Unfortunately, we spiritual-progressive types, including but not limited to dharma heads, seem to be particularly prone to something I call compassion-baiting.
General compassion-baiting sounds something like:
Try having more compassion. If you did, you’d see things my way.
And in social justice situations, specifically, compassion-baiting often sounds like:
You’re more upset / loud / angry about social harm than I, arbiter, deem appropriate. You must therefore be lacking in wisdom or compassion.
F**k that noise, for real.
Why so touchy, you ask? Let’s break it down: 5 major fails associated with compassion-baiting.
1. Compassion-Baiting Enables Sexual Misconduct
It’s hard enough to come forward with an experience of sexual harassment – fearing you’ll be labeled uptight, slutty, attention-seeking, or worse.
Compassion-baiting saddles victims with the additional worry of seeming spiritually immature. After all, if we had enough compassion, we could simply, patiently, and lovingly settle any differences with our so-called harasser, right? We would practice upekkha – equanimity – and remain unruffled, uperturbed. We would do our utmost to empathize with our aggressor and assume their best intentions. We would scrutinize our own motives. We would seek harmony, not conflict.
My first experience with this was a case of internalized, self-inflicted compassion-baiting. It was back in high school. A boy in my class found it hilarious to come up next to me, standthisclose, and whisper with a grin, “Does this make you uncomfortable?”
Priding myself on an ability to stay calm (and also not wanting to give him the upper hand), I would shrug and reply, “No.”
The “joke” continued a handful of times, but I wasn’t too worried. I’m a patient, tolerant person, I thought. I can outlast this, rather than fanning the drama flames.
Then one day, a group of us were sitting in the grass near the baseball diamond. It was late spring, when the Sacramento weather starts heating up, and a lot of us, including me, were wearing shorts.
All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my upper, inner thigh. It was the boy.
“Does this make you uncomfortable?”
This time I lost it a little. “STOP IT,” I snapped, and pushed his hand away.
“Woah, woah, woah,” he taunted, half cowering in mock fear. “So angry. What are you gonna do? Sue me?”
And there it is. Even from school days, we’re taught that sexual harassment is less of a problem than our upset responses to it.
Compassion-baiting only magnifies this backwardness. Rather than seriously considering allegations of abuse, it subjects them to a litmus test of enlightened attitude.
Let’s stop this. For real.
2. It Puts a Rush Job On Forgiveness
As the wise saying goes, “Forgiveness is a process, not an event.” But peace-loving Buddhists and spiritual types, bless our hearts, are sometimes in a big hurry to reach release – to get to the good part, already.
“If you tried having some compassion, we say to ourselves and others, you would be able to let this go.”
Not always helpful, people. Not always helpful. Sometimes, honestly, patronizing as hell. And I’ve been guilty of this, too! Toward myself as well as toward others.
Don’t get me wrong: forgiveness is wonderful. There are many uplifting stories about people who have managed to forgive those who have gravely harmed them, or harmed the people they love. This is amazing and important work. Many people describe it as immensely freeing, and I think that’s why we’re so eager to share it with others. But we can use it as inspiration, as an option, offered considerately – rather than a standard by which to judge (or hasten) spiritual maturity.
3. It Obscures Power Dynamics
A prime example of this pitfall comes from a recent dispute over a terribly transphobic article (seriously, trigger warning, it’s awful) posted on the culture & spirituality site Reality Sandwich.
From Scofield’s post on the interaction:
It is quite evident that neither Dani Katz or Reality Sandwich co-founders and editors Ken Jordan and Faye Sakellaridis sought dialog with the trans or queer community before publishing this article. Interestingly, Jordan proposed a back and forth written dialog between myself and Katz that would then be turned into an article. I refused because saying transgender people are “freakish and scary” looking is not a reasonable viewpoint to dialog about. These are not ideas worth entertaining as doing so will only lend them more credibility. A wrong was done and Reality Sandwich should apologize and delete the article. It’s simple. (A good example to follow is what happened when Julie Burchill published her transphobic article, “Transexuals Should Cut it Out” on the Guardian/Observer and after a huge outcry ensued they deleted the piece, giving this editorial explanation.) Yet, in my refusal to “dialog” with Katz, Jordan ironically lectures me about the importance of dialog.
“Only through dialog and compassion can any real understanding and change take place…By refusing to engage in a dialog, your assumptions will never be tested….The value of dialog is that it helps us affirm that heart connection to one another, with the understanding that it’s always possible to reach another person so they can acknowledge and value our personal truth.”
See, here’s the thing about internet dialog. There are many platforms for transphobic junk talk. You do not need to supply yet another of these platforms. Disseminating hateful writing (be it cheeky or fulminatory in mood) doesn’t make you more open-minded; it makes you someone with lousy publishing standards. You can do better!
