Today we have the first in a new series of guest posts. Today’s writer has chosen to stay anonymous, and his post is a sobering reminder of the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s what you do that matters.” If we preach compassion, we also need to practice it. Otherwise, our words will have little impact, or might even make people distrust us.
I consider myself to be a compassionate person. I am concerned about others in society, both within Britain and further afield in Europe in the rest of the world. The fact that people are starving to death or becoming victims of war is not something I am happy to ignore. I’m not content with it.
I hold down a full time job. Like everyone else, I am busy nearly all the time, but I will always try to help out where I can when others less fortunate than me need it. I would never feel the need to mention this to other people in normal conversation – I know I do what I can and nobody else really needs to know. I don’t like lecturing other people on what they should or should not do (at least directly). Maybe I should talk to other people about why I think compassion is important more often, but this would make me feel like I’m by implication suggesting they become more like me and that I have a superior attitude to compassion than them. It’s not something I would feel comfortable doing. I do my bit. There are people who will do much more than me and they deserve huge respect. Let’s leave it t that.
Part of why I feel this way perhaps comes from personal experience. A few years ago, in my teens, I became a community councillor in a region of the UK. I had no prior experience in anything remotely similar before. I was younger and less experienced than all the other community councillors by some margin.
In technical terms, a community council should: “represent the views of the community to the council,” effectively holding councillors to account with the wishes of the local community. There were about 35 places for community councillors on this body, but only 25 people nominated themselves so there was no election – each person was there purely because they wanted to be. With it, each community councillor would regularly get local newspaper coverage and be asked for their opinion on various local issues, so each community councillor gained at least a bit of a profile locally.
Before I began this role, I would happily have subscribed to the view that anyone who talked about their own sense of compassion and encouraged others to be like-minded was undoubtedly in reality a compassionate and caring individual. I look back on that now as being naive. I set out as a community councillor to do what the role was described as – to make the community’s voice heard. That, to me, meant making sure those who couldn’t easily make their voices heard had a chance to make this happen. That in turn meant helping those who were, for whatever reason, weaker and more vulnerable. I was under the impression all the other community councillors would have subscribed to a similar vision of what their role was. I quickly found this to be naive too.
One of the first issues for the community council was to take a position over a planning application for some new houses on an area of land close to green belt. It had been rejected by the council before as there wasn’t enough “affordable housing” on the scheme to justify building here. The community council as a body voted to support it, but this hadn’t made any difference. However, this time the developer submitted a redesigned plan with a good percentage of “affordable housing” and a part of the site being developed by a housing association. As a response, one community councillor wrote in the local newspaper directly in support of this new application. The letter he wrote focused on the housing association housing, and how people should support the application because this would help those in most need of housing to have a chance of a proper home. He believed we should follow his example of compassion for those less well off financially – people in desperate need of good housing was more important than concerns over green belt issues. We should think about compassion and support the application.
That seemed reasonable to me. A good man, concerned for the future of his community.
Fast forward a few weeks and the official decision was taken to approve the application. Then two things happened that came as a bit of a shock. Firstly, I found out that the community councillor who wrote the letter urging us to be more considerate about people who need affordable housing had a wife on the board of directors of the property development company who made the application. Secondly, I witnessed this community councillor in conversation with another community councillor He appeared quite chirpy, presumably delighted that his wife’s company was set to make a lot of money in a new housing development. I hope I don’t need to spell out any further what was going on here.
I’d love to say this was an isolated incident but it wasn’t. I soon learned that the majority of these community councillors did not care one bit about what they were supposed to be doing. Making the community’s voice heard was certainly not high on their agenda.
Most had their own pet projects, ones that directly affected them or their clique. Examples include rejecting planning applications that would have a negative affect on a friend’s property. Or the time a community councillor wrote a piece in support of a certain discount supermarket chain getting permission to build a big store on an area not zoned for this, citing: “the need for an more affordable places to buy groceries for those struggling to make ends meet.” His pal was the regional manager of the chain at that time. Yet again, I’d catch him making comments in private that revealed him not to have cared about the people he claimed to care about. Yet he preached about compassion. Stuff like this, I’m afraid, went on and on.
Then there was the other type of false compassion I discovered. It was genuinely excruciating to see the contempt some people actually held most of the community in. I witnessed people making remarks where they clearly felt they were superior to the more working-class people in their communities, but had no obvious business interest to justify their phoney compassionate public outbursts. I began to realise that making these statements encouraging compassion in public was nothing more than vehicle to give then the sense of being “guardian-like.” Lecturing others on principle made them feel good and important, and members of the public looking up to them approvingly made them feel respected and significant. My judgement here is up for debate, but I’m confident I’m right.
Unfortunately, these experiences mean I now immediately view anyone preaching compassion suspiciously. I’m sorry this is the case, and you can blame me if you like, but my natural reaction is to wonder if it is genuine. Keep in mind that this was all at local level and not amongst any people with any truly meaningful far-reaching powers. Bluntly, this was all small-time stuff. But I see no reason why all the symptoms I encountered don’t occur at a lever of national and international government. Examples of this actually happening are, unfortunately, easy to point out.
For instance, in Scotland, last year we had a referendum where the nationalist side argued Scotland should be independent, saying that Scots are different from other parts of the UK. We, they suggested, were a more compassionate nation than cold-hearted Tory England. We needed rid of this burden to build a more left wing, caring nation of Scotland on its own. Now, I believe compassion should never stop at an arbitrary border.
A big player during the independence referendum was subsequently elected as an MP this year for the SNP. She spoke about the need for a more compassionate independent Scotland and said we needed to take this opportunity to vote for independence to have the chance to be more humane. Her campaign literature stated “…let’s end the Westminster way of doing things, which has caused misery for Scotland’s most vulnerable.” SNP colleagues supported her, one saying: “She has demonstrated a commitment to how business can be used to support social justice.” Another said “…what stood out is her commitment to social justice and how we support the poorest in society.” Clearly, we should elect this woman as an MP to represent Scotland. She was an example of compassion. We should follow her example.
As of the end of September 2015, this MP is being investigated for mortgage fraud. It has been revealed she owns 17 properties across the country, which she lets out. One of the properties was purchased in pretty sickening circumstances. She allegedly bought the property at a knocked down price from an elderly woman with cancer who was desperate to sell her home. She then re-sold the property only hours later to one of her friends for a price closer to the real market value, making a profit of tens of thousands of pounds. This is a woman who “fights for social justice”. When she preaches about compassion, it is fraudulent. Sorry about this.
The trouble is, there are genuinely compassionate people who would love to spread their message and encourage us all to think about our fellow human beings in a kinder way. And what I have outlined serves to hinder this. I believe many people like me, have witnessed similar situations of betrayal, and are automatically suspicious of anyone talking in a holier-than-thou manner. I also believe that it shows some people are just corrupt in the sense that they do not care about other people less fortunate than them. This is a fact of life – it would be unrealistic to think that everyone is really a kind-hearted soul deep down.
I do believe that the majority of people do care about others and are decent people. Some people just need to unlock it. But there is a huge challenge to those aiming to spread compassion, because people like me will immediately question whether you are genuine and worth listening to at all.
Join the Discussion
What do you think? Have you had experiences similar to those this writer describes and do you also find it hard to trust? Do you think it’s unrealistic to think that everyone is really a kind-hearted soul deep down? Or do those people who don’t seem compassionate just need to unlock their decency and caring? Let us know your experiences and views in the comments…