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Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

Horrible things are happening in France.

It’s really not a useful function of this blog to tell you about that. Other, better people have already given you much more useful detail about what’s going on, and I’m no better at picking the accurate and useful details apart from the misinformation and speculation than you are. All I can be is one more futile voice in the crowd, agreeing that it’s horrible when horrible things happen, and we all feel bad.

My one-time secondary blog would be relevant here. If we want to change things, to effect a world less imbued with anger and violence, less susceptible to such an apparent onslaught of attacks and hatred, a good place to start is to examine attitudes to the Other. To try to understand how tribalistic tendencies nurture fear and contempt toward those who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like “one of us”.

And god knows there are plenty of opinions on display at the moment about the Other, and their role in this latest tragedy.

For some, the Other is the Infidel, who refuses to submit to the true way through an inherent grotesqueness that makes them less than human. They deserve nothing less than death, and to serve as a message to the rest of the world.

For many, the Other is the kind of inhuman monster who could commit violence like this against innocent people. Examination of the mindset that could lead to such acts is therefore of no interest. They’re awful, broken people, the ones who did this awful thing, and deserve no sympathy. And maybe this means that some other folk who share some characteristics with the awful, broken people – their religion, say – are necessarily awful and broken too. They might not want to think that. But it seeps through.

For a tragically visible number, the Other is a big collective mass of Everyone Who’s A Bit Different From Me And Is To Blame For This Somehow. Refugees, whose camps are reportedly being burned. Muslims, who are already defending themselves against exactly this type of entirely predictable slur. People with suspiciously dark skin. You know, that lot. You know who I mean. Obviously these groups of individuals are all loosely connected at best, but who cares about nuance and meaningful distinctions when we’re under attack by Them.

For me, primarily, the Other is people who, at times like these, talk about the need to close ranks and close borders, to crack down on all those foreigners coming over here bring all their terrorism with them, to solve intolerance with intolerance, to face hate with hate. The Other is loudly proclaiming how a mercilessly authoritarian approach is the only appropriate response to atrocities like this, and that there’s no time for bleeding-heart lefty ideas like “free speech” and “compassion” when we need to make sure our people are safe.

Humanity and love for the Other: it’s a tough job, but someone’s everyone’s got to do it.

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Something I talk about a lot is the importance of compassion, and how we should all be nicer to people and bring more joy to the world and stuff.

I’ve realised, though, that this can be really unhelpful advice on its own. In isolation, suggesting that people “be more compassionate” has a lot in common with demanding “hey, get taller”. It commends the tendency in people already disposed that way, but doesn’t offer much in the way of a path of self-development.

You have to work actually surprisingly hard to be nicer to people than you’re just naturally inclined to anyway. But it’s the kind of effort you’ll need to make if you really want to change anything, or make the world better, or for anything I say about the importance of compassion to be more than empty platitudes.

I’ve generally been urging everyone to be more like this, but really all I’m doing is repeatedly emphasising the importance of doing more of this. The actual practical question of how to be more like this gets a lot less attention.

I don’t suddenly have any answers now, but I’m going to try and bear it in mind for next time I’m on one of my rants about how tight it would be if everyone was chill to each other.

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Here’s a thing I Facebooked recently:

I got more Twitter attention than I had for ages yesterday, by pointing out that homophobia is silly to people who already knew that. As you can possibly tell from my rather glib phrasing, it felt less than satisfactory or victorious.

It’s definitely worthwhile progress that being gay is coming to be seen universally as obviously completely fine, but I don’t see much of a useful endgame following from enlightened folk like me simply continuing to point it out.

I think I’m troubled by certain inbuilt methods of engaging with those who disagree, and how naturally I slide into those easy patterns. If you want people to learn to love better, and you’re not using love to teach that lesson, surely your methods are flawed from the start. Be the change you want to see in the world, and such. Otherwise your strategy is “Stop hating people different from you, or I’ll hate you for your differences from me.”

If you crush the rebellious, they’ll just learn tyranny & oppression. If you demand they be more accepting, without yourself displaying acceptance in action… Well, I don’t know. Just seems like if I want to be as revolutionary as I want to be, I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more.

This has been: @writerJames tweets from a nice warm bath while slightly tipsy on the theme of optimising the world through improved compassion and communication, then recaps it on Facebook the next morning.

Surprisingly, not everyone was instantly won over to my proposed hippie lefty love-fest of peace and harmony. I guess they must’ve just been feeling grouchy. Or maybe there’s at least one major proviso which deserves to be added to the above points.

Broadly speaking, I stand by my generalised support for being nice, and I’m strongly inclined to speak out in favour of being kinder to people than they might seem to deserve. Compassion can make real constructive progress between people of differing views possible, in ways that anger and bitterness can’t, far more often than the other way around.

