Against compassion

My National Writers Union colleague Dian Killian asked me to review this book that she co-authored: Connor, Jane Marantz, and Dian Killian. Connecting Across Differences: An Introduction to Compassionate, Nonviolent Communication. New York: Hungry Duck Press, 2004. It’s a sort of mutual self-help book, with exercises designed to help you get people you work with to be more open-minded toward one another, which sounds innocent enough.

Sorry, but I can’t do it. I thought I could, but as I read the first chapter with all its emphasis on promoting compassion, I realized that I disagree violently. “Compassion” is just what we don’t need to encourage at this point.

“Compassion” is passion on behalf of somebody else, vicarious passion. It was what Bill Clinton was expressing when he would say “I feel your pain.” The problem is that nobody can feel anybody else’s pain the way that other person feels it.

George W. Bush is a compassionate conservative; that’s why he ordered troops to invade Iraq, because of his compassion for people he imagined as longing to be ruled by the U.S. instead of Sadam. The people who try and sometimes succeed to murder abortion doctors are compassionate, saving the unborn whom they imagine as longing for good Christian lives. The 9 guys who hijacked the planes and rammed them into the Twin Towers were compassionate, delivering their correligionaries from the oppression of the Great Satan, and delivering the people in the towers from their lives of sin. There is entirely too much free-floating compassion going around.

Any kind of passion is powerful and therefore dangerous. Vicarious passion is the most dangerous of all, because it makes people intervene in other people’s lives in ways that can do much more harm than good. We can’t live very interesting lives without it, but to promote “compassion” as a value in itself is a very bad idea. What we need is more rationality, to hold the passion in check or to channel it to useful purposes. If you want a literary example of how destructive compassion can be, even in the context of a good cause, check out Bertolt Brecht, especially his short didactic play Die Maßnahme – “The Measures Taken.”

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