On the Reciprocity of Compassion

Consolation

You’ve probably heard about the shooting at a Congressional baseball game. America has had mass shootings in just about every other public place by now, so it was inevitable that this would eventually rebound on the government that refuses to do anything about them. The attacker was killed by police, and four people were wounded, including Republican House majority whip Steve Scalise. He was shot in the hip and badly injured, but is expected to pull through.

If you’ve never heard of Steve Scalise, let’s be clear: He’s a full-on, unreconstructed racist and viciously anti-gay. He’s spoken at a white supremacist conference and described himself as “David Duke without the baggage“. This makes it savagely ironic that Crystal Griner, one of the police officers who took down the shooter and saved his life, was a queer black woman.

If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the incident that makes the wounded congressman realize the error of his ways. You can almost imagine the scene with him lying in his hospital bed, swathed in bandages, with soft music swelling to a crescendo as he confesses to Officer Griner that he was wrong to deny her humanity.

But this isn’t Hollywood, and reality doesn’t have such neat and convenient endings. It seems very likely, instead, that Scalise’s survival will only allow him to continue pushing the laws that discriminate against LGBT Americans, perpetuate mass incarceration, strip black voters of political power, and all the other evils of his evil party.

Son of Baldwin has some choice and furious words:

What does it mean, in general, when victims of bigotry save the lives of bigots?

For centuries, black people have been regarded as sub-human workhorses whose entire purpose is to serve white people’s whimsies.

For centuries, queer people have been regarded as sub-human degenerates whose whole existence was an anathema to cisgender heterosexual people’s off-hand sensibilities.

And what our – black/queer people – response to that has been, largely, is to attempt to be a more moral species of being than those who dehumanize us.

We, some of us, get a kind of glee out of presenting ourselves as respectable and upright, willing to get past their hatred of us to save them from themselves. We think being the kind of thing that would sacrifice our lives for the very people who would reflexively slit our throats to create a fountain from which to drink our blood is noble.

His bloodcurdling conclusion is that we should stop reaching for the moral high ground. If we see a bigoted person whose life is in jeopardy, we shouldn’t help them, we just should stand by and let it happen (“and smile a bit when you do”):

Do nothing.

Least of all put your life on the line for theirs, and do not dare think doing so, putting your life on the line for theirs, gives you reason or cause to feel celestial.

Saving the life of those that would kill you is the opposite of virtuous.

I might not put it in terms this harsh, but I understand this deep, burning sense of anger, and I feel some of it myself. The country I thought I knew has been taken over by a hateful cabal that seems devoted to cruelty for cruelty’s sake. These currents of misogyny, white supremacy and Christian fundamentalism have always been with us, but they’re more powerful than they have been in a long time. What’s the value of being the bigger person, if all it means is letting them win time and again? They’ve long been waging total war against progressive ideas, and I think it’s time we return the favor.

To be clear, I don’t think police officers, firefighters or paramedics should pick and choose who to rescue based on the victim’s political affiliations. That’s not a world I would want to live in. When there’s a professional duty to render aid, that duty should be respected impartially and carried out to the letter.

But what about the rest of us?

It’s nice to think that you can win political battles by serenely forgiving the oppressor, no matter what torments they inflict on you, until they’re shamed into mending their ways. But again, that’s a Hollywood trope that’s been nurtured and promoted by religion. It may work occasionally on an individual level, but even that’s rare. It’s certainly not a way to bring about broad social change.

More to the point, there’s only so long you can ask anyone’s forbearance. It’s perverse and cruel to put the burden of endurance on the victim while granting a free hand to the oppressor to keep harming and persecuting others until they freely choose to desist. The way to stop evil is to resist it, not to tolerate it.

For me, the starting point is this post I wrote in 2013, where I said that we shouldn’t forgive or help indiscriminately. In particular, I don’t think we should aid people who wouldn’t show that courtesy to us if our positions were reversed. To do otherwise sends the message that there are no consequences for being bigoted or cruel.

This principle was cast into sharp relief after the election, when I wrote that you get what you vote for, and this mass shooting is another painful example. Again, to be clear, I don’t endorse settling political disputes through gun battles. But when Republicans demand that handguns and semiautomatic rifles be allowed everywhere, no limitations, no restrictions, and are then shot at by an angry, violent man with a history of domestic abuse who was able to buy those weapons thanks to lax gun laws, I can’t help but think that they’re reaping the bitter fruit of their own policies.

This is the same way I feel about people desperately dependent on public health care who demanded Obamacare repeal, or climate-change deniers who live on floodplains, or anti-choicers who secretly get abortions at the clinics they want to close down, or voters in red states that demand the social safety net be shredded even though they’re supported by transfers from blue states. I’d say the same to all of them: “This is the world you wanted, now see how you like it.”

Ever since the election, I’ve decided I no longer want to cushion people like them from the consequences of their own bad choices. I want to channel my giving, my energy and my effort to people who are working to create a better world, not to people who are trying to drag us all down with them.

So, yes, if I saw an alt-rightist, a white supremacist, or someone else of that ilk in need – if they could benefit from help that I could provide – I’d decline the opportunity. I wouldn’t spend job-creating tourist dollars in communities where they hold power, or donate to charities that bridge the shortfalls they inflict on themselves by slashing the safety net, or call for bailouts where their folly leads them into disaster. And if I saw this guy broken down on the side of the road, you can be sure I’d keep on driving.

Does being selective make me a less compassionate person? Perhaps, and if so, I’ll accept that charge. But I’d argue that the instrumental virtue of compassion is to create a better world with less unfairness, less pain and suffering. To show compassion to people who want to create more injustice and more suffering is taking me farther from the goal I want to attain by practicing it.

Image credit: Shaun Merritt, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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