Hugh Mackay AO | Integrity 20’18

The culture of compassion

Integrity 20’18 |
Length 36:55
Filmed 26 Oct 2018
Venue Conservatorium Theatre
Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
South Bank, Brisbane

Drawing on six decades’ experience in social research, Hugh Mackay argues that social fragmentation is the greatest challenge we now face, because fragmentation leads to isolation and, since we are essentially social beings, isolation leads to a heightened risk of anxiety and depression. He suggests we need to become ‘ambassadors for compassion’, rebuilding trust in our local neigbourhoods and communities through a disciplined commitment to the exercise of kindness and respect – especially towards those we don’t agree with. He describes compassion as the only rational response to an understanding of what it means to be human.

The following transcript has been edited by the author.

Thank you very much Paul, and good afternoon everybody.

Before I start, let me ask if any of you have been overseas in the last two or three years? Oh – a much-travelled audience, everyone’s been overseas! I wonder if you can remember what you said when you got home. “Best country in the world. Why would anyone want to live anywhere else etc etc. We all say that don’t we?

We don’t always acknowledge that that’s exactly what Belgians say when they get home from a trip overseas. It’s what Nicaraguans say, and Danes and Canadians; even New Zealanders say that when they get home. And of course, there are millions of Syrians who are yearning to get home in spite of the pictures we’ve seen on our television screens of the piles of rubble that are likely to greet them.

The pull of the homeland – wherever it is – is very strong. We love the mother country whether it’s the land of our birth or we’ve adopted it as our homeland. I’m sure all of you are patriots, as I am. We love this place, we’re proud of Australia and there are many reasons why we should be.

Top of the list: we are world champions at building a harmonious society out of extraordinary ethnic and other diversity. We have brought people here from about one hundred and eighty different birth-places around the world and made this fabulous society work so harmoniously that when there are cases of ethnic tension or racial prejudice, they make the news, they’re so unusual for us. Of course, multiculturalism is in our DNA: when the First Fleet sailed through Sydney heads in 1788 about sixty nationalities were represented in the people on board those 11 ships and, of course they arrived on a continent where three or four hundred indigenous nations were coexisting. 

But we are proud of other things. We like to think of ourselves as great innovators. We are the inventors of zinc cream (now there’s something to be proud of!), but also the stump jump plough, the stripper harvester, the photocopier, wi-fi, the snowy mountains hydro-electricity scheme … even Federation, that was a pretty remarkable innovation. (I’m not sure we could pull it off in 2018 if we tried to get six states and two territories to agree to federate.)

While we’re in brag mode, we like to talk about our Nobel prizes and our Oscars and our Olympic Gold Medals and so on. But if you are a true patriot, if you really do love the place, then surely your patriotism can withstand occasional confrontations with some rather challenging facts about contemporary Australia.

Let me mention just a few of those challenging facts about us. We’ve become politically disillusioned. (Is that news to anyone?) Research published in 2018 showed that 75% of Australians are disillusioned with federal politics, and subsequent studies have suggested the situation is even worse than that. One of the factors contributing to that of course is that, over the past decade, we’ve been replacing Prime Ministers at an unsustainable rate. It’s got to the stage where, I’m told, paramedics can no longer ask the question “Who is the Prime Minister?” if they want to check your cognitive function after you’ve had a bump on the head.

It’s not only politics that has suffered a decline in public esteem and respect. (And, by the way, that’s not unique to Australia.) When you look at most of the institutions that we have encouraged into existence – to preserve our values, and to do things cooperatively and collaboratively that we can’t do individually, like run a financial system or an education system or indeed a democracy – most of them are suffering a significant drop in public esteem. The churches, the banks, big business, trade unions, the mass media, professional sport – most of the institutions we would once have respected and perhaps even looked to for moral leadership … well, when you say “moral leadership” in relation to many of those institutions now, it sounds like a bad joke.

