Compassion is justice. Compassion is the justice we can extend to each other when Judicial systems fail us, when Governments pass legislation that dehumanizes us, when Society normalizes narratives that render us invisible, impossible, insignificant. Compassion is the justice we extend to ourselves when we love ourselves enough to keep going, to keep living, to stop going, to stop living as the ultimate act of self-preservation. Compassion, in my opinion, is a very much underrated justice; the value of which is diminished by systems of oppression set up to make us oblivious to our collective and individual capacity to attain and retain freedom and enact revolution.
What is Compassion?
I didn't consult an Oxford for my definition of compassion. Because I believe that people give words meanings, because words are created for the purpose of communication. My definition of compassion as a practice and value system can be broken down as follows:
1. Compassion is empathy.
2. Compassion is valuing everyone.
3. Compassion is a default of acceptance.
I've often found that along with explanations of what something "is" a good way of gaining a deeper understanding of something is figuring out what it isn't. This is what I believe the "opposites" of Compassion are:
Compassion is empathy:
Compassion looks like engaging with people from an empathic standpoint. It looks like opting for empathy rather than sympathy; regarding someone as an equal whose experiences you are willing to try and relate to rather than a lesser person who needs your pity within the context of social justice. Too often people with privilege even amongst marginalized narratives are unwilling to extend solidarity towards people they can't feel sorry for. That is to say when someone whose experience of oppression differs from your own; the manner in which they present their case 9 times out of 10 affects your willingness to listen to their standpoint.
When people feel you are not being pitiable enough or not giving them enough reason to feel sorry for your experience of oppression they are less likely to want to stand beside you and fight with you against the oppression you experience. I believe in resisting the culture of sympathy and pity within social justice as it feeds into the culture of saviour-complexes and so-called "allyship". I am not here for allies. Allies operate from a basis of ego and saviorship; they seek rescue-projects whose narratives they can dominate and control in exchange for cookies and admiration for a show of pseudo-solidarity.
There is more to be said for people who stand beside others whose oppression differs from their own. More to be said for people who try and imagine themselves in your position and upon realizing that your experience of oppression is valid and something they wouldn't want to experience themselves; allow you a place in the meeting room and panel stage of social justice. From a basis of empathy. I believe it is better to stand together and not feel threatened by one another's strength than it is to only be willing to be there for people we feel sorry for. Oppressed people -particularly those in the lowest ranks of the margins- have every reason and right to be angry. We have every reason and justification to be "aggressive" in our delivery of resistance; as the violence we face is only intensified by not having enough space or a wide enough platform to air our grievances. Empathy allows for each of us to respect each other’s anger; to not trivialize each other's experiences or use them for the bad-faith practice of tokenizing people in the name of "allyship."
Compassion is Valuing Everyone:
I have a deep hatred for the culture of popularity. For several reasons.
1. I've never really met the standard for positive popularity in any of the many social spaces I've occupied in my ± 2 decades here on earth.
2. Not being "popular" has meant not always having the support networks I need to fend off violence meted out against me on personal as well as institutional levels.
3. The structures of popularity uphold privileged narratives and reinforce the systems which grant people privilege and deny it to others; thus making people who already experience oppression all the more vulnerable in a society that refuses to protect them and targets deliberate and direct harm at them.
Inasmuch as this stance against the culture of popularity might seem like a bitterness or reactionary opinion; I've unpacked it enough to know that there is a real danger in feeding the culture of popularity. The danger of further alienating people, furthering the erasure and silencing of people who need none of these things further perpetuated against them.
Compassion to me, in this instance looks like dismantling the structures that make popularity "a thing". That is to say learning to value absolutely everyone we engage with and their input. If we are going to be all the way honest about it; the reason certain people are "popular" within our ranks as anti-oppression resistors, is that they embody privileged narratives. Popularity comes about as a result of privilege and also then, becomes a "privilege" in and of itself. Take for instance the example of "famous" people online who experience harassment or abuse from hateful "trolls" or bigots. Because of their popularity; they are far likelier to have a network of people willing to rally around them and offer support to them and send out the message to the hateful bigots that "we won't let this behaviour happen, towards this person, on our watch." While, I think the ways in which we protect and rally around our own are phenomenal and revolutionary, I can't help but wonder about how effective they are when they only centre on people with mass followings and "celebrity" status. How many, more obscure, people experience abuse/harassment in online or in-person spaces and have no network to rally around them or show them support? How often do we pay attention to people with low follower counts (on twitter for example) when they complain about experiences of abuse in those spaces? How do we even decide that some people are more worth following than others? What are the factors that contribute to a person's popularity? Just like the arbitrary systems of oppression and privilege, the ways in which we contribute to the culture of popularity is, in my opinion counter-revolutionary, dangerous and without cause.
