When it comes to the way a lot of us treat people who have viewpoints different from our own, it appears that goodwill has left the building. Fading away is our ability to appreciate people who are different. In its place is an avalanche of incivility and a glaring absence of decorum.
We have perfected the art of talking past one another. Rather than seeking common ground during difficult discussions, we mostly listen for opportunities to disagree. It happens in our daily interactions and is reinforced in popular media. It’s sad but true: wholesale hostility has become a pastime, and many of us embrace it.
The evolving nature of social media has made matters worse. What was once a series of polite web communities has developed into contentious, often toxic environments drenched in animus and embraced as blood sport. This nasty mode of communication has supplanted the willingness to at least understand, if not agree with one another. In turn, this icy approach to communication has supercharged cultural issues.
The celebration of Columbus Day, for instance, has long been a day of contention. Established in the U.S. as a federal holiday in 1937, (the holiday is also recognized in countries across the American continents), it is a time many Italian-Americans celebrate their heritage. For others, especially Native Americans, it’s a day that memorializes the start of European colonialism. As a result of this tension, some people observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which celebrates Native Americans and commemorates their shared history and culture.
It isn’t that disagreements are unhealthy or should be unwelcomed. The problem is that conversations about topics such as Columbus Day avoid dialogue and often foment unproductive rhetoric and personal attacks. Comments following an October 11, 2015, Washington Post article, “Why Is Columbus Day Still a U.S. Federal Holiday?” are illustrative:
AV: Ho hum, the usual Liberal relativism.
RDR: Ho hum, the usual Conservative response. Don’t you idiots ever get tired of throwing the word “liberal” at ever(y) point that goes against your strained history of garbage that you all defend and honor?
This is but one example of our ever-deepening chasm of ill will. It is sad to think that in a society founded on the ideals of democracy and freedom that we can do no better than either feigning disinterest or resorting to name-calling when we exercise our right to free speech. The issue is not who is right or wrong about Columbus Day. It’s about how we treat people with whom we disagree.
There is hope. It comes in the form of compassion, a time-tested means to bridge the great us-versus-them divide. When operating through compassion, there’s no room for the familiar “I’m so sure I’m right, there’s no point in listening” sentiment. Listening with an ear of compassion can heal the wounds of discrimination and apathy. When employed with authentic, focused intention, the world is made better by acts of compassion. And those acts come in all sizes – large and small.
Most people would agree, if only in the abstract, that we need compassion. Yet today we need it more than ever. That’s because compassion asks us to have an open heart, even for people with whom we vehemently disagree. Compassion encourages us to turn toward—not away from—people who are excluded, oppressed or shunned.
Compassion requires action in the face of injustice. Through it we are asked to help others, even if those efforts might be unsuccessful. It demands that we live up to our best values, including that of civility, which we seem to be losing. Compassion is a lofty ideal that can bolster our spirits, cultivate respect for others, and create positive change in the world.
It’s time to reclaim compassion for the good of others and ourselves. In doing so we can practice altruism instead of resentment, and regain a footing on which we embody good will and benevolent action.