Knowledge is Power

Te Matauranga ko te Kaha


Empathy And The Politics Of Selfishness

Bryan Bruce

A friend of mine has a simple empathy test. When you walk through the door of a building do you look behind you to see if anyone is following and hold the door open for them? Or are  you so absorbed in yourself that you don't care about letting the door swing in the face of the person behind you?

If your instinct is to hold the door open for others, you're empathetic. If it isn't, your selfish.

Now you might argue it's not that simple at all - that holding the door open was once  just "good manners" and that manners, like many social behaviours, change over time. (Men, for example, are no longer required tip their hat to a woman when they meet in public.)

But I suspect my friend's simple test of empathy - our capacity imagine yourself in their situation  of others and how they feel - might well be an indicator of how deeply the cult of individualism has become ingrained in our society.

The relationship between the individual and society is as fascinating as it is complex, but for those of us who grew up in the post-war "We " society it's clear that the rise of the politics of individualism and the economics of neo-liberal selfishness of the last 30 years has produced a "Me"society that, for the majority of us, is increasingly unfair and unpleasant to live in.

Just to take one example. When  National introduced student loans in Ruth Richardson's 1991 "Mother Of All Budgets", it represented a massive shift in our thinking about the purpose of public education.

Until that moment we believed that education was a social good and  that we all benefited as a nation by educating our children for free. What changed with Richardson's neo-liberal budget was  a switch in attitude -to the belief  that education primarily benefited the individual and so the individual should pay for it.

In effect the Bolger/Richardson government, who had all benefited from growing up in a society that said " Don't worry kid. You're a Kiwi and we've got your back", suddenly changed the social rules for the next generation by telling them "You're on your own kid!"

Is it any wonder then that after 30 years of neo-liberal governments sending  out such mean and miserly messages, that getting New Zealanders  to think about the benefits of a fairer society  is difficult.

Difficult - but not impossible.

In fact the miracle is that the idea of the "We" society has not only survived, but is making a come back - as evidenced in the election of Jeremy Corbyn  to the leadership of the Labour Party in the UK and the rising  popularity of  Bernie Sanders for  the Democrat Presidential nomination in the USA. 

So I'd want to argue that while neo-liberal economics arose at a time when the cult of the individual was also on the rise, the way we have run our economy since 1984 has produced a New Zealand that is far more selfish than the one that gave me (  and incidentally John Key )  an enormous hand up in life.

Why then, have we continued to vote in neo-liberal governments and the politics of selfishness? 

And why did almost a million of us not cast our vote last election? (That's about the same number of votes that National gained in order  to come to power.)

Well - I have a couple of ideas about all that which I'll share with you tomorrow.



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Who is Bryan Bruce?

Bryan Bruce is an award winning documentary maker, and best selling author. Born in Scotland in 1948, his family emigrated to New Zealand in 1956. He grew up in Christchurch and attended the University of Canterbury where he graduated with an M.A.[1] in Sociology and Philosophy and Christchurch Teacher’s College where he earned a Diploma in Teaching.

Bryan is best known for his work on 'The Investigator' documentary series, 'Inside Child Poverty' and 'Mind The Gap'.