Check Your Compassion Privilege
Much infighting (and outfighting) occurs because many people, advocates included, believe that when someone hasn’t behaved compassionately, this is a justification for treating them uncompassionately in return.
Think about how much harder it is to be compassionate after just one difficult morning or even one stressful experience. Think about how you feel after sitting on hold with your phone provider for 45 minutes to resolve a problem, only to get cut off, or being stuck in traffic on your way to an important meeting.
After stressful experiences, even if we truly want and try to act in ways that reflect our moral values, we’re simply less able to. We’re more grumpy, distrustful, and uncharitable, and we’re less likely to notice or care about the wellbeing of others. We’re more dysregulated, which makes us less rational and empathic. We have less access to our compassion.
When we’re in a state in which we can’t access our compassion, we’re in a state of suffering. It’s painful to be in such a state of contraction and defensiveness. It hurts to feel so disconnected.
Most of us don’t realize that having access to our compassion is a privilege.
Part of what it means to be privileged is to have greater access to a particular resource (or set of resources) than others do. People who are more compassionate simply have greater access to their compassion. They have what could be called “compassion privilege.”
Compassion privilege is not societal privilege
Of course, societal privileges, such as those afforded by being white or male or cisgender, are very different from compassion privilege.
Societal privileges cause systemic, widespread harm, and they shouldn’t be conflated with compassion privilege. Nor should those who are directly harmed by societal privileges be asked to take on yet another burden—the burden of trying to feel compassion in the face of oppression.
However, understanding that being able to access our compassion is a privilege, a gift that not everyone has, can help transform our relationships—with other advocates, and beyond.
Why we judge people who aren’t compassionate
Compassion is a quality or state that people have more or less access to, depending on a variety of factors, ranging from their most recent experience to their upbringing and hardwiring.
Believing that it’s acceptable to treat people uncompassionately simply because they acted uncompassionately reflects a profound misunderstanding of human psychology and behavior.
Each one of us is nothing more nor less than the synthesis of our biology and every momentary experience we’ve had. Expecting that people can and should be different from who and how they are is like expecting a tree that’s been rained on not to be wet.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t hold people accountable for problematic behaviors. It’s simply to say that we need to do so while honoring their dignity and appreciating that people are the way they are due to countless factors beyond their control.
Holding those who are more compassionate than others in special esteem isn’t that different from elevating people who are more intelligent, attractive, or financially well-off than others. The tendency to assume that some people are “special” and therefore “better” obscures the reality that we’re all unique syntheses of our biology and our lived experiences. And it prevents us from recognizing that when we’re able to achieve something that others haven’t, it’s because we’ve had privileges that have enabled us to do so.
Just as we wouldn’t look down on a starving person because they don’t have access to as much food as we do, we shouldn’t look down on someone who isn’t able to access their compassion as much as we are.
“If I were you, I would have done things differently”
How often have you heard someone claim (or said as much yourself) that they would have done things differently had they been in another person’s position? But think about it: If, for instance, I had been you, I would have done exactly what you did—because I would have been you, operating with your mind, body, and life experiences.
We often hear stories of someone who’s “beaten the odds,” becoming deeply compassionate or highly successful despite challenging circumstances. We tend to compare this person with others who were supposedly in the same circumstances but failed to thrive. (“My father was raised in poverty, too. Unlike your father, though, who’s in prison for theft, mine ended up a successful businessman.”)
But there’s no such thing as the same circumstances. Maybe a deeply compassionate person had a chance encounter early in life with an adult who taught them to believe in their worth, while a less compassionate person didn’t. Maybe a high achiever was always well nourished, while a lower achiever had an undiagnosed vitamin deficiency that sapped their energy.
It’s very common to feel contempt for, or morally superior to, those who aren’t compassionate. Most of us have been taught to think of ourselves as morally superior to people who act against the value of compassion, who cause harm.
However, if we believe that we’re morally superior to others because we have greater access to our compassion than they do, then rather than appreciate the gift that our compassion is, we belittle those who haven’t been given that same gift. In this way, we end up fueling the very nonrelational mentality that drives many of the problems in our world, including the infighting in our groups and movements.
Perhaps ironically, feeling morally superior to others is an indication that we’re not morally superior. This feeling reflects the fact that we’re out of touch with our own compassion. Ultimately, our sense of moral superiority says more about us than it does about the person we feel morally superior to.
Feeling morally superior results from believing in two, related myths:
the myth of a hierarchy of moral worth: the belief that some individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, of being treated with respect, than others
the myth of meritocracy: the belief that whatever we achieve is the result of our own specialness and hard work rather than of the many biopsychosocial factors that enabled us to get to where we are
When we recognize these myths for what they are, we’re less influenced by them.
Help people access their compassion
Instead of assuming that someone who doesn’t act kindly isn’t a compassionate person, we can ask what might be getting in the way of their ability to access their compassion and try to reduce those obstacles.
Part of this process involves creating an environment in which the individual feels more secure and connected. To create this environment, we need to practice the formula for healthy relating and to be in a place of compassion ourselves. People feel more secure and connected with us when they trust that we are coming from a place of respect and compassion.
For further reading, check out Compassion Privilege: Why Caring People Are Sometimes Unkind.