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A Few Words in Favor of Compassion for the Cruel

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Headlined to H2 8/19/10
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"If we are kind to those to whom we should be cruel, we will ultimately be cruel to those to whom we should be kind."

The quote is part of a long email from a friend, a smart, passionate person who is concerned about the world we live in and committed to making it better...or at least to doing his best to prevent it from becoming worse.

The description of my friend is deliberately apolitical. Liberals and conservatives may disagree on strategies, but our needs and wishes are not so different. Most of us want safety and justice and freedom.

The above isn't intended as a comprehensive list. My point is that most of us tend to agree on what we want, just not on how to get it.

That's how my friend and I are. We agree on the ends. We just differ on the means and even then more in degree than in priorities. A few days earlier we had started to talk about compassion for those that would do us harm (both physically and politically). I am in favor. My friend is skeptical but open to the possibility. The quote (he believes it is from the Talmud) was offered less as a statement of his position than as something to consider. I've been thinking about it ever since.

Of course, I googled it and promptly got distracted by this Nick Lowe song:

Some time later, I found myself reading a piece by Eliav Shochetman titled He Who is Compassionate to the Cruel Will Ultimately Become Cruel to the Compassionate.

Apparently the Talmud continues to be an influential body of work.

Nick Lowe aside, the trouble with both the quote and the Shochetman article is that they create a false dichotomy. The quote of course creates the dichotomy and quits, but the article goes on to define the endpoints of the dichotomy in a way that supports the thesis, yet is not at all reality based.

First, the dichotomy.

Our choices are not between being cruel or being kind. Thus, in the case of the "detainees" in Guantanamo, our choices are NOT to either torture them or let them all go. We can create a due process that allows an impartial body to determine their culpability. If someone admits "wrongdoing" (I'm just using convenient vocabulary), we can create a restorative process through which they can make amends. If they are found guilty through due process, we can continue to incarcerate them - not to punish them but to ensure our own safety. We can negotiate their release in return for something else we want. In the meantime, we can limit their freedom but treat them humanely (I'll assume we agree on what that means).

Do some people really deserve this?

When we think in dichotomies, we limit our choices. I don't want to choose between being cruel to someone who deserves it and being cruel to someone who doesn't. Sure, that's an easy choice, but it's set up to be an easy choice in order to justify being cruel to someone. I reject the dichotomous options. I refuse to be intentionally cruel to anyone.

Second, I don't agree with the meaning that is given to "kindness".

Actually, I don't like the term "kindness" at all in this context. My reason is that I am not advocating kindness. I'm advocating compassion -- the not-so-radical idea that this person who may have done some terrible things (let's assume that his innocence is not in dispute) is still a person with the same basic needs as any other person.

Compassion is not forgiveness. And it certainly is not a lack of accountability. It just means that I believe that no one is born wanting to rape and kill (psychopathy may be a special case) and the fact that some person has done so -- perhaps multiple times -- means that his/her life has been filled with so much pain that rape/murder was preferable to just carrying on. I don't condone his/her choices and I don't want to do anything to compromise the safety of others, but I feel compassion for the person who experienced such pain.

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Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D., is a member of the teaching faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches Psychology of Race and Ethnicity, Theories of Psychotherapy, and a graduate-level restorative justice practicum based at a youth detention center. An autobiographical essay of Mikhail's interests in race relations and basketball is available here.

Since 2009, Mikhail has been learning, facilitating, evaluating, and supporting others in the U.S. in learning about Restorative Circles, a restorative practice developed in Brazil by Dominic Barter and associates. In addition to conflict and restorative practices, Mikhail also has a long-standing interest (going back about 20 years) in race and (more...)
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In assessing an article such as this, it is easy t... by Ned Lud on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 6:56:34 AM
Those in power can redefine "cruelty" in law. It w... by Margaret Bassett on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 7:04:49 AM
This applies to purse snatchers as much as terrori... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 10:01:42 AM
Well, yeah, but it depends on WHOSE purse.And so o... by Ned Lud on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 12:32:47 PM
Chantal Laurent put up an article today about atro... by GLloyd Rowsey on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 9:45:58 AM
I left a comment on that page, but let me say here... by Mikhail Lyubansky on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 10:05:46 AM
restorative justice occurred in South Africa. And ... by GLloyd Rowsey on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 10:25:47 AM
The teaching of Jesus that we should treat others ... by Philip Pease on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 10:04:53 AM
Retribution serves to perpetuate hatred, anger an... by Donald on Friday, Aug 20, 2010 at 12:22:55 PM