By Joslyn Hamilton
I am not really much of a current events girl. I get my news off Twitter, for the most part. But because I’m online most of the day while I’m working, I do notice the furors that crop up in my circles around this and that.
Okay, so there’s gay marriage. Obviously, any decent person is gonna stick up for it. (I didn’t say I don’t have opinions.) And a while back there was the furor about that Time Magazine breastfeeding cover. Personally—and I have to caveat this with the fact that I have no children—I would probably not breastfeed my kid until he/she had adult teeth, but that does not mean it’s my business if someone else chooses to do it. It perplexes me how we think it’s okay to assert our opinions and values on other people. Isn’t there a difference between making personal choices and dictating the behavior of others?
Or do words actually speak louder than actions on the internet?
This brings me to the topic of blog comments. A unique phenomenon relatively new to our internet culture, blog comments take the concept of the letter to the editor and make it immediate, anonymous and lethal. There is a fine line between contributing to a discourse and using your opinion to skewer someone else’s feelings. And nowhere does that skewering show itself as more insidious than when the blog comment comes from a place of pity.
In Buddhism they talk about near enemies.
“The near enemies are qualities that arise in the mind and masquerade as genuine spiritual realization.” (citation) Near enemies are the ways an amateur Buddhist might behave under the guise of being “mindful,” without quite grasping the concept in its entirety (which we could have compassion for, natch). So we have the following:
Regarding the last set: compassion is when you understand that we are all human, doing the best we can. You might not understand why someone is acting the way they are or thinks the way they do, but you still respect that they have their reasons. And even if they do something you hate, you still have compassion for them. Yes, even horrible, awful people that do unspeakable things. You don’t condone their actions; you simply have compassion in your heart for their humanity and for the things in their life (or their culture) that led up to their current behavior. Like that guy who recently murdered all those people in the Colorado movie theater. He did a terrible, unforgiveable thing. You don’t have to understand why he did it. He might not even understand why he did it. But you can still have compassion for him. He is a human and something — mental illness, perhaps, but who knows — made him do this terrible thing. And even more importantly, you can have compassion for his parents. Those poor people. They raised a monster.
Oh wait, that’s pity.
See, it can be hard to tell the difference. Pity is when you look down on a person with contempt veiled as compassion. It’s gross, and spiritually violent. Pity is when you say “I pray for your soul” but what you mean is “Your soul really sucks.” Pity is passive aggressive, and it lacks nuanced understanding. Pity is just another way of asserting your own point of view. Compassion, on the other hand, opens up your view to include the whole world of possible views. It includes listening.
In regard to comments on blog posts, it can be very hard to distinguish between compassion and pity. Comments sections are a great place for discourse, disagreement and dialog. But, in my opinion, they are not a place for shaming. So before you publish your comment, maybe a good tactic is to ask yourself, am I saying this for the purposes of sharing information to contribute to this dialog? Or am I more interested in making someone feel bad about something they said — either the original writer of the story or another contributor?
The near enemies of compassion and pity are separated by a vast divide.