But I can see, on reflection, how something as apparently innocuous at first glance as idly wishing for a charming idyll of universal tolerance might be problematic. As is so often the case, it’s largely down to the context. My context at the time of the above thoughts was a nice hot bath on a comfortably lazy afternoon. Not everyone shared in it.

(In the context of my position of comfort and security, I mean. Obviously no-one was sharing my bath. No-one ever is. Or seems to want to. I’m beginning to think I don’t know how to set up a Facebook event properly.)

The way nobody quite put it to me in the comments was: “That’s easy for you, but some of us are still dealing with shit that we deserve to be angry about, fuckdammit.” Maz pointed out how much fun it isn’t, being told essentially to “calm down dear”, something she’s heard often enough before. She objects to other people’s behaviour, and her audacity for speaking up seems to be reprimanded more severely than the genuinely objectionable remarks that earned her wrath in the first place. While I wasn’t advocating the passivity she argued against, I also wouldn’t dispute the entitlement she claims to her anger.

But my hypothetical commenter summing things up was right about something important. It is easy for me.

And if I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s easy, it seems like I have more responsibility than most to make some sort of effort.

My comments were coming from a place of significant privilege. Being a straight white able-bodied male, that’s true of most comments I’m ever likely to make. But the feminists who believe this means my opinions should be ignored or shouted down only really exist in the fetid imaginations of a significant slice of the men’s rights activism movement.

The remark I originally made on Twitter, which my later series of tweets referred to, was about this post by one of the UK’s foremost pitifully watered-down attempts at religious extremism, Christian Voice.

Now, to me, watching a niche outfit like Christian Voice, as they rail against the inevitable march of progress, and bluster about how those gays are undermining all you straight people and your own marriages, no really they are, you just don’t realise it – to me, it’s almost adorable. They’re too quaint to take seriously. They certainly aren’t a threat, but they’re too tragic to really be a joke either. They’re like a doddery grandparent who keeps muttering about how the blacks are everywhere these days doing jobs white people used to do, who you roll your eyes at and gently remind that that we don’t use certain slurs when we talk about people these days.

Their attempt at oppressive bigotry is such a misguided, overblown, tiny little gnat of a thing, it feels inappropriate for me to get all fiery and indignant over it. It’d be like trying to become righteously enraged at the unacceptable behaviour of a toddler throwing a tantrum on the living room floor, flailing at you with their tiny balled-up fists.

And the context of all this is that I’m still a straight white able-bodied male. The thing I know – but didn’t explicitly acknowledge in my original burble – is that for many people homophobia is really not in any way adorable. People are still shamed, humiliated, harassed, brutalised, and attacked for their sexuality. And that’s just in the kinds of progressive countries where these attitudes are obviously on the way out, let alone in somewhere like Uganda. A lot of folk are made seriously fucking miserable by the kind of prejudice at which I sigh and shake my head with weary indulgence.

Now, being aware of that context doesn’t negate the value of bringing compassion to these arguments, or undermine my basic point that fighting hate with hate is a suboptimal method for reaching a conclusion of love and tolerance. But if people are feeling hectored about their tone, I’ve done something wrong.

Judging anyone else’s moral obligation to be kind, patient, and compassionate to people unwilling to return the favour is absolutely not a game I meant to play. However much I might uphold that ideal, I know that berating anyone else for failing to live up to it, without considering their own circumstances and why it may not be a realistic goal in their case, will only add to the world’s level of dickitude. The one person whose situation I’m sufficiently familiar with to make that kind of moral judgment on is me.

I’ll need to eschew easy options and put in the hours more, is what I said. I can hold myself to that standard, while recognising that my straight-white-male-ness is part of what makes this a practical expectation for me, and that not everyone shares those features. It was a pondering on my own capacity for self-improvement that set me off on this road. Which is also why the later comment that “from what I recall of your blogging about religion, you don’t write in the style you’re suggesting here” is quite accurate.

Part of the reason for this apparent double-standard is that, while homophobia has always been almost entirely unthreatening to me, I’ve not always identified with the same privileged position when it comes to religion. I’ve been part of the atheist movement, as it were, and railed against the many and varied injustices of religious oppression as if they were in some way personal affronts. But, if I’m honest, my rights and personal safety have never been under serious threat from any Christian bigots or Islamic extremists or Jain nutjobs. I don’t need to defend my right to my anger the way some people do.

