Of Politics and Compassion

If I were to elevate one flaw I have above all the others, it would be that I am not nearly compassionate enough. This is not to say that I’m exceptionally brutal or mean, merely that I see in myself the same flaw I see in the vast majority of others.

The easiest example of this lack of compassion is in the political sphere. Politics is seen to be primarily a space for wounded yelling and progress-less confrontation. But anyone who sets out to convert the opposition is more likely to succeed by being compassionate toward them than by being stridently “right.”

In politics especially, compassion is seen as a liability. Barack Obama’s willingness to trust that America isn’t full of racist white people has been one of the big reasons behind his appeal, even while it garners a great deal of criticism from both the right and left.

The argument against compassion runs like this: the other side is blatantly wrong on this question and we need to be ready to beat them into submission by regularly emphasizing how wrong they are.

This is how many perceive the method of older black leaders like Revs. Sharpton and Jackson (and Wright). This is how many perceive the Republicans of the 1990 who were so willing to use any fodder they could against President Clinton. This is how many perceive the “new left” typified by The Daily Kos, unwilling to admit that Republicans aren’t greedily selfish bullies bent on world domination

These perceptions are driven, at least in part, by a failure of compassion. A failure to understand that your opposition is no less human because they oppose you. A failure to imagine that those politicians have feelings, and hearts, and consciences. A failure to understand that regardless of how impossible it might seem, your opposition is probably doing what it thinks is right.

Surely there are times when what is thought right is, in hindsight, clearly not so. The invasion of Iraq struck most people as right and necessary in 2003, today few would defend it as such. Jim Crow-style segregation was thought by many people to be the only way to ensure peace and harmony in the American south. Appeasement of the Nazis was thought a favorable alternative to engaging in another war. Continued slavery was a compromise many America politicians were willing to make if it would keep southern states from seceding.

But the fact that these notion were wrong at the time doesn’t mean that the correct course was or is to imagine the opponents as malicious and calculating. They were people, flawed perhaps, but still trying to do their best. In losing sight of their humanness any ability to understand them fades too.

The Downfall created some drama for failing to deny it’s Hitler a humanness. In what is widely seen as a first, Bruno Ganz’s Hitler was not a mindless or insane killing machine hell-bent on world domination. He was a person, deeply flawed, possibly crazy, and surely dangerous. But he wasn’t a monster. No person, the film quietly contended, is a monster.

Whether or not you think humanizing Hitler is A Bridge Too Far–my apologies for the too-easy pun–it’s important to recognize, and never forget, that lesser demons are probably not monsters.

Perhaps you hate Pat Robertson or William Hagee. Perhaps you hate Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. Perhaps you hate Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. Lou Dobbs or Jon Stewart. President Clinton or President Bush.

Whoever you hate, in politics or elsewhere, do yourself and that person a favor and remember that they are a person. A person who wants what’s best and would like not to suffer. Only after thinking of that for a second should you begin the name calling and mudslinging which I fervently hope will someday disappear entirely.

2 responses to “Of Politics and Compassion”

  1. It’s natural that Downfall presented a human side to Hitler — the film was based on his secretary’s memoir. There is some quote from her somewhere saying she “felt guilty about liking the biggest monster ever to have lived” or similar. It’s really weird to read it about him from her perspective.

    Great film, too.