How Liberals Tend to Misunderstand Compassion

In my last post I said conservatives often mistake compassion for weakness, and to the conservative mind, strength — if not everything — is extremely important. Strength, of course, has limitations of its own, which is another post. In this post I want to focus on the particular way liberals tend to misunderstand compassion.

In its simplest form, liberals tend to want to own that virtue, and to assume that if someone thinks differently about an issue than they do, it stems from a lack of compassion. This isn’t necessarily the case for several reasons.

First, as I mentioned in the Facebook post that kicked off this series (if you don’t follow me on Facebook, and you wonder what you’re missing, you can do so here), simply feeling deeply about something is not the same as compassion. Compassion is not an emotion, it is emotion in action. A liberal who feels strongly about something but takes no action has no right to call a conservative heartless for also not taking any action. Feeling something, again, as I have said, is not the point.

Second, I know people (both liberals and conservatives, by the way, as these labels are useful primarily for purposes of writing about individual positions, not summing up entire human beings) who do not give to homeless people out of what I believe is sincere concern for their welfare, lest they spend the money on booze or other things bad for them. Misguided as I believe this is, I do not doubt the intentions behind it. In this case, those who do not give are taking action (withholding money they would otherwise give) for the benefit of the other.

Third, liberals are often former conservatives. They may tend to confuse specifics of their time as a conservative in the past with the individual conservative they are dealing with presently. For example, I know when I was a conservative I listened to a lot of heartless people on talk radio and adopted many of those positions for myself. I may therefore make the mistake of ascribing heartlessness to a conservative I’m dealing with about a specific issue. In other words, it may have more to do with me than it has to do with that other person.

Fourth, and this is similar to the first, is that I think we liberals tend to see ourselves (for better or for worse) as the standard-bearers of morality. I’m just keeping it real. We have been through our own journeys to get where we are and we know we are better people than we were before. But it is important to keep in mind the difference between being a better version of yourself than you used to be, and being better than other people. I really think that’s a blind spot liberals often have. Conservatives sense that condescension and it rightly drives them up a wall.

If a given liberal really has moved forward on their journey to compassion, that is excellent of course, but we do not want to lose in humility what we may sometimes gain in compassion.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. A request for me to defend some of my comments does not obligate me to do so.

  • UnabashedlyChristian1

    I think you are confusing compassion with involvement. Compassion is an open heart that allows feelings of warmth, kindness and understanding toward another. Compassion may or may not lead to action. A prisoner of war may feel compassion for the human in the next cell and have no means of action. One can have compassion for someone they disagree with on most topics. They just find a way to see past negative thoughts and perceive the other person as a fellow human. It is an ability to connect on some level. Sometimes compassion is just a feeling that changes your state of mind without any overt manifestation. For example The ability to feel compassion can eliminate feelings of bitterness toward someone who has wronged you. Compassion is a positive. That is why Jesus encourages it.

    Emotion in action isn’t always predictable or desirable. The course it takes depends on circumstances, the emotion itself and the nature of the person feeling it. For example anger in action is often violence and sadness in action is sometimes withdrawal from the world. Think of Peter’s emotion in action in the garden at Gethsemane when he grabbed a sword in defense of Jesus and cut off a man’s ear. Jesus desired compassion and restraint not violence. Thus He chastised Peter and healed the man.

    • Actually the purpose of this series is to make sure everyone understands that compassion is, in fact, sympathy in action. Please see http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/compassion/definition.

      What you are talking about it just sympathy, empathy, or even pity.

      Compassion is always desirable because, by definition, it is emotion which motivates a person to take action toward alleviating the suffering in front of them.