Can Politics Ever Be Compassionate?

Photo credit: renee bigelow. CC0/Public Domain.

Every now and then you come across a book, a film, an article or a TV show that helps you to make a little bit more sense of the world. I had such an experience recently when reading Paul Gilbert’s The Compassionate Mind. Rich in evolutionary theory and practical advice, Gilbert’s book describes how the coming together of our ‘mammalian’ and ‘human’ brains has created seemingly incompatible capacities for love and destruction. Modern society, he argues, has been structured in such a way as to encourage the latter while diminishing the former through our economies, the stories our politicians tell, and the examples they set.

It is, perhaps, unusual for a book focused on the evolutionary history of our brains to plant the seeds for a new political movement, but that’s what Gilbert’s book did for me, along with works by other authors from Daniel Dennett to Martha Nussbaum. I also found a friend and colleague, the author and activist Jennifer Nadel, who was on a similar journey to mine, having just published a book on how to live a more compassionate life – though hers had begun by following the progress of the Charter for Compassion, founded by the historian Karen Armstrong.

It struck both of us as absurd that there was no bridge between cutting-edge research on the value of compassion in helping people to overcome mental illness and live better lives, and the figureheads in society who are most responsible for setting the values by which societies live: our politicians and the media. In fact the opposite is true: a neoliberal model of economics developed in the 1980s and devoid of scientific value has convinced people that they are defined by selfishness, greed and vice. It’s also created a political system that puts party above universal progress, majorities in parliament over collaboration, and the attainment of power over the means that are used to get it.

What can be done to upend this destructive narrative? Issue-specific campaigns could help, but unless the guiding assumptions we live by are changed there will be no long-term, sustainable transformation. So we decided to dip our toes into the water by launching a new initiative called Compassion in Politics at the start of 2018.

With austerity continuing to inflict pain and suffering on the most vulnerable in society and inequality rising, it’s an opportune time to get this initiative off the ground. The mental health crisis worsens year-on-year and the alarming report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in early October warns that, unless we dramatically change course, then irreversibly-damaging global warming could be upon us in less than a generation. Brexit is pulling Britain apart, and in the USA, Donald Trump has benefitted from, and continues to peddle, his own toxic brand of politics.

Perhaps because of this (unfortunately) fertile ground, the response to our message has thus far been encouraging. We’ve received messages of support from a wide range of individuals and organisations including Noam Chomsky, Laurie Penny, Show Racism the Red Card, and MPs including Caroline Lucas, and our first conference took place in Oxford last weekend with a large and enthusiastic audience who helped us plan the next stages of the campaign. Coming together from all walks of life, the audience was united by a shared commitment to debunking the popular, mythological view of humans as a race of self-obsessed ego-centrics, and to building a new political system forged from compassion – a commitment to understanding others and standing with them through whatever difficulties they may face.

Of course the conference also brought up lots of questions: is compassion enough? Where does anger fit in? Do we need to have compassion only for ‘the people’ or for politicians too? And perhaps most pertinently, how do we change a culture that has been force-fed the message that we are all inherently selfish and that the only way to manage this condition is by building a society which harnesses those values through a growth-oriented, free-market economy?

On the last of these points I believe we’ve already started to reach an understanding. In his keynote speech to the conference Lord Dubs, the Labour peer and campaigner for child refugees, repeated his belief that the British public wants to ‘do the right thing’ – they want to be compassionate, and they want Britain to be seen as a caring nation. I think he is right, but I also recognise that our ability to live up to these standards is hampered by social, economic and political norms and structures that give precedence to money-making, possession-hoarding, and status-seeking behaviour.

So we need to change the language that’s used by politicians and the press, and we need to share our own stories, examples, and commitment to compassion in practice as a way to undermine the existing cultural hegemony. And that means transforming institutions in concrete terms by, for example, encouraging much more cross-party collaboration, ending the tit-for-tat style of debate in parliament, and establishing a new compassionate code-of-conduct for MPs.

Every new policy issued by government should have to prove that it will – and has – improved the lives of those most in need of help; that it was developed through a spirit of cooperation with other parties which utilizes respectful debate to improve policies with the proper degree of scrutiny; and that it does not impinge negatively on the lives of future generations. The legacies of austerity and climate breakdown are proof enough that this has not been the case in the past. Think of this is a kind of ‘compassion test’ to be embedded throughout decision-making.

In the media world we need new codes of conduct that commit newspaper editors to steer clear of personal slander and stereotyping language. Under such a code, corrosive attacks on the press as “enemies of the people” by President Trump and others, or Boris Johnson’s incendiary description of Muslim women as looking like “letterboxes,” would never be allowed or tolerated.

It’s also important to work with politicians on reforms to the policy-making process that make cross-party working easier, while helping to boost the numbers of representatives in parliament or Congress from less privileged backgrounds so that those entering politics have a better understanding of the lives of the people they govern.

Naturally, ideas like these will come up against those who argue that compassion is too weak or vague to guide the political or economic sphere and that only cold-hearted rationality makes for good decision-making. To those detractors I’d raise a number of responses.

First, being compassionate in a world that teaches you to be otherwise is courageous. To turn towards and not away from suffering, and make that the centerpiece of your decisions, takes guts and determination.

Second, to deny the role of emotion in politics is to deny that human beings are central to the way politics works. Emotions are who we are, and so we want people who enter politics (and in doing so become responsible for the lives of millions) to understand their emotions, the emotions of others, and how both influence their decision-making. This kind of emotional intelligence should be an essential requirement for anyone who is thinking of a career in politics, business or journalism.

We can make this change happen. The seeds are already there – in people’s imaginations, in their desire for a better world, and in the examples they are already setting for one another when they care for family, friends, and colleagues. We’ve done it before. The National Health Service, for example, the ‘Kindertransport’ which helped to save the lives of 10,000 Jewish children during the Second World War by offering them sanctuary in Britain, and the legalisation of homosexuality and same-sex marriage – all these things and more were built on one central idea: compassion. Society can undoubtedly be fashioned in its image.

Open Democracy

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