It’s natural and normal to feel sadness and sympathy at the suffering of others and to want to alleviate it. The paradox of compassion in that sense is that it often becomes a rhetorical device for justifying action that harms those it’s supposed to help. If you had compassion, this kind of sanctimonious advocate says, you would support my policy. If you question it at all, you’re callous or cruel.
Children use this form of manipulation to get parents to give them what they want.
Parents for their part are not always as compassionate toward their own children as they seem in their dealings with others. In the ridiculous character of Mrs. Jellyby in his mid-19th century novel “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens warns against perversely misdirected compassion—he calls it “telescopic philanthropy.” Mrs. Jellyby combines relentless compassion from afar—working ostentatiously to support an improbable scheme for a tribe in Africa—with serious neglect of her own children at home in London.
When Helping Hurts
The misuse of compassion has in recent years assumed other forms, some less obvious but no less harmful. Many follow the decay of major liberal cities like San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle, with a seeming breakdown of law and order, with syringes, feces, and urine on the sidewalks of some business or shopping areas.
They wonder why such cities have made themselves a magnet for homeless people far and wide who are drawn to such places by the absence of law enforcement and the provision of services. Why would a city do that?
I have asked the question and been answered with one word, compassion. But is such an approach compassionate to people who need treatment, perhaps residential, who need boundaries and structure? Is it compassionate to the small business owners who must tolerate and clean up the mess outside their doors, whose businesses have declined because of the dearth of customers willing to enter such an area?
Governments, liberal media, and the left, both in Europe and the United States, enabled and welcomed mass illegal immigration with open arms. In the name of compassion. There were other motivations, of course, like the desire to depress wages or increase a future electoral base, but compassion was the only one publicly mentioned.
In some cases the young single men dominating the mass movement of migrants were refugees fleeing persecution and danger at home. In many more, they were not in danger but seeking better incomes. They didn’t settle in the nearest state where they would be safe, as international law allows, but in countries far away where conditions looked more favorable (as for Somalis in Sweden, Germany, or the United States).
Children, both immigrants and members of the host population, played a special role in the process. Children gained sympathy and headlines as innocent victims. They provided an entering wedge for the entry of adults in the name of family reunification. Since all were (deliberately in most cases) without documents, the same “unaccompanied minors” could enter, leave, and re-enter with a different group of adults claimed each time as family members. Criminal gangs such as MS-13 in Mexico, organized marches to the border and the human trafficking of children.
Liberals sanctimoniously blamed President Donald Trump for “keeping children in cages” built by President Barack Obama, but it was Trump who quickly and effectively brought about a humane solution to the border crisis. He solved the problem by following and implementing existing laws and by international collaboration with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America. Rich Lowry of National Review shows in careful detail, “how Trump got control of the border” adding, as the subtitle puts it, “And how Biden created a crisis by throwing it all away.” One result has been increased use of children for criminal activities, from human trafficking to illegal entry to the United States.
Compassion and Policy
Compassion is a natural and necessary part of any decent policy response to suffering. But feeling (or claiming to feel) compassion doesn’t in itself produce a wise course of action. Nor is opposition to a proposed or current policy in itself evidence of callousness or cruelty.
Yet appeals to compassion often function this way, to shut down discussion or serious consideration of the actual effects of the policy in people’s lives (costs seldom borne by those who make the policy in question) and to silence or cancel critics. You may support a course of action out of a sincere feeling of compassion for those suffering the adversity your policy is intended to ameliorate. But intentions and feelings are not the same as outcomes or effects.
Even the feelings of compassion may be highly selective—compassionate toward some of those involved while callous toward others.
To whom is it compassionate to incentivize the use of children by cartels and criminal gangs, to incentivize their use in people-trafficking? In Europe and the UK, compassion has often morphed into a pervasive denial of the serious impact on women and children in the receiving country. A series of incidents of sexual assault and rape of local women and girls by immigrant males in Sweden, England, and Germany was covered up by media and police, while those aware of what was happening, such as local police, social workers, even parents, were afraid of being ignored and denounced as racist if they spoke up.
Compassion mixed with official fear of inciting a racist backlash to produce a shameful silence. In England, it took decades for patterns of grooming, trafficking, rape, and abuse of young local girls by Pakistani gangs to come to light and be seriously investigated, first in the Labour-controlled city of Rotherham, later extended to other cities across the country. In Sweden and Germany, the sexual assaults of local women by groups of single men came to a head in Cologne at New Year’s celebrations in 2015–2016, when as many as 1,000 German women were surrounded and assaulted.
When compassion is enlisted to enable victimization in this way, it’s no longer compassion but a cover for abuse.
Paul Adams writes on ethics, marriage and family, and social policy. He is professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii. He has also taught at Case Western University and the University of Texas.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.