Ian Cooper

Moving through prejudice with compassion rather than shame

Ian Cooper
Moving through prejudice with compassion rather than shame

Photo by Tim Swaan.

People have often turned to shame as a means of trying to change society. In recent years, this has become common in the fight for equal rights for all people, no matter their skin color, gender, sexual orientation or disability. People who believe in those rights have frequently derided those who don’t as backwards and lacking in humanity. 

There may be no social or political goal more noble than equal rights. But shame is a poor tactic to get there. It doesn’t work, and it inevitably leads to a harmful backlash. It also creates prejudices just as a strong as the ones it seeks to destroy. You can't fight fire with fire, after all. 

In order to really bring about a society where everyone is treated with respect and dignity, both by the law and by each other, we have to start from a place of compassion and kindness, not from shame and anger. 

Think about it. The most powerful civil rights leader in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, preached love, not hate. “You don’t have to like everyone,” he famously said, “but you have to love them.” Despite pressure from some of his allies, well-meaning people desperately seeking an end of centuries of oppression, Dr. King never abandoned his commitment to love and nonviolence. The result was a monumental increase in political and legal rights for non-white Americans.

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela fought apartheid with love. Even after decades in prison, upon his release he worked tirelessly to unite his country and bring together people of all skin colors. He knew that was the only way to create peace. 

What I see so often in our country today is well-meaning people shaming and attacking people who don’t agree with them. If you don’t believe in say, gay marriage, the reasoning goes, you’re not just wrong, but you’re a bad person. This thinking extends to the use of language. We call this political correctness: if you don’t use the right words, you’re a bad person. 

The problem is that this strengthens prejudice. If you tell someone they’re a bad person, they’re probably not going to thank you for it. They’re probably going to get hurt, angry, and defensive and push back against you. Even if they acquiesce in public, they’ll resist within their own minds. It’s human nature. 

Even worse is when we try to shame ourselves into being better people. I think most people (myself included) who have tried to shame others for their beliefs do the same to themselves. That can cause us tremendous pain, like the medieval monks who whipped themselves to get closer to God, but it doesn’t help anything.

All of the people who are fighting for a more just and equal world are right to do so. Everyone deserves love and respect. But the thing is, everyone already has it. We just can’t see it until we give it to ourselves.

To get there, we can start by forgiving ourselves and meeting ourselves as we are, with compassion and acceptance. 

Almost all of us have prejudice of some kind. Almost all of us have anger towards other people who we fear. Almost all of us have also been hurt by others' prejudice, and have anger towards the people who have hurt us. 

Rather than shaming ourselves, we should acknowledge that. If we then practice loving ourselves rather than trying to root out our prejudice or our hurt from others' prejudice, we create space to be exactly as we are and our hearts start to open. As our hearts open, our prejudices—which are just fears—start to fade and then vanish. Our wounds begin to heal. The more we really love ourselves, the more love we have for other people, regardless of any old beliefs we may have about how things ought to be. The whole world just starts to warm up around us. 

We start to see that people who act with prejudice towards others are just scared. Their actions become understandable, and we don’t have to take them as personally, because it’s not about us. If someone hurts us, it’s because they know not what they do. We can let ourselves heal, and by doing so, maybe help others to heal too. 

We’re each just battling our demons, and it takes love and forgiveness to get us free. 

Ian is a writer and the founder and editor of Open Heart Beginner's Mind.