Compassion looks like listening to everyone, no matter how softly-spoken or obscure and valuing their input. Compassion looks like never trivializing someone's significance in anti-oppression resistance based on how many people like or follow or endorse them.
Compassion looks like the justice of amplifying voices that don't have clout; that don't have a "name" or reputation which precedes them. Compassion looks like viewing everyone as having the potential to be an inspiration and removing the lens of favouring privileged narratives for models of what to look up to and who to seek representation from.
Compassion is the Default of Acceptance:
The politics of anti-oppression resistance tends to look a lot like sending mainstream society the following message:
"Accept people regardless of their differences."
Acceptance breeds equal treatment, respect, being valued. One of my favourite mantra's regarding acceptance is that "understanding is not a prerequisite for acceptance." Too often in the mainstream, privileged society we inhabit, the argument against acceptance of marginalized narratives is that people 'don't understand [insert oppressed identification marker here] people" and thus can't possibly be expected to accept them. I call bullshit. Acceptance can definitely occur sans the presence of understanding. None of us can ever have a first-hand understanding of what it means to live another's experience; but we can -if we are willing- accept the validity of each other's narratives. Understanding is helpful in the furthering of advocacy and authentic practice of solidarity (that is to say, it helps to have some insight on the experiences of marginalized groups when arguing for their freedom and equality) however it cannot be the step that stands in the way of acceptance as a default.
If we have any hope of any authentic and wide-swept revolution; we have to be willing to shed the complex of wanting to be experts on everything and everyone else; and learn to put acceptance as our first and best virtue, forward. Compassion looks like approaching people -and being open to being approached by people- with a readiness to accept them as valid. Compassion looks like continuing to extend this acceptance to people even when you can't fully relate to the experience they describe. Compassion looks like accepting narratives that will possibly challenge a previous stance on something or even your own understanding of your experience of oppression. Compassion looks like accepting that you cannot and probably will not ever get to a place where you know everything there is to know about every narrative there is on earth. And accepting that even in the narratives you DO know a lot about, but do not embody yourself; the people within those narratives are experts on their own lives.
When we are able to start practicing a culture of respectful empathy, a dismantling of "popularity" in the name of valuing more people (and ultimately everyone around us) as well as acceptance; we afford a justice towards one another that mainstream society continually denies us. We afford a justice towards one another that defies the rules about how we are meant to relate to one another. Rules that dictate that within marginalized spaces there is to reign a culture of divisiveness and disunity. Rules put in place to ensure that we are without the protection and respect of one another; which allows for systems of oppression to continue to wreck unchecked havoc on our lives.
Compassion is Justice when it Dismantles systems of Oppression,
Normativity and Hierarchy.
I think it goes without saying that people who are involved in social justice or anti-oppression resistance are doing so with the end goal of seeing an end to oppression. I do, however feel as though the extent to which people would like to see oppression obliterated tends to differ from person to person, group to group and narrative to narrative. That is to say many people who are against oppression are rarely against oppression as a whole; just oppression which is pertinent to their experiences. And this kind of prioritization of our own experiences and discarding of all or many others, in my opinion is in direct contrast to any authentic desire to end oppression. You have to be against oppression as a whole; against the very idea and premise of oppression or whatever efforts you put out to resist it are rendered null and void.
At its nastiest oppression results in swift and wide-spread death. Oppression is a big bad machine which devours and mars and taints and destroys anything it targets. It doesn't operate on its own however. Oppression is human-made and human-enforced mechanism, which can only end once all humans -those oppressed and perpetuating oppression- are forced to be cognizant of their contribution to this machine and stopped. One of the most poignant quotes I've ever heard regarding the way oppression works is Martin Luther King Jr's "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." And this is the point. The tiniest drop of oppression anywhere threatens to rapidly turn into an overwhelming tide of alienation, erasure and death. And right now, so many of us are in the midst of resisting Oppression Oceans. We cannot hope to eliminate oppression and obliterate any future threat of it unless we learn to hate oppression as a whole, fiercely.
Just as practicing compassion requires being able to identify what compassion is and what it looks like; hating oppression means being able to identify it and understand what it looks like in its fullest scope.
