Compassion is not weak

Recently, I posted this comment on my Facebook page in regard to the video showing a bus full of fraternity brothers from SAE singing a horrendously racist chant.

Instead of just suspending SAE students for participating in a racist activity, why not try to educate them about American history and racism? I just don’t believe in labeling people, especially young people, for their ignorance and writing them off as racist. It’s an opportunity for them, for all of us, to learn. We can all do better. I know it feels good to punish, but we’ll make more progress if people actually learn and have a change of heart. My2cents.

Dozens of friends responded positively to this idea. Some others were critical. I won’t address all the critical comments, but I would like to respond to those who objected to the idea of showing compassion to these students and giving them a chance to learn.

I’d also like to respond more generally to ongoing criticism of my approach to civic engagement that includes emphasis on civility, compassion, democracy, and seeking understanding, reconciliation and dialogue. My critics believe these virtues and actions are “weak.”

It seems to me that my critics believe strength is the same kind of aggression that you exhibit when you’re fighting in a schoolyard and hatred is tactically good insofar as it releases aggression. To me this understanding of power is not only narrowly masculine and misguided, but it is strategically wrong.

Our strength as a people comes from organizing people to become informed on critical issues and engaged in our political process, not from brute schoolyard aggression. The more people we have informed and engaged, more progress we will have. That is my theory of change.

When our fights get ugly, many people will disengage because they are conflict-averse. At present, politics is a sport for people who are drawn to conflict or have a high tolerance for it. This is one reason why we have the people who form the bases of the two parties most engaged while average people are disengaged.

To organize people, there is no way around dialogue. We can’t be effective organizers if we do not give people a chance to learn; if we do not approach them with respect and compassion. People don’t respond well to someone who seems judgmental and disrespectful. But I hear my friends, progressives and conservatives and everyone in between, regularly judge and write off as irredeemable people who don’t currently agree with them.

I believe using outrage to get people’s attention can be quite effective. However, hatred directed at racists individuals is neither effective nor ethical. In addition, it takes away our energy and harms our spirit.

Buddhists believe that to not forgive gives rise to suffering. It is taught that those who cannot let go of a real or imagined wrong against them are unable to free themselves from hate and that they will suffer because of this. Hatred can, in turn, lead to more widespread suffering, and in turn, more hatred. According to the Dhammapada, “Those who attempt to conquer hatred by hatred are like warriors who take weapons to overcome others who bear arms. This does not end hatred, but gives it room to grow.” — Guy Gardner

As much as you may feel like we are in a war, we are not in a real war. There is an engineered culture war orchestrated by oligarchs and packaged by the media that the own. This strategy is called divide and conquer. The idea is to create an illusion of war based on us misidentifying the enemy as each other, instead of the robber barons.

Here’s the reality: votes matter; public opinions matter; culture matters; civil society matters. That is why the oligarchs spend so much money on ads that manipulate us to vote and think in a certain way.

Reaching for understanding and unity will help us counter oligarchy. We can counter racism and sexism without hating each other. I believe we can communicate to each other, teach each other, with patience and respect. Believe it or not, people are capable of learning, capable of changing. It is not your job to render the final verdict on anyone’s soul.

What I am saying is that we must be willing to look at the entire system of power and that we are all participants in that system. Instead of thinking that is discouraging, we should see that big-picture view as empowering. If we do not participate, the system will fail.

We are being divided and conquered. If we want to stop or reverse oligarchy, we’ve got to learn to talk to each other and be willing to learn, teach, give each other second chances. Otherwise, we are doomed.