Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Illusion of Compassion

I am hopeful that my generation, the one that cares about African genocide and AIDS and free trade and bigotry and Katrina aftermath and “writing love on her arms,” actually does care about practicing these things. I am fearful too many of us are content with the illusion that we care. We are fans of charity chic.

Chuck Klosterman is a rock critic turned generational commentator who writes for Esquire magazine (among others). (His book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a hilarious and thoughtful manifesto on contemporary pop culture.) In last month's Esquire, Klosterman tackles what he calls “The Ethics Paradox” (article not yet available online), in which he recounts this curious incidence of collective ambivalence to one in need:
Several months ago, I attended a public screening of the Ralph Nader documentary An Unreasonable Man. It is a well-balanced depiction of a wholly respectable citizen, the only downside being that I was forced to watch this movie in Manhattan. But something strange happened near the film’s conclusion: Three rows behind me, an old bearded man in a wheelchair began to vomit. This seemed to be the product of some type of seizure. For a moment I feared this person was dying. But then that moment became two moments, and then it became three moments, and then it became two minutes. And nobody, including me, did anything.

There were at least a hundred people in this theater, all watching a nonfiction movie about a humanitarian idealist, and we all listened to an elderly stranger have a vomit-inducing seizure for two minutes. Eventually, some Asian kid from the back of the theater ran down the aisle, asked the old man if he was okay, and wheeled him into the lobby. This made everyone in the room much more comfortable, thereby allowing us to continue learning about the importance of activism.

I think about this episode a lot; this is partially because it makes me feel guilty, but mostly because the situation seemed so paradoxical and predictable at the same time. We were actively watching a movie about ethics, yet consciously ignoring every ethical impulse any normal person should have. Why would a theater full of people sympathetic toward (or at least interested in) Ralph Nader completely disregard a stranger who clearly needed help? There are two possible explanations for why this happened. The first is that modern Americans are inherently lazy, openly hypocritical automatons (which, I must concede, is not exactly a new theory). But here’s the second, less obvious possibility: Perhaps the audience — and I include myself here — did not sense any meaningful relationship between the experience of watching An Unreasonable Man and the experience of being alive.

My vote is not either/or, but both/and. Klosterman likely lacks the theological formation from which to surmise this disconnect between “sympathizing with caring” and “actually caring” is due to sin. The truth is, we are lazy, hypocritical automatons. And the truth is, we also do not actively sense a meaningful relationship between the appearance of sacrifice and service and the actual committing to sacrifice and service. It’s the illusion of compassion.

Are we a generation of religious passers-by who will gladly wear a T-shirt calling attention to the plight of the man left for dead on the side of the road, but won’t actually stoop to help?

Dan Edelen posts on the Church's compassion failure, with some nightmarish real-life illustrations.


DLE said...


Thanks for the link back to my post at Cerulean Sanctum.

I think we should consider other reasons for the lack of action in the article you cited:

1. Fear of legal repercussions. I truly believe this puts people off helping others. States have passed Good Samaritan laws, but even the fact such laws exist frightens people away from helping.

2. Fear of pandemic disease. Our world is awash in new, bizarre diseases. Ebola. Marburg. SARS. Even old ones now are terrorist weapons. The presence of these diseases have trained us to be wary. We wind up processing all the possibilities while we sit there sheep-like.

3. Our victim sociology. We live in a culture of victimization. We're bombarded with messages that tell us we're the victims of one thing or another. This turns us into sheep. Heroes aren't victims and victims aren't heroes--unless their heroics consist of claiming their victimization. That gets a pass.

4. We've created a society of specialists. "A man is sick and in trouble? Well, that's not my specialty. Let the specialist do the job instead. (What, there aren't any specialists here...?")

I think those comprise at least a portion of the problem.

Milly said...

I’d like to think I’d at least try to help the man.

For over a year now I’ve worked in a place where the homeless wander around. I’m much less compassionate then I was when I first started. I need to spend some time in the local mission helping out.

preacherman said...

Excellent post.
I really am glad that I came across your blog. I have been blessed. I look forward to reading more in the future. God bless your ministry as you serve Him.

Bird said...

I think it all boils down to apathy and laziness. Sure, with some people, legal ramifications or irrational fear may be a driving force, but I doubt it's that way with most people.

Doing the right thing, in most cases, takes a certain amount of effort.