On Compassion and Punishment

Yesterday in a Facebook group, I came across a news story. It was about a high school girl at a Christian school who had gotten pregnant. She was upset that the school was not going to allow her to walk in her graduation because they didn’t want people to see her and think that it was “a good idea” to get knocked up (I honestly don’t know who comes up with this shit). The school’s anti-choice group was sticking up for her saying that it sends the wrong message to girls who choose to continue their pregnancy.

The Facebook group I am in is centered on pro-choice activism and therefore many of us were amused at the idea of anti-choice people being shocked by such an anti-woman move as forbidding a pregnant girl to be seen in public. And yet, I wanted to think that most of us felt compassion for a young girl who was being left out of an important life moment because school officials had this moronic idea that girls decide to upend their lives and get pregnant simply because they saw a pregnant girl being treated with respect and compassion. Unfortunately, the response in the group was mainly along the lines of “I don’t feel sorry for her” because she is anti-choice. I found this reaction strange and took a few minutes to think about it before replying. We’ve seen this scenario before. We saw it when we read comments about the news story featuring a Trump-supporting couple whose family was being torn apart by Trump’s new anti-immigrant emphasis. We whooped with glee when we read about those supporters who were set to lose insurance coverage if Obamacare was repealed. Why do we do this?

I think we do this because we like to see people punished for thinking “wrongly”. On some level we believe our compassion is finite, is a reward, and we want only to bestow it on the worthy. One person commented that she should have the right to decide on whom to have compassion and, on one level at least, I agree. Compassion fatigue is a real thing, particularly among those of us who are activists on the front line. But I would argue that it is one thing to be emotionally exhausted and perhaps scroll past the story in our newsfeed and another thing to expend even more emotion vilifying that person instead. And that leads me to my next insight.

Somewhere, deep down, we believe that having compassion on someone who thinks differently than we do means we are somehow giving approval to their views. This is why instead of just scrolling by we just have to say something. We can’t let someone be wrong! Sometimes this can be a good thing. I rarely let sexist comments slide by because I know that if I want to change the world I have to confront injustice. But even then I have to marshal my resources. I can’t just go around confronting things all day long. I have my sanity to think of. Sometimes I will let a comment go by because I know that my speaking is futile, that this particular offender is trolling or not at all ready to engage in meaningful dialog. If we’re in the long fight for reproductive justice, we need to be aware of how and why we use our energy.

Part of this need to punish by withholding compassion, I think, is also because we subconsciously think our withholding will produce change (it won’t). It is seen as a form of good activism (it isn’t). It makes us feel like we’re doing our bit when we can’t be there in person (we’re not). And yet, the funny thing is, I’m relatively certain that if any of us knew the girl in question, we’d be far less likely to be so reactionary. Familiarity has a funny way of getting in the way of our abstract ideas.

I finally ended up commenting on the story in the group. After all, I just can’t let someone be wrong! Luckily, my faith in my friends was not misplaced. The person who originally commented about not feeling sorry for the girl said that I had made a good point and thanked me for making her think. I met her halfway with the comment that I can only do this because I am an offender myself.

This is how you hold competing ideas in tension, and holding competing ideas in tension is the crux of compassion for both yourself and others.

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