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Erica Etelson: In order to transcend Trumpism, we must tend to suffering — not celebrate it

Our survival as a species depends on our ability to turn away from the delusion of sweet revenge, and show compassion for those we may dislike or detest.

The allure of piling on against the villain du jour — be it Americans wearing MAGA hats, anti-vaxxers or Russians whose government is perpetrating war crimes against Ukrainians — is seductive. When I feel its tug, I ask myself, “What would Thich Nhat Hanh do?”

During talks for my book, “Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide,” I sometimes joked that peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh managed to say in seven words what took me 57,000: “Speak the truth but not to punish.”

Nhat Hanh died in January. His wisdom lives on, but it’s on life support.

Nhat Hanh (or “Thay,” pronounced tie, as he was known) was a Buddhist monk whose opposition to the Vietnam War earned him a Nobel Prize nomination from Martin Luther King Jr. He coined the term “engaged Buddhism” to describe peace and social justice activism undertaken in alignment with Buddhist principles of nonviolence, kindness, generosity, social harmony and open-mindedness.

Thay’s 14 Precepts of Engaged Buddhism include proscriptions against dogmatism, over-confidence in one’s correctness, coercion, anger, hatred, divisive speech, grandstanding, exaggeration, carelessness with truth and turning away from suffering. Like a sad funhouse mirror, these precepts reflect the casual cruelty, censoriousness, falsehoods and self-righteous virtue-signaling that run rampant on social media today.

Thay was not an infallible guru, but his 14 precepts are the best ethical code of conduct I’ve come across. Fourteen makes for a long list, but they all flow from just this one: Compassion.

Compassion is the experience of “suffering with” someone. It’s an innate human ability to connect with another person, even someone you have nothing in common with and may even dislike or detest.

Compassion is a window into another person’s suffering. “When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight,” Thay said. When we are in a genuinely compassionate frame of mind, we gain a deeper understanding — and correspondingly deeper ability to respond — to whatever is informing the person’s worldview, be it trauma, illness or misinformation. We are able to see a universal truth so easily swept away by the daily sturm and drang: People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever believed.

The contemporary political arena rations compassion as though it is a scarce commodity when, in reality, it is inexhaustible. Having compassion for a white man addicted to opioids or suffering PTSD does not diminish compassion for a girl in an immigrant detention center or for the family of a young man shot by the police.

Withholding compassion from one group might sometimes be based on a subconscious fear that there’s not enough compassion to go around. I believe the opposite to be true: Compassion generates compassion and, in this way, reproduces itself as a cultural norm. But when people get the sense that they are being treated with indifference or hostility, then they too will partake in indifference and hostility, doing unto others as was done to them. An anti-social downward spiral ensues, and we become less capable of sharing, sacrificing and living cooperatively.

Compassion has its detractors, those who see it as the province of weaklings, apologists and dupes. “I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist,” Trump said in 1990. Trump had it backwards: If this country gets any more vengefully polarized, it’s going to cease to exist.

Trump’s callousness is in a league of its own, but hostility toward the notion of a common good has long roots in American political history. Ever since the New Deal, the radical right has equated mechanisms for collective well-being with tyranny and communism. Big government spending programs, taxation, unions, safety and health regulations, COVID precautions — all are cast as infringements of individual liberty that serve no legitimate purpose. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went so far as to say there is no such thing as society, only individuals.

Traditionally, the left has resisted right-wing subordination of the communal to the individual and has defended altruistic institutions, customs and values that protect and promote the common good. The left has recognized that, if the right succeeds in rhetorically rendering the common good into tyranny, then the communal whole disintegrates into jagged shards.

There was a time, not too long ago, when leftists cared about human suffering wherever we saw it and didn’t withhold compassion for victims deemed deserving of their misfortune. In other words, we avoided judgment and blame. Moralizing was the Christian Right’s modus operandi — banning books and music, blaming gay men’s sinfulness for AIDS and single mothers’ promiscuity for poverty. Leftists, by contrast, tended to see individual misfortune as a function of societal failure interacting with sheer bad luck and, sometimes, bad habits — but habits that, as we understood it, were shaped or constrained by broader social forces that oppress and degrade us.

Now, I see headlines like “Be happy for coal miners losing their insurance. They’re getting exactly what they voted for” and “No Sympathy for the Hillbilly.” I see Democratic lawmakers calling for the deportation of Russian students while a NYU medical ethicist argues that Russian citizens be denied life-saving medicines. I see tweets, since Biden’s election, like this: “We are going to be absolutely merciless, with a ruthlessness and devastation that you have never seen.” I see Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists call for open mockery of the “idiots” who won’t vaccinate, while others rhetorically dance on their graves. I see MSNBC pundits challenge Build Back Better because it might help too many working-class white male Republicans. And I see that dunking on ordinary white guys — for being ordinary white guys — has become a popular pastime.

What all of these examples demonstrate is that judgment and compassion do not easily co-exist. Withholding compassion requires turning away from suffering, and turning away from suffering is made easier in the presence of a rationalization — the victim did something bad and deserves to suffer. We intuitively know that hearing the other person’s side of things invites nuance and complexity. “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over,” Thay said. Ignoring or belittling what they have to say allows us to turn away from suffering with a clear conscience.

