As Angel Eduardo writes, the word woke “has lost all useful meaning when it comes to communication between people on opposite sides of the culture war.” We do, however, need a term that can replace it, that isn’t currently viewed as a slur and that can get to the nub of the disagreement between both sides: a division that is not coterminous with the dividing line between left and right. I propose the term compassionism.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff coined the term safetyism: “a culture or belief system in which safety has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.” Safetyism takes something that is good in moderation (risk avoidance) and exaggerates it until it becomes dangerous. The culture of safetyism may induce parents not to let their children cross the road alone until they’re ten years old, or pick up litter in a suburban neighbourhood, for example. The desire to protect children can become a sacred value to the exclusion of other values, like fostering independence.
By analogy, compassionism is a belief system in which compassion is a sacred value that overrides all other considerations. It might motivate, for example, ludicrous attempts to replace so-called violent language (we’re going to pull the trigger) with softer words (we’re going to launch) to try to prevent causing listeners or readers any discomfort. It might cause people to allow children to transition without a rigorous psychological assessment, out of a fear that the children might otherwise feel trapped in their bodies or out of place in society. It might cause universities to hire full-time staff whose purpose is to identify and prevent microaggressions. It might explain why some activists insist that morbid obesity can be both beautiful and healthy: to protect the feelings of the overweight.
Compassionism might also help elucidate many examples of cancel culture. When a conservative student group at the University of Virginia invited Mike Pence onto campus, for example, the college paper demanded that the invitation be rescinded, on the grounds that it might harm marginalised, especially LGBT and black, students.
Compassionism could be the motivation behind the call for reparations in the US, which—at its best—is driven by a sincere desire to help a black community that is still struggling thanks to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. This could also explain Ibram X Kendi’s proposed constitutional amendment that would create a new and powerful federal department focused on combating racism. Land acknowledgements in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand are likewise driven by a desire to show respect towards indigenous people who have historically been mistreated. Calls to defund the police are probably motivated by a wish to prevent harm to minority groups and the mentally ill.
One recent bill proposed by the Seattle City Council would even make theft legal, as long as the thief is motivated by poverty. According to Director of Public Defense Anita Khandelwal, “In a situation where you took that sandwich because you were hungry, and you were trying to meet your basic need of satisfying your hunger; we as the community will know that we should not punish that.” This is compassionism at its finest.
There’s nothing wrong with compassion, of course; but we should not prioritise compassion to the exclusion of all other values. Emotional resilience is a virtue—but it is often undermined by well-intentioned people who would like to remake language into something that cannot possibly offend. It is important to prevent children from making irreversible, life-changing decisions—even if this may cause them suffering at the time. Trans activists often ignore this important trade-off. It’s also vital to be exposed to a variety of different perspectives—but this value is all too often ignored by cancellers eager to keep everyone safe from potentially offensive speakers.
Limited government is important—but Kendi’s drive to help the US black community leads him to endorse totalitarian methods. Protecting communities from theft and violent crime is important—but this aim is often sidelined by compassionists who can only see the harm that police do.
When we enshrine compassion as a sacred virtue, untethered from trade-offs, we can easily end up with the kind of society nobody really wants.
Then there is also the question of who we do and don’t feel compassion towards. Letting non-passing transwomen into the women’s toilets makes a lot of biological women uncomfortable, and some trans activists simply disregard their concerns. Race-based reparations don’t seem especially compassionate towards poor non-black Americans, whose taxes would have to be increased to pay for sins their ancestors may not even have committed. Compassion is often selective. We may have more pity for members of some groups than others: for black people, but not impoverished white people; for transwomen, but not cis women; for people who steal because they’re poor, but not for the convenience store owners who are robbed.
This selective exercise of compassion is inevitable if we regard society as a zero-sum game between competing interest groups in which, as Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo put it, “those in dominant groups are not disadvantaged by oppression, but in fact benefit from it.” In such a worldview, helping those at the bottom of the hierarchy necessarily requires taking something away from those perceived to be at the top.
Many compassionists view the world as divided into oppressors and oppressed. As Kathryn Pauly Morgan writes, “Privilege involves the power to dominate in systematic ways … oppression involves the lived, systematic experience of being dominated by virtue of one’s position on various particular axes.” For people like Morgan, compassion should be focused on trying to take down the oppressors, in order to benefit the oppressed.
But is it really useful to add yet another term to the culture wars? I would argue that it is. First, because it is relatively easy to call yourself anti-woke and smear your opponents as woke; it’s a lot harder to confess to being anti-compassionism and to smear your opponents as compassionists. By embedding a virtue into the name, itself, we can slow down the euphemism treadmill a bit and push the discussion, at least temporarily, towards mutual respect and away from name-calling. It also distances the conversation from the inaccurate idea that this is a left–right division and towards more useful questions. Compassion clearly benefits society, but is it possible to have too much compassion? When does it need to be balanced against other virtues?
The worldview of compassionism threatens to undermine a number of important aspects of society, including law enforcement, equality and freedom of speech, but those who espouse it are generally well intentioned. We can combat their ideas by pointing out that they may hurt the very people who are most in need of care. As Maggie Anders explains,
As a former woke teenager, let me give you some inside information: most women are woke because it appeals to our nurturing and empathetic side that cares for victims.
— Maggie 🕊 (@LibertyAnders) March 9, 2023
When we identify what our opponents care about and show how our solutions can help them achieve it, we can win over hearts and minds. Anything else will be ineffective.