Brandon Ambrosino is a freelance writer in Delaware.
“Basic human nature is compassionate,” writes the Dalai Lama in Visions of Compassion, a collection of essays inspired by a 1995 conference titled Altruism, Ethics, and Compassion. “We humans have an innate, not learned, disposition toward affection, care, gentleness, and positive mental and emotional states.”
Like the Dalai Lama, I believe that compassion and kindness belong to our nature as human beings. To the extent we practice these values, we deepen our own humanity. To the extent that we neglect these values, we distort our own humanity.
Sadly, many of us seem hellbent on distorting ourselves.
There are more than 330 million of us on Twitter, sending out hundreds of millions of tweets a day. These tweets, unlike our face-to-face speech, are devoid of inflection, tone and any accompanying facial expressions. As our eyes scroll past words and ideas and jokes and hashtags, we have a tendency to forget that at the other end of the laptops and smartphones are fingers that belong to flesh-and-blood humans. Humans with families. Humans with desires and goals. Humans struggling to make ends meet. Humans just wanting to laugh. Humans wondering what they’ll do for dinner.
Forgetting the humanity of those we interact with on Twitter tricks us into forgetting our own. And so some of us tweet that so-and-so deserves to die, or that someone else deserves to lose her job and never again collect a paycheck, or that the White House press secretary doesn’t ever again deserve to eat at a public restaurant because she’s a “fat lying bitch” who “don’t need no more food.”
And then we justify our words.
Journalist and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson has pointed out that, in the age of social media, we’ve gotten really good at “constantly coming up with psychological tricks to make ourselves feel not so bad about destroying people.” For example: Oh, that person doesn’t deserve a job because he’s racist and racists don’t deserve jobs. Or: She doesn’t deserve to enjoy a quiet afternoon out with her family because of her political affiliation.
This kind of psychological trickery reached a fever pitch in recent weeks as people weighed in on Sarah Sanders being kicked out of a Virginia-area restaurant. Those who approved of the decision argued that Ms. Sanders doesn’t deserve kindness because she works for a terrible administration. They argued that behaving civilly to administration officials only normalizes bigotry and downplays the horrific effects of Donald Trump’s disastrous zero-tolerance immigration policy. They argued that respect and kindness are earned, and Ms. Sanders, a spokeswoman for Mr. Trump, has earned neither.
Predictably, anyone who spoke out in favor of basic human kindness was accused of playing “respectability politics” or “civility police.” People quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in the attempt to prove that the Christian minister who reminded the world to love their enemies would somehow … be on the side of kicking someone out of a restaurant. (He wouldn’t.) Michelle Obama’s advice to “go high” when opponents “go low” was openly scorned as naive and politically ineffective. (It isn’t.)
This is classic 2018. Shaming people, including family members, for their political opinions is encouraged. Harassing anyone for voting for the opposition is the only proper way to push back against a political administration. Act up! Don’t be civil! Tweet quickly! Tweet angrily! After all, anger, as any headline-writer will tell you, is greatly rewarded on social media.
What is so alarming about the new angry normal is that underneath all the clickbait buzzwords such as “civility” and “normalization” is a very simple, very dangerous idea: You don’t have to be compassionate if you don’t want to.
Actually, you should be compassionate and kind to everyone. Full stop. But what if they’re – no. Kindness, full stop. The reason you should be compassionate and kind to everyone is because to act differently is to act against your very nature as a human being.
I certainly understand discrimination. I’ve been fired from two jobs for being gay. And just last month, when I complained of discriminatory practices in Delaware real estate, I received a letter from the government reminding me that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 does not protect sexual orientation, so I will need to get over it.
None of that changes my thoughts about kindness. Full stop.
I’ve seen some people argue that mistreating bigots such as Ms. Sanders is actually compassionate behaviour. To welcome her, the argument goes, is to welcome the injustice that defines the administration she belongs to; and, therefore, to excommunicate her is to uphold justice, which is always the compassionate option.
While we can no doubt reasonably debate what compassion might look like in different contexts, we cannot pretend that it can sincerely be practiced alongside of hate, malice, contempt and a desire for revenge. When these latter motivations inspire our action, we can be sure we’re not acting in accordance with compassion.
Which means we’re not acting in accord with who we, deep down, really are.
Some might take issue with this characterization, that human beings, like everything else in the known universe, are inherently selfish and aggressive. The process of natural selection is inherently violent and competitive – “nature, red in tooth and claw,” as the saying goes.
Human compassion emerged out of this co-operative process, taking it to new heights. In fact, writes Dacher Keltner, professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, in Born to Be Good, compassion is “the central moral adaptation produced in the evolution of human sociality.” More and more empirical studies are coming to demonstrate that “compassion is a biologically based emotion rooted deep in the mammalian brain,” Mr. Keltner says.