Here’s another thing we have to acknowledge about ourselves: two million of us are either underemployed or unemployed. In fact, our unemployment figures are very suspect, because you count as employed in Australia (because both sides of politics agreed this would be the measure) if you have at least one hour of paid work per fortnight. So underemployment is the real issue. I repeat: about two million of us either have no work or much less work than we want. 

We’d also better acknowledge that we are an overweight society. It’s always been reassuring to think of America as the overweight society, always sitting above us on the world obesity league table. Unfortunately, we are about to overtake America as the fattest nation on earth. Doesn’t that say something a bit unattractive, a bit disturbing about us?

Even more disturbingly, the only global survey of rates of sexual assault around the world showed Australia is the worst – and not just the worst by a thin margin, but the worst by a mile. (We have to acknowledge that the researchers who produced that study were digged by the problem of different ways of gathering statistics in different countries, but it’s still not a pretty picture.) 

We’re living with our highest ever level of household debt, and many of us feel that acutely. Three million Australians are currently living in poverty – we’ve had twenty-six years of uninterrupted economic growth, yet three million of us are living in poverty, including eight hundred thousand kids. UNICEF told us last year that 16% of dependent children in Australia lack reliable access to nutritious food. How did that happen? 

And how come we haven’t closed the gender pay-gap yet? How come we’re living with a widening income inequality gap? How come our education standards in primary and secondary schools have been in steady decline? How come young Australians are finding it so hard to buy into the housing market … and what a weirdly distorted market that is! Negative gearing was created to encourage investment, therefore to drive prices up, therefore to discourage particularly young families from buying into the housing market, yet on Census night in 2016, roughly one million Australian dwellings stood empty. That’s 11% of our housing stock unoccupied. Meanwhile, well over a hundred thousand Australians don’t have anywhere to call home tonight. 

I don’t mean to depress you, and I’m not here to try and draw up a ledger of how we’re terrific and how we’re not. So let me come to the central point of what i want to say. I want to draw your attention to what I think are the two most significant facts we need to confront about contemporary Australia. (By the way, I’d be identifying these same two central facts if we were discussing any of the Western societies we normally compare ourselves with.)

Fact #1: We’re experiencing a mental health crisis, and its primary manifestation is our epidemic of anxiety. Beyond Blue tells us that last year alone, two million Australians were suffering from an anxiety disorder, about another two million suffering from depression and about another million suffering from other forms of mental illness. Beyond Blue estimates about 40% of us can expect to experience a mental health crisis or a mental illness of some kind at some point in our lives, and in most cases that will be anxiety. So, that’s the first fact. An epidemic of anxiety, as a symptom of a mental health crisis.

Fact #2:  We are a more fragmented society than we’ve ever been. Yes, that sounds like a big call, but I think I could ask any of you, the youngest or the oldest in the room, to stand up and tell us how this happened – to point to the evidence of our increased social fragmentation – and I’m sure you would know, because we’re all living through the process that has led us to this state of affairs. 

Let me run through what I think are five or six of those most significant factors accounting for social fragmentation on such an unprecedented scale in Australia.

Our households are shrinking. They’ve been shrinking gradually for a hundred years, but the rate of shrinkage has accelerated in the last thirty. In the last hundred years our population has increased fivefold, and the number of dwellings in Australia has increased tenfold. So, we’re growing households at twice the rate we’re growing the population, which means our households are getting smaller. The average Australian household now contains just 2.5 people. If you put single person and two person households together you account for 52% of all Australian households. The fastest-growing household type in Australia – as around the Western world – is the single-person household, already accounting for one household in four, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics is projecting that within the next ten to fifteen years that will have risen to one household in three. 

 A society in which every third or fourth household contains just one person is a society at serious risk of greater social fragmentation. It doesn’t mean that all those people who are living alone are experiencing social isolation; some of them love living alone and see it as a symbol of their freedom and independence. They love getting out and socialising and mixing with family, friends or colleagues at work, and they get home, shut the door, punch the air and say “Alone at last!  I can whistle out of tune, I can watch daytime television, I can eat baked beans out of a can, no one is going to criticise me, this is my place.”