Oppression looks like everything we have been taught within our social justice movements to resist. It looks like racism, and sexism and ableism and classism and cissexism and trans-antagonism and homo-bi-queer-antagonism and ageism and elitism. It looks like the erasure of whole cultures and the genocide of whole peoples based on identification markers deemed less worthy of justice and compassion by mainstream privileged society. It looks like the cross-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, segregation, apartheid, the "war" on drugs, the "war" on crime, street harassment, rape culture, human trafficking, modern slavery, mass incarceration of specific groups of people, disparity in remuneration for work, inaccessibility to resources like education, sanitation, housing, food, health care.
Oppression also looks like Normativity:
Normativity is the blanket of pseudo-commonality and pseudo-sameness which mainstream privileged society uses to protect its sinister mission of erasure, alienation and eugenics. Normativity is the granting of the status of "validity" and "normalness" to certain behaviours and identities. Normativity is the insidious culture of normalizing certain narratives and imposing -through prescriptiveness- those narratives on all of humanity. Normativity is treating all of humanity as a monolith which has to achieve a level of sameness in order to have any hope of continued survival. Normativity is positing certain narratives as the gateway of the continued existence of the species and thus rendering other narratives a threat to the survival of humanity. Normativity is so insidious and sinister because it holds the credibility which comes with privileged dominance of narratives in society and is thus so deeply embedded in the psyches and hearts of humanity that no one questions it.
Normativity is holding certain groups of humanity to be the standard that all other groups of humanity have to meet in order to be validly human. Normativity is requiring the assimilation of the latter to the ways and customs of the former. Normativity is requiring this assimilation from people in order to ensure a conditional survival for them. I say conditional survival, because with normativity in place; people who do not, by default meet the standards of normativity, still stand the risk of being eliminated for their defiance. A defiance, mind you, which stems solely from their existence. To be perfectly clear; Normativity is the decision made by absolutely privileged voices, about who deserves to live and who does not. Humanity has engaged in practices and customs to give meaning and value to our experiences and lives since the beginning of time.
Normativity privileges certain practices of granting meaning and value to certain experiences over others.
Normativity is privilege. Normativity is oppression. Oppression is murder. Normativity is murder.
Normativity looks like:
2. White languages
3. White religions
4. White standards of appeal/attractiveness
5. White standards of appearance
6. White infrastructure (linked to privileged attained through geographic location)
7. White education systems
8. White Judicial systems
9. White Government
10. White media
11. White standards of ability
12. White Healthcare
14. White standards of Civilization/Respectability
15. White science
16. White mysticism
17. White literature
18. White art
19. White expression
20. White definitions of gender
21. White sexuality
22. White Patriarchy
22. Assimilation to all of the above
The most dominant narrative of Normativity is whiteness. Whiteness carries the utmost privilege regardless of what space it is in. Even white people who do not benefit from all of the elements of white privilege/normativity still enjoy the privilege of being white over their non-white counterparts within those spaces that are rendered non-normative and thus oppressed. While, whiteness sets and maintains the tone for normativity, because of the vastness of humanity, normativity plays out even within marginalized people of other ethnicities, even without the explicit presence of whiteness. Normativity in non-white narratives looks a great deal like assimilating to whiteness and white ideals, but also upholding other universally privileged narratives such as Maleness, Heterosexuality, Cis gender identity, Able-ness (physical as well as neurological), Material wealth, Physical Appearance, Access to resources, Freedom (as the opposite of incarceration). We dismantle Normativity, in part by ridding ourselves of the structures of Hierarchy we have in place, which enforce it.
Hierarchy looks like a prioritization of which humans are most worthy of protection and respect and justice and the justice of compassion based on normativity. Hierarchy looks like engaging in baseless "oppression Olympics" to distract ourselves from the real work of practicing as much inclusivity as possible in order for normativity to no longer thrive as it currently does. Hierarchy looks like allowing normativity to dictate the standards we live by and to infiltrate the ways we organize and build community. Hierarchy looks like reinforcing the culture of privilege through upholding the culture of popularity within marginalized spaces and not interrogating the many ways in which our experiences of oppression intersect.
Hierarchy looks like creating ranks and levels of seating which place more or less value on people depending on the seat they occupy. Once again reinforcing privilege and upholding normativity and thus doing nothing to really dismantle oppression.
