To effect positive social change, make being compassionate cool

Jeremi Suri

I am not sure how to measure it, but I am certain that American society is filled with more public expressions of hatred today than anytime since the 1960s. Public officials now routinely condemn their adversaries — fellow Americans — as “evil,” “weak,” “dangerous” and “lawless.” The personal accusations recklessly thrown at established leaders — in business, in universities and in government — reveal a willingness to take people down at all costs. This venom spills into our everyday lives, where it is now acceptable to condemn citizens we do not like and deny attention to those who are suffering and in need of help. We seem to have defined freedom in the last few years as the right to hate those who are not like us or do not serve our interests.

Of course none of this is new. I am a historian who has studied, taught and written extensively about the presence of hatred in human society. I am also a Jew with a South Asian background, so I have witnessed violent hatred in some of its most extreme forms. 

What has changed in the last few years is the willingness of educated, established and elite citizens in our society — including students — to accept and reproduce hatred. It fills the way we talk about presidents, administrators, police officers, protesters and others. It underpins our willful silence about poverty, injustice, exploitation and bullying behavior. We are all so rich with resources and possibilities as Americans, but we have decided in recent years to use what we have to help ourselves, neglect others and justify it all by hating those who stand in the way or are left behind. 

What I call the “common hatred” of our current lives is more prevalent because its traditional counterbalance, shame, has been lost. This is how, as a historian, I know that we are more hateful today. In the 1970s and 1980s citizens in cities were ashamed of the poverty, the homelessness, the poor-performing schools and the violence around them. They made these public issues of the first importance, and they showed their civic sensibility by working toward common solutions with people very different from themselves. In the 1990s and early 2000s business leaders and public advocates were ashamed of the racial and gender inequalities in society, the poor health of whole communities and the digital divide that separated the technologically able from those left out. They transformed the culture of leading organizations to embrace diversity and they made real policy reforms a top priority. Both Presidents Bill Clinton (a Democrat) and George W. Bush (a Republican) emphasized “compassion” when they ran for office, and they criticized those who defined society by profit and self-interest alone. 

Oh, how far we have fallen in a few short years! When was the last time a major public figure spoke of compassion for those who have different views? When was the last time we acted, as a society, to put our resources behind reforms that manifested compassion for the suffering and needy rather than simply more for those who already have a lot? We have lost the shame of our selfishness, and we have embraced self-righteous hatred in its place. How else do we explain the millionaires who more stridently than ever condemn public efforts to provide the less fortunate with education, health care and housing? 

The debate is no longer about government, which certainly needs reform. Our public rhetoric displays a hatred for those who, many now believe, cannot help themselves. Those who feel hated by the privileged adopt a return hatred of their own. Poor, repressed and unrepresented populations do not believe they can succeed in the present system. They do not buy into the American Dream and they do not think of themselves as stakeholders in our society. This removes the shame surrounding violence and criminality, allowing more of that behavior to manifest itself in self-defeating ways after a public incident or an unfavorable court decision. If you see the rule of law as a protection for hatred, then it becomes easy to hate the law.

I opened this column with a reference to the 1960s because I believe that was the last time our society witnessed public hatred on a similar scale in the violence of Southern segregation, Black Power and various extreme groups on the political left and right. The great accomplishment of the 1960s, and the civil rights movement in particular, was to shame Americans into rejecting the public hatreds that had festered so long around race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. Hatred did not disappear, but it became less acceptable in public and therefore less manifest in our society’s behavior. 

The time has come to restore our shame and compassion. A new generation, like the civil rights generation, must stand up and say, “No more!” We must stop attacking one another and devote our resources to working together again. This begins on our campuses. Reach out this holiday season and work with someone or some group you disdained before. Find common ground, define a project that helps those in need beyond yourself and create a model for others. 

Make compassion cool again. Take it upon yourself to help repair the world and reject those who cannot transcend their hate.

Suri is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs.