Tag Archives: empathy

Australia: A Selfish Giant? I don’t think so.

Above is a film/documentary that I made in Tanzania a fortnight ago. It follows our group, eleven teachers and architects operating under the banner of CEFPI (Council of Educational Facility Planners International), as we entered a small village, conversed with the village council, and through these discussions designed an educational facility that will be built by volunteers and funded by donations. Our process was based on the excellent (and free) human-centered design process outlined by Stanford D-School. You will notice that the very first stage of the process is empathy.

I have been following the interminable “Boat People” debate back home, and frankly it seems to me that the difference between the two sides of the debate is that one is coming from a place of empathy, and the other is not.

The “Anti-Boat People” side, of which our politicians are unfortunately the chief spokespeople, starts from the egotistical belief that Australia is the greatest country in the world. According to this argument, all refugees want to come here to ‘bludge’ on our enviable riches. Proponents warn us to jealously protect ourselves from the hoards of untrustworthy foreigners who are hell-bent on plundering our world-famous social conditions.

The “Pro-Boat People” side, led by Human Rights lawyers such as Julian Burnside, starts from the empathetic view that examines the realities of these refugees’ lives. Such examination reveals a range of facts that contradict the other side’s view. For example, in many cases, refugees simply aren’t equipped to endure formal processes given that they cannot obtain the necessary legal papers from their own governments. Furthermore, many refugees have not even heard of Australia, let alone dreamt of reaching its golden shores their whole lives. In fact, many come here because it is the cheapest option.

Under the light of these facts, the narcissistic self-image of the other side is revealed, and it ain’t pretty. It raises real concerns for the spiritual health of our nation. If we as a country go down the “anti” path, we are no better than Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant; enforcing our borders with tall walls, declaring to the world that “trespassers will be prosecuted”, warding off the sunshine of empathy and inviting a cold spiritual winter. Indeed, we are betraying our own national anthem – “For those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share”. Shouldn’t it be “We’ve boundless cells to spare?” That is not the Australia I grew up loving.

As the above video shows, empathy can achieve an incredible amount in a short period of time. Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. What kind of nation are our politicians designing? From here it certainly seems they only have designs on themselves. But thankfully empathy is universally accessible, which means that we grass roots Aussies can harness its power to make a massive difference. Thus we must ask ourselves, what will we, the real Australia, choose to design?