When we put weight on the shared humanity that binds us to others we become ready to allow strangers to make a claim on our generosity. The election campaign showed that in Australia there is little sense of a shared humanity, writes Andrew Hamilton SJ.
- Eureka Street
Now the bipartisan support for excluding asylum seekers from making this claim and the decisions by both parties to cut overseas aid or divert it to prisons and camps have been met by general approval. This argues that a shared humanity is restricted to people like us. People do not make a claim on us because they are human beings, but because they are human beings of a particular nationality, religion, race or fate. Our kindness to strangers will not express a principle but a sentiment.
In coming years we might expect the categories of those excluded from the claims of our shared humanity to become broader. They will include other unpopular, excluded and disadvantaged people within the community. The ageing of the population, the pressure on revenue and the expectation that we shall continue to enjoy the same wealth and services as before will mean that governments will be unable to meet all their commitments.
It is natural for governments in such circumstances to cut the support it gives to the disadvantaged, whether they be Indigenous communities, unemployed or addicted. This is easier when the sense of a shared humanity is weak. They can then be portrayed as other than us, and their claim to a shared humanity to be diminished by such qualities we attribute to them as laziness, addiction, innate stupidity and antisocial tendencies. Their support will then be measured, not by their need as human beings, but by their lesser status. It can be measured out to them as a gift conditioned by compliance with whatever conditions we impose on them.
The sense of a shared humanity is further weakened by another feature of Australian culture. Emphasis is placed on the individual, and particularly on their choice through economic activity. The priority of economic relationships is reflected in the rhetoric and practices of government.