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.