Last week, there was widespread international outrage in response to the Trump Administration’s family separation policy. Though it was reversed, there is still no guarantee children seeking asylum in the US will remain with their parents outside of detention centers. Some children could be detained with their parents and others could be separated from their parents after a certain period of time in family detention.
Though the family separation policy sparked indignation across the US, the decision wasn’t the first of its kind. It followed a series of similar moves by the administration that target particularly vulnerable populations—from victims of domestic abuse and rape who could become less eligible for asylum to baby animals who could be hunted and killed in their native dens. It is difficult to fully separate the cruelty of one of these policies from another, especially since they target such vulnerable individuals. As others have suggested, there appears to be a broad assault on compassion. At times, the administration’s policies have been described as having the appearance of abject cruelty, deficient of empathy.
It’s worth asking what can be done to address the assault on compassion. Here are a few ideas—qualities we can all demand from our leaders, develop in ourselves, and praise when we witness them in others.
Moral leadership and courage are needed now more than ever.
There are many paths to moral leadership and, in an editorial for the New York Times, David Brooks attempts to capture the key traits that facilitate moral courage. As Brooks writes, moral leaders typically exhibit moral clarity and a moral identity that is linked to compassionate action. They are driven in service of others instead of themselves as they constantly and humbly reevaluate their goals—even “expanding ambitions in the face of hardship.” And though they display extreme optimism, trusted peers share the workload. Their work is bolstered by a strong belief that we are all connected.
In his editorial, Brooks quotes writers Anne Colby and William Damon’s observations of moral leaders: “We saw an unhesitating will to act, a disavowal of fear and doubt, and a simplicity of moral response. Risks were ignored and consequences went unweighed.”
Many of the doctors, attorneys, and other activists who have opposed the family separation policy embody these ideas.
Intolerance for cruelty is essential.
Justice requires a rejection of unfair and ruthless attitudes and behaviors. Throughout history, leaders have summoned moral progress by condemning and opposing cruel policies and practices, no matter the cost. Cruelty demands a name and response if it is to end.
Bystanders are not merely witnesses; they are integral to the defense of cruelty. Upstanders, however, can stop malice in its tracks—and they are necessary to the cause of truth and justice.
Along these lines, the journalists who pressed the White House on its decision to separate children from their parents were well within the bounds of objectivity when they asked about the motivation and rationale for the family separation policy. Increasingly, throughout the world, journalists have realized that their responsibilities extend well beyond being bystanders.
Dystopia is not the answer.
In the midst of severe challenges, it can become easy to imagine a world that is completely unjust and hopeless. Dystopia rarely resembles reality, though, and little to no progress can be made within a circle of fear and hopelessness. It’s worth considering how our views of the world are formed—for example, through select commercial media outlets and films or through a more realistic and nuanced view of our fellow global citizens.
Cruelty isn’t “natural.” A careful and thoughtful look at the animal world provides instruction. Animals (including humans, if we are honest) are more likely to be cooperative than combative. Peace is far more beneficial to survival than war is.
Personal responsibility cannot be exaggerated.
Raisa Gorbachev is believed to have said, “Hypocrisy, the lie, is the true sister of evil, intolerance, and cruelty.” If we accept that we have the capacity to be kind and compassionate, we must also examine the extent to which our individual decisions reflect these values. Though measurement may begin with our individual interactions, it does not stop there. Our compassion is also measured by our choices at the voting booth and the supermarket.
The assault on compassion and our response to it can also be judged by a clear-eyed look at the human and nonhuman beings we turn to or away from—and how many of us turn one way or the other.
After all, where would we be today if not for the moral leadership and courage of relatively few? Perhaps the more timely question is, “Where will today’s children be tomorrow and who among us will help them get there—no matter where they were born?”