Compassion is not what you think it is – Part 1
Hofman A Turing
This essay is the first in a series exploring compassion from the perspective of a member of The Satanic Temple (TST). For those unfamiliar with TST it is highly recommended that you first read this brief FAQ.
“It is compassion rather than the principle of justice which can guard us against being unjust to our fellow men.” – Bruce Lee
“Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. – Carl Jung
Compassion is a ubiquitous word. As with many words it is like a subjectively interpreted ink blotter test. It is commonly assumed that we all know what it means, and that this meaning is shared with whomever we are communicating. Yet, we talk past each other all the time without realizing it, and more acutely when certain words are in the mix, such as compassion. It would be standard practice for me to offer a definition at this point, but for now I’m allowing the Rorschach dynamic to remain in play. I will offer a definition shortly.
The Satanic Temple is controversial for a lot of reasons. If you are not familiar with the public controversies you can check out media links here. Given the purposely outrageous nature of some of the activism that is often characterized simply as trolling, is might be surprising to know that compassion is an underlying motivating value. Equally surprising for those outside of the Satanic/LHP (left hand path) community is that compassion as a value, in and of itself, is controversial inside of that community. Compassion as a value is clearly stated by TST as a fundamental tenet.
Beyond social activism, legal actions, and subsequent press, The Satanic Temple is also known for its seven tenets. It is crucial to understand that the tenets are not rules or commandments. I think of them as value statements, which are aspirational in varying degrees for each individual. They go as follows:
1. One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
2. The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
3. One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
4. The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.
5. Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
6. People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
7. Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
The first tenet is our current focus. It is misunderstood by neutral parties as much as it is the source of consternation amongst some Christians and Satanists alike. Superstitious Christians assume it is an example of the Devil’s trickery, misleading the masses to side with Satan (and of course often also Illuminati-Zionist-Satanic conspiracies). Friendly humanists and atheists appreciative of TST’s secular activism think we are better at being Christians than are Christians. Many Satanists say TST is too Christian-like, and therefore are not “real” Satanists (“No true Scotsman” ad nauseum). All of these positions are problematic, albeit for different reasons. Before I address my take on how compassion is best understood, let’s consider some of these problematic uses.
I am not going to link to any of the tinfoil hat nutters blabbering about TST and global domination conspiracies – compassion is never their concern anyways. Ok, actually, watching Glenn Beck meltdown for his adoring audience is always entertaining.
It’s nice to have friends
It is easy to find blogs from sympathetic outsiders favorably comparing TST’s tenets to Christianity, and the Abrahamic traditions more generally. One such friendly blogger asserted that the tenets are morally superior to the 10 commandments. Well yes, thank you for the kind words. Though, such comparisons are prima facie given the endless supply of anecdotes about Christians causing suffering in the name of their religion, such as the recent case of a pastor starving his dog to teach it obedience. More than 5 millennia’s worth of cultural evolution gives us a huge advantage, making that baseline a really low bar to supersede with any pride.
Consider the title of this Salon.com article from Nov. 28, 2015: “The greatest trick the Satanists ever pulled: They may be truer to the words of Jesus than most Christians.” Umm, thanks? If we go with a mythic character known as Jesus that is a Promethean archetype of rebellion against tyranny and authority, then perhaps. Yet, that is giving too many doubt benefits. The author’s implicit assumption that Christian ideals are the moral standard against which other codes are to be measured is so very arbitrary.
This assumption is plainly visible by mentioning TST’s tenets as exemplifying “turning the other cheek.” I get that the author’s intention seems to be complementing TST while criticizing many Christians. Here’s the catch: most people don’t understand what that phrase even really means, as (supposedly) taught by a (supposed) historical figure a few thousand years ago during the pre-Christian Roman Empire, during that legendary sermon. Metaphorically, allegorically, or literally, the first tenet is in no way about offering up one’s left cheek after being slapped on the right one. TST rejects lex talionis, a virtue expounded by LaVey in The Satanic Bible as a repudiation of turning the other cheek (in 1969 America). Rejecting “eye for an eye” in no way implies that TST accepts ancient Christian teachings. Making such an assumption demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the evolution of moral philosophy and/or critical thinking on the subject. Understand that these notions, however friendly to TST, are erroneous.
Under the guise
TST is not anti-Christian. In fact we are more than happy to be allies with the progressive and secularly minded of any theological disposition on issues of shared concern. Even as I offer that clarification it is painfully apparent that many Christians do not understand compassion. This lack of understanding is clearly illustrated by individuals and organizations that act under the guise of compassion, when a cursory examination of the situation indicates otherwise. The more fundamentalist or fervently evangelical they are, the more likely that compassion is soley a word offering cover for harmful actions. If you need examples to support these claims consider the following:
The hate spewed by the Westboro Baptist Church is well documented on the SPLC’s site.
“JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews.”
– Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009”
Consider these Evangelical activists in Africa promoting human rights violations, as covered by The Nation.