So, I don’t need to be an asshole to outspoken religious people any more than I do to anachronistic homophobes. I don’t need to give them a free pass if they’re going to be hateful or irrational or make the world a notably worse place in any way, but I also don’t need to be hostile in order to stand up for reality and kindness. If you can do that too, then wonderful, I recommend it. If you can’t, then it’s not for me to expect it of you. It may be an unreasonable ask, if these issues are actually affecting you personally and fucking up your life. We’ve all got our own shit to deal with. You’re entitled to work through yours however. I can dig it.

Hopefully that makes a bit more sense of things. Either way I think I’ll stop talking about it now.

Oh and by the way we’ve sold our house but can’t buy a new one yet and it’s all a ridiculous mess.

Bye.

(P.S. I read this only after drafting all the above, which makes a more interesting point more concisely than I did.)

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Apparently I’m doomed to keep harping on about this for as long as the wrongness-on-the-internet continues.

In one of my sporadic Twitter conversations about atheistic morality the other day, the person I’d randomly picked on to start needling for justification of their incorrect opinion managed to get quite incisively to the heart of the matter. While questioning the purpose of doing good, or indeed doing anything, in a godless universe, he referred to my implicit assumption that caring for other people is a good thing, and asked:

Who says?

Which I think is what it always comes down to, with these people who continue to insist that an “objective morality” is something only a deity can provide, and that atheistic ethics are necessarily haphazard and lacking any solid foundation.

Never mind all the actual facts about how people behave in reality, which in no way support the claim that atheists are any less inclined toward benevolent behaviour than the religious. Clearly abandoning one’s ideological axioms based on reality isn’t on the cards for this guy, or we wouldn’t even need this discussion.

Leave aside for now the complete irrelevance of that issue to the empirical question of whether a god exists. He’s not visibly trying to argue that a god does exist. He’s not even particularly trying to argue that atheists are bad people, I think; just that they could be, at any given moment, not like religious believers, who have a solid foundation for their morality, y’see. Just don’t ask what the hell that means and what practical effects it’s supposed to have.

The point is, he poses a good question. Who does say that caring for other people is good?

Who says it should matter to me whether other people are suffering?

Who says it ought to make the slightest difference to my life if some other sucker knows only pain and desperation on his short and brutal journey toward death?

Who says it’s a good thing in any measurable way to help those in need, to soothe pain and provide happiness, to do stuff that’s morally right, out of love and compassion for my fellow man?

If throwing acid in a child’s face would directly benefit Winston Smith in some way, who says it should matter to him whether that child is permanently disfigured?

We obviously need someone out there, someone in charge, to tell us why these things should matter. Otherwise it’s all just arbitrary. It can’t really mean anything if we just make our own decisions based on love and kindness.

Taking the religious line, it’s God who says. Compassion for others is good because he says so. You should care for people because God says you should. Leaving children’s faces unscarred is morally correct, because God has ordained that the suffering of children is a bad thing (*cough*Exodus 12:29-30*cough).

But I don’t take the religious line. I’m an atheist.

And I say you should care about other people.

I say it matters what difference we make, how kindly we behave toward others, how much suffering we alleviate.

I say that nobody else has to tell you that these things matter, you can just fucking decide it, if you’re not an uncaring and inhumane monster.

If you’re waiting for someone else to set some rules which dictate that torturing children is bad, you are doing morality wrong.

The next time someone claims that only God can give an “objective foundation to morality”, remind them about this archbishop, who, during questioning about the sexual abuse of a child, recently claimed uncertainty as to whether, at the time, he understood that sexual abuse of a child was morally wrong.

Remind them about that, then ask what the fuck use a god-based “objective foundation to morality” actually is to anyone in the real world.

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Fred Phelps, former patriarch of the organisation perhaps most globally renowned for sincerely and consistently committing to its core principle of hating literally everybody else on the planet, has died.

His church made a name for themselves by parading as close as they were legally permitted to the highest-profile funerals they were able to attend, waving placards of hate and bigotry at anyone who’d glance their way, revelling in the ire they elicited from anyone with an ounce of sense or compassion.

On the surface, homosexuality seems to be their main bugbear, but the entire human race is an object of such apparent fear and revulsion to these people that just about every sin, real or imagined, committed by anyone not a member of their immediate family, gets swept into the blanket condemnation of “fag” or “fag enabler”. You needn’t have committed any crime more grievous than failing to belong to their insular clan of a few dozen extremist zealots, and you’re rendered an unperson in their eyes, dismissed with the most disgusting monosyllable their stunted minds can conceive. They incite people to shout and yell right back at them, and count every verbal tussle as a victory. They continue to be the gold standard of meatspace trolls.

They are all terrible people, and by all visible measures, Grampa Fred was the most cruel and hateful of the lot. He played a key role in keeping the church’s venomous momentum going, and in exacerbating the suffering of numerous grieving families at their most vulnerable moments. I suspect many will struggle to see much sadness in his passing.

