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The Virtue Contest by Daria Fedotova

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The Virtue Contest:
How Compassion is Destroying Society

“Frau mit totem Kind” (1903), a line etching with drypoint by Prussian artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), located in the Käthe Kollwitz Museum in Köln.

Photo: Public Domain.

Are you a good person? Do you feel for your fellow humans? And if you do, how can you not act immediately to reduce their suffering?

If these questions seem manipulative, it is because they are. Compassion is among the Left’s favourite talking points, a helpful tool to use whenever there is a policy that needs to be pushed or an opponent that needs to be silenced. Those who are doing better in life—or who are perceived as somehow ‘privileged’—should be bullied into feeling guilty about it. This works best on people who rely heavily on public opinion in order to form an opinion of their own.

Compassion is, in itself, a wonderful and noble thing, capable of giving us unique insights and of broadening our views. Without it, we would not be able to enjoy a book or a film, let alone build meaningful relationships. Those of solid character often have compassion as one of their guiding principles: for them, it is a natural way of life, not an attempt to be a ‘good person’ as defined by an outside source. But compassion is also a luxury since acting upon it may sometimes do more harm than good. The latter is especially true for a policymaker, who is responsible for millions under his or her governance and who has to make choices with the head rather than the heart.

Unfortunately, the race to be a ‘good person’ is as popular as ever, arguably more so in the age of social media. Governments, political parties, individuals, even businesses take part in it, praising the disadvantaged. Some are true believers; others are afraid to appear callous. Either way, their ‘virtue signalling’ is relentless and covers a wide range of topics—from poverty and immigration to homosexuals and transgenders.

The public demonstration of social responsibility is no longer an option but a requirement. Moreover, its form and extent are dictated by activists—and if they meet any resistance, public shaming follows. Defund the police, let migrants in, combat climate change, provide more social security benefits: these are but a fraction of their demands, which must be supported on threat of ostracism. Thus, one group forces itself to display empathy, while another abuses it; this is the cult of the weak, and it feeds off our society’s insecurities and guilt complex.

Within this cult of the weak, groups of historically mistreated people take precedence. Women are prioritised over men, black over white, poor over rich. Whoever manages to score the most ‘oppression points’ ends up being the most important person in the room, while whoever loses the competition is expected to stay silent and nod politely. The focus of our civilisation subsequently shifts from achievement, excellence, and personal freedom to equality of outcome, professional mediocrity, and rigid norms of ‘political correctness.’

The ideology centred around the poor and disenfranchised naturally leads to advocating for the welfare state. Empathy, therefore, becomes not only demanded but legally enforced; instead of choosing a cause to support―or, indeed, choosing not to―everyone is obliged to pay taxes that are spent on people who keep asking for more. For example, the UK budget for 2021 provides £532 billion for social protection and health. That is about half of the overall spending and about 65% of current receipts.

But does this spending make us righteous―or negligent? However large and expensive, public services often lack efficiency. At the same time, they create the illusion that people can depend on the government rather than on their families and friends—or, indeed, on their own untapped and often unknown resources and ingenuity. Such practices hardly encourage personal responsibility. This becomes especially clear if we take a look at the situation in the U.S., where a significant number of former leisure and hospitality workers refuse to seek a job because unemployment benefits are higher than the salaries they are likely to get.

A leftist might say that they are not paid adequately in the first place, so they should not return to those jobs. Fair enough. Nobody should be forced to work against their wishes. But such a choice cannot be made at the country’s expense. As Margaret Thatcher once put it: “There is no such thing as public money; there is only taxpayers’ money.” So is all this fair upon income producers? Is it not condescending and degrading to assume that those who are less fortunate cannot rely upon themselves and their communities to make their lives better?

Reactions to the pandemic may also serve as a great example of misplaced compassion. Protecting the vulnerable at all costs, imposing questionable measures, and throwing public funds at the problem were the preferred policies of many nation-states. As a result, economies suffered. Small businesses closed. Livelihoods were and remain endangered. And mental health issues became more common worldwide. In the long run, the damage caused might possibly be worse than the one inflicted by the virus—but it is much harder to immediately quantify. A comprehensive analysis does not fit easily into a tweet or soundbite.

“Israel in Egypt” (1867), 137.2 cm x 317.5 cm oil on canvas by Edward Poynter (1836-1919), located in Guildhall Art Gallery in London.

Photo: Public Domain.

Historical injustice is another favourite doctrine of the Left: patriarchy, colonialism, and slavery are three widespread accusations thrown around to manipulate Western countries into feelings of national guilt. Everything, from the academy to healthcare, has to be decolonised―or, in other words, divorced from the practices and traditions of the West. At the same time, we are supposed to applaud the new generation of unruly activists, race ideologues, and strong independent women who somehow still need quotas to fill boardrooms and parliamentary seats. And, of course, we must ignore any historical injustices committed by countries outside the West. Mongolia is not to be blamed for the deeds of Genghis Khan, and Morocco and Algeria are not held responsible for the Barbary corsairs’ slave trade. Zulu conquests do not attract the attention of protestors.

The vocal members of ‘oppressed’ groups do not stop there, of course. Their position is presented as follows: they have long been denied the same social standing and resources as their white (or male, depending on who makes the argument) countrymen, so they are entitled to attention, special treatment, and reparations. Instead of taking control of their fates, now that every opportunity is open to them, they prefer to whine and grumble. Upon hearing about their grievances, few people dare to show the lack of empathy and point out that it is mainly their mindset that holds them back. Most choose to display compassion, however counterproductive it may be.

Yet genuine compassion has nothing to do with guilt. It is a deeply personal feeling, an urge to offer a helping hand—willingly, selflessly, and without pressure. But it must be tempered with sound judgement, otherwise it is open to abuse. More importantly, compassion is an insufficient basis for a political system precisely because of its personal and fallible nature.

The modern emphasis on ‘victimhood’ is another flaw. It is incompatible with the building of a resilient society destined for success. In fact, when Europeans conquered the world in previous centuries, they did so despite countless adversities, illustrating the value of resourcefulness and determination.

The manipulations of the Left are easy to avoid if one does not try to prove one’s virtue using social media. Instead, each specific matter should be approached with a guiding set of principles, and the relevant facts should be assessed with logic and honesty. And if Western civilisation is to survive, we must stop encouraging and rewarding weakness—and shift our attention back to pride, confidence, and achievement.

Daria Fedotova is a lawyer and writer based in Ukraine.


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