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.

american society, big ideas, ruminations

Signal, Noise, and Lou Dobbs

Jarrod Trainque (flickr)CNN “News”

Signal to noise ratios are something most people are at least mildly familiar with. They’re the reason that you either turn off the radio or change the station as you drive out of the range of the station you were listening to.

But where radio on road trips is the obvious place to begin this analogy, it’s certainly not the end. Signal to noise ratios come in to play everywhere. Maybe you’ve picked up a magazine and had to put it down because the make-up or computer parts ads easily outnumbered the interesting content of the magazine. Maybe you’ve made the same decision about a website. Too many pop-ups, pop-unders, or just plain old ads. Maybe you “detest” “corporate” radio because of “all the ads”–my apologies for three uses of ironic quotation marks in the same sentence.

But advertisements aren’t all this is about. Certainly advertisements are an easy example. When you’re watching television, listening to the radio, reading magazines, or surfing the internet, advertisements are easily recognizable. Because ads are easy to recognize it’s easy for us, as consumers, to decide that they clearly constitute “noise” against the “signal” of the show or article we are seeking.

But advertisements aren’t the only type of noise out there, and I would hardly allow that they are the most pernicious. We know them and clearly recognize them as noise (perhaps excepting those during the Superbowl) advertisements are easy for us to filter out. Product placement, when done well, can be much harder to filter out than traditional advertising–hence it’s premium position in the minds of advertisers.

And that’s to say nothing of the hard-to-find signal in other places. For example, a few years ago I gave up on cable “news.” The signal to noise ratio was creating something far worse than mere advertising or even an out-of-range radio signal. The signal itself was corrupted. Not only were the commercials “noise,” but the content itself was essentially valueless. Were CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News the only ways to get the news I may have tolerated their pettiness, but in a world with so many options in so many mediums sitting through the noise of commercials and the noise of the channels’ shrill commentators seemed a fool’s choice.

Now what I consider “noise”–the churlish pettiness of commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann–may be considered by others to be the signal. Surely both men produce shows far more interesting than they would by blindly reading wire stories, and for some that’s enough. And indeed it’s roughly the same calculus–“It’s news and entertainment”–that I use to excuse the regularly petty antics of Jon Stewart’s The A Daily Show.

There are multiple points that one could unravel from all of this, but the most important is this: you’ve always got to consider what you want, and if what you’re looking at is giving it to you. It’s very easy to say “I want to be informed about the news. CNN is about the news. I’ll watch CNN to be informed.” The logic is faultless, but the results are ugly. Anyone who watches Lou Dobbs and thinks they’re being meaningfully informed about the world is severely misguided.

If there’s one societal trend I’m allowed to blindly lament without any evidence it exists, I’ll choose this: People seem less skilled about distinguishing between what’s valuable or not and using those judgments to determine their habits. They seem to flock to people and ideas and then abandon them without ever considering if they’re personally getting anything from either act.

Now I have no basis for that lament, so I must retract it. But I think this advice remains salient: Think before you watch, or listen, or read. Please.