Pragmatic Compassion/Empathy

by Guy Burgess

March 1, 2021

For years, I have been teaching about religious scholar Karen Armstrong's "Charter For Compassion" project.   The project has its origins in Armstrong's observation that all of the world's major religions have, as one of their core beliefs, some version of the Golden Rule, "treat others as you would like to be treated." Or, put another way, "that which is hurtful to you, do not do unto others."  

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The Charter, which emerged from a large-scale collaboration involving representatives from each of the world's major religions, calls on all religious congregations from all faiths to institute programs that bring the teaching of compassion back into the center of their religious thinking. While the project has yet to change the world, it has succeeded in winning endorsements of the Charter from over two million people. [1]

While, in general, my students have been willing to endorse the Charter as a noble principal, they have had trouble imagining their enemies compassionately responding to compassionate overtures on their part.  And, as a result, they often conclude that the whole enterprise is a bit naïve – a way to give up something while getting nothing in return. This skepticism, not surprisingly, has tended to increase as divisions within society have deepened.

For these cases, I have been advocating something more modest. While I originally called it "pragmatic compassion," I have since realized that the phrase "pragmatic empathy" more clearly encapsulates the idea that I'm trying to convey. The underlying principle is pretty simple (and, I think, tactically wise) — you shouldn't make your adversaries any madder at you than you absolutely have to in order to get your grievances addressed.  We commonly make things worse because we so poorly understand how our actions are seen by others, especially by those with whom we disagree.

The key to avoiding this unnecessary pushback and opposition is the ability to accurately see the world as your adversary sees it – the definition of empathy. The thing that's different about pragmatic empathy is that it assumes a continuing adversarial relationship and does not require altruistic or unilateral concessions.  It simply tries to reduce the number of unnecessary friction points in ways that focus the debate more clearly on the things that really matter.

To help my students do this, I have suggested that they build themselves what I call a "conflict mirror." Like a conventional mirror, a conflict mirror is a device that allows you to look at yourself the way others see you. When we do this, most of us are likely to find that we are doing things that get people angry about things that don't really matter. Take, for example, a game that people commonly play on social media and at public hearings.  Instead of making a reasoned argument for their particular position, they compete for clicks and cheers by trying to find the cleverest way to insult and put down the other side. That isn't necessary and it just provokes avoidable anger and pushback. Further, the resulting animosities often make it harder for us to to get people to focus on the legitimate arguments that underlie our core complaints. I call this empathy "pragmatic", because fixing these problems is worth doing, even if it's not immediately reciprocated by the other side.

One strategy for building a conflict mirror involves a "flip the wording" exercise.  It is widely seen as unacceptable to say that women (as a group) have some negative attribute (are too emotional, bad at math, not tough enough for the business world, strong enough to be a fire fighter, etc.  But it isn't unacceptable in Progressive circles to say that men have negative attributes (are too unemotional, uncaring, mysoginistic, etc.)

One of the wiser things that the United States did following the tragedy of 9/11 was to refrain from blaming all Muslims for the actions of a few terrorists. (This was something that enjoyed strong support on both the left and the right).  A news story headlined "Muslim Americans are the biggest terror threat to the United States" would have been considered inappropriate and counterproductive.  Holding people who happen to share some religious, racial, or other characteristic with the wrongdoers who were directly responsible for the actions was widely seen as manifestly unfair.

A big part of today's tensions in the United States stems from the fact that folks on both the left and the right seem to have forgotten this principle.  On the right, there are those who have demonized immigrants, protesters, and others on the basis of the actions of a few (or, sometimes, the basis of nonexistent incidents).  And, on the left, there are those who use language that suggests that all police officers are guilty of brutalizing Blacks or that anyone who questions the fairness of specific programs for addressing racial discrimination is a white supremacist.  

I'm not saying that you can't disagree with people or challenge them when you believe that they are acting in unacceptable ways. I'm just saying that if you do so in a way that respectfully asks that they address your complaint (while you, at the same time, do your best to understand their side of the story and meet their legitimate needs) you are less likely to generate strong pushback and more likely to result in an outcome that you and they can both accept.

Another way to think about this is to imagine that someone is coming to you with a complaint about your behavior.  Try to imagine how you would respond to various more and less inflammatory ways that they might voice that complaint.  Consider, for example, the way in which you would likely respond to a Twitter mob calling for your "cancellation" (something that is commonly done on both the left and the right) because of some comment you made that is being misinterpreted in the most inflammatory way possible.  Now, contrast that with a respectful email that said, "I, and others I know, are interpreting your comments as racially insensitive and indicative of a negative attitudes toward Black Americans. Is our interpretation correct? If not, a little clarification on your part would be appreciated and we would be happy to help circulate it.  If, on the other hand, our interpretation is accurate, we would welcome an opportunity to discuss the issue."  Bottom line, don't do to them things that you would find hurtful if they were done to you.

In this context, another thing to think about is the importance of balancing complaints with compliments. Most everyone finds it disagreeable to interact with someone who has nothing nice to say, just complaints.  We really object when others portray us as the source of all evil and responsible for everything that has gone wrong in our society, while holding themselves blameless and the source of all virtue.

It's a whole lot smarter to raise things more tentatively by highlighting what you see as the problem and possible remedies and then honestly asking how they see the issue and how they think it should be addressed. (This parallels the long-standing advice to use "I" instead of "you" messages, avoid "the blame game, and take responsibility for the things that we've done that have contributed to the problem.  At the same time, however, it also makes sense to highlight things that the other side is doing that you like, areas of common ground that you share, and opportunities that you see to work together for mutual gain. In other words, balance complaints with an image of how we could all benefit from addressing the problem collaboratively.

Bottom line, if we would just treat people the way we would like to be treated, we could do much to defuse the tensions that are tearing our society apart. And, this is something which will yield substantial benefits even if it isn't immediately reciprocated.


[1] Source: Wikipedia "Charter for Compassion"