less we are able to truly put ourselves in their shoes.  We can work to break down such assumptions by building connections between people, to create a dialogue which may reduce the stereotypes that we all have about each other.

The speakers

The panellists were then introduced – Deborah Cheetham, Julian Burnside, Dr Susan Carland, Tara Moss and Chris Judd. You can read their CVs here: Empathy in Australia

Why is our empathy disengaged?

So began a wonderfully engaging and inspiring discussion about Empathy in Australia; about politics, challenging attitudes and improving our own empathy towards others.

First was a reflection on us as the Australian people.  The majority of us are highly empathetic people, but why do we disengage our empathy on so many of our most significant issues?

It’s obvious that we are being misled – by our media and by our politicians, who feed the public lies in the pursuit of their own political interests. “Goodness of Australian people will present when our politicians start to lead and be leaders”.  I enjoyed Julian Burnside’s passion as he openly criticised the manipulative media and government.  Mr Burnside’s tireless advocacy for Human Rights and the rights of refugees has my highest admiration.  People don’t seem to understand Human Rights.  They don’t understand that we are all entitled to human rights because we are all human.  Mr Burnside told a story which is symbolic of Australia’s hard-line border protection laws.

‘I have the right to say who comes to my home and the circumstances in which they come.  So I’m not having anyone over till next Thursday. Then a young boy frantically knocks on the front door. “HELP! HELP! They’re trying to take me!”

‘Do you say ‘sorry, come back on Thursday’ and close the door? No. You take them in and protect them.’   

Border Farce

Roman spoke of the perplexing nature of Australia’s border policies – that our country is founded on immigration, yet our policies fail to reflect our history. Deborah mentioned wittily that the largest uninvited arrival of boat people happened after 1770.

Deborah recited her revised version of the National Anthem, a revision she had made because “we are not young and we are not free of ignorance and hatred”. She passionately discussed how a lack of empathy has affected her life; although there has been progress in the recognition of Indigenous people and culture, we still have a long way to go.  She highlighted the importance of not using the term ‘Indigenous issues’ because they are not; they are society’s issues. Empathy has the power to help us overcome the barriers built through years of abuse, by building connections and overcoming false stereotypes.

Asking and listening: the path to empathy

So what is the first step to becoming more empathetic to the plight of others?  It’s quite simple really – ask and listen.

Tara Moss spoke passionately about the lack of empathy in the provision of funding for domestic abuse services, including her unsuccessful campaign to secure $250,000 of government funding to ensure a domestic violence support call centre had the capacity to answer all calls made to the service.  Women are overwhelmingly the prime subjects of domestic violence and yet nothing is being done about it.  In 2015 two women were killed every week by a current or former partner; that’s more than the number of people killed by terrorism, yet the funding of these issues is massively disproportionate.  

Susan Carland revealed the challenges she has faced as a Muslim woman and the senseless hatred that she had been subjected to.  She reminded us that empathy is a choice and we are all responsible for creating it and using it in our lives.  Empathy works to humanise people, to allow us to listen and focus on our similarities.  Turning the negative abuse she received into a positive – by donating $1 from every hateful tweet on Twitter to UNICEF – has reinforced her strong commitment to empathy in the face of destructive opposition. The audience applauded her courage.

Q: How can empathy be engaged in regard to topics such as climate change?

People have a view of the world and the issues therein for a reason.  Empathy should guide us to listen to what others have to say – even if we don’t agree.  It’s important to understand others and why they are there.  Understanding can lead us to a clearer picture – Are they ill-informed on an issue? Have they had a negative experience in the past?  Are they scared?  Empathy allows us to delve deeper and reveal a bigger picture; to see the world through their eyes and find a way to take them with us.  

It takes courage to use empathy.  Be courageous enough to empathise with your opposition and understand them.

It was highlighted that at an anti-climate change conference, the method used by all of the speakers was to repeat the same messaging over and over and over.

Nothing kills off empathy faster than fear. If someone is fearful of losing their job, destroying their reputation, losing their way of life – they can become hardened to empathy. Tara emphasised the importance of whistleblower protections for those courageous enough to speak out against cruelty, such as those who have spoken out against the government’s border force policies.  People need to be empowered to use their empathy and override the more powerful emotion – fear.  Fear is used effectively by conservative right wing politicians to disempower the community and allow the passing of policy that lacks empathy.  How do we turn this around? By building connections.

Q: What is your #1 tip for empathy?

  • Change your media. Go outside your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to look at the world through a different pair of eyes.  Watch NITV, read a different newspaper, listen to community radio – challenge yourself.
  • Listen to people you think you don’t like.  Hear their stories.
  • Read a book. (Read Roman’s book!)
  • Expand your curiosity about strangers.  Talk to a stranger once a week – see how you can start stripping away assumptions about people.

The evening concluded with one final offering of advice from the panel:

Q: How do you engage empathy in regards to social media?

I admired the response of Julian Burnside.  He reads every email that he receives and replies to every one – even the hate mail.  He said to always remain polite and rational, as it calms the tone in 95% of cases.  Challenge yourself to get into their mind and understand them. And use their outrage as an opportunity to educate them.  When someone writes something that is angry or not empathetic, it is usually a case of misunderstanding, misinformation, inaccurate assumptions or a profound fear. If you engage with them appropriately, you can start breaking down those barriers and engage their empathy.  Never assume you know why someone has done or said something – ask them why and listen.

That concluded our night of inspiring and challenging conversations.  I’m sure every one of us walked away with a sense of open-mindedness as to how we engage with others around us, and a little less fear of stepping outside of our comfort zones.  

So now I’m looking at the world a little differently and not just through my eyes. We have a long way to go as far as engaging the respect of our communities – but empathy will remain the cornerstone of  how we get there.  To tear down assumptions; to ask, to listen, connect, understand, and build a country free from hatred and ignorance.



Comment (1)

  1. Anna

    What is Australian Progressive’s stance on current conservation and livestock protection practices?

    I mean in particular the methods of “controlling” unwanted introduced/feral wildlife such as wild dogs, and in particular whether 1080 should continue to be legal to use in Australia?


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