This idea actually isn’t that new; it dates back to Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Sympathy, for him, is enormously beneficial. “Those communities which include the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
Importantly, as human society evolved, so too did its scope of sympathy:
“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”
In other words, the more we evolve as a species, the wider our circle of compassion reaches: from our tribes to neighboring tribes to our nation to our species to even other species.
What social media is doing is reversing this evolution of compassion: We’re nowhere more tribal than when we’re tweeting. Think of it like that illustration that shows the harmful effects of technology on our posture: Over millions of years, humans evolved to stand upright only to have a computer screen draw their posture back down towards the ground. A similar illustration might be made of the harmful effects of technology on our moral posture: Over millions of years, human beings have expanded their circle of compassion only to have social media narrow it back down to those whose grunts sound similar to theirs.
Another reversal of the conditions under which human compassion flourished is what Sherry Turkle has called our being alone together. “The amount of time we spend alone” – say, hate-tweeting – “is a radical aberration for our species,” Mr. Keltner writes. That’s because early hominids’ survival rested on their co-operation, which required successful communication. Human communication, so far as we know, “is unlike that of any other species in terms of precision, flexibility, sensitivity, and bandwidth,” Mr. Keltner explains. Not only is our vocal apparatus more highly evolved, which allows us to form words; but in comparison with our primate relatives, our lack of facial hair and abundance of facial muscles allow us to communicate with subtlety, creativity and nuance.
Successful human communication, evolved from our ancestors’ face-to-face encounters, where visual and audible cues helped the involved parties come to a clear understanding of what was being said.
Human communication is not at its best on digital-only platforms. In an article exploring whether the shift to text-based communication comes at a “surprising psychological cost,” Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley conclude that “removing the voice from a real person might be subtly dehumanizing, making the person seem more like a mindless machine.” Little wonder, then, why there are so many rape and death threats on Twitter. We have lost sight of the human face behind the screen.
Mr. Keltner refers to an account that George Orwell gave of his time fighting in the Spanish civil war. As a fascist enemy came running by, Orwell noticed his pants falling down. This detail may have saved the man’s life:
“I did not shoot partly because of that detail about the trousers. I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists;’ but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.”
Maybe one way we can be kinder on social media is if we picture every one of our digital enemies as holding up their trousers, so to speak, hurriedly scrambling to stay alive in the midst of a winner-takes-all war. It might feel good to fire a shot at someone who seems to deserve it – but sooner or later we have to face the fact that all of this hatred is changing us. As Dr. King warned half a century ago, hatred “distorts the personality of the hater.” It does nothing to the person we hate. The drunk delight we take in siccing angry digital mobs on our fellow humans – even the most unkind ones – bespeaks a certain distortion of our own humanity.
But what about terrible people who really do warrant unkindness? Like Nazis and white supremacists? Do we still owe kindness to people such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong? If an actual Nazi comes to your home to take away your children, please fight for your children. Then, and only then, can you punch a Nazi. But since this scenario seems so unlikely to happen to most of us, we should try and turn the question back onto ourselves.
First, we might note that on Twitter, many people who aren’t actually Hitler are compared to Hitler. Making a compassion exemption for Literal Nazis might be difficult if only because not everyone Twitter decides are Literal Nazis are actually Literal Nazis.
Second, fine, there are actual sociopaths and psychopaths in this world. In that case, we should take a good look at what the Dalai Lama calls “the catastrophic consequence of a deep submergence of their basic human nature.” This observation should warn us about what happens when we slowly let go of our own humanity, and it should consequently encourage us to practice those things which deepen it. Like compassion.
Finally – and this one might be hard to swallow – as the Dalai Lama poignantly notes, hatred is systemic. Every evil person that rises up comes “from within society’s prevailing social and cultural conditions”:
“It is a mistake, therefore, to concentrate solely on the individual. So, while we tend to regard the behavior of these people as something essentially isolated, we ourselves as members of the human community must take our share of the responsibility for tolerating the conditions under which such disintegration of the human personality can take place.”
People criticizing calls for civility pretend that too much kindness is our problem. The opposite is actually true. The lack of kindness in the real world and on social media is not a result of Mr. Trump’s presidency, but one of its causes. In a truly kind world, where compassion is valued by the electorate, leaders such as Mr. Trump, who mock the disabled and brag about abusing women, don’t make it to the top.
But in a world where compassion is in short supply, where our favorite digital games to play include destroying strangers for their mistakes and arguing over who should be welcomed into a restaurant, leaders such as Mr. Trump start to make sense.