“For years now, evangelical activists from the United States have been injecting themselves into African politics, speaking out against homosexuality and cheering on antigay legislation on the continent. The influence of these groups has been well documented in Uganda. The now-defunct Exodus International, for example, sent Don Schmierer, a board member, to Uganda in 2009 to speak at a conference alongside Scott Lively, a pastor who was later sued by a Ugandan gay rights group for his role in promoting human rights violations against LGBTQ people.”
How about Compassion International? They must be compassionate with a name like that. Check out this article from The Humanist about how this organization approaches their charity work and decide for yourself if it’s actually compassionate.
“Here is another excerpt from their website:
The children Compassion serves receive, among other things: the opportunity to hear the Gospel and learn about Jesus; regular Christian training; educational opportunities and help; health care, hygiene training and supplementary food if necessary; a caring and safe Christian environment to grow in self-confidence and social skills; personal attention, guidance and love.
As you can read, Christianity comes before any substantive aid.”
You’ve likely heard someone called a Mother Teresa as a compliment. Her name is literally a common synonym for a good person. What a compassionate person she was, helping all those poor people. In this Huffington Post article she is quoted as saying the following:
“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering”.
Such sentiments are literally the antithesis of compassion by any sane definition. If you need more convincing check out this scathing piece by the late Christopher Hitchens from 2003, republished on Slate at the time of his death in 2011, which coincided with the Vatican’s announcement of MT’s imminent sainthood.
Given everything I just mentioned it may appear that I am undermining my position, that friendly outsiders are confused at best when they say TST is more Jesus-like than many Christians. Before I make clear how this is not the case let’s consider some definitions.
I pity the fool!
What do I mean by compassion? Let’s start by saying what it is not. Compassion is different than apathy, pity, sympathy, and empathy, which are feelings. It is different than kindness, which is an outward action. Compassion cannot be reduced to feelings or actions.
I offer the following list of definitions for your consideration.
Kindness – Treating someone well, with affection, concern, care, friendliness.
Apathy – An absence of interest and caring. Indifference.
Pity – Feeling sorry for someone, possibly due to their misfortune even if it’s their fault. Sharing their emotional state in not necessary at all. Pity is often condescending and unwelcome, and can easily resolve into apathy.
Sympathy – Feeling for them and their situation because you can relate to it, and possibly including pity. Some individuals will feel emotionally manipulated for being forced into this situation.
Empathy – The ability to feel what they are feeling. Too much empathy can result in feeling emotionally devoured. Excessive empathy without compassion eventually results in emotional exhaustion or escape into apathy. (Recent findings in neuroscience show that empathy is tied to human evolution, as will be discussed in Part 2).
Compassion – The ability to understand and/or relate to what they are feeling without having to share their emotional state. It is an ability to feel empathy while maintaining healthy boundaries between sense of self and other. True compassion is like a psychological container that enables one to act according to their own will. Compassion thus requires cognitive, emotional, and moral developmental capacities.
Compassion is complex and contextual
Paul Gilbert, FBPsS, PhD, OBE is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Derbyshire in the UK. He opens his August, 2015 piece “Compassion: Universally Misunderstood” by saying: “When people hear the word compassion, they tend to think of kindness. But scientific study has found the core of compassion to be courage.” He concludes the article by stating that compassion “is not just about kindness or ‘softness’ and it is certainly not a weakness – it is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity.” Gilbert’s sentiments reinforce the previously given definition of compassion that included the term “will.”
The controversial Tibetan Buddhist Chögyam Trungpa introduced the terms “crazy wisdom” and “idiot compassion” to the West in the 1960s. David Bowie, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Philip Glass, and Patti Smith are a few notable examples of those attracted to his unorthodox teachings. These teachings were grounded in his deep understanding that “true compassion has the potential to appear cruel or ruthless.” *
We’ll dig a bit deeper into Buddhist conceptions of wisdom and compassion in Part 2. For now, we can start to see the bigger picture by the including this perspective. Sometimes “tough love” or “the cold shoulder” are apathetic, but when skillfully applied they can be compassionate. Charity, kindness, and self sacrifice can be compassionate acts, but they are often something else. Outward actions are illustrative but are not definitive.
Compassion is more evolved, complex, and difficult than simply behaving a certain way. Many acts that appear compassionate are clearly something else once the motivation is known, for example: giving change to a homeless person so they leave you alone; giving charitable donations for a tax write-off or to appease guilt about one’s wealth and good fortune; philanthropic donations to enhance one’s public reputation. That such acts are helpful to others is irrelevant to this discussion.
Ultimately compassion is not about appearances. It is not a diminishing of individual will by giving into social pressures and community expectations. In fact, only through strong will, with a healthy and well developed ego and evolved sense of self, can one even begin to be truly compassionate. Herein lies the connection between Satanism and compassion as understood by this founding member of TST’s NYC chapter.
Featured image: Rohrshach from Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.