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Is there more anger in the news than usual?

Ala Sirriyeh, 2018. The Politics of Compassion: Immigration and Asylum PolicyBristolBristol University Press. xiv, 208 pp.

  • Boris Johnson’s inflammatory language at the first session of the UK’s Westminster parliament after its suspension was ruled unlawful. Greta Thunberg’s eloquent fury addressing the United Nations Climate Action summit.

Anger begets anger.

  • Boris Johnson’s talk of surrender, generating anger over a failed Brexit, is a strategy intended to win a general election. Following the Trumpian play-book, he is conducting collective anger. His uncompromising talk has been widely condemned. The refusal to apologise for immoderate speech is cynical. Johnson might or might not ‘get it done’, but will others pay a price for all of this incendiary talk? Let’s hope ‘dead in a ditch’ remains an unfortunate turn of phrase rather than a future headline.

Greta Thunberg asks world leaders ‘How dare you?’ Despoil the younger generation’s future. Put profit above people. She asks how older people have failed to notice the destruction that the young will inherit. In response, she is tetchily patronised and mocked by world leaders. Can anger also induce progressive change?

Is the vexed nature of public debate a sign of something fundamentally wrong with Western democratic process? Is this the end of days for liberal values?

This is a question posed by Alla Sirriyeh’s book ‘The Politics of Compassion’.

Sirriyeh visited a local politician’s office in the UK seeking support for a Nigerian woman who had been refused asylum and confined to the notorious detention centre Yarl’s Wood. A politician’s aide, in a reasonable and calm fashion, suggested that deporting the Nigerian woman (and her child) would save her from the suffering of being in limbo in the UK:  a ‘compassionate refusal’; a compassionate deportation.

This subversion of the language of caring compassion is not confined to UK political aides. In Sweden, anti-immigrant political party supporters describe their campaigning to prevent immigration as an act of care. Campaigning against immigration is described as a means of caring, not only for local Swedes but also for the migrants themselves. In this logic, xenophobia is a form of compassion towards asylum seekers, as well as towards one’s fellow citizens.

The fraught emotions around contested issues of immigration and asylum have allowed the language of compassion to be co-opted by advocates of hostile anti-migrant policies: the involuntary detention of migrants in Libya as a means of saving them from the dangers of migrating into Europe.

Sirriyeh cites the etymology of compassion as offering clues as to how the concept of compassion has shifted and been co-opted. The current meaning of compassion suggests an emotion felt in the face of another person’s suffering, with the sense of that person as distant and inferior. An outdated twin meaning of compassion is suffering together with another: ‘your suffering is my suffering!’. If the shared nature of suffering is included in compassion, is it harder to subvert? Sirriyeh tells us that compassion has to be grounded in solidarity.

Practising compassion towards immigrants implies a form of hospitality, whereby the stranger is welcomed. Derrida alerted us to the tensions inherent in the idea of hospitality. Welcoming an outsider over the threshold always includes the possibility that the incomer could disrupt and invade one’s home. Making one’s home available to strangers, whether at national or community level, is freighted with potential danger. Hospitality includes the possibility of hostility.

The inherent potential for hostility in the face of hospitality tells us why solidarity is so vital alongside compassion. Solidarity implies identifying a community of interest with the incoming stranger. Identifying the possibility that your suffering is also my suffering and therefore common interests. Sirriyeh tells us to be outraged and to respond with compassion, but to see compassion as a catalyst emotion, rather than an end in itself.

Does all that public anger imply a crisis in Western civilisation? It depends who is being asked, of course. Nastiness as an undercurrent of liberal values is no surprise to some. As Sirriyeh writes, modern Europe ‘has been walking on the dead bodies of the subaltern since its conception’.