How Conservatives Tend to Misunderstand Compassion

Conservatives tend to make the mistake of believing compassion is synonymous with being a “bleeding heart.” They may think someone calling for compassion is unreasonable, or doesn’t understand reality or economics.

This is false. The word “compassion” is rooted in a Latin word that means “co-suffering,” and it’s literal meaning in English is “to love together with.”

So to exercise compassion is not in any sense to be unreasonable, but it is to enter into the sufferings of others, to consider their suffering as your own.

Compassion as a way of life, or a way of seeing the world, stems directly from the ancient Golden Rule, expressed best in our Judeo-Christian history by Jesus Christ — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

No political party can lay exclusive claim to compassion, for it is not a political term, but a religio-spiritual one. It is opposed neither to reason nor to emotion, but it transcends them both with its call to concrete action.

Let us get very practical for a moment. Compassion, applied to the Flint water crisis, would mean that as we go forward in addressing this issue, we hold solidarity with the suffering ones — the families who have been most deeply affected. We resist the urge to simply boil this down to economics on one side, or to immediately diagnose it as human evil on the other. Those are knee-jerk political reactions, but the path of compassion calls us to see things from the perspective of those who have been and are being harmed. We can evaluate it economically or judge it morally, but neither of those things requires us to stand with those who have been most deeply affected. We can do both from a distance.

But compassion asks us to co-suffer, if not in our bodies, then at least in our hearts and minds, to put ourselves in the places of the suffering people of Flint. Whatever merits careful thinking and deep feeling may have (and they both have many merits and many potential pitfalls), compassion is something else entirely.

A substantial part of the reason conservative people may mistake compassion for blessing heart liberalism is due to how liberals often misunderstand and misrepresent compassion. I’ll write about that in my next post.