Apparently there won’t be a funeral for anyone to vengeance-picket, but there was a counter-demonstration at the WBC’s latest protest. Here’s the sign they held up:

Yes.

That is unquestionably how you’re meant to do it. That is what we do when someone loses a family member. That is the sentiment we extend to the recently bereaved. We don’t withhold basic compassion, or lace it with sarcasm or passive-aggression or revenge-gloating, simply because it’s happening to the wrong sort of people.

So that’s one reaction that I found worth noticing. The other, also pointed out by the Friendly Atheist, is from Nate Phelps.

While some of Fred’s thirteen children have continued to be involved in the church, Nate was one of those who got the hell out of Dodge as soon as was feasible. He’s committed himself for years to campaigning against everything his family’s church stands for. Hemant highlights this line from Nate’s comments on the death of his father:

I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.

Nate’s pretty cool. As much as it might bring a sense of relief or even joy to many, it’s worth trying to remember that even the death of someone like Fred Phelps is a sad thing. It’s sad that his life was so dominated by bitterness and hatred, continuing along an inevitably miserable path to its equally bitter and hateful conclusion. It’s sad that his twisted infatuation with spite and malice never gave him a chance for him to claw back anything worthwhile from life, and now he never will.

The key thing, as well, is not to begrudge anyone who doesn’t feel inclined to be quite so magnanimous. I mean, the WBC are awful, and if I was ever going to be able to sympathise with the idea of seeking catharsis by performing the Macarena on someone’s burial plot, Fred Phelps is your prime candidate. For many people still taking the kind of abuse he was notorious for every day of their lives, it may all be too sore. You can understand why some folk feel entitled to their morbid jig.

But I’m a comfortably middle-class straight white guy, a position which sometimes comes with certain expectations. I have nothing invested in this, nothing that needs venting. The Westboro Baptist Church has never caused me any level of distress which I couldn’t nullify by changing the channel away from the Louis Theroux documentary I was watching. So I don’t need to find relief in celebrating Fred Phelps’s death. I have no excuse not to be the most betterest person I can be.

So. Compassion for the Phelps clan, and how they must be suffering to seek such solace in lashing out so violently. Compassion, too, for those bearing way worse emotional scars than me, at the church’s hand, and for whom it’s too much to expect them to dig deep into their hearts and find anything but resentment and frustration.

Love all the humans. Turns out the answer never really changes.

Classroom discussion questions

1. Shit, has it really been over a month since anything happened here?

2. Where the hell have I been?

3. How do I ever expect to get anything done if this is my general rate of productivity?

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Sylvia Browne has died.

Spend more than a few minutes looking into the kind of thing she devoted her life to, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that she was pretty much one of the worst people it’s possible to be, driven by only the ugliest of human faculties and emotions.

We don’t need to forget or ignore this fact now that she’s gone, but neither is there any need to take joy in the news. Wishing suffering or vengeance on any part of the world only makes it darker and less lovely to be in. And death is still a far greater enemy than Sylvia Browne ever was, no matter how much she twisted it to her advantage over the course of a long and horrid career.

Some people will be personally saddened by Sylvia’s passing; they have my sympathies, even if I can’t honestly join them in their mourning.

For many, the news is a prompt to remind the world at large about this woman’s utter lack of psychic abilities, and the importance of learning how to avoid being taken in by obvious scams, swindles, and other misrepresentations of reality. I’m all for this, but I hope one thing that doesn’t get lost is the point that not everyone with the “wrong” belief in psychic powers is like this.

Some folk believe (incorrectly, sure) that they have some kind of power or gift, and are moved to try to help people, feeling a deep and sincere concern for the well-being of their fellow humans, rather than simply emulating the flimsiest charade of humanity. There is absolutely a non-null intersection between compassion and supernaturalism.

Sylvia Browne was not one of the good ones, by any measure. We can do better than to let any further cruelty and unfair judgment become part of her legacy.

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From this tumblr:

6) practice compassion, and i mean practice in the “practice piano” sense of the word. sometimes on public transportation i like to look at all the people on the train or bus in turn and imagine how each of them might be feeling, think about the heavy things in their life they may be carrying, and try to feel kindness and love for them. this kind of thing also helps when someone is irritating you. we all have a lot of struggle in our lives – think about the ways your life is hard that strangers and even friends don’t know about – and remembering this can be the key to having warmer feelings towards everyone, which feels good.

Some people know what’s up. I’m a fricken amateur over here.

(Bitching at length about politics scheduled for tomorrow. Watch this space.)

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