A refugee plague?

Try as you might, you can’t make a person feel compassion. The emotion is described as the deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. You either feel it or you don’t. And if you feel no compassion, are you indifferent?

You may remember the impassioned 1999 speech of Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate, Elie Wiesel, 1999, when he said:

“What is indifference? Etymologically, the word means “no difference.” A strange and unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, dusk and dawn, crime and punishment, cruelty and compassion, good and evil.

What are its courses and inescapable consequences? Is it a philosophy? Is there a philosophy of indifference conceivable? Can one possibly view indifference as a virtue? Is it necessary at times to practice it simply to keep one’s sanity, live normally, enjoy a fine meal and a glass of wine, as the world around us experiences harrowing upheavals?

Of course, indifference can be tempting — more than that, seductive. It is so much easier to look away from victims. It is so much easier to avoid such rude interruptions to our work, our dreams, our hopes. It is, after all, awkward, troublesome, to be involved in another person’s pain and despair. Yet, for the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbour are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction.”

The opening of Swedish director Roy Andersson’s short film Härlig är  jorden (“World of Glory”) is a disturbing artistic impression of the consequences of indifference. A group of naked men, women and children is being shoved into an open van in order to be slowly gassed under the gaze of passive bystanders.

Have we allowed the media or our political leaders to reduce asylum seekers to an abstraction? How can it sit comfortably with us that the pain and suffering and death of men, women and children underpins opinion polls or sways our elections by rewarding indifference rather than compassion?

The media coax people into believing that we are experiencing a refugee plague, that our safety and security are being threatened even if we are not being overrun; many of our elected representatives respond with policies of indifference, all the while carefully professing their own personal humanity, and the self-perpetuating frenzy leads us as a nation to ignore the international humanitarian obligations we have agreed to uphold. Why do our political parties permit, let alone encourage, such xenophobic propensities?

Roy Andersson’s artistic genius shines a light on human indifference that it would do all of us well to contemplate. And I’m talking not only about those who use the misfortune and suffering of others for their own ends without ever genuinely trying to alleviate them, but the vastly greater number who stand mute and do nothing while this callous inhumanity plays out in front of them.

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