Empathy vs. “Compassion” (aka “Dangerous Minds”et)

Sarah Thomas, PhD
Mar 4, 2018 · 8 min read

This blog has been burning in my brain for the past few years, and I was just inspired to try, once again, to get it out. Here goes.

My mother wrote a beautiful piece in The Washington Post back in 2011, entitled, “Lessons Learned at a Mother’s Knee.” In this article, she first described how my grandmother taught her a very important lesson about empathy when she was a young girl. (I won’t spoil.)

Then, she fast-forwarded to the present (2011), when she discussed a gathering of women, which roughly coincided with the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, a natural disaster that rocked our homeland. She described a feeling of sisterhood and solidarity…

…until one other participant chimed in that “empathy was dangerous…It drags people at higher levels of consciousness into the suffering of others who are at lower levels,” and that people should instead be “compassionate,” i.e. instead of fishing for others, teaching others how to fish. At that point in the article, my mother then dropped the mic:

Her words reminded me of the “compassion” that led to slavery and colonialism in order to “save souls” and “civilize” the natives. It’s the same “compassion” that now allows international organizations and charities and their highly paid staff members to do so little for the truly needy in Haiti, while collecting millions in their name.

There is no room for pity in empathy. My mother concluded that a large part of empathy is respect, and seeing others as your equal.


Throughout the years, I have had many conversations, particularly on Voxer, with friends on this topic. I even intended to do an EduMatch episode about “the empathy gap;” however, given the recent tragedy at Parkland High School, we shifted our discussion to focus mainly on this event, and to support one another through our collective grief.


The lingering question remains…is there a difference between empathy and “compassion” (or, as I Freudian-slipped on the episode, between empathy and charity)? If so, what might that be?

(Read these next questions in as sarcastic a tone as you can possibly muster.) Is there any hope for our “poor unfortunate” peers who may find themselves leaning toward such “compassion?” How might we “save” them, and help them see the light?

The question I find myself wrestling with is, where do you even begin?

I feel like there is so much to this, that I don’t even know. Take, for example, what the participant said at the women’s retreat: that “compassion” meant that those at higher levels of consciousness teach people beneath them how to save themselves. Oooh, if only I had a time machine, so I could have been in that room.

Excuse me, ma’am…your privilege is showing.

The term privilege doesn’t even begin to describe how dangerous, uncivilized, and barbaric this mindset is.

Who is to say that her level of consciousness is higher than anyone else’s? This superiority complex has been, and continues to be, a factor that has allowed for so many atrocities and acts of evil, such as slavery, genocide, brutality…the list goes on and on.

Call it what you will (she said “compassion”; I will go with othering), but this view of the world is alarmingly common.

“Othering is a process that identifies those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, and it can reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination.” Johnson, J. L., Bottorff, J. L., Browne, A. J., Grewal, S., Hilton, B. A., & Clarke, H. (2004).

As educators, we often say that, “Wikipedia is not a source,” however, we can find some gems on there from time to time, especially in the reference sections. Take, for example, this page on Othering, which I highly recommend for further reading.

I remember being in a Voxer group, and hearing a friend describe how a woman of high economic status referred to Native American artwork as “uncultured.” I told him that this was irony, pure and simple, as her statement was one of the most “uncultured” things I’ve ever heard.

In the same group, a few weeks later, we had a discussion on dehumanization, which many people described as the “us vs. them” mentality. This is definitely a large part of it, except “they” are not seen to be as human or civilized as “we” are. This can come with harmful, if not fatal, results.


Even in pop culture, we sometimes find that art imitates life. Take for example episode 5 in Season 3 of Black Mirror, “Men Against Fire.” If you haven’t seen it yet, I’ll attempt to hide the twist ending. Hopefully my Googled fix will work. [Update: That didn’t work, so skip the gray box below.]

IMDB describes the episode as, “future soldiers Stripe and Raiman must protect frightened villagers from an infestation of vicious feral mutants.” The soldiers go through, courageously fighting these mutants and saving the villagers.

They quite enjoy savagely killing these monsters. Some of you may have already figured out the twist by now.

<spoiler>These are not mutants or monsters at all; in fact, they are frightened people, many of them children and parents. The military had been giving the soldiers a substance that made them view the people differently, in order to terrorize them without remorse.</spoiler>

As always, Black Mirror gives great social commentary with far-reaching implications, especially relevant to this post.


