Friday, October 10, 2014

In Defense of Compassion, Empathy, and Human Dignity

Over the last several centuries humanity has undergone a moral and ethical revolution. Despite the continued existence of warfare, bigotry, fanaticism, slavery, misogyny, poverty, starvation, and preventable disease, people across the globe are becoming more aware and less tolerant of these travesties, as well as actively fighting against them in ever increasing numbers. It will likely take several more centuries, if ever, to completely eliminate these stains on human morality. However, people like Malala YousafzaiEugenie Scott, and Edward Snowden are working every day to fight against ignorance, oppression, hatred, and the degradation of our minds and bodies. These incredible people, and millions others like them, are motivated not by greed, vanity, or a desire for power. They are motivated by compassion, empathy, and a respect for the dignity of humanity.

Unfortunately there is persistent and violent resistance to such efforts. Groups and movements such as ISIS and the PUA community seek to hold humanity in a perpetual state of ignorance, brutality, superstition, and hatred so as to protect or enhance their own power and privilege at the expense of the rest of humanity. Global hunger is rampant despite a global surplus of food. War rages in the middle east, Ukraine, and South Sudan, among other conflicts. Africa American communities across the Unite States face the constant threat of police brutality. We still face incredibly serious challenges to humanity, and it is not a given that we will not soon find ourselves in a global dark ages. Despite the progress made over the last several centuries we can still loose it all.

Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
As mentioned above those that seek to make life better and more fulfilling for all of humanity are motivated by compassion, empathy, and a respect for human dignity. Let's take a moment to define these terms.

Compassion, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress and a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy is the feeling that you understand and share another person's emotions and experiences.

Dignity is the quality of being worthy of honor and respect.

The Importance of Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
In order to treat others well we need to feel compassion for the suffering of others. Compassion is what starts us on our way to taking action to relieve suffering. Empathy is what makes others' experience of suffering salient to our own experience, and thus facilitates compassionate responses to injustice. In order to feel compassion and empathy we need to accept that all persons are born with a basic, inviolable right to personal dignity. By virtue of being alive and having the capacity to feel distress and pain all persons are entitled to have their dignity respected by all others. Dignity is not earned, it is inherent in our very existence. Denial of one person's dignity is a denial of all human dignity.

The Maligning of Compassion, Empathy, and Dignity
In contemporary American society these virtues are not only marginalized, they are often maligned and seen as signs of cowardice and weakness. This is perhaps best manifested in the persona of the 'Equal Opportunity Hater.' I've often heard people in my life justify their own racist, misogynistic, and bigoted humor on premise that they don't target any one specific group with their hate and invective, they target all groups (even their own) with their hate and invective. I used to be one of these people. I would make incredibly hateful and insensitive jokes and cower under the cover of equal opportunity hate. It unfortunately took more than one time for me to be called out for my insensitivity to realize that my sense of humor was hateful and bigoted, despite the fact that I dished it out to all groups. I thought I was being provocative, witty, and edgy, when in reality I was being ignorant, short sighted, and hateful. I know from my own experience and that of others that not all equal opportunity haters actually believe in the absolutely vile things they spread. But that still doesn't make it right. The fact is that in the end, regardless of intentions or justifications, such humor is what helps society to turn a blind eye to the real depravity and injustice in the world. The sting of hatred is not lessened by spreading it around more, it is only intensified.

As I have become more sensitive the world around me I've been called weak, overly sensitive, too politically correct, and all of the other terms people like to use to denigrate any feelings of compassion, empathy, and respect for the dignity others that I wish to express. Instead of asking people to stop being so sensitive, ask yourself 'What have I done to appear so insensitive?' Ask that person why they feel offended or slighted instead of telling them they should not feel that way. When you do that you are completely denying what they have experienced. Expressing feelings of empathy and compassion is not a form of cowardice as many would like to believe. I can say from my own personal experience that it is much harder, and for some people riskier, to call out bigotry than it is to perpetuate it though witless humor. If you feel a need to cloak your prejudices and biases in the guise of equal opportunity hate then you are the one displaying cowardice. To claim to be an equal opportunity hater is to shut down any critical examination of the intent and effect of your humor. The unwillingness to lay your beliefs bare to critical examination is a sign of intellectual and moral cowardice.

We live in a time where hatred, bigotry, and injustice is no longer invisible. More and more incidents of police brutality are documented on video, wars are streamed live on the internet, and corporate and government malfeasance are more readily exposed than at any other time in the past. Abolitionist, Transcendentalist, and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, said of the institution of slavery in 1857:
Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.
Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.
We need to continue the work begun by so many other so long ago. Those of us that learn to feel and embrace compassion, empathy, and human dignity are on the right side of history. Let's not let the blights of our past and present blind us and pull us unaware back into depths of hatred, ignorance, and depravity which so many have fought, and continue to fight, to pull us out of.

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