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Encouragement for bleeding hearts

By Andrew Hamilton - posted Friday, 7 March 2014

Just as the song of the turtle dove is heard in spring, so the call of bleeding hearts is heard at times when resistance to brutality is gaining traction. The asylum seeker advocates who are now being called bleeding hearts won't be upset, because up to now popular support for the government policies has made protest unavailing. Cracks may now be opening. At all events the epithet is an interesting one and rewards reflection.

To call someone a bleeding heart is an insult, not a description. It has no meaning but does have connotations. It implies that its recipients are driven by sympathy for people who do not deserve sympathy, and are guided by emotion, not by reason. Apart from being weak minded they are also effete and ineffectual. They lack ticker. The phrase evokes popular images of Jesus associated with the Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart. They often represent Jesus as an effete young man pointing appealingly to his wounded heart.

So, all in all, to be a bleeding heart is to be an apology for a virile human being. But for all that most people accused of being bleeding hearts would not want to disown the phrase but to explore its use in order to illuminate the differences between themselves and their critics.


The first point of difference lies in the idea of undeserved sympathy. Critics believe sympathy is something that people must deserve and be worthy of. 'Bleeding hearts' see it as something that we owe to our fellow human beings by virtue of the fact that they are human and in pain. It is a natural expression of a shared humanity.

So it would be proper to feel sympathy for a dishevelled and bloodied dictator after his capture, for example. Sympathy does not imply that we minimise the suffering of his victims or diminish the sympathy we feel with them and our outrage at his deeds. But it does lead us to curb our anger and to ask how it would be right to treat him. Just as it does when we see the sufferings of the asylum seekers on Manus Island and in Australia.

The second point of difference lies in the intellectual rigour we demand of ourselves and of others in considering what it is right for us and our representatives to do. For 'bleeding hearts' the ethical question has precedence over other questions.


In the case of asylum seekers, the ethical question emerges clearly from the shape of Australian policy. This policy rests on deterring people from making a claim on Australia for protection from persecution. Among other things the deterrence involves placing people who have come to make a claim in Australia in camps in nations that will not or cannot offer effective protection. This treatment predictably involves severe harm through mental illness and inevitably leads to deaths.

To inflict suffering on one group of people in order to deter others is a clear case of appealing to a doubtful end to justify evil means. It is ethically wrong because it treats persons as things, subjects as objects. To do this is wrong no matter whether a government or an individual is acting.


That argument is hard-edged because it commits those who accept it to do what they can to remedy the wrong done to asylum seekers. They find the same kind of ethical claim laid upon them (although not the danger) as did the Dutch citizens who harboured Jews illegally during the Nazi occupation.

Those who call advocates for asylum seekers bleeding hearts usually dismiss ethical arguments. Although they may accept in the case of personal relationships that it would be wrong to inflict pain on people in order to deter others, they usually claim without supporting argument that governments are not bound by this or other ethical principles. Nor do they explore the consequences for society of allowing governments to do whatever they like to people as long as they claim it is in the national interest. The rigour of their recommendations to government rests on the lack of rigour in their argument.

For Catholics to be identified with Jesus as bleeding hearts is a badge of honour, especially if the identification is made by way of criticism. But few would see Jesus as the 'pale Galillean' or as effete. Certainly, when he was being executed he seemed ineffective. But the effects of his life and of his association with outcasts outlasted the Empire under which he was put to death. Now, there is encouragement for bleeding hearts ...

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This article was first published in Eureka Street.

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About the Author

Andrew Hamilton SJ teaches at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne. He is the consulting editor for Eureka Street.

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