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Sophie Mirabella and the headdesk incident

By Naomi Anderson - posted Thursday, 5 July 2012

In Monday's episode of Q&A on ABC, Simon Sheikh of GetUp! performed a brilliant rendition of what teenagers eloquently label *headdesk*.

I assume they don't normally mean the sort of episode Sheikh experienced, but at first it did appear that way. The moments after his head hit the desk have been the subject of much Twitter commentary and some media debate.

There appear to be two schools of thought on the response by Sophie Mirabella; "what a cruel heartless person", or "nobody can be judged for their reaction to a crisis."


Both positions are equally flawed.

As a carer, I suspect I shared a response with many; carers, nurses, physiotherapists and aged care workers, the impulse to leap out of my chair and do something. This impulse is neither good nor bad. I see the pending fall before others because I am trained by experience to do so. This can result in my catching someone before they hit the ground, or inappropriately manhandling a stranger who had already stopped themselves from tripping.

As a person with narcolepsy, I suspect I share a response with other people who have experienced their body failing to co-operate in public. I wanted to shout at the camera crew "look away, this is none of your business, nothing going on here. Allow the man some dignity!"

Malcolm Gladwell writes about split second decisions, where we use instinct rather than reasoning, in his book Blink. The instinct is not a natural hereditary response, like an infant suckling, but an instinct nonetheless.

It carries with it a tightly framed comprehension of the world that we call into action quickly. Friend or foe? Crazed gunman or terrified youth with a mobile phone? It is here that we find surprising biases. The author, himself the child of a black parent, took the Implicit Association Test and discovered that he associated "black" with "bad". Under fire, we retreat to basic models of the world, and respond accordingly. There is no time to reason, there is no time to conduct a focus group or write a policy. We just respond.

Mirabella choked. She did not know what to do. She had no underlying script for how to respond to somebody in need before her eyes. While this does not make her cruel and heartless, it does arguably suggest a cognitive dissonance between "my peer" and "vulnerability", or between "person in my vicinity"and "I should do something". No doubt there are other interpretations, and only Mirabella herself can answer that question.


It is however unlikely she could answer it by reasoning, any more than the police officer who shoots an unarmed child. The difficulty with these fundamental biases is that they operate below any cognitive decision making; they emerge only when we don't have time to think. They betray our argued positions and demonstrate what we have learned without choosing. A black kid with a a gun shaped item in his hand is a danger to society; a person experiencing physical collapse is outside of my job description.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the defence of Mirabella has been along the lines of: "this was a crisis; nobody knows how they will respond."

Firstly, is that not what politicians are supposed to do? Manage crises? Is that not where we see their skills as leaders?

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About the Author

Naomi Anderson has worked in the human resources field for over fifteen years, and is the parent of a person with a disability. Passionate about creating positive change in areas of human rights and disability, she is the founder of

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