by Jennie S. Bev
In modern societies, compassion is scarce. Almost every day we read news about deadly brawls, mass shootings, hazing, social unrest, murders, robberies —even servants are killed in their employers’ homes for petty reasons.
Two weeks ago, a high school in southern Germany was the scene of a shooting that killed at least 10 people. In Alabama, a gunman killed nine people, including members of his own family, before eventually killing himself.
In Indonesia, this year’s election campaigns are anticipated to give rise to some chaotic incidents as well, which explains why President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has urged campaigners to conduct peaceful rallies. It seems that compassion is not only scarce, but also somewhat unaffordable if one must be reminded by a president to remain calm and civilized. If only it would work.
A culture of violence, on the other hand, is widespread and has almost become the norm. Politics, more often than not, hinder the development of a culture of compassion.
Many politicians consider “compassionate politics” an oxymoron, yet they believe that a peaceful state is the beginning of a stable state. The degree of compassion or peacefulness is what matters in creating an environment for solidarity and stability, as if compassion had no paradoxes.
It is true to some extent that politics need more than compassion to be effective, but the component is never invalid or archaic. And it is almost impossible to find a politician with complete ardor for compassion, even though they tend to use it in a loose sense to win votes or simply to win approval.
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton taught us two important lessons. Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” while Clinton took a simple but successful “I feel your pain” approach. Both might have intended to convey the same message, but because they were perceived differently, their success varied. The former gives room for various interpretations and variants, while the latter refers to a singular meaning.
What is the direct opposite value of compassion? Is it violence? Any decent dictionary would say so, but another interpretation could be “competitiveness.” Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill and Douglas A. Morrison argue in their book Compassion that human beings are motivated by competition And to be competitive, one must be involved in some sort of challenging engagements with others. This alone does not afford much space for caring for others, except of course when it comes to urgent and life-or-death matters.
On a macro level, when competitiveness is combined with strong political will to conquer and influence, violence oftentimes results. And both intentional and unintentional forces are used to inflict injury, pain or abuse.
Institutionalized violence is referred to by Michael H. Crosby, the author of Paradoxes of Power: from Control to Compassion, as “white-collar violence” in which the systematic bureaucracy and technology organize the destruction of man.
How “white” is institutionalized violence? The answer is never easy, and neither is understanding the paradoxes of compassion. Violence and compassion are interrelated. Both contribute to an inevitable cycle. Compassion also comes with its paradoxical elements.
Susan Sontag argued that it is what you feel when you feel impotent, overwhelmed by the enormity of painful spectacle. Another argument is when compassion is used to be tipped in the direction of inequality, charity or patronage.
And while it might not be a good thing to be the recipient of charitable contributions and labeled powerless, at some point, it might be what is required. Matthew Fox in A Spirituality Named Compassion writes that compassion has both empathic and sympathetic elements. “Empathy” occurs whenever either joy or sorrow is mirrored and “sympathy” occurs whenever, sorrow is present. Compassion is neither pity nor mercy. The former connotes condescension and sentimentality. The latter is forbearance shown to powerlessness. The various shades of compassion and peacefulness are a reality that we need to acknowledge.
In any society, the least a government could do is ensure that violence is kept to a minimum, and for this, compassion is key.
The Jakarta Globe, March 24, 2009