On The Uses of Compassion

The easy point to miss about the different modern institutions that we live by - markets and democracy - that these take for granted a compassionate society. Take away compassion and democracy looks like a majoritarian oppression, and markets a grinding mill where all human values are destroyed for a self-defeating end. Hannah Arendt may have got Adolf Eichmann wrong and took his defence strategy - that he was a mindless, powerless, small cog in the Holocaust machine - too seriously, but she was accurate in her meta-diagnosis of the Nazi mind, the complete incapability to see anyone else's point of view or to contemplate the consequences of one's own action. The difference between the American Democracy as imagined by the Founders and in the age of trump is the abandonment of compassion, and suddenly that shining example of Republican imagination looks like a belligerent monstrosity intent on tearing itself apart. And, withering of compassion turns Adam Smith's dynamic, liberating and rejuvenating 'invisible hands' into the black and bleak spectre of environmental destruction, uprooting of cultured life and vulgarisation of private and public lives of individuals.

At this point, compassion lives in the form of religion, and those who are religious are perhaps somewhat protected from the meaninglessness that wrought havoc in the secular life. But religious compassion is often conditional - it exists in expectation of a favourable treatment in afterlife - and particular - limited to co-coreligionists and withheld from the others. This may make individual lives meaningful, but fail, because of these limitations, to sustain political, economic and social lives more broadly. In turn, the religious compassion is often a side-show and deliberate decoy rather than core of religion, something so cynically exploited that it is hardly considered real. 

And, it is not just that we lack compassion, but we desire even less of it. We foster competition among individuals, on the false belief that competition among individuals is the force that sustains progress and improvement, despite the scientific theories that tell us that natural selection operates only over many generations and happens on the basis of attributes randomly determined by nature, rather than a given society designing them. This mantra of competition is promoted as it retrospectively justifies the unequal distribution of power and privilege in our societies, though any empirical examination of such privilege usually tells stories of chance, deceit, corruption and repression, not competitive excellence of the sort we wish to talk about. The narrative of human civilisation, one of compassion, the attribute that differentiated us from the animals and that sustained us through ups and downs, is hardly told: It is so discounted that common decency appears like foolishness and compassion is taken for softness, until the brash aggression falters and we hit ground zero again and again, at a great cost.

This lack of compassion is nowhere more significant than at the heart of our education systems, particularly in Higher Education and particularly in the Developing World. Aping after the mantra of development, world's five and half billion people have been provided with a system that berates compassion and promotes a context-free technical panacea. We are building a system that focuses on technical know-how and develop an anti-compassionate being, a system of mastering a system and living in a world free of considerations and consequences. The social world is zoomed narrower into a family, the society at large is taken as a convention rather than a structure of sustenance, and the concepts such as 'democracy' is taken as a system of electing people and 'market' as a system of separating the economic lives in a different silo. And, within this, we educate the future technocrats in some of the most deprived countries in the world, so that their disconnection with their own people become unbridgeably profound and their technical vision can drag these societies even further into the abyss of dependence and desperation.

And, yet, faced with unprecedented social, economic and environmental challenges, these societies look desperately for a way to keep hobbling together, finding that glue in nothing but religion, and increasingly, in desperate, destructive and fundamentalist religious orthodoxies. Paradoxically, people in those societies can find the only last vestige of compassion, meaning and means to be human, in the blood-curdling hatred of these fundamentalist millennial visions. In these societies, as things fall apart and traditional structures wither, the promises of human redemption appear same as the end of the days vision. The absence of compassion eats away the rationale of being and remaining humane at all.


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