But not everyone who lives alone feels like that. Many people who live alone have been pitchforked into solo-householder status through divorce or bereavement or some change in their circumstances, and they don’t like it. They struggle every day with feelings of loneliness, social isolation, which often morphs into feelings of social exclusion. 

The rate of divorce and other relationship breakdown. Between 35 and 40% of contemporary marriages are likely to  end in divorce, and that’s a hugely disruptive phenomenon for any society – a fragmenting phenomenon, not just for the couples, where a two-person household becomes two single-person households, at least for a while, but also for their families, their extended families, their friendship circles, the neighbourhood that they were part of. Everybody who knows them is in some way affected by that split and, of course, if children are involved, the disruption is even greater, which explains why there are now roughly one million dependent children in Australia living with just one of their natural parents.

While I’m talking about kids, I’ll mention another factor that you might not have put on this list:  our falling birth rate. We’re down to 1.7 babies per woman – way below replacement rate, which is 2.1 babies per woman. Relative to our total population, we are currently producing  the smallest generation of children Australia has ever produced. Why have I put that on this list? As any of you who are parents will know, when you move into a new neighbourhood, it’s usually the kids who get to know each other first, on the school bus or in the playground, or on the soccer field or wherever it is, and gradually the families get to know each other. The kids are like a social lubricant. So when children are in shorter supply than ever, so is that social lubricant. 

We try to compensate of course: as the Australian birth rate falls (and it hasn’t yet fallen nearly as far as in some of the countries of Western Europe), notice that the rate of pet ownership is rising. There are now more pets in Australia than people (29 million of them; 25 million of us). Dogs, in particular, are obviously being acquired as child substitutes: you know that from the names they are given. I recently met a dog called Ian – I don’t want to offend any Ians in the audience. It’s a wonderful name for a bloke, but I’m not sure it’s a great name for a dog. I don’t know why it seems so odd: I know a Harry on four legs and that seems okay and I know a Fiona and a Nigella, which seems a bit borderline for a dog. The problem is you go to the dog walking park so the dogs can frolic while the owners chat, and you can’t remember whether Ian is the dog or the owner. (Well, as a child substitute, it obviously works for a lot of people.)  

Let me quickly mention a couple of other factors that have contributed to our social fragmentation. We are more mobile than we ever have been: we move house, on average, once every six years (just like the Americans). If you’ve lived in the same house for the last thirty years, just imagine how often some other people must have been moving to get the national average up to one every six years. And of course we’re also more mobile in the sense that we have almost universal car ownership. Someone said to me recently we’re a DIDO society, like a FIFO mining town – fly in fly out – because most of us live in drive-in/drive-out suburbs and towns. You wave at your neighbour’s car, assuming your neighbour is driving it, but it’s not quite the same as stopping on the footpath and saying G’day. 

We’re busier than we’ve ever been – at least for people in work. People in full-time work and many in part-time work are working longer hours than ever and, courtesy of the information technology revolution, many people say they never actually escape from work. Busyness has become a kind of social virtue. Would any of us admit to not being busy? We’ve even changed the way we greet each other in Australia. We used to say, “How are you going – alright?” But now we say “How are you going – busy?” As though we expect everyone to be busy. As though the switch can only be on or off – you’re busy or you’re dead. Yet busyness is the great enemy of social cohesion: if we’re always busy, when will we find time to chat with the neighbours, or join friends for a drink? With all this busyness, there is less time and less energy available at the end of the working week (if the working week ever ends) for nurturing the life of the local neighbourhood and community.

One other thing that must go on the list is the information technology revolution. We are in the grip of a really paradoxical revolution: on the one hand, it’s promising to connect us like never before, and of course that’s true. It does. At  the same time, it’s making it easier than ever for us to stay apart from each other. We’ve reached the stage where we are confusing digital data-transfer with human communication, whereas for thousands of years, we have known that communication is something you can fo most effectively when you are face-to-face with another person, with the benefit of all the subtleties of communication that go with eye-contact, tone of voice, rate of speech, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and so on. In the digital sphere, we miss out on all that. So, perhaps it’s not surprising that we can now talk about people (especially heavy users of social media) who are “connected but lonely”. The heaviest users of social media typically report higher levels of loneliness, social isolation and depression, even though they are sleeping with their smartphone under their pillow – a habit driven by FOMO: fear of missing out. 

