Haters, Adam Goodes & the Elusiveness of Empathy

Life has a way of surprising us. In the last 12 months, as the symptoms of my Parkinsons have become more pronounced, I have experienced a deep generosity of spirit from family, friends and strangers. For many the default response to my disability has been empathy and a desire to help. One might hope for this from those who are close, but I had never expected it from complete strangers.

Yet the treatment of AFL footballer Adam Goodes shows that we can be pretty cruel. I have no idea what motivates people to boo him. Not the friendly boos of playful sporting rivalry but something visceral and cancerous. Is it racism, a willingness to celebrate an indigenous man who ‘knows his place’ but turns on the proud warrior? Is it tall poppy syndrome, cutting down those who soar to heights we mere mortals can only aspire? Is it the tribal nature of football, where friendly rivalry easily mutates into bitterness? I have no idea. Perhaps different things motivate different people.

What we do know is the damage the damage it is inflicting on Adam Goodes. Yet the booing persists. We even see some criticising Goodes, claiming he brought it all upon himself.

How is it that the stranger traveling by train to the football can show me such kindness, yet be so callous when he arrives at the stadium? Is it because in me he sees someone like himself, but whether its race, tall poppy syndrome, or tribalism, cannot think of Adam Goodes in the same way?

Empathy, that precious but elusive quality that unites strangers, turns enemies into friends, and calls forth our humanity. Perhaps the redeeming feature of this ugly episode with Adam Goodes will be shame driven by the cognition that no matter how famous or talented we may be, no matter the colour of our skin or the flavours of our food, no matter the pride or self-hatred we possess, we all need to be loved and to feel loved. Maybe then we will be neighbours not strangers.

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