Can Compassion Win?

“We have more in common than what divides us.”

– Jo Cox.

When we started 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion in 2015, I had a vision, a hope. In that vision, the voices of ordinary people with a common desire to spread compassion, and make a difference in some way. At the time, the world seemed ripe for change, tired of violence after incidents in Paris, Nigeria and elsewhere.

I was quietly hopeful that across the globe, humanity was ready to unite in awareness of our common bonds and that by adding voices of compassion we would be some small part in aiding that awareness.

Two years later in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, British MP Jo Cox, whose words I quoted at the beginning of this post, was murdered by a right-wing extremist. He objected to her campaigning to remain in the EU.

Here are her words again: “We have more in common than what divides us.”

Can we still say that when Jo Cox, mother to two young boys, was murdered for her opinion? Can we still say that, when authorities say that they have no way of knowing what happened to possibly thousands of children who were separated from their parents on the USA-Mexican border? How can we still say that when around half a million people have died in the Syrian war? How can we say still that when in the USA almost 60% of black women killed by police were unarmed? How can we still say that when in almost every country in the world, we see division and anger, with people laying the blame on the “other side”?

Over the last decade, violence has increased. According to a report issued by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) in June 2018, conflict decreased in 71 countries from the previous year but increased in 92 with both North America and Europe showing overall deterioration. The IEP measures several factors including: wars, military spending, corruption, political repression and incarceration levels. The USA came out 121st out of 163 countries, and is right at the bottom of countries with “medium” peace levels and well below Rwanda, Serbia or Bosnia & Herzegovina – all countries with war-torn pasts. The UK, where I am from, was ranked 57th, and in the “high” state of peace category. Only 13 countries around the world have “very high” states of peace.

Do we really have more in common than what divides us?

Let’s return to Rwanda. How could a country, where discrimination and hatred were once integrated into the school curriculum, now rank 18 places above the USA – ostensibly a peaceful country – on the IEP’s scale?

There have been several paths to Rwanda’s “medium” peace, and the more I dug around, the more I discovered why their peace isn’t considered “high.” While the government has done much to promote reconciliation initiatives, according to reports in both Time Magazine and the BBC website, government mandated reconciliation has not been without cost – in particular a government that exerts a high level of control and discourages dissent.

However, there does appear to be genuine reconciliation in many villages throughout the country and this is generally credited to “Peace Clubs” where perpetrators and victims of the genocide meet and talk. Felix Kanamugire, spent time in prison for taking part in the killings. He now regularly attends Peace Club meetings and says, “I have uprooted that hatred that was inside of me.” However, he also points out: “We don’t pretend to think it is done. This has to be a continuous process.”

Irene Mukaruziga would have good reason to hate Felix: he killed her husband and destroyed her house. And while forgiveness was by no means easy for her, she says, “We only started to speak because of the club.…Now, we have a lot in common. The teaching …has been helpful. They teach us how to identify hate and indicators of when things are going wrong.”

Now, we have a lot in common.

If a woman can say that about the man who killed her husband, then there is hope for all of us, hope for the world.

However, hope isn’t enough. We need to understand at a deep level what causes violence in the first place and to be willing to dig deep inside ourselves to let it change.

Rwanda’s problems span generations, as far back as the early twenty century, when Belgian colonists created identity cards with people classified by ethnicity – and the Belgians regarded the Tutsis as superior to Hutus. It won’t surprise you to know that the Hutus resented this. The 1994 mass murders were not the first – in 1959 more than 20,000 Tutsis were killed and many more fled to neighbouring countries. When the Belgians left Rwanda in 1962, Hutus gained power and Tutsis were the scapegoats for every crisis.

The current president is Tutsi – to his allies he is a visionary, to his critics a man who rules by brutally suppressing opposition. 

Even Hutus who opposed the genocide have been made to publicly atone, and some warn that if things don’t change, another, even worse revolution could come.

They could be right. Publicly shaming Hutus is unlikely to create true healing. For 35 years, to investigate the causes and prevention of violence, James Gilligan interviewed violent prisoners. What he came to see was that the prisoners he interviewed felt a deep sense of shame – sometimes feeling humiliated to the point where they would prefer death to giving in. Punishment served only to increase their violence – because punishment increased their sense of humiliation. When Gilligan asked one particularly violent prisoner what he wanted so badly that he had lost all privileges, the man replied, “Pride. Dignity. Self-esteem.” He would rather die than submit to the prison officers’ demands.

