compassion towards the wicked

compassion towards the wicked – is cruelty to all beings.

–Maimonides

Like most people, I was very surprised when Donald Trump won the US Presidential election. I trusted that the number of frightened, hateful, motivated citizens was smaller than it was, that the number of people who thought his election would bring about chaos or even the apocalypse was smaller, that there were not enough people to collaborate in giving a craven infant of a man access to nuclear weapons. And I was right, there were more people who thought he should not be President than thought he should, many more, but I also did not count on the assistance of the FBI director and the Russian government and voter suppression in gaming the system for him. All of which is old hat at this point, as Trump’s first week is over and he seems bent on provoking a constitutional crisis, and I am pretty well sick of hearing about the son of a bitch.

But being sick of him matters not a bit, as there are people already suffering because of the decisions he has made, people who do not have the same advantages that I do, and so I have to fight as best I can.

I am a believer in discourse, and in Democracy, so I intended—still intend, somehow—for part of my fight to involve communicating with Trump supporters, trying to find some common ground, to appeal to their humanity, since I also believe that compassion is an essential universal human quality, an evolutionary adaption, even. For Aristotle, compassion occurred when we saw someone suffering undeserved pain, and also felt fear because we, too, might soon suffer the same pain. Rousseau, Lessing, and others removed the fear from the equation—not that fear we might be next does not increase our compassion, but we can feel compassion without such fear. I think it also a matter of biology because we evolved as necessarily social animals, for whom the opposite of compassion—cruelty—does not serve as an advantage in evolutionary terms. Cruelty might work in the short term, but it cannot hold, since people do not want to suffer.

So, I have explored various discussion forums and other social media, and have spoken in person to the few Trump supporters I know, and have found many of them to be far more cruel than I anticipated, and more importantly, unable to recognize that cruelty. Some of them are simply frightened and confused by a world they don’t understand but feel it excludes them, and see in Trump a strong leader, where the rest of us see a cowardly little man desperate for approval. Others simply revel in the cruelty, taking great pleasure in the pain he is causing others, and the chaos. All of these are commonly characteristics of children, of course. Infantilism binds them to the infantile man now occupying the White House.

So, how do I feel compassion for them? I can feel compassion for a child, and forgive them even as I chastise them and try to help them learn, but these are grown ups. Could I find it in my heart to feel compassion for Trump? For Steve Bannon? I would like think I could, just as I like to think I could forgive anyone who did something awful to me or my loved ones, after a time. In Hannah Arendt’s essay on Lessing, she highlights a distinction he makes between fraternity and friendship, in differentiation from someone like Rousseau: fraternity, the recognition that we are all one species and bound together, and that everyone is, in the abstract, worthy of compassion, is not the same as friendship, which begins with a recognition of fraternity but grows toward a mutual respect and dialogue and public involvement with the world, a public expression of friendship. I can disagree with friends, and through this struggle reach something like consensus. I can also feel compassion for someone I find reprehensible. I can feel compassion for someone I fight against, someone for whom friendship—and thus respect and dialog—is not an option. I can defend myself against someone who threatens me, while still feeling compassion, and once the struggle is over, if the necessary preconditions for friendship arise, we might even become friends.

This is the only way for our species to stay alive. The minute we dehumanize those we struggle against, we become them, we divide and conquer ourselves. Even those who wish only for the human race to be extinguished must be granted this essential compassion, even as we fight to keep them from killing us all. Only through compassion can we survive, and become something more. John Dewey said it better, of course:

Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living. They are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end. It is a form of idolatry to erect means into the end which they serve. Democratic political forms are simply the best means that human wit has devised up to a special time in history. But they rest back upon the idea that no man or limited set of men is wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent; the positive meaning of this statement is that all those who are affected by social institutions must have a share in producing and managing them. The two facts that each one is influenced in what he does and enjoys and in what he becomes by the institutions under which he lives, and that therefore he shall have, in a democracy, a voice in shaping them, are the passive and active sides of the same fact.

The dichotomy proposed by Maimonides at the start of this page, then, is false. We must struggle, and overcome evil, and punish evil persons, but that does not mean we must lose our compassion for them, which is as simple as recognition of our common humanity. Of course we must resist, but not at the cost of becoming demons ourselves.

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