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Wednesday, 07 November 2018 07:10

Authentic Compassion and Public Policy

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Compassion 1107wrp(Photo: Paul Stein / Flickr)


Earlier this year, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen used the term "compassion" to describe the US while simultaneously defending the administration's policy of separating parents and children at the Mexican border.

Following this, the president and vicepresident both used the term when discussing border security. In May of last year, White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney stated the government would "no longer measure compassion by the number of programs, but by the number of people we help get off those programs." That same month, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, while visiting a low-income housing development, was quoted as saying that compassion means not giving people "a comfortable setting that would make somebody want to say: 'I'll just stay here. They will take care of me.'"    

These are false characterizations of compassion, and public officials must better understand the word's meaning and utility within public policy.

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First, what is compassion? Compassion is foundational to most religious traditions and is one of the most ethical and humane acts of human interaction. Its distinguishing characteristic is the element of "suffering with." Compassion is not softhearted caring. It is not monetary donations to charity. It is not pity. Rather, compassion is directly linked to the recognition of human suffering and action to alleviate that suffering.

Compassion is the opposite of cruelty. Cruelty displays a disregard for another's humanity. It preys upon weakness and involves misuse of power to further degrade an individual already in precarious circumstances.

Here are some examples of true compassion. Compassion is practiced by those who tenderly care for the elderly ill, grieve with parents who have lost their children, provide support to victims in the aftermath of violence, work on the front lines of disaster recovery, staff suicide prevention hotlines, provide foster care to abused children or in other ways accompany individuals through difficult times.

It requires closeness, often long term, even when things continue to look dark, even when circumstances may not improve. Those who have been on the receiving end of compassionate response know what it looks like and what it feels like – a lightened burden and reminder that one is not alone, but is part of a shared humanity.

Individuals can choose to be compassionate or cruel. So can societies, partially through their policy decisions. To build compassion into policy, first, there needs to be a recognition of the existence of suffering. The realities of poverty, hunger, illness, racism, violence and other serious social ills cause very real pain in contemporary US life, as well as across the globe. Our earlier work on compassion identified other necessary considerations.

Compassionate response is also related to the process of delivering support. This requires sufficient funding and infrastructure to support community-based networks of professionals and volunteers. Skilled professionals can address suffering and have the training to withstand the emotional toll of misery they witness while volunteers often share the space, culture and experience to authentically connect. Additionally, sometimes compassionate action exists solely in the ability to be present with those dealing with pain or loss. We cannot always solve the problems that cause human suffering, but the provision of support through human connection can mitigate distress and is itself worthy of effort.

Compassion can be found within policy arenas related to hospice care, victim services and disaster management. Further compassionate policy actions might also include: strengthening a safety net of economic, health care and educational supports; race-based strategies, including reparations, which address the suffering that Black Americans and Native Americans have endured for generations; gender-based strategies focused on equality and protection from violence, harassment and discrimination; and global initiatives that protect vulnerable migrants throughout the world.

The flippancy with which the word "compassion" has been routinely used by senior members of the current administration is both grotesque and hollow. One might assume, however, that it is purposeful. Because compassion continues to be used to justify any range of policies, clearly decision makers see the general public as valuing compassion.

It is never easy to balance the range of social values in our complex society, nor can compassion be the sole value guiding policy decisions. Dignified debate about policies, evidence and national character are required. This includes challenging the misuse the term, its false meaning and its linkage to policies that are more accurately characterized as cruel. Without this corrective, a false sense of shared cultural values predominates.


Mary Elizabeth Collins is professor and department chair of social welfare policy at the Boston University School of Social Work.

Sarah B. Garlington is assistant professor in the Social Work Program at the College of Health Sciences & Professions at Ohio University.