Gilligan discovered that every murderer he interviewed had, as a child, experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment – leading to feelings of shame, not feeling loved or good enough. As adults they were deeply attuned to checking for insults and disrespect and saw these where they didn’t exist – leading to such tragedies as a man murdering a child who “refused to stop crying” when ordered to.

After Gilligan realised this deep-rooted shame was the trigger for violence, he also discovered that many of his colleagues had seen the same thing, as had philosophers such as Aristotle and the authors of the Bible. In the first recorded murder Cain killed Abel – because he believed God respected Abel but not him.

Gilligan says, “when people suffer indignity, they become indignant.”

John Douglas, a former FBI profiler who was a consultant for Silence of the Lambs, as well as subject of the 2017 drama Mindhunter, concluded that any “ultimate violent act is a result of a deep-seated feeling of inadequacy.”

In his work John Douglas interviewed many serial killers. One of those was Charles Manson, who sat on the back of his chair during the first meeting. Manson was a small man and doing this made him seem bigger than Douglas. By letting it pass, Douglas won Manson’s trust.

So perhaps it pays to allow even violent men some dignity. That’s certainly Gilligan’s view. He believes that constraint is necessary, but punishment is not. Punishment, he says, stimulates rather than deters violence.

Gilligan says that the more a person feels shame, the less they are able to feel guilt that might stop them taking violent action.

This is an interesting hypothesis. The most common distinction between shame and guilt is that when we feel shame, it seems that we (as a person) are wrong, whereas with guilt we feel that our actions are wrong. Therefore shame will feel hard or impossible to rectify, whereas with guilt we have a choice to change behaviour.

Gilligan approaches this slightly differently and I would say that his definition of guilt is at times closer to what I think of as empathy. He sees it as an emotion that inhibits violent behaviour before it happens – because the person doesn’t want to harm those about whom he is having violent thoughts.  

Gilligan acknowledges that everyone feels shame, and says that there must be other conditions present for it to lead to violence. The painful childhoods his interviewees experienced would be one condition, with poverty, poor education and belonging to a group that is shamed by society frequently adding to that pain. (Male socialisation is another factor – shaming nonviolence as cowardly. He points out that during war, those who kill are hailed as heroes and rewarded with medals, while those who refuse to kill are branded cowards.) When the person no longer has enough non-violent ways to salvage self-esteem, he will resort to violence.

So if punishment and shaming won’t change people, maybe it’s time we stopped doing it? Yet, currently these techniques are used repeatedly, in the hope that somehow we can convince those we disagree with to come around to our way of thinking. I only have to scroll through Facebook or Twitter to see post after post of people mocking, ridiculing and ranting.

It’s understandable.

And it’s hopeless.

It also, often, misses the bigger picture. Today, for instance, three politicians resigned from the UK Conservative party. One of them is Heidi Allen, who, in her resignation speech, said, “We have deepened the suffering of people on benefits, while having the power to fix it.”

Several tweeters wrote that Allen had voted for austerity policies she was now deriding, and said she was a hypocrite. What they missed was that she has recently been on a tour of the nation’s foodbanks and was deeply disturbed to fully understand the depths of poverty, humiliation and despair that her former party’s policy’s had created. That she was moved to compassion by that tour is no reason to shame her now – it makes more sense to delight in her change of heart.

It’s not enough to say that others need to stop shaming. That is just the same old, same old. If compassion is to win, it has to start with us – with me.

We need to begin close to home – actually in our own homes, workplaces and in our interactions on social media. It begins with deep listening. It begins with learning the language of shame – Gilligan points out that shame is so prevalent that we have dozens of words for it: feeling mocked, taunted, defeated, losing face and “dissed” to name a few. I would add not feeling heard, not being given credit or being seen as stupid.

When we hear those words from someone else, we need to feel able to support them to express those feelings, and we cannot do that unless we also deeply listen to ourselves and heal our own shame. If compassion is to win, as always, it begins with us.

This post was written for the 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion 4th Anniversary link-up. If you would like to read more compassion posts, or to add your own, click the link party button below.

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8 Comments on “Can Compassion Win?”

  1. I am amazed at how you can bring all these thoughts and ideas together Yvonne. I always have been, all these last four years. I am late to the party this time, not knowing what to say, but still feeling it was important to say something. It was necessary to mark this four-year occasion. I don’t know what I ever expected out of it, but if all I got was that I got to know you in the world and your thoughts that you generously share here, that’s enough to keep me on the compassion road. Thank you for writing this.

    1. Kerry thank you so much for your kind comment. And I’m glad you’ve joined in with your own post, and so glad you are still on the compassion road!

  2. Pingback: Still Searching #Anniversary #Compassion #1000Speak | Her Headache

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