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Talk is cheap, tears are not enough, and being sorry will get you nowhere

By Brett Mason - posted Monday, 27 June 2005

Compassion, unless expressed through real, practical and tangible action and assistance, is often useless. Worse than that, it is self-indulgent, and quite often harmful.

Recently, writer and journalist Patrick West wrote a book titled Conspicuous Compassion: Why sometimes it really is cruel to be kind. West has identified a relatively new phenomenon in our Western culture, ostentatious displays of emotion substituting for sensible action. Conspicuous compassion elevates public statements, petitions, badges, protests and rallies above practical measures, that is, it elevates feeling and saying above doing.

This is not a harmless development; as West writes, “Such displays of empathy do not change the world for the better: they do not help the poor, diseased, dispossessed or bereaved. Our culture of ostentatious caring concerns, rather, projecting one’s ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are. It is about feeling good, not doing good, and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.”


Sadly, conspicuous compassion is ever-present today. All too often, we fiddle while the cities burn, sometimes literally. But all the challenges facing us, from genocide and global poverty to environmental problems do have solutions. They are not the trendy and fashionable solutions, but they have one definite advantage - they work.

Faced with horror of the Holocaust some 60 years ago, we distilled our revulsion into two words - “never again”. It has proved to be an empty slogan. It has been far easier and morally less expensive to publicly proclaim to the world your compassion and sensitivity by denouncing the crimes of the past than to try to do something to stop the crimes of the present, whether in Rwanda, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The international community’s standard response to genocide, mass violence and gross violations of human rights has traditionally been words as a substitute for action. Seemingly endless talk, posturing, meetings, committees, commissions, resolutions, summits, all well meaning and very sincere, but ignoring the reality that words don’t stop bullets. Ignoring that in most cases good intentions are not enough to stop killing, that right must be backed with might if it wants to prevail.

The brutal truth is that genocide is only ever stopped by the force of arms, or not at all. Of themselves, diplomacy, the United Nations and good intentions are not enough. If moral outrage and concern were the only weapons in the arsenal of democracies those 60 years ago, there would be no Jews left today at all. The slaughter in Bangladesh was only stopped by India, the killing fields of Cambodia by a Vietnamese intervention, Idi Amin’s reign of terror by Tanzanian troops. In the Balkans, the killing was only stopped by an armed intervention - arguably a few years too late. Unless the international community is ready to fortify its concern with armed force, it would be far better for everyone to shut up and greet the dying with mournful silence instead of throwing them an illusory lifeline made up of empty words.

Conspicuous compassion kills because it distracts us from the harsh realities of the world outside. The response to mass violence throughout the developing world is, alas, no different to the response to all other challenges facing the developing world with talk rather than action, and if there is to be action, it too often takes form of symbolic gestures as opposed to practical solutions. And the consequences can be just as dire.

Debt forgiveness and foreign aid generally have been two international causes most prominently hijacked by the conspicuously compassionate crowd. The arguments about lending a helping hand to the developing world are fine and reasonable. In practice, however, all too often this results in throwing money at the problem. We can feel better about ourselves because we’re so compassionate and so giving, but the problems we’re trying to eliminate throughout the developing world show no sign of disappearing.


Poverty is a symptom of dysfunctional political, economic and social systems throughout the developing world. The real solution is democratic reform, opening up the economy, freeing up trade, and creating robust social institutions. As the Treasurer said last year, “It is not aid, but trade and economic reform that has delivered millions of people out of poverty”. But pursuing that is tough, it’s difficult, it’s not sexy and it requires a lot of work.

Where global environmental problems are concerned, compassionate compassion also too causes us to misallocate our limited resources. It has become a mission of Bjorn Lomborg, “the sceptical environmentalist”, and a group of experts known as the Copenhagen Consensus to suggest better ways to prioritise. Writes Lomborg: “We can do enormous good for the money we spend. The expert panel of economists found that HIV-AIDS, hunger, free trade and malaria should be the world’s top priorities.”

He continues: “More than 28 million cases of HIV-AIDS could be prevented by 2010. The cost would be $US27billion ($35 billion), with benefits almost 40 times as high … The expense of establishing free trade would be dwarfed by benefits of up to $US2,400 billion a year. Mosquito nets and effective medication could halve the incidence of malaria and would cost $US13 billion, with benefits at least 5 times the outlay.”

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First published in The Party Room, Issue 1, winter edition 2005.

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About the Author

Brett Mason is a Senator for Queensland.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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