Why Compassion is Different Than “Wokeness”
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”
There is a tidal wave of “wokeness” flooding the U.S. and globe. If you ask me, its aim is pure: the woke wish to lift up those that are disadvantaged, disenfranchised, or discriminated against. You won’t hear any disagreement or skepticism from me about these intentions; I am aligned with the wish to create a more compassionate society. However, what I aim to illuminate in this article is that wokeness, as its acted out today, is not necessarily compassionate. What do I mean by this?
First, let’s define compassion. Compassion is the recognition of shared humanity and the wish to ease suffering in other beings. Being compassionate fundamentally means that we care for another person — whoever they are, and however they are, in this very moment. Although we may recognize the need for behavior change, we remember that change is hard; it’s not easy to be our “higher selves.” We remember that people “act out” not because they are evil, but because they suffer. We connect with the desire to be seen, heard, and accepted in our suffering, before making any behavior changes. We know deep in our bodies that, just like me, this person wishes to be happy and free of suffering. “Just like me:” That is compassion.
Wokeness is not the same as compassion. Wokeness uses a different set of tools to motivate behavior change. Wokeness favors shame, blame, criticism, and “cancellation” in the attempt to change someone. Again, let’s remember our basic assumption: the intention behind these strategies is good. Everyone simply wishes to be happy and create a better world. The problem is that wokeness just doesn’t work. In fact, it often creates the opposite effect it intends to achieve.
Shame, blame, criticism, cancellation, and correcting speech do not motivate positive behavior change. They hamper it. As a clinical psychologist, my experience tells me that people don’t change because they are shamed into it. People change when they are loved and accepted as they are. This creates the fertile ground for positive change.
We all know this at some level. Our parents tried (and still try) to criticize and shape us into the person they would like us to be. Friends and loved ones, because of their own conditioning, unwittingly judge us for our vices and shortcomings. Society threatens punitive actions to scare us into being good citizens. How well do these actually work?
The science of behavior change tells us that judging, shaming, finger wagging, lecturing, and so on, don’t work. These tools create resistance; people double down on the behaviors we are hoping to change in them. Instead, people decide to change (all on their own!) when we compassionately ally with them. We have to first meet people where they are at and accept people for who they are. Then they are open to seeing another viewpoint. Then they are open to considering behavior change. You have to cross a bridge into their world before they are willing to step into yours.
This is why a truly compassionate approach is needed in our society. If you want to reach someone who is “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” “transphobic,” or any other version of what you don’t want them to be, don’t try to change them. Listen to them. Try to discover the shared wish to be happy and alleviate suffering — I promise you it is there. This isn’t an ethical argument as much as a pragmatic one. We should do this because it works better than our current approach.
I know this is counterintuitive: You want me to love and accept a Republican?! A Democrat?! You’re suggesting we love and accept people who are racist, sexist, and homophobic? Yes. That is exactly what I am saying. Do it because it works. If we are truly interested in creating a more compassionate world, we have to be the change we wish to see.
To create compassion we need to be compassionate. “Fighting” racism only creates something to fight against and emboldens the racist. “Defeating hate” implores a more defensive attitude from the hateful. These mindsets inherently divide because they are not built on true compassion. They strengthen tribal identities and loyalty to one’s “team.” The woke approach uses a toolbox labeled “PEACE,” unaware that the tools inside are designed for war. If we want to dismantle the structures built on hate, anger, and division, we must dismantle them using radically different tools. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Judgment, criticism, ostracizing, shaming, correcting speech, punishing, cancelling, and so on, cannot, because of their inherent nature, make people more compassionate. They only reinforce the illusion of separateness.