Idiot Compassion and The Devouring Mother

From Throne of Blood, directed by Akira Kurosawa

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‘Idiot compassion’ is an oft used term in Buddhism. It means a kind of pseudo care, which actually removes one from real care — it is a posture. Idiot compassion is care for an abstraction, or for our various pet causes. It is a favourite game — especially of the upper classes — of generating a feeling of emotional ‘solidarity’ with a particular minority group, the more fringe the better. However, this virtual solidarity may actually prevent us from paying attention to the local world. Idiot compassion takes us away from that which needs our real presence and care.

How does idiot compassion do this? In multifarious ways. For example, the practice of false forgiveness for someone who hurts us, being ‘nice’ rather than forthright, being diplomatic rather than brutally honest when an unpleasant fact needs to be revealed. Idiot compassion enables the drunk to continue drinking, the over-grown child to stay at home, the wife-beater to continue beating his wife. It has its origin in cowardliness and co-dependence, an inability to say no to people, as well as the hysterical need to try to make things Ok all the time, when they obviously aren’t.

When we practice idiot compassion, we trade real intelligence and care for drama and false gestures. We are manipulated though sentimental or violent images into a state of bewildering impotence before the horrors of the world, which we feel unable to address. We send our ‘liberal-guilt’ dollars to faraway places—nothing wrong with that unless we are unable to practice charity at home, that is. All this fake socially generated ‘care’ is bolstered by social media bullying, which forces us into stereotyped attitudes to strangers and causes.

Idiot compassion is just what Shakespeare says it is: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. That is: it is compassion practiced by an unwise or unskilled person with no real intimate link to his or her object of compassion, and that person ends up doing more harm than good.

Idiot compassion occurs when care is professionalized to the extreme, when we no longer care for individuals but for only for categories. This bureaucratic kind of ‘care’ is the opposite of real care, detached from the nuances and humors of deep human exchange. Everybody knows what it is like to be treated with benevolence but not as a human being. Conversely, we know how helpful and valuable the real friend is — or the doctor, lawyer, or bureaucrat for that matter — who treats us like a real person.

Sometimes real compassion, as opposed to idiot compassion, means: don’t help people. Leave them alone. That is unless they have solicited your help, or you are able to meet them, eye to eye, person to person. If we don’t have a merciful attitude to those in our local world, then what use are we to a homeless person, let alone the suffering multitudes.

Idiot compassion can also be described as the devouring mother. For instance, the pregnant tiger (as opposed to the ‘Tiger mom’) will attack anyone who threatens her precious child. Any kind of judgment or criticism of that over-weaned creature is considered taboo and will be met with blind aggression. The devouring mother protects the weak and vulnerable, but also the co-dependent spoiled brat with his unchecked ego. At worst, the brat remains attached to the suckling breast of mother into adulthood, and is robbed of initiation and the trials of individuation. The little darling is never called to task for his actions — he never leaves the nest. The devouring mother suffocates him with ‘unconditional love’.

To extend this analogy to the state: the devouring ‘mother of the state’ unconsciously hurts its own citizens by making them co-dependent or ideologically possessed. Universities especially, with their so-called ‘safe spaces’ enacts the over-protective mother: they robs young people of the fitness necessarily to fight the demons of the real world. Institutions coddle these over-grown kids to death, by monitoring and surveying all aspects of their learning, including their sexual activity.

Note: this is not a cold libertarian argument for radical individualism — but a plea for balance. We need to go beyond a childish dependency. Without an ‘I-thou’ relationship to the other — in Martin Buber’s terms — our care tends to be presumptuous, counterproductive, or even dangerous. We might even ‘oppress’ the ones we apparently care about, though instrumentalized care or over-protection, though not letting the other just be. Or develop. Or grow. Or get their hands dirty. Or make all of the messy and necessary mistakes required for learning.

The story of Prince Siddhartha, also know of as The Buddha, describes quite well this difference between idiot compassion and the real thing. The Buddha was a coddled, spoiled kid, in the beginning. But after seeing an old person, a sick person, and a dead person, he was overwhelmed by terror and compassion. Did he leave the palace to try and save the world? Yes and no. First he had to save himself, and find some meaning and direction in his life. He knew that he would be a useless clod, until he developed some real wisdom.

The Buddha’s father, on the other hand, practiced idiot compassion, sheltering The Buddha from the real world. But the Buddha was a hero. He did not fall victim to solipsism, or privilege, or unmerited pleasures. Similarly, if we drown our young people in idiot compassion, they will remain over-fed and over-stimulated princes in their cushy basements playing video games, but they will never develop real character. Idiot compassion keeps us comfortable, it removes us from real compassion, which, as the story of the Buddha illustrates, is uncomfortable — but is still boundlessly rich and illuminating.

The one who practices idiot compassion, also practices victimology, and loves to define other people — and themselves especially — as victims; they play the game of identifying and propping up victims. Victimhood absolves one from responsibility and, at worst, conjures up the dark power of the mob. The greatest monsters of the world have known this power of idiot compassion to bend people to their will, and to create a world defined by oppressors and victims.

Actually, everyone is a victim of somebody, in the perfect age of victimology — one is a victim of God for being born. Wearing our ‘victim status’ as a badge is a form of idiot compassion, which allows the real innocent victims to go unseen. And as every psychologist knows, the victim can very quickly becomes the persecutor. That is because once victimized we have the perfect motive for a violent outburst. And the cycle of violent accusation and scapegoating continues to no end.

When Sylvia Plath wrote ‘Every woman loves a fascist’, she was talking about a certain kind idiot compassion, at its most primal level. She was describing our most secret taboo: the egos love of dependency and control, and a certain kind of erotic helplessness, an attachment to big daddy. Idiot compassion has a dark attraction: we can find a lot of love in that cesspool of dependency. But we can never grow there — we will always remain a victim of our own idiotic need for confirmation. Let us do our best leave behind those sickly sweet dependencies.

What then is the remedy for victimology and idiot compassion? In Man’s Search For Meaning, Victor Frankl eloquently wrote of how the inner choice to act with integrity is possible even when every kind of external freedom has been taken away, and in the worst of all circumstances — in his case a concentration camp: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

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