Below is a basic (non-exhaustive) list of various oppressed identification markers which are experienced by vast numbers of the human population:
- Black people
- People of colour who are not black or have/claim some black lineage
- Black women
- Black men
- Men and women of colour who are not black or have/claim some black lineage
- Cash-poor people who live in 1st world countries
- Cash-poor people who live in 2nd and 3rd world countries
- Disabled people (blind, deaf, lame, mute, depressed, neuro-diverse, anxious, traumatized people, amputees, folks of varying heights, folks living with chronic illness, folks living with chronic pain, folks living with cognitive impairments, folks living with varying degrees of or variations of the above)
- Fat people
- "Ugly" people (I don't believe in "ugly". I think it is a maligned invention/construct used to uphold the privilege of conforming to societal standards of acceptable aesthetic. However, constructs are harmful and thus must be named and recognized in order to be dismantled)
- Illiterate people
- Unemployed people
- Homeless people
- Indigenous people still living within tribal contexts
- Colonized peoples
- People within the diaspora
- Trans-people (this is inclusive of the several hundred + genders not recognized in dominant narratives about gender identity and within the medical sphere. Examples of genders under this umbrella but recognized in mainstream narratives of gender are trans-women/men, intersex people -although their identification marker is more often than not merely used as a token- and white supremacist notions of "non-binary" gender identities).
- Queer people (people whose sexual orientation breaks away from heteronormativity e.g. gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, and asexual)
- Non-English speaking people (especially in geographical locations which privilege a "good" command of the English language)
- Enslaved people
- People living under apartheid
- People who are incarcerated
- People sold into sex/drug-trafficking syndicates
- People who are survivors of abuse (emotional, sexual, violent -"physical"-as we live in a society which often refuses to recognize the trauma sustained by people who have survived abuse, a society that protects perpetrators of abuse and continually blames victims for their own abuse).
- People who are survivors of rape
- People who are survivors of violence
- People who are survivors of emotional abuse
- People who experience sexual/street harassment
- Children who are orphans raised in various child care systems
- Children who are orphans and live in child-headed households
- Children who are under the care of abusive guardians or parents
- Veterans of war
- Women/Femme people who are fighting or employed within the context of armies
- Factory workers
- Service workers
- Sweatshop workers
- Folks employed in positions of servitude
- Maintenance/Sanitation workers
- Several hundred + people who embody genders not recognized in mainstream narratives around gender identity and in healthcare
- People who are oppressed within the context of religious sects/cults/communities
- People whose identities and lives are criminalized by the judicial systems they live under
- People who don't have access to resources like water, sanitation, food and (adequate) shelter or healthcare
- People living with or recovering from addictions
- People who are raising children as single parents
- Teenage parents (of all genders) who have given birth to and opted to keep their children
- People living in states/geographic locations which do not permit healthful/affordable access to safe abortions
- People living within the contexts of civil wars or attacks on their homelands by leaders of superpowers like the U.S
- Children who are denied access to education and thus denied access to autonomy and agency over their lives
- Indigenous peoples
Dismantling hierarchy would look like, being cognizant of the above forms of oppression experienced by vast members of the human populace. And understanding that some people may experience several of the above mentioned forms of oppression at once. And further understanding that the more instances of oppression a person lives with, the more urgent the need for their liberation is. Dismantling hierarchy looks like organizing ourselves in ways that allow for us to always pack in extra chairs in case any new people would like a platform within our meeting rooms to air their particular experiences of oppression. Dismantling hierarchy looks like recognizing that the fewer instances of oppression you experience the more privilege you have which means avoiding at all costs feeding into the culture of popularity (which is and reinforces privilege) and allowing people to take up space alongside you. Dismantling hierarchy means recognizing that privilege does not exist without an equal and opposite experience of oppression, thus silencing people who point out your privilege exacerbates their already dire experience of oppression/s.
Through compassion, the justice of compassion, I believe we enable ourselves to take a step closer to a revolutionary world. A world where the culture with which we treat one another does not emulate the systems we claim to abhor. A world where no one is disposable and no one gets left behind or told to "wait their turn". A world where our priorities in fending off violence represent the needs of those who are the most vulnerable among us. A world where we all enact the possibility of protecting ourselves as well as one another; because we are cognizant of the fact that none of this is a competition; but rather a daring movement, an audacious process towards something bigger and better than what the world has meted out to us thus far.
Compassion is the justice we can all afford to extend to one another.
Because it is for free. And empowers all of us.