On January 11, 2018, eight years and one day after the earthquake in Haiti, Donald Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “s***hole countries,” while saying that the US should get more immigrants from “countries like Norway.”

Let that marinate.

Although he later attempted to distance himself from these comments, denying altogether that he said them, some of his staunch supporters agreed wholeheartedly. In a CNN article from the next day, Angie Galvez from California agreed, stating that Haitians should be denied protective status in the United States. “What has Haiti done for us?” Galvez asked. “What have they done to help themselves?”

Actually a lot, and historically, the US has played a significant role in the poverty narrative associated with Haiti. However, that’s another blog post for another time.


When it comes to “Othering,” not everyone exhibits this behavior as extremely as in Black Mirror, or even as vocally as 45 or Galvez (herself, of Mexican descent).

Often, even “good people” with “good intentions” possess an Othering mindset, or at least act accordingly.

When people “Other,” sometimes it’s as simple as “just trying to help ‘those poor people’ who can’t/won’t help themselves.”

Sometimes it’s abroad. Sometimes it’s here in our backyard. Ever seen Dangerous Minds?

With this specific kind of Othering, we tend to see a common theme: someone centering him/herself as the hero and saving the day, regardless of whether their “saving” is welcomed and solicited, or not.

This is the epitome of “compassion,” as defined by the participant at the women’s retreat.

This brings to mind the phenomenon of voluntourism, on which Malaka Gharib of NPR did a wonderful feature in 2016.

This video, linked on the piece, speaks volumes.

The part that stands out to me is when the doctor and nurse, who are presumably from that country and doing the actual work, look at the main character like she’s crazy as she snaps sad selfies with sick children.

Of course, there are some people who are genuine in what they do. What I’m saying is not a blanket statement by any means for anyone who wants to help people other than themselves (not the same as the woman’s definition of “compassion”), but remember that actions speak louder than words.


I hate the term “ally,” because it’s generally used wrong. I’ve had many conversations with friends about this. When people identify themselves as allies, this is wrong, wrong, wrong. [Updated: Rather, when people center themselves as allies, this is wrong, wrong, wrong.] Here are some thoughts that have emerged from conversations with friends:

True allies, whether global or domestic, will do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Those with “compassion” will usually do the right thing…if it makes them look good.

True allies focus on the work. Those with “compassion” will center themselves within the work.

True allies will first look to see where they can contribute to existing projects, led by those closest to the challenge. Those with “compassion” will appoint themselves leaders of high-profile projects, because they want to be in charge.

And when it comes to these existing projects, true allies will expect and even insist on entering at the ground level. Those with “compassion” will demand a leadership role, just because they are outsiders.


What does any of this have to do with us as educators? Thanks to technology, the world is becoming smaller, and now we have access to connect ourselves and our students to other classrooms around the world.

I’d like to give a shoutout to a few friends of mine, with whom I have had the bulk of the conversations. I will add them in here if and when they let me know it’s ok. We were talking about Mystery Hangouts and things of that nature, and one friend raised a great point that, instead of connecting with “poor students in some impoverished area,” we need to treat them with the respect they deserve as fellow human beings. Yes, we can teach them things, but they can also teach us. Why not collaborate with their teacher and learn something together?

In addition, I recently gave a couple of talks mentioning student and educator agency, which I defined as making a change in one’s sphere of influence. With social media literally at our fingertips, those spheres are getting bigger and bigger.

When sharing such examples, I am mindful to promote those projects which emerged from someone’s pain point, which s/he found a way to solve, then scaled to help those with the same problem.

Challenge to Participants at a Conference

Of course, I am not advocating for working in silos. A major part of solving a problem includes collaboration. However, remember that at the heart of collaboration lies mutual respect.

As my mom wrote of my grandmother, “my mother’s story was not about compassion or pity. She had made me see myself in the girl’s place and learn to respect her as an equal.” Such is my hope for us all…we should choose empathy over “compassion” every single time.

[Update 8:19 PM ET 3/4/18: “Compassion” has been written in quotation marks throughout the text to signify the definition of the participant at the women’s retreat.]

sarahdateechur

It's me!

Sarah Thomas, PhD

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Educator/Regional Tech Coordinator. Passionate about using social media to connect w/ educators around the world. We all have a story. What's yours? #EduMatch

sarahdateechur

It's me!

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