Let’s leave the list there and pull it all together. Consider the likely cumulative effect of all the things I’ve been talking about. Obviously, taken together, these things put great pressure on the stability and cohesiveness of our local neighbourhoods and communities. That, in turn, has a negative effect on our level of trust in the neighbours that we live amongst. It also tends to reinforce the emergence of what we’ve now come to recognise as the “Me culture”: the culture that encourages rampant individualism; the idea that “it’s all about me”. And we have a consumer marketing industry, and a “happiness” industry, feeding us the message that it is all about us; our material prosperity, our comfort, our happiness. 

In the beginning, I  said I was going to talk about two facts about contemporary Australia, but I’m sure it’s dawned on you that what I’m really talking about is one fact. We’re talking about a mental health crisis mainly manifested by an epidemic of anxiety, and we’re talking about greater social fragmentation, but those are not really two separate facts; they are two sides of the same coin. 

If a society becomes more fragmented, with an increased risk of social isolation and loneliness, then inevitably the level of anxiety in that society will rise. 

Now I accept there are many specific causes of anxiety in individual cases. Some people become anxious because of job insecurity, or rent stress, relationship breakdown, loss of faith, addiction to an IT device, loss of contact with the natural world, even concern about the future of the planet (and why wouldn’t we all be  anxious about that?). But when you’re looking at an epidemic you have to look beyond the causes in individual cases and see what’s happening to our society that’s causing this on such a large scale, and that’s where it seems to me social fragmentation is the chief culprit.

Isn’t it obvious? By nature, we humans are social beings. We love getting together. We’re natural congregators, we’re communitarians at heart, we need each other. If often seems as though the most interesting thing about us is the differences between us, but actually the most significant thing about us is our common humanity; what we share; the fact that we need that reassuring sense of belonging to herds, groups, communities that nurture and sustain us. We are hopeless in isolation (like most other species on the planet, by the way). We need each other in material ways, in emotional ways, in social ways, in psychological ways.

It’s not just that communities nurture us and give us a sense of belonging, and a sense of safety and emotional security: they also help us shape our personal identities. We often talk about “identity” as though this is something you could discover by gazing in the mirror or gazing at your navel or rushing off on a weekend retreat to find yourself. Never spend any money on a weekend retreat to find yourself because that’s not where you are, you don’t find yourself in isolation. If you want to discover your identity, don’t look into the mirror; look into the faces of the people who love you, look into the faces of the people you work with, look into the faces of your neighbours, look into the faces of people who’ll put up with you. One of my psychological heroes, the American psychotherapist Carl Rogers, towards the end of his working life said that when any of his patients came to a full understanding of who they were it was always to realise that they belonged somewhere, they were part of a network, whether it was a family, a friendship circle, a neighbourhood or a workplace. 

Being members of a social species – herd animals – means that when we feel cut off from the herd, we pay a high price in terms of our mental health. Why, in our criminal justice system, is solitary confinement the worst punishment we can inflict on a prisoner? Answer: because for members of a social species, it is the worst punishment we can inflict on a prisoner, or on any of us. 

It’s no wonder that psychologists and other health professionals are now saying that social isolation is looming as a greater threat to public health than obesity, and we know what a threat to public health obesity is. The past president of the Australian Psychological Society Professor Mike Kyrios has said that our greatest challenge as a society is preserving social cohesion.

Let’s just pause for a moment. I hope you find this sort of analysis interesting, I’m a social researcher so I’m riveted by the challenge of trying to understand what’s happening to us. But I hope it’s more than interesting. It’s important for us to acknowledge that we are not mere bystanders. We are the ones reshaping Australian society. We’re making the changes I have described. We’re living them. We are the ones who’ve become addicted to our smartphones. We’re the ones who are shrinking our households, driving the divorce rate up and the birth-rate down. We’re the ones who have surrendered to busyness. We’re doing it, all by ourselves. This is our society.

