Compassion my arse: We’ve got a long way to go…

So Margaret Thatcher’s been dead a week. I have no intention of defending her actions in this post, but I intend to talk about the reaction to her death as a prime example of why, as individuals and as a society, we’re a long way from a compassionate stance.

Figure holding sign

Just in case you’ve been under a rock for the last week, after Margaret Thatcher’s death, there was an outpouring of resentment and vitriol. People actively celebrated her death (many of whom weren’t even alive when she was Prime Minister). She was, in their opinion, evil, a witch, the cause of all Britain’s suffering, morally lacking, a dictator, and a ruiner of lives. According to these people, she, personally and solely, embodied all of this wickedness.

Now, I’m not one for censorship. When we start telling people what they can and can’t write, publish or say, let alone how they should act, we’re in big trouble. When we let our ‘leaders’ tell us that, for our own good, we’re not allowed to express an opinion, we’ve traded hope for tyranny. No, I’ve got a somewhat different axe to grind. It comes down to taking a measured, compassionate response, that isn’t just same-old, human knee-jerk crap. The same crap that has led to pretty much every unpleasant thing that’s ever happened.

This, sadly, is the human condition. Venality, oversimplification, and the singling out of individuals as a point of blame, is our knee-jerk reaction. The consequence is resentment and ongoing, unresolved anger. Compassion is pretty much impossible in the presence of this sort of seething emotion.

Last week I wrote about why a compassionate society is important, especially for our ongoing survival as a species. So let’s look at the reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s death as a case example of what’s wrong, and see if we can find some neutral ground.

Here’s the lot of the average human: we find it very difficult to see complex points of view and, by default, prefer the simple black and white answer. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent when we are angry or upset. When aroused, we’re highly unlikely to examine the variables involved in a situation dispassionately and, instead, often seek to blame a single individual for our perceived wrong. This makes some sense from an evolutionary perspective. Complex thinking requires the use of a lot of blood sugar, and during most of our past as a species, this was hard to come by, so oversimplification actually made sense in a lot of situations. We didn’t evolve for complex scenarios and, for the most part, a brief, violent reaction was probably effective.

Amplify the individual and throw in opportunism, and we get another unpleasant aspect of humanity: the ability to alter memory to suit our ‘feelings’. As far back as the 1970’s, Elizabeth Loftus’ pioneering work on human memory was used to demonstrate that we can easily edit our memories (or have them edited for us) based on the emotional context. Loftus was able to demonstrate that only a week after test subjects were shown footage of two cars involved in a minor accident, their memories could be manipulated by the simple use of adjectives. Although the footage showed no broken glass, the question “how much broken glass did you see in the footage when the cars smashed into one another?” resulted in the majority believing that they’d seen broken glass. Substituting the word “hit” for “smashed” was enough to manipulate memory. Loftus’ research was used to invalidate the notion of witness testimony, but it’s equally applicable in other contexts, especially when we want a justification to act in a particular way.

Historical revisionism (often with a modern-day politically correct lens) is pretty trendy right now. But it’s also pretty much a default behaviour for most people. If our fresh memories can be substantially altered, our memory of events from 3o years ago, written and rewritten so many times that they’re little more than vague recollections, are extremely easy to colour. With a bit of prompting, and with a predilection for a particular type of behaviour, it really doesn’t take much for us to rationalise something that is as far from compassion as can be (like actively celebrating someone’s death).

OK, so let’s take a step back for a minute. I’m not suggesting that our revisionist memories are manipulating the objective facts about Thatcher’s actions, nor am I suggesting that they were ‘good’ (or ‘bad’ for that matter). I am suggesting, however, that it’s very easy to forget what the world was like 30 years ago, and to gauge a person’s actions using a modern template. So I invite you to take a little stroll back to early 1980’s Britain. First and foremost, it was the middle of the Cold War. For those of you who (like me) were teenagers in the 80’s, the threat of nuclear war was an ever-present fear. It seems incredible now, but the US and the then USSR really were in a constant state of passive aggression. On top of this, economically, Britain was screwed. It was isolated from the rest of Europe (no EU then), regressive, insanely overtaxed, and reliant on a manufacturing sector that was woefully out of date and massively inefficient. The unions, ostensibly there to protect the workers, had more power than the mafia, but fewer morals. Throughout the 70’s Britain had suffered innumerable, financially crippling strikes. And then the 80’s came along. In the UK and the US consumption became king, technology took a giant leap, and a new, dominant economic model appeared. Thatcher was a product of her times (let’s not forget that ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism’ were extremely similar but, amazingly, Reagan isn’t viewed with the same contempt), not their engineer. She was also the head of her party, not a president. It was the Thatcher-led government, not Thatcher herself, that resulted in the various policies of the day.

