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Mobs driven by sentimentalism

By Paul Comrie-Thomson - posted Tuesday, 26 July 2005

Since the 1960s, mixing rock and roll with politics and religion has produced moments of exquisite silliness. Consider Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors. “When I was back there in seminary school,” sneers the leather-clad singer during a concert highlight, “there was a man who put forth the proposition that you can petition the Lord with prayer”. Morrison pauses and stars at the floor. Then he shouts, “You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!”

Fast-forward 40 years. A new Christian movement of 5,000 Sydneysiders called Take Up the Challenge are acting to "make poverty history" by “flash mobbing”. As the organiser explained, “People send out a text message to a few hundred people’s mobile phones to meet in one location, they all converge and do an activity for a few minutes and then they disappear”.

“Poverty is the issue of our times,” the organiser concluded, “... we have the resources. It’s just about taking action.” Perhaps by petitioning the Lord via SMS?


David Burchell explains the trouble with all of this in his Griffith Review paper “The Trouble with Empathy”. Our cultural discontents, Burchell explains, believe they have a “... special empathetic vocation,” which suburbanites do not share. They are the 21st century equivalent of the Bloomsbury Set who were preoccupied with the inner life and “... by turns Calvinistic in their austerity, Platonic in their loftiness and Romantic in their high miserableness”.

They feel good by emoting publicly about what they feel is bad. And for them, if you feel good, you are good. As we read on the Live 8 website:

I’m only 19 so unfortunately I missed Live Aid, I watched Live 8 on TV. It was the most powerful thing I have ever seen and I really felt part of it. I believe it is time to make poverty history and we can.

Such utterances are evidence of a modern malaise that Patrick West has analysed in his book Conspicuous Compassion. It is a manifestation of the delusion that a private affect is a moral act.

In this narcissistic stew what feels right for me is right. What feels ethically wrong for me is wrong. What I have grievous feelings about is worthy of grief. It follows that if you don’t share my feelings then you are anathema. Such sentimentalism is dangerous.It produces a milieu where there can be no moral or socio-political consensus because its locus is not the objective world but a subjective feeling. And feelings are flighty - the designation point of an intense feeling can shift dramatically.

A passionate, primal urge can make you rock or wreck. Bono unwittingly conceded the moral emptiness of sentimentalism, just prior to the London bombings. Commenting on the anarchists at Gleneagles he said, “You’ve seen both types of protest. I’d like to think our way is better but we don’t know that. We’ve got a couple of days to find out.” So if rocking doesn’t work then maybe wrecking is the way to go?


Moving from the world stage to the Australian suburbs we meet the cultural discontents’ bogey man, John Howard, who has been consistent in his depiction of the “conspicuous compassion” of symbolic sorrow as self-righteous, and crucially, self-deceiving. Addressing the problem of Aboriginal reconciliation he said:

If I can speak very bluntly, I think part of the problem with some earlier approaches to reconciliation is that it left too many people, particularly in white Australia, off the hook. It let them imagine that they could simply meet their responsibilities by symbolic expressions and gesture rather than accept the need for an ongoing persistent rendition of practical on-the-ground measures to challenge the real areas of Indigenous deprivation.

The gap between pure, acutely felt, sentiment and messy practical action has been much discussed by philosophers for centuries. Hegel warned that when a human being is virtuous only inwardly and the external acts are not identical with this, “... then the one is as hollow and empty as the other”.

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About the Author

Paul Comrie-Thomson is a former senior editor of the Australian edition of Rolling Stone magazine and was recently awarded a Master of Philosophy degree from Sydney University. He lives in Sydney and works as a freelance writer. Paul wrote the introduction to the Australian edition of the book Conspicuous Compassion published by the Centre for Independent Studies. His articles have appeared in The Australian, The Melbourne Age and The Newcastle Herald.

Related Links
Centre for Independent Studies - Introduction to 'Conspicuos Compassion'

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