Social fragmentation is the result of how we have chosen to live differently. Therefore, the resulting epidemic of anxiety and associated epidemics of depression and other forms of mental illness are our responsibility. We can’t just stand on the sidelines and say “Oh, isn’t that really fascinating!” We’re the ones fragmenting the society, so we’re the ones who have created the resultant epidemic of anxiety. Us.

The tragedy of contemporary Australian society is that too many of us are living as if we don’t realise that our health, especially our mental health, depends upon the health of the neighbourhoods and communities that we belong to. 

So what can we do about all this? There is never one answer, of course. Some people think the solution is retail therapy and hope that will get their anxiety level down. Some go on a nostalgia kick, as if dreaming of the past will make the present easier to handle. (I recently saw an advertisement for a Ford Mustang which promised “ultra-contemporary retro styling”!) Some people get obsessed about the need for control, that might express itself in a kind of fundamentalism – whether in religion or in other aspects of life. I don’t recommend any of that. 

It seems to me there is one crucial step we can all take, one absolutely fundamental starting point for the process of trying to address the problem of social fragmentation and the inescapably related problem of heightened anxiety and depression. And I can describe that step in one simple, rather old-fashioned word: compassion. 

When I’m talking about compassion, I’m not talking about a sort of bleeding-heart do-gooder emotional state. I’m talking about what I believe is the only rational response we can make to a full understanding of what it means to be human. When I’m talking about compassion, I’m talking about a cool, completely rational  mental discipline that says “I’m human, we’re all human, we all need each other, we rely on communities to support us, and those communities rely on us to engage with them. Therefore the only appropriate way to engage with the community is to treat everyone with kindness and respect.” That’s what I mean by compassion. And the test of whether you’ve got it, is whether you’re prepared to treat even people you don’t like much with kindness and respect. Perhaps an even tougher test is whether you can treat people you disagree with about politics or religion or anything else with kindness and respect. 

When we build a culture of compassion, when we adopt the discipline of compassion, the mindset of compassion, it has two remarkable effects. One personal, one social. The personal effect is that our anxiety level will inevitably come down. Anxiety is a very self-absorbed state. As soon as you start switching your focus to the needs of people around you who might need a listening ear or friendly smile or some other kind of support, you find that your anxiety tends to recede, driven out by the spirit of compassion towards others. Nothing steady’s the emotions like the knowledge that other people need our companionship or our support in some way. So that’s the personal effect.

The social effect is obvious: compassion is like the high-octane fuel that drives the machinery of social cohesion. The machinery that generates social capital. Especially in the local neighbourhood. It seems to me that if you want to assess the health of a nation, the health of a society, the health of a city, you start by looking at the health of its local neighbourhoods. The neighbourhood is the test bed of our commitment to the culture of compassion. The neighbourhood is where we determine whether we really are morally mature enough, socially mature enough to exercise compassion among people that we didn’t choose to live with. 

The neighbourhood is a funny place, isn’t it?. Unless you’re one of those rather eccentric people who interviewed everyone in the street before you bought your house or rented your apartment to make sure this was a compatible group, you probably fell in love with the house or the apartment, moved in and then suddenly found yourself in the midst of neighbours. Perhaps they looked a bit weird – you probably looked a bit weird to them, because everyone looks a bit weird until you get to know them.   

After a while, we find that they are a mixed bunch. We have an immediate sense of affinity with some of them; others might seem very strange to us – different religion, different politics, different taste in music (and different ideas about how loudly it should be played), different approaches to child-rearing … all that. But here’s the inescapable things about them: they are all our neighbours, and we are theirs. And when there is a crisis, we’ll certainly know that they’re our neighbours, because that’s where immediate help always comes from in an emergency. The last Brisbane floods were a world leading example of how neighbours act when there is a crisis. Bushfires do the same things. Storms, drought, pandemics … every kind of crisis reminds us of our interconnectedness. Those things remind us that we each have a special role in this society which has got nothing to do with our family, it’s got nothing to do with our friends, it’s got nothing to do with our colleagues. It’s the role of the neighbour. And if we are not fulfilling that role, we can’t be said to have embraced the culture of compassion at all. In fact I think it’s arguable whether we can say we are real citizens if we haven’t embraced the role of neighbour.