Now, again, I am not going to defend or decry the actions of Thatcher’s government during the 1980’s. Instead, I’m pointing out that, in pretty much every situation, there’s more going on than meets the eye. I’m also highlighting the fact that, as humans, we have a nasty ability to blame a single individual for our suffering, even though that individual did not harm us directly, and even though the situation was massively more complex than we assume. Worse, we can hold onto that irrational anger, letting it cloud our judgement and (scarily) passing it on to cloud the judgement of our children.

So perhaps, instead of vilifying the dead, we can take into account a little more than our single-minded anger and resentment, and try and understand things from a wider context. More importantly, perhaps we can use the moment to reflect on what happened and why, and then to learn from the mistakes of the past. Most people would recognise (with the benefit of 30-years of hindsight) that the 80’s were a pretty fucked-up time, and that Thatcher’s government made some poorly considered decisions. Getting angry about them 30 years later is an exercise in folly, but by understanding the full economic and political climate of that era we can learn to act better next time. Even more importantly, with a compassionate lens, in understanding, we can forgive those involved, if not their actions.

Maggie Thatcher was someone’s mum. She might not have been to everyone’s tastes, and her actions and those of her government, whilst a product of the complex factors of the time, resulted in a lot of distress for a lot of people. She, however, can be remembered for who she was, not what she did. More compassion, less blame, lets us let go and get on with things and, perhaps, learn something for once.

4 Replies to “Compassion my arse: We’ve got a long way to go…”

  1. This is a brilliant commentary on a very distasteful display of mass knee-jerk (jerk’s the right word) hysteria. Sadly, modern news stories focus so much on the negative that it would be truly surprising were the achievements of the Conservative governments led by Thatcher given any prominence in the Australian press. Those who have read your article will surely now take a more balanced view of history. Well done…

  2. An interesting post, as always Jeremy. You had me almost sympathetic until “The unions, ostensibly there to protect the workers, had more power than the mafia, but fewer morals.” I think it was about then in the article that I realised (yet again) that the whole point of the divisiveness of this event is that that was how it has always been framed – you are either on one side or the other. Even someone like you trying to present a more nuanced version cannot avoid such an emotive slur. I am the first to admit that the unions did not do themselves any favours either here or in the UK, but unionism is a good and necessary ideal and could have been reformed in a different way (without police on horses and closing of mines in order to import coal). It also occurred to me that I have read so many things in the days following the Baroness’ death ‘explaining’ to me that if I take some satisfaction in her death I have no compassion and implying it makes me as bad as the compassionateness policies I claim to abhor… However, I have read no similar deconstructions of the equally misguided eulogies raising her to almost saint-like status… strange? I think not… as someone who was living in Britain when the Poll tax was introduced it is easy to understand how the selfish, economic rationalist ideas that began to dominate in that era are still very much evident today… Yes, she was someone’s mother – a son who made a multi-million pound personal fortune arranging arms deals. Forgive me if I cracked a smile … the world will be a better place without someone like her, but Billy Bragg put it best –

    “The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing; of why domestic growth is driven by credit, not by real incomes; of why tax-payers are forced to top up wages; of why a spiteful government seeks to penalise the poor for having an extra bedroom; of why Rupert Murdoch became so powerful; of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society.

    Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don’t celebrate – organise!”

    1. Hey, I actually agree with you. Many actions of the Thatcher government were neither appropriate or justifiable – nor was she even remotely a saint (heaven forbid!). I also agree with Billy to an extent. In fact, economic rationalism and its legacy is as anti-compassionate as it gets. Thatcher’s government did very little to raise the bar on that front, and might have done a lot of damage. But I suppose my point was that a compassionate society is one that doesn’t take pleasure from someone’s death, no matter what he or she did and, much more importantly, learns from the mistakes of others without blaming them or using anger as a reason to perpetuate the many human failings that are still with us.

      Taking small or large satisfaction from someone’s death isn’t a compassionate stance – but again, the point of the article wasn’t to insist that people who disliked Thatcher are lacking compassion. Rather, I wanted to get across that as a species, the sooner we can get over the need to blame others for what’s happened, no matter what it was and, instead, make sure that we understand why it happened and learn what we can do to elevate the human position.

      It’s very easy to take a holier than thou viewpoint, and I really hope that’s not how I came across. I’m just so saddened by the endless cycle of thoughtlessness, the resultant hurt, the blame, and the repetition of the cycle…

  3. Somehow I truly do not believe that Margaret Thatcher would be too concerned about the lack of compassion towards her passing. She was in a public arena and used her position to individually make changes that she believed in. She dared to carve out her own path based on a passion regardless of whether it was right or wrong (who defines those words within politics anyway?). People will always attack from the comfort of the mass. Public voices of compassion come from the same place of comfort/norm.

    She knew the risks. “without contraries is no progression” William Blake.

    I am a huge fan by the way Jeremy!


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