Yes, there is a place for dialog across thorny differences in this world. Would I disown a friend of mine just because they have transphobic attitudes or beliefs? Not necessarily; depends on the situation. Maybe this person shows signs of learning and growing. But I sure as hell wouldn’t publish any transphobic writing of theirs – not unless I was pulling a Russell Brand v. Westboro Baptist Church, mocking the crap out of their views in order to undermine their influence. And something tells me that’s outside the style bounds of the Reality Sandwich spiritualists.
To ask someone to publicly defend their humanity through “dialog,” and then chastize them for refusing to do so, completely ignores and obscures the additional burden of oppressed people participating in “dialogs” that evaluate their own humanity.
[T]he reason that people may respond in a “harsh” manner to oppression: Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive – that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.
Bottom line, my friend: just because someone refuses to engage with oppressive bullsh*t on your platform does not mean they are lacking in compassion or patience. It might mean they’re trying to increase the safety and well being of oppressed people.
To the editors of Reality Sandwich: I hope you’ll rethink your decision!
4. It Prioritizes Politeness Over Justice
Is there a difference between being compassionate and being polite? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.
Buddhist ethics advise us that Wise Speech, a.k.a. Right Speech, tends to lead to peace and well being. In a meticulous and moving account of her struggles exploring Right Speech with her adolescent son, Beth Roth writes for Tricycle:
The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech. He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.” In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip. Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.
Roth also makes the crucial observation that Right Speech by itself don’t cut it:
[W]e had to more consciously create the conditions for Right Listening, for without the capacity to listen deeply, all the Right Speech in the world was of little use.
Do wholesome speech and deep listening support peace and well being?
I believe it. You probably do, too. Like me, you’ve probably experienced tastes of this practical wisdom – flashes of the Buddhist superpowers helping you navigate fraught communication. It’s a deep and joyful thing.
At the same time, there’s a shadow side. I’ve seen no small amount of compassion-baiting that uses the kindness or non-harshness element of Right Speech to shut down valid criticisms and dismiss demands for justice. And that can be incredibly frustrating.
One resource I found illuminating for this riddle is The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good.
Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.
Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel!
To be clear, I’m not big on casting people as forever-enemies. Who knows – they may change their ways. But if we allow niceness to carry more weight than goodness or wholesomeness, we may have difficulty identifying people whose actions are causing major harm.
On the flip side, if we close our ears, minds, and hearts to people who seem angry, who seem enraged, who seem less than compassionate, we risk closing ourselves off from key information about the ways in which a system hurts people. About the ways in which we may be hurting people.
Which leads to the fifth fail of compassion-baiting:
5. It Disconnects Us From The Pain of Others
I love Susan Piver’s recent description, in the Huffington Post, of the purpose of mindfulness – a practice constantly being sexed up these days in popular advertisements.
To practice mindfulness, neither scientific proof nor magnetizing boobage will help you to meet the joys and sorrows of your life. The truth is, the point of mindfulness is not peace, nor is it bliss or transcendence. It does not make you permanently calm or inure you to pain and it does not even give you perky breasts, much to my dissatisfaction. Rather, it shows you where your heart is hard. It reminds you of your dreams. It shows you where you are afraid. It unlocks all the tears you have been holding back and in so doing breaks your heart to the preciousness of your life, the uniqueness of your genius, the unending grief of your losses, and your immeasurable capacity to love. It goes one better than to make you into a supermodel CEO – it shows you how to be who you really are and you discover gentleness, authenticity, and fearlessness.
I think when we engage in compassion-baiting, we re-harden our hearts. Maybe it’s because we fear being touched by the raw pain of others, so we ask them to temper it for us.
I hope and truly believe that dharma can help us respond to harm and hurt without demanding that everyone conform to our own ideas of enlightened manner. While taking responsibility for our own actions, for our own aspirations to inner freedom, can we also soften and make room for the outcry of others?
What a beautiful expression of compassion that would be.
Crossposted from Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
Katie Loncke is a Co-Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Born in Sacramento, California, and now living in Oakland, she is the curly granddaughter of Negros and Jewish refugees. She believes in the possibility of enough food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, and education for everyone. She started organizing in high school as a straight ally with a Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance, and currently organizes around social and economic issues with a group led by Latin American immigrant socialists. Following her graduation from Harvard, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center offered Katie a warm, life-altering introduction to Buddhism. Her writing on Buddhism and politics has appeared in The Jizo Chronicles, The Buddhist Channel, make/shift magazine, Flip Flopping Joy, and Feministe, as well as on Turning Wheel Media.