Why Hard-Nosed Compassion Wins

This piece was originally shared on my facebook feed on November 12th, 2016. It is also shared on Medium.

These past two years, I’ve thought a lot about how and why I confront others I disagree with the way that I do. Why do I seek out opportunities to visit rural red towns in the lead up to the U.S. Presidential election and why am I compelled to travel back to France as a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. As I tried to fill in the details to friends over a dozen occasions, a story about my MO (my modus operandi) emerged and it is a story I really want to tell because it is one I am not hearing elsewhere.

My MO when I see behavior I find wrong is first to confront it even if it makes people uncomfortable but second to do so without the explicit embarrassing shaming tactic if possible. I do this not because I’m a mushy idealist but because (a) most Trump supporters aren’t going to respond to explicit shaming from me, (b) often, people who are made to feel powerless by shaming take it out on others they think of as less powerful, sometimes violently, (c) I think providing an example of how to treat others you disagree with with dignity is clearly missing and important, and (d) I’ve been told by multiple individuals who are now voiceful advocates for treating Muslims with respect that it was my doing (c) that caused them to make a 180 in how they view this particular minority.

One of the most powerful experiences I had this year was stepping into a truly vitriolic facebook war right after Orlando between a bunch of guys I have not seen since high school on how much hatred Muslims teach against gays and how they should be bombed away. A few folks had tried to say “you are wrong” to these guys and things just got more vitriolic. Rather than saying “you are bigots” I said something like “Reading your post makes my blood boil, and I suspect you are saying these things because your blood is boiling as a result of feeling your liberties threatened. I know this because I feel the same way when I step into a restaurant and see people staring at a terrorist on the TV who looks like me and I realize that the whole restaurant is now looking at me differently. Or, when I have to change my daily routine because of a threat of a terrorist attack and it sucks.” And throughout it I explained how my family came to promote tolerance and respect towards others rather than hatred in response to certain ways they were treated. To my surprise, the response was literally “you are absolutely right. I feel conflicted about all the things I’ve said because my religion teaches me to love not hate but I don’t understand how religion can be used to teach so much hatred in others.” Treating folks with some measure of compassion caused the hate speech to stop in this thread where telling them they were wrong had failed and even exacerbated the discussion.

Thinking about it, which conversations with friends and family and on social media have encouraged me to do in recent days, I think that (d) happens because in a way (c) drives people to direct shame on themselves as they view themselves through my eyes. But there is a difference between the kind of shaming that on examination can leave a person feeling like it was a power play they need to recover from or lash out about, ie. “Look how dumb you are and how much better than you I am” and the kind that makes someone feel like they have the capacity to be better. Although I can’t prove it, I suspect that a lot of the hate crimes of the last few days were committed by people who were at some point shamed in the former way.

There is one more reason to confront bad behavior with compassion which is a bit trickier to articulate but I’ll try: (e) modeling compassion rather than shaming helps to set a norm that works for people like me who weren’t born into a community where the norm values perfectly fit our experiences. I have to try to understand others because everyone is different from me and if I didn’t do that work I wouldn’t get very far in this world. Does it take up my energy and attention? Absolutely. Would I get farther if I didn’t have to do this? Yes. Why don’t I just stop caring? Because sometimes when I speak my mind, I get told “Ayeh you are just doing whatever you want to do. You don’t listen to anyone else. You are too passionate. You live in your own world.” Some people can get away without engendering such responses. In some instances I can too. And in some cases I take advantage of that because it’s more expedient. But there are also times that just by virtue of being a woman, or wearing a headscarf, or being too interdisciplinary, or just simply not fitting some mold enough, I am not given that privilege. Modeling some degree of compassion and understanding helps to set a norm that is more inclusive for people who in one situation or another find themselves stuck not fitting a mold like me.

Of course we still have to pick our battles and of course there are times when I throw my hands into the air as well. But as my friend Tim helped me to summarize: compassion, when defined as treating another person like a person and not a label, is a necessary though not sufficient condition for effecting change. Compassion is not the same as acquiescence. Compassion is a framing of the discussion rather than the discussion itself. Compassion can be hard-nosed and take no gruff.

I’ve seen a lot of hard-nosed compassion these last few days: Lili shared an example of a twitter conversation where she successfully pressed someone to consider what he would do if a candidate said ‘I’m going to kick you and your family out of our country’ and thousands of people cheered.” Not only did she help someone put himself in my shoes, but she gave me a question that I borrowed when confronted with someone else who questioned if there was another answer besides banning Muslims.

Thanks to everyone who has given me hope that we’ll see more of this hard-nosed compassion in the days to come.