When our leaders need 'empathy training' it's time to cut them loose

When our leaders need ’empathy training’ it’s time to cut them loose

Andrew Laming

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the early days of #MeToo, shortly after it went viral and Harvey Weinstein — the perpetrator whose decades of serial offending helped spark a movement — thought he could simply declare himself “a dinosaur” and check himself into a sex addiction rehab (coughs…spa in the desert) for six weeks and it would be problem solved.

As Australia finds itself at the start of a similar reckoning, the extent and reach of which is yet to be determined, it seems the Australian equivalent of sex addiction rehab is “empathy training”.

Liberal backbencher Andrew Laming was ordered into empathy training by the prime minister after downplaying his apology for allegedly bullying two Brisbane constituents.

“Starting tomorrow, I will get assistance with courses in empathy and appropriate communication, not just to be a better MP, but to be a deeper and more empathetic person than what the recent events have demonstrated,” Laming said in a statement on Sunday.

And even after Laming was accused of up-skirting a constituent, it was agreed that empathy training – to be conducted at his own expense, as if that made it any better – would enable the errant backbencher to return to work in roughly 4-6 weeks a changed man.

“I believe we will see him return better for that experience and better able to provide his colleagues with the assurances they are seeking,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday.

“Let’s not forget what our goal is here,” added Morrison. “Our goal across all of these issues is to change behaviour.”

To the point that our goal is to change behaviour: that is true. Why else would we be talking about all this stuff — the continued, unacceptable violence perpetrated against women in a myriad of forms each and every day — if we didn’t want to get men, who perpetrate the vast majority of that violence, to change their behaviour.

Let’s briefly return to Weinstein. Six weeks lounging around a luxurious “sex addiction” facility did not work a treat. What did? Holding him accountability, laying charges and, ultimately, successfully prosecuting him for two felony sex crimes.

Now back to Laming.

Morrison’s comment and his belief that “empathy training” provided the solution reveals the prime minister’s ignorance — and that’s after a torrid six week’s during which he made quite a show of revealing his ignorance in relation to all matters violence against women.

Empathy training won’t tackle the problem.

Men like Laming don’t need to be taught “empathy”. Their misogyny and entitlement must be unpacked and challenged.

Proper “men’s behaviour change” programs – the types of programs Morrison’s own government is funding via its National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women — explore beliefs of entitlement, power dynamics, and risk factors for abuse.

Writing in the Atlantic, James Hamblin once described them as “problems of power and status that manifest as a violent disregard for others…a failure to acknowledge the autonomy of women or a problem accepting it and a compulsion to revoke it by force”.

In addition, a healthy dose of consequences would not go amiss. Nor would broader organisational and structural change to compliment and reinforce the change you’re asking – or demanding – of individuals at their individual level. For that, I’m looking at you Scott Morrison and your new “task force”.

Sometimes the “solutions” put forward to tackle a problem tell us more about the culture and the myths that allowed a problem to take hold in the first place.

Arguably, giving a bloke weeks of highly paid leave to learn “empathy” only reinforces the entitlement at the root of the problem. Who else would get away with that other than a white man in politics – or a white man at the apex of any other industry?

Kristine Ziwica is a regular contributor. She tweets @KZiwica

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