Tell someone that compassion is what we need most today, and they’ll probably label you a touchy-feely pacifist organizing college cry-in sessions.
Not only do they not understand what compassion is but more importantly, the power it has.
The meaning of all words, like compassion, can be defined in different ways by different people. I’d say that there are two main parts to defining compassion. Compassion means 1. the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and 2. treating others as we’d want to be treated.
Each of these two points implies a lot more. For instance, to put ourselves in other people’s shoes further implies that we take the time and effort to understand other people’s positions, the logic they’re using, what assumptions they’re making, and what cultural and historic meanings they bring to the table.
Compassion in the Voter ID Debate
Take for instance, the issue of voter ID.
A supporter might say that it’s necessary to protect democracy. That it is needed to ensure our system isn’t compromised. IDs are required for almost everything today so why not for something as important as democracy?
A critic might counter that seemingly reasonable voting regulations have been the main tool for suppressing minority voters throughout our history. After the Civil War, black slaves won the right and voted in many black representatives, but whites managed to eliminate the black vote through a series of seemingly reasonable voting regulations. Voter suppression through regulations was so effective that it would take nearly 100 years for another African-American to be elected to Congress in the South.
My point is not to debate the merits of voter ID laws but to recognize that each person’s position is rational and logical given the facts, meanings, and assumptions that they bring with them.
Without understanding the elements of their position, it’s impossible to come to any understanding or resolution. It’s like trying to solve an equation using different sets of math rules which can only lead to frustration and concluding that the other person must be some sort of idiot if they can’t do basic math.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there are no right answers. That it’s all a matter of perception. What I am saying is that to have any hope of both arriving at the right answer, they must both be using the same math.
Compassion implies respect
A perfect example of the power of compassion is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s response to the White House telling her to leave global warming up to God.
Check out these tweets and let’s break down the logic of what she’s doing and why it works so well. [Disclaimer: highlighting her compassionate approach shouldn’t be confused with recommending her policies.]
When a conservative or Christian argues science (like global warming) from a Biblical perspective, the typical response is to throw out a bunch of facts or scientific studies. Not only will conservatives and people of faith dismiss it, but it implies that people who use the Bible to guide their lives or make scientific decisions are stupid and illogical. That science should trump faith.
This approach disrespects not only the logic of this particular debate but their core belief system as well. By creating a divide between you and them, you lose them on this issue and everything else.
She takes the opposite approach. Her response implies respect for their position. That it’s not only reasonable to use the Bible as a guide to life but also admirable.
By including a discussion from an Evangelical Christian writer conveys that we really can have an intelligent conversation using Biblical principles. It’s inclusionary. It implies that it is not “us” vs. “them” but just “us” discussing ideas.
The Biblical logic is pretty simple. If God gave us stewardship over earth and its creatures, we have a responsibility not to screw it up. While it might not convince ever Christian, it has a much greater chance than disrespecting them by throwing scientific facts at them versus taking their assumptions and logic seriously.
These tweets got a lot of traction even among conservative and religious circles.
Displaying compassion by showing respect for their language and logic is a powerful approach that gets results much better than divisive, combative approaches.
If we define power as the ability to move people, it’s pretty clear how this compassionate approach yields better results than a combative one. And therefore, it’s power should also be apparent.
Compassion implies empathy
Some people also think that being compassionate means being letting things slide and not making hard choices. That you don’t take a stand. This again is incorrect.
Having compassion implies having empathy. Empathy and decisiveness are not mutually exclusive. I can make hard choice while still treating people fairly and equally.
Frequently, the hard decisions are the most compassionate.
If my brother, spouse, or some other relative killed someone else, I know the right and compassionate thing is to intervene to straighten out their lives which might mean prison. I wouldn’t let them slide just because they’re my kin. But what I’d want is for them to be treated humanely and fairly.
I would need to ask myself, “if it were my son or daughter, how would I want them treated differently?” If I want my friends and family treated one way, I should feel empathy and want the same for a stranger in the same circumstance.
To have empathy means that the pain of others is felt and treated the same as the pain of us. We cannot reserve concern for our side but callousness for everyone else. Because if you start from a position of mutual respect, any behavior that follows must logically be the same.
If we have any hope of building a powerful coalition capable of realizing a moral, just world, it must be based on the mutual interests capable of binding us together. And that common interest can only be found by respecting opposing positions and using the same language and logic.
If you can bind enough people together into a coalition large enough to enact change, that is power.