In political terms, this turning away from suffering excuses governmental dereliction of its caretaking duties. Much of the left has become preoccupied with revenge-craft, jockeying for control over the administration of blame and punishment of ordinary people instead of holding the powerful to account for the devastation wrought by their recklessness.

It is this interpersonal revenge-craft, more than any other practice, that I see as poisoning social media and beyond, causing breakage where there should be bridges and alienation where there once was connection. Victim becomes perpetrator becomes victim, in an endless cycle of judgment, alienation and revenge, while the actual perpetrators of extraordinary suffering carry on. Twenty-one million Americans are drinking water with dangerous levels of lead, nitrates and rocket fuel, while LibsofTikTok fans and foes harass each other on Twitter.

Damning Trump and his supporters to hell feels like fighting back, but what have the ceaseless denunciations and pious sadism achieved other than burning up the social fabric? What good comes from the division of the populace into a binary of the permanently virtuous (us) versus the irredeemable baddies (them)?

Thay observed that “when you make the other suffer, he will try to find relief by making you suffer more.” We will not advance and perhaps not even survive as a species if we persist in the delusion of sweet revenge.

In her book, “The Sum of Us,” Heather McGhee describes racists who would rather drain their public pools than allow Black children to swim in them. They cut off their nose to spite their face. But this mean-spirited cognitive error is not the exclusive domain of racists. Anyone trapped in the zero-sum delusion makes the same mistake, thinking that denigrating one group will lift up another, or at least give them the pleasure of looking down on their inferiors.

Ever since 2016, contempt for a deranged and malicious president has morphed into profound scorn for his supporters who, it was assumed, must be equally deranged and malicious. The Trump presidency was nightmarish, but at least the “deplorables” would get their comeuppance. Trump would take away their health care, smash their trade unions and sacrifice them to COVID … one could only hope.

There is a steady stream of scolding, ridiculing and reviling of MAGA deplorables and, increasingly, of others who don’t meet ever-evolving standards for wokeness. Such contempt produces alienation, and alienation is the cultural milieu in which resentment entrepreneurs like Trump thrive.

What would Thay do in response to bigotry, violence, disinformation and authoritarianism? “Speak the truth but not to punish.” Speak your truth without exaggeration or embellishment, without performative outrage, without making assumptions about other people’s motives, without denigrating their intelligence or morality, without tearing down their humanity, without wishing them ill or punishing them with a stinging rebuke.

This is my truth: Everyone, including those who hold bigoted, conspiratorial or otherwise wrong or obnoxious views, deserves a life of dignity. They deserve decent jobs at a livable wage. They deserve safe and affordable housing. They deserve to breathe clean air, drink clean water and receive medical care without going bankrupt. And when they can no longer work, they deserve their pensions and social security checks. Relishing the arguably self-inflicted wounds of Trump voters and unvaccinated COVID patients might rack up a lot of retweets but fails the “What would Thay do?” test by a longshot.

When feelings of disgust, resentment and superiority — the building blocks of contempt — arise inside me, I think that what Thay would do is exercise self-compassion by taking note of what is giving rise to these alienating emotions. Am I afraid or frustrated? Am I ashamed of my impotence and, hence, acting self-righteous in order to rehabilitate my self-worth? Is there, underneath these other things, sadness for the state of the world? Is the news cycle stirring up old traumas or making me feel confused or uncertain about what and who to believe? Is it stressful to think forbidden thoughts that members of my tribe would denounce? What can I do to tend my wounds that doesn’t cause more brokenness? If there’s nothing productive to be done in this moment, then I will do nothing, which feels useless but is preferable to adding more poison to the stew.

We’re at a crossroads where we heed either Thay’s philosophy, or Trump’s. We either extend a baseline of kindness and respect, even to those who don’t reciprocate, or we reciprocate malice with malice and devolve deeper into hatred and violence. Our movement can be a puritanical one that deplores and purges heretics, or it can be an altruistic one that builds relationships with those who are imperfect, biased and fallible — that is to say, everyone.

Revenge-craft won’t save us. Compassion might.


Erica Etelson is a co-founder of the Rural Urban Bridge Initiative. She is a former human and civil rights attorney and the author of the book “Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide.”

First published in Waging Non-Violence. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

There is a steady stream of scolding, ridiculing and reviling of MAGA deplorables and, increasingly, of others who don’t meet ever-evolving standards for wokeness. Such contempt produces alienation, and alienation is the cultural milieu in which resentment entrepreneurs like Trump thrive.

2 comments on “Erica Etelson: In order to transcend Trumpism, we must tend to suffering — not celebrate it

  1. Mary Schwartz
    May 23, 2022

    I am so grateful for this essay. I have been meditating on the implications of an inclusive, helpless God/Higher Power/Creator–and am coming to similar conclusions, but, perhaps, more slowly. Thank you for pointing in a direction I can step.

    Liked by 1 person

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