Many people in the new age, spiritual, progressive and liberal communities like to put a lot of emphasis on compassion – compassion for all that is – for all of it and everyone, including perpetrators of abuse and even heinous crimes. And since I am a member of these well-intentioned communities, I feel like I can honestly and openly give my critical evaluation of what I call “Open Compassion” without persecuting its advocates. The general consensus I am speaking of is that the perpetrator’s degree of suffering must be so bad that they act out in anti-social, abusive and sometimes violent ways and that we need to blindly hold a place of compassion for them. I agree that what they must have endured to drive them to the behavior – from the mildly disruptive to the unspeakable – beckons some recognition, some inquiry, some sympathy, and certainly some compassion. Because, well…it is sad. But, an over emphasis of compassion for the offender, overshadows not only the victims and denies the perpetrator, but also, overlooks another context for compassion altogether.
What does it mean to be a bleeding heart? To have compassion for the human condition that is suffering (Buddha’s First Noble Truth)? To hold compassion for the deplorable? Those who hold a unity consciousness perspective, and/or a non-dualist perspective are generally not comfortable with the distinctions made between the victims and the perpetrators; after all, we’re all victims somewhere on the spectrum. For many of the open-hearted and open-minded, there is no “us” and “them” because we are all connected. I do get this. It’s a heart centered conviction – until it’s not. That is, until it becomes another compartment for the ego to put something complicated and uncomfortable; another end of the same spectrum, which leads to more suffering.
The open compassion perspective postulates that either by making bad choices in this lifetime, or through some pre-determined metaphysical contract we signed back in another life (if you believe in that sort of thing), or by gambling in the karmic casinos of Loss Vegas (again, if you believe in that sort of thing), that we need to take the onus for our abuse; a spiritual adaptation of ‘blame the victim.’ We all asked for whatever comes our way, right? (Wrong!)
There is a more compassionate form of compassion however; a more integrative perspective – one that doesn’t undermine compassion but actually broadens its definition, and more importantly, its implications. The perspective is that sometimes there is nothing more compassionate than calling out injustice in a way that holds the perpetrator accountable and keeps them from propagating suffering. Because in doing so, you liberate not only the victims (many of them voiceless), but also the perpetrators from further victimizing themselves and other would-be victims. It’s a win, win, win – times infinity.
The ‘ripple effect’ of a stone NOT thrown is just as impactful as the stone that is thrown…so it’s okay to put our energy on keeping the stone from being thrown. At least that’s my logic; and Plato’s too: “The price of Apathy is to be ruled by Evil Men.”
What message are we sending by sending no message at all? That it’s okay, that there are no consequences? This is the antitheses of what we learned in kindergarten. Am I saying a kindergartner’s values are better than ours? Yes, in some cases…yes. If we teach about consequences, but don’t follow through with them, we are not walking the talk, and not in integrity with our value system.
The overriding pattern, not just in spiritual and self-help circles, but in the culture at large seems to be a lot of focus on the self, a.k.a. the victim – as in: What did I do to “manifest” this? In what ways was I asking for this? What lessons was I supposed to learn? And even projecting this onto others: S/he must have asked for it, needed the lesson, had something to learn, that will teach them, how could they have been so naïve?, etc. And while a little self-inquiry or victim analysis can go a long way in terms of life’s lessons in the Universal classroom, this over-zealous victim focus unfortunately lets the wrong-doers off the hook. It deprives them from a much needed shot of realism, truth and perhaps healing, and robs society of basic safety in the process – creating an ever more perilous and hostile environment.
While we’re busy fixing and blaming ourselves (a type of self-absorption) for having been ensnared by the karmic booby trap, the system continues to run amok. That’s how empires get built – shifting responsibility onto the wounded and down trodden. Coercing people to look no further than the end of their noses keeps their world small and solutions to worldly problems out of sight. Consider this scenario: While I was busy working introspectively on my issues, my abuser went on to abuse 7 more people, of which 4 went on to abuse…etc., ‘and the wheels of the bus go round and round.’
Of course the conditioning for us bleeding heart liberals, ‘we conscious’ loving, non-duality seeking, harmony addicts – tells us that we’re not being spiritual or benevolent if we seek to find ways to intervene, accost or punish those who are abusing us or others. But I’m not buying it. It feels like a bypass/sidestep of some gritty work that requires us to roll up our sleeves and face not only the outward ‘monsters,’ but the inner demons that ask us confront what isn’t in alignment with what we know as true, even if it makes us ‘look’ like the bad guy or uncompassionate. God forbid.
Victims are so used to being blamed and shamed by others that they start doing it to themselves, a variation of Stockholm syndrome, perhaps – we start identifying and empathizing with the abuser instead of owning our experience as the victim and how we’ve been hurt, and demanding accountability of the perpetrator. It’s easier for us to fathom that we had a part to play in our own victimhood than to imagine and accept someone else could be so cruel. We can’t get into their minds, so we go digging in ours – to the point of our own diversion sometimes. Somehow we can more easily digest a trauma if we focus on the part we played in it- it’s what we can control. But if we weren’t so emotion-phobic, particularly to anger, rage, grief and healthy intolerance, we would own and integrate these human emotions and channel them in ways that actually rectify rather than detract from healing. You are not giving an abuser freedom by practicing open compassion – because it’s not real freedom if it undermines someone else’s.
That’s not to say there isn’t value in turning inward and looking at our roles and responsibility. That field will be there for us to plow until we ourselves return to the dirt. But first things first – the bad behavior on the part of the perpetrator first needs to be stopped. There is so much up-framing and spiritualizing of the bad guy and the bad stuff, as well as a rush to prematurely forgive, but I think we’d be wiser to hold that perspective in the background and get to work on what’s right in front of us; matters at hand:
1. Make sure the victim is okay and getting the help s/he needs.
2. Hold the wrong-doer accountable and stop his/her behavior by whatever means are necessary and appropriate.
3. Start the self-reflection process, mining and interpreting lessons, etc.
4. Inquire into the history of the perpetrator and what factors led to his/her character dysfunction; if we have the resources and we find it worth our while (what levels of healing are possible).
I am all for doing the self-work, but not at the neglect of holding wrong-doers accountable. Accountability is an important step in the healing process – both ours (if appropriate) and theirs. We undermine the individual steps we are taking if we are not also working to change a system that doesn’t support our healing and growth, but rather works to further destabilize it. There is no individual without the collective and no collective without the individual. Too much focus on one without the other breeds incongruence. But we can hold all of it at once by acting on our compassion, which can include taking actions to stop injustice. Everywhere there is an opportunity to stop injustice there is an opportunity for compassion.
There is nothing compassionate in protecting those who harm others. I am not arguing an eye for an eye, but I think it’s important to look at the horrifically disproportionate number of victims to the number of punished. The sex slave trade is a grim and extreme example of this. The multi-billion dollar industry is churning out victims in the tens of millions, but there is disproportionately less focus on those who are doing the victimizing – the buyers of human flesh. In fact, they are hardly talked about at all. What is it that we’re afraid to confront? Are we so over-identified in our own victimhood that we’ve become immobilized, or are we so desensitized to the normalization of pain and abuse that we can’t bring ourselves to have the punishment fit the crime, the penalty fit the abuse? Or are we actually identifying with and sympathizing with the perpetrators on some level? Just whom do we more identify with and why? Either way, it is dysfunctional and creates a climate where abuse is perpetuated. We need to stop criminalizing the criminalization of real criminals, otherwise we are pathologically and chronically identifying more with the criminals than the victims, which ultimately means that the criminal mentality is running the show and our basic human right to safety is on the line. Let us not forget that safety is a primary need – at the base of Maslow’s pyramid from which we grow.
There is nothing compassionate about neutrality or excessive tolerance. Compassion is protective, not deflective. To be over-tolerant is to acquiesce to a pattern, a perpetuation of disempowerment – as it severs our voices and amputates our power as well as the perpetrator’s. It sidesteps our lessons, our feelings and our healing. If we really believe in egalitarianism and have compassion for all that is, doesn’t the perpetrator deserve to get his teachings too? Wasn’t it in his soul’s contract or his karmic blueprint to be reprimanded? Are they not the lessons he asked for? Do his choices not bear the same consequences? How can we hold these beliefs for one party, but not the other? It is a grave disservice to overlook this aspect of compassion. After all, who are we to not confront someone and hold them accountable? Is it not our karmic responsibility to boundary wrong-doing? Don’t we have an obligation to victims, many of them voiceless who don’t have the resources to stand against subjugation? Is this not the way the world gets safer? How much compassion and respect for life do we really have through this avoidance?
Compassion combined with reason takes the least amount of prisoners and hostages. It offers liberation to everybody involved, and sometimes that liberation can be the very thing that stops someone in their tracks. Compassion void of reason is nothing more than an up-framing of a situation we are too afraid to face.
It’s time we stop indiscriminately passing out the overly pious ‘Get Out of Jail Free card.’ Not allowing those to serve time serves no one. It’s time to reframe compassion. To understand that the compassionate thing to do is not to let wrong-doers off the hook, but call them out on what they did and hold them accountable; and sometimes that means harsh punishment (although harsh is a subjective term). People cannot find a new way of being if they are being enabled by pity, bypass modalities, indolence and our own fears of confrontation.
We can be soft, open-hearted, loving creatures and fiercely protective at the same time. There is nothing more compassionate than that. If you believe ‘it’s ALL God,’ that includes the part where we hold perpetrators accountable and make their actions punishable. Let this serve as a reminder to myself and others, that sometimes there is nothing more compassionate that calling out injustice.
I leave you with these powerful quotes by Martin Luther King, Jr. who thoroughly understood the detriment of staying quiet and inactive, and encouraged others to take a stand against what they thought was wrong, so as to save others from needless suffering at the hands of the ignorant and cruel and unconscious, while necessarily being true to themselves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Quotes:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”
“I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
About Jessica Bahr:
Jessica is a freelance writer, who writes about subjects she is passionate about, including grounded spirituality, integral psychology, conscious relationships, media literacy, gender relations and healthy sexuality. She has been published by various online publications, including The Good Men Project, Spirit of Maat, DailyCoudt.com and Elephant Journal. She recently won the “The Summer of Love” essay contest, hosted by In The Garden Publishing, and is currently working on her first book on the media’s impact on gender relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org