The problem is not just that people are geographically distant from us. The problem is that, even as there has been a compression of physical distance in practical terms, there has not necessarily been an accompanying compression of social distance—people’s life experiences remain very different, differences compounded by social inequalities in the resources and power that different social groups have access to. Such social distances can remain very great, even when geographical distances shrink. A historical example of this is slavery in the pre-Civil War US South, where slave-owners often had daily face-to-face contact with their slaves. This lack of physical distance did nothing to foster a closure of social distance and heightened empathy by the masters for their slaves. Such relationships were still marked by racism, exploitation, and violence. A contemporary example could be found in many offices, where the social distance between high-level executives and low-level clerical and secretarial workers is great. The distance may be masked by the use of friendly language, but that does not mean there aren’t high levels of exploitation and little real understanding by wealthy executives of low-paid workers’ lives and the challenges they face on a daily basis trying to make ends meet. If real empathy were present, the executives would most likely pay their subordinates better. The social distance between the CEO of a major apparel firm and the sweatshop workers laboring to make the actual apparel is even greater, given the physical distances, the lack of face-to-face interaction, and the fact that most apparel production is outsourced, so the sweatshop workers don’t even technically work for the company for whom they are producing goods, but an intermediary firm. On the flip side, geographical distance doesn’t necessarily result in social distance—members of the upper class around the world often identify with each other and see each other as part of a common community. This is reinforced by the fact that members of the upper class in developing countries often go to college in the US or Western Europe, leaving them more in common culturally and life experience with members of the first-world political-economic elite than the poor in their own countries.
Compassion fatigue is not bred by social distance alone though. Another real element for many people is a sense of powerlessness, that there is nothing the can do to address the problems of distant others they learn about through the news. When one feels powerless in the face of such suffering, in many ways, it makes sense to emotionally withdraw and focus on problems where one thinks one can make a difference. And people are not wholly wrong to feel powerless—while there is often more we can do than we think we can, doing such things are rarely easy, involving an uphill battle against the powers-that-be, involving a long process of movement-building and social struggle. Such people may still act with compassion, but just towards those in their immediate circle of family or friends or community, where they can see themselves making an immediate, concrete difference.
In more Buddhist terms, greater social and cultural distance makes it harder to cultivate an understanding of others and thereby generate compassion and generosity towards them. The growth of telecommunications technology and the ease of traveling to geographically distant places—time-space compression—may make it easier to learn about others in the abstract, but without similar reductions in the social distance between people, it is not necessarily any easier to cultivate understanding and compassion for those others. The organization of our global society undermines our ability to cultivate the Buddhist virtues of compassion and insight in regard to those who are different than us.
Being in a position of power is often extremely isolating, cutting off those in such positions from real knowledge about the lives of others. We often imagine it is the opposite, as do those in positions in power. If you are at the head of a large corporate, government or even non-profit bureaucracy, the bureaucracy is supposed to pass knowledge upward, so that the person at the top has a big picture view. But one of the privileges of being in a position of social power is that someone in that position doesn’t have to listen to anything that doesn’t suit them if it’s said by someone sufficiently far below them. Even if such a person is interested in listening to dissident views from below, they may never hear them because those below them fear to express the truth out of worry about negative consequences. People in lower level positions frequently don’t pass on information they think will upset their superiors, in order to protect themselves from being disciplined or fired. And, even if they do get their information, those in positions of power can simply overlook anything that doesn’t fit with what they want to believe. We all do this to some extent—psychologists refer to as confirmation bias—but those in power have a greater ability to do this, because it is harder for those whose experiences are being ignored to make those in power pay attention to them.
Take the example of exploited workers in a sweatshop factory mentioned briefly above. The workers have little way to directly enter into dialogue with those who hold power and make the major decisions—the top level executives, board members, and major investors of the companies that outsource to their factory. Indeed, one of the driving reasons behind outsourcing is not just cost-cutting, but avoiding having to deal with organized labor and more generally avoiding responsibility for the conditions in factories. The owners of the factories are under tremendous pressure to keep costs down if they want to maintain their contracts with the major, global firms. They often have little choice but to run sweatshops if they want to stay in business. The fact that they need to exploit their workers if they want to continue to operate means they are likely to come up with rationalizations to justify that exploitation to themselves and to feel little empathy.
Real social knowledge—a real understanding of those whose lives are different than ours—has to include some element of dialogue. We can try our best to imagine what it might be like to live through experiences profoundly different than out own, the result of a profoundly a different social background. Thay does this in his poem “Please Call Me by My True Names,” when he attempts to put himself in the position both oppressed people, like a girl raped by a pirate and a political prisoner in a concentration camp, and their oppressors, the pirate and the Politbureau member responsible for the concentration camp. We should all carry out such exercises on a regular basis—but we are likely to develop more insight if we can directly read or hear the words of the people whose lives we are imagining; and even more so if we can engage in a meaningful dialogue with them. Ideally, it would involve sitting down face-to-face on equal terms to engage in a deep discussion with each other. If that is not possible (and most of the time for most of us, it’s not possible), then at the very least we should be able to read or watch detailed accounts of others’ lives, including first-person testimony. Good documentaries, journalism, and social scientific studies can all do this. One of the problems is that inequalities in power usually mean that those in power don’t have to listen to others on equal terms, since they typically control the terms of the conversation. Generally, such dialogue on something approaching equal footing where the oppressed are free to speak their minds happens only after protracted social conflict, where the oppressed have built up their power through protests, boycotts, strikes, nonviolent direct action, and the like. In business-labor relations, collective bargaining between management and labor is supposed to foster a dynamic of equality, where workers can not only speak their minds freely, but work to advance their own well-being—but this is generally only possible if the labor union has built up a significant degree of power, through organizing workers and at least potentially having the ability to pressure management through tactics such as a strike. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” speaks of similar circumstances—of how civil rights activists’ attempts to engage in dialogue with business leaders in Birmingham to convince them to desegregate their businesses initially came to naught. The business leaders, many of whom were committed white supremacists, would promise to desegregate their business, then violate those promises. King says that it is only when civil rights activists’ protests had brought the city to a standstill, so that the businesses could no longer function, did business leaders actually take real steps towards desegregation. Without some degree of equality in power, there can’t be real dialogue and those in power will remain (sometimes willfully) ignorant of others’ lives.