Let me conclude by telling you about a town in the UK. This is a five-year process I’m going to describe, and it’s been in the subject of some very intense research. But the starting point for this project was a GP in the township of Frome in the county of Somerset in the UK. Dr Helen Kingston is her name and, back in 2013, she noticed the very thing that I’ve been describing this afternoon – that there was a link in many of her patients between heightened anxiety and social isolation. So she got together with some medical colleagues and other community leaders and together they launched something called the Compassionate Frome Project. And over about a five-year period of this project being implemented, most of the health indicators in the town of Frome improved. The most remarkable and unexpected improvement was that the rate of emergency admissions to hospital in Frome went down during this period by 17% while across Somerset emergency hospital admissions went up by 28%. And a local palliative care physician in Frome said there has never previously been an intervention which caused emergency hospital admissions (which is one of the starkest health indicators) to go down. 

Okay, you ask, what was this remarkable intervention? What did these community leaders in Frome do? What was the initiative they took? You’d never be able to figure this out for yourself if I didn’t tell you. It’s so brilliant, it’s so creative, the sort of thing no one would ever think of spontaneously. Here’s what they did. They encouraged everyone in Frome to get to know their neighbours. Don’t live next door to someone without getting to know them. Look out for the people in your street who might be at risk of social isolation especially the elderly, or people who are unwell and people who are living alone. Make sure they’re included in the life of the neighbourhood. Never pass someone in the street without smiling or saying hello, never stand at a bus stop with another person and pretend they don’t exist. Join a choir, a community garden, a men’s shed, a current affairs discussion group, a book club, whatever you like. Join in. order to engage with the community so that you’re more alert to needs that exist within the community.

It worked dramatically in Frome, and it can work in the street, the town, the suburb, the place where you live. (By the way, there are several cities around Australia, including the Gold Coast and Ballarat in Victoria, that have launched “compassionate city” projects.) 

It’s easy to wring our hands about the state of politics or the misbehaviour of the banks or sexual abuse of children in the organised church, or all the other things that we wring our hands about in our society. It’s not so easy to embrace this simple central notion that the state of the nation actually starts in our street. If enough of us start living as if this is the kind of society we want it to be, then pretty soon that’s the kind of society it will start to become.

Thank you.


Australia Reimagined

Hugh Mackay, 2018

‘When it comes to our future, misplaced optimism is as dangerous as blind faith. What is needed is the courage to face the way things are, and the wisdom and imagination to work out how to make things better.’

Australia’s unprecedented run of economic growth has failed to deliver a more stable or harmonious society. Individualism is rampant. Income inequality is growing. Public education is under-resourced. The gender revolution is stalling. We no longer trust our major institutions or our political leaders. We are more socially fragmented, more anxious, more depressed, more overweight, more medicated, deeper in debt and increasingly addicted – whether to our digital devices, drugs, pornography or ‘stuff’.

Yet esteemed social researcher Hugh Mackay remains optimistic. Twenty-five years ago, he revolutionised Australian social analysis with the publication of Reinventing Australia. Now he takes another unflinching look at us and offers some compelling proposals for a more compassionate and socially cohesive Australia. You might not agree with everything he suggests, but you’ll find it hard to get some of his ideas out of your head.

Argued with intelligence and passion, this book is essential reading for everyone who loves Australia enough to want to make it a better place for us all.

Discuss the phrase ‘what it means to be human’ in today’s society.
Identify some causes related to social fragmentation and explore how these relate to you in your life.
Talk about successful community initiatives that exist and suggest new ideas to explore.


Hugh Mackay AO

Social research and author, Read more

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