In countries all over the world, a so-called populism has emerged. Everywhere it pops up its head, it looks a little different. It’s a values test, or an immigration ban, or a rejection of international agreements. You might find yourself weighing the merits of some of these policies, and that would be fair. As ideas, they deserve to considered and debated. That’s how civil discourse works.
The problem is what is underlying so many of these ideas. Whether they have a rational basis or not, not far beneath the surface lies an anger about the way things are. An anger that wants to see things be different. Some of that anger might be justified, and some of it might not be. Emotions aren’t rational, and they don’t need to be in order to be real.
But amidst all that anger, something else is happening. And it’s a thing of which no part of the political spectrum can pretend to be innocent. Whether you’re a libertarian, or socialist or some strange combination, we have all begun to lose our way.
We have slipped away from compassion. We have let compassion slip away from us.
When we find that things don’t go our way, we lash out in anger. When they do go our way, we gloat. Our deeply held passions and ideas rouse in us feelings of anger or vindication that seem to need to be taken out on others.
Maybe I’m only saying this because I spend too much time on Twitter and Facebook. Certainly, that doesn’t help. But social media is shaping how we see each other. People who disagree with us are becoming the enemy.
People who disagree with us are not the enemy.
If we start from the position that the only way to change this is to change other people’s minds, we are bound to fail. If we start from the position that the only way to change this is to change other people’s behaviour, we are bound to fail.
We are going to have to let ourselves feel the rousing of our emotional reaction, and we are going to have to let it pass. It doesn’t mean we can’t engage in dialogue. We have to engage in dialogue! But we have to refuse to answer back anger for anger, condescension for condescension, and insult for insult. “Turning the other cheek” is not just an empty series of words.
Believe it or not, the stakes are high. If we let anger and insult become the way we speak and think of each other, then we will shape a world of anger and insult. We will mainstream hatred. Because we live in a world where my little words can be read by anyone, anywhere, anytime, my voice is bigger than I think. My voice contributes to the kind of atmosphere that will shape our world.
No act of policy or government action can overcome a people who act with compassion in all things. And no act of policy or government action will be a victory if compassion is the cost.