A complicating factor in all this is that those in power often have less understanding of the social system they are part of and of other people in it than the oppressed. As a matter of getting by and sometimes even survival, members of oppressed groups must know what those in power think, especially what they expect of their subordinates, or risk retaliation. In the US in this day and age, this generally simply means being fired and losing one’s livelihood. In other times and places, it could mean losing one’s very life—a black in the pre-civil rights US South who was seen by whites as not being properly differential could well be lynched. In many parts of the developing world, the wealthy still have a feudal mentality and control the courts to the point that they can literally get away with murder. Those in power, on the other hand, rarely have any deep understanding of those beneath them. Their very power allows them to project their own beliefs onto their subordinates, letting them see the world and other people as they would like them to be, not as they are. When a rebellion breaks out—when people protest, when workers strike, etc.—those in power are often shocked that those beneath them are not content with their lot and by the idea that anything they do might be considered unjust.
These dynamics of social distance and inequalities in power often get further entangled in the creation of in-groups and out-groups—social groups we define as consisting of people like us (in-groups) or not like us (out-groups)—and the stereotyping of members of the out-group. The powerful often define the less powerful and more socially distant as part of an out-group, then stereotype members of the out-group in some way that justifies their oppression, exploitation, or marginalization. For instance, the powerful have often infantilized the less powerful, stereotyping them as childlike and therefore needing to be dominated for their own good—colonizers stereotyped historically colonized people as unable to govern themselves and these stereotypes are still often applied to people in underdeveloped countries, providing a rational for neo-colonial covert and military interventions. The powerful also sometimes objectify the less powerful, treating them in a way that ignores their ability to feel and suffer—for instance the way men often sexually objectify women, which leads to the rationalizations of crimes like human trafficking and forced prostitution, both major global problems. Finally, members of an out-group may be outright demonized, stereotyped as irredeemably evil. This is often done to one’s enemies in war, but also to socially vulnerable groups that the powerful scapegoat for societies problems, as the Nazis did with Jews and right-wing populists do today with immigrants and Muslims. Contrary to much popular supposition, encountering members of an out-group face-to-face does not always lead to people to stereotype less. Indeed, it may reinforce people’s stereotypes of the out-group, as confirmation bias leads them to see what they expect to see and have their views more deeply ingrained.
All these problems are exacerbated by the nature of the mass media and social media, both of which are primarily corporate owned and therefore oriented towards turning a profit, not bettering our mutual understanding of and compassion for each other. These tools could be used to lessen cultural distances by helping us better understand others, but that’s not typically the way they are used. Some of the problems are relatively obvious, as when journalists or social media users use blatant stereotypes or engage in sensationalist reporting or make unfounded claims. But the problems can be subtler, such as when well-meaning journalists depict people suffering from famine or war as passive victims, incapable of exercising their own agency, and needing outsiders to come in and save them. Such depictions evoke not compassion, but pity, what Tibetan Buddhists call the near-enemy of compassion—we feel bad for people, but see them as distant and other than us. It can also be a problem when journalists address social problems entirely in terms of individuals and their choices, rather than looking at systemic problems—and therefore raising the need for systemic solutions. The coverage of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism usually doesn’t cover the very real reasons people have to resent US imperialism, instead relying on stereotypes of freedom-hating terrorists, which often unintentionally (or intentionally) feeds into Islamophobia. Then there are things journalists prioritize covering—bad news and world leaders, not innovative projects for social change being carried out at the grassroots.
We as Buddhist practitioners can try to overcome social distance and compassion fatigue in part through mindful spiritual practices, which helps us cultivate compassion and focus on where we can help. But part of the answer is also political consciousness-raising—we need to systemically analyze the roots of social problems and how social justice movements can help address them. We need to look at how to lessen the inequalities in power and social distance, to counter the way we turn others into out-groups and stereotype them by challenging how pervasive such identity constructions and stereotyping are in our culture, such as the media, etc. Mostly, it’s our engaged practice out in the world where things will matter most. Changes in consciousness are a starting point, but the end point needs to be social change—cultural and structural change, systemic change—which change in consciousness does not guarantee. Often changes in consciousness will follow from changes in the social system, rather than the other way around. This is not so different from how our personal practice often works—we try to follow the mindfulness trainings because acting in accord with them helps cultivate mindfulness, insight and compassion in us. Changing how society is organized so people are pushed to act in new ways will gradually lead to transformations of consciousness as well, including among those who are initially less sympathetic to the movements we support.
Truly Holding Peace
Lakeside Buddha Sangha, Chicago IL