I went to a show on Thursday. A show that I imagine wouldn't have sat well with many. A show in which abortion was discussed at length, and the concept of radical compassion was taken a lot further than many would be comfortable with.
This will not be a review of that show. Amanda Palmer is a controversial figure at the best of times, and while I am a huge fan, I also understand why others would not be. Her art is bold and in your face, and that can be hard to deal with. What this will be is a place where we dive head-first into the idea of radical compassion, and why it makes so many uncomfortable.
Radical compassion is not the domain of Amanda Palmer alone. I have talked about it for years. Khen Lampert, the alleged coiner of the term, has talked about it for years. Doctors and medics in war zones have practiced it for years. Hippies, philosophers, criminal profilers, social workers, crisis counselors, pacifists, activists, nurses, and artists have struggled with it for years. The idea that everyone is deserving of compassion, that understanding the motivations of even the most seemingly evil people could benefit us all, that everyone has room to grow, is not an easy one to embrace. There are, for lack of a better word, monsters among us - rapists, murderers, abusers, people who take 10 minutes to order a latte - and to suggest we should feel compassion for them is questionable, at best. To suggest that we should offer such people any goodwill, that we should use some of our necessarily limited empathy on them, that we should do for them what they will not do for others, is understandably distasteful. But I still believe we should. And here's why:
First and foremost, I do not believe anyone is born evil. I don't believe in evil, full stop - in my mind, "evil" is a purely religious concept that has little utility in day to day life. What we deem evil is most often the result of a mental illness, dysfunction, trauma, or disorder. To simply write someone off as evil is a disservice to society at large, as it indirectly implies that there was never any hope for that person, and indeed, for the many like them. That they just are what they are, and nothing would have/could ever change that. I call bullshit on that theory. When we look at the most infamous evil characters, we can almost always point to something, somewhere, that may have set them on their course.
Second, I do not believe people are irredeemable. It's tempting to do so, but example after example after example proves this incorrect. Countless people have pulled themselves from the deepest depths of dysfunction and gone on to become advocates for the very people they victimized. Countless people have moved from lives filled with violence, sorrow, and pain to lives full of hope, joy, and grace. Countless people have shuffled out of the darkness and into the light. And I refuse to believe anyone is incapable of the same.
Third - and I know this one isn't going to go over well - we're animals, ok? Yes, we are brilliant, high-functioning animals who are capable of debating ethics and morality, but we're still animals. We are still part of the same species that regularly kills those who pose a threat - real or perceived - even if it's a detriment to society. We are still part of the same species that engages in violent sexual exploits, that attempts to force our presence on others, that puts our own needs and desires above the care of others. We're still figuring out this whole "primates with empathy" thing, and deserve some room for error.
Now, let me be very, very clear here: radical compassion absolutely does NOT mean you have to forgive every single person for every single transgression. Radical compassion does NOT mean you should feel pity for Hitler or Ted Bundy or Ayn Rand or Pol Pot. You should not feel compelled to take your rapist out for dinner, to have pleasant feelings towards your abuser, or cheers your highschool bully should you run into them at the pub. Radical compassion (in my view, anyway) is not the offering of a free pass. It is not the demand that we all forgive and forget, it is not the idea that we must set aside our own trauma to feel for those who traumatized us. We are allowed to be angry. We are allowed to be hurt. We are allowed to remember. Radical compassion is NOT a call to feel sympathy for those who have wronged us, or others. What it is is a call to remember that those people are real, actual, human beings. To consider that they were not born to harm you or your kin. That they, too, probably once had dreams and goals and desires that extended far beyond hurting others. That many of them (not all, to be sure) are products of their environments, that people live what they know, that hurt people hurt people. That mental illness and disorders aren't always easy to sympathize with - that sometimes they lead to people doing really horrible things to others. That not every "evil" person wants to be evil. That there is a very messy collection of desires, regrets, compulsions, emotions, self-hatred, resentment, and lack of control present in most of those we happily and quickly deem evil.
Radical compassion is, to me, the acknowledgement that every single human being on the planet struggles. Some of us internalize our struggles, some of us take them out on everyone else. All of us could benefit from people seeing us. Seeing us as human beings, seeing us as people with potential, seeing us as people who are, perhaps, victims as well as victimizers. Radical compassion is, to me, the acknowledgement that not everyone who hurts others truly wants to hurt others, that they are also suffering and struggling with how to deal. Radical compassion is, to me, the acknowledgement that even those who take real, actual joy in harming others probably do so for reasons that we would be horrified to understand.
I believe in compassion. I believe in forgiveness. I believe in meeting people where they are, and allowing them to go further. I believe that every single human being on the planet has the potential to be better than they are today. I believe, perhaps naively, that even the worst among us can become the best of us. And, maybe, that's where I need radical compassion extended to me - perhaps I am foolish, idealistic, too optimistic in believing these things. Please let me.
Wherein I say
whatever I want.