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5 Big Problems With Compassion-Baiting

Unfortunately, we spiritual-progressive types, including but not limited to dharma heads, seem to be particularly prone to something I call compassion-baiting.

General compassion-baiting sounds something like:

Try having more compassion. If you did, you’d see things my way.

And in social justice situations, specifically, compassion-baiting often sounds like:

You’re more upset / loud / angry about social harm than I, arbiter, deem appropriate. You must therefore be lacking in wisdom or compassion.

F**k that noise, for real.

Why so touchy, you ask? Let’s break it down: 5 major fails associated with compassion-baiting.

1. Compassion-Baiting Enables Sexual Misconduct

distant since sexual
FX/e-cards, via Sexual Harassment In Comics: The Tipping Point.

It’s hard enough to come forward with an experience of sexual harassment — fearing you’ll be labeled uptight, slutty, attention-seeking, or worse.

Compassion-baiting saddles victims with the additional worry of seeming spiritually immature. After all, if we had enough compassion, we could simply, patiently, and lovingly settle any differences with our so-called harasser, right? We would practice upekkha — equanimity — and remain unruffled, uperturbed. We would do our utmost to empathize with our aggressor and assume their best intentions. We would scrutinize our own motives. We would seek harmony, not conflict.

My first experience with this was a case of internalized, self-inflicted compassion-baiting. It was back in high school. A boy in my class found it hilarious to come up next to me, standthisclose, and whisper with a grin, “Does this make you uncomfortable?”

Priding myself on an ability to stay calm (and also not wanting to give him the upper hand), I would shrug and reply, “No.”

The “joke” continued a handful of times, but I wasn’t too worried. I’m a patient, tolerant person, I thought. I can outlast this, rather than fanning the drama flames.

Then one day, a group of us were sitting in the grass near the baseball diamond. It was late spring, when the Sacramento weather starts heating up, and a lot of us, including me, were wearing shorts.

All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my upper, inner thigh. It was the boy.

“Does this make you uncomfortable?”

This time I lost it a little. “STOP IT,” I snapped, and pushed his hand away.

“Woah, woah, woah,” he taunted, half cowering in mock fear. “So angry. What are you gonna do? Sue me?”

And there it is. Even from school days, we’re taught that sexual harassment is less of a problem than our upset responses to it.

Compassion-baiting only magnifies this backwardness. Rather than seriously considering allegations of abuse, it subjects them to a litmus test of enlightened attitude.

Let’s stop this. For real.

2. It Puts a Rush Job On Forgiveness

forgiveness sets you freeAs the wise saying goes, “Forgiveness is a process, not an event.” But peace-loving Buddhists and spiritual types, bless our hearts, are sometimes in a big hurry to reach release — to get to the good part, already.

“If you tried having some compassion, we say to ourselves and others, you would be able to let this go.”

Not always helpful, people. Not always helpful. Sometimes, honestly, patronizing as hell. And I’ve been guilty of this, too! Toward myself as well as toward others.

Don’t get me wrong: forgiveness is wonderful. There are many uplifting stories about people who have managed to forgive those who have gravely harmed them, or harmed the people they love. This is amazing and important work. Many people describe it as immensely freeing, and I think that’s why we’re so eager to share it with others. But we can use it as inspiration, as an option, offered considerately — rather than a standard by which to judge (or hasten) spiritual maturity.

3. It Obscures Power Dynamics

can't we all just get along

A prime example of this pitfall comes from a recent dispute over a terribly transphobic article (seriously, trigger warning, it’s awful) posted on the culture & spirituality site Reality Sandwich.

When Be Scofield — author, transgender activist, and founder of Decolonizing Yoga — appealed to the site’s editors to remove the post, the response was classic compassion-baiting.

From Scofield’s post on the interaction:

It is quite evident that neither Dani Katz or Reality Sandwich co-founders and editors Ken Jordan and Faye Sakellaridis sought dialog with the trans or queer community before publishing this article. Interestingly, Jordan proposed a back and forth written dialog between myself and Katz that would then be turned into an article. I refused because saying transgender people are “freakish and scary” looking is not a reasonable viewpoint to dialog about. These are not ideas worth entertaining as doing so will only lend them more credibility. A wrong was done and Reality Sandwich should apologize and delete the article. It’s simple. (A good example to follow is what happened when Julie Burchill published her transphobic article, “Transexuals Should Cut it Out” on the Guardian/Observer and after a huge outcry ensued they deleted the piece, giving this editorial explanation.) Yet, in my refusal to “dialog” with Katz, Jordan ironically lectures me about the importance of dialog.

“Only through dialog and compassion can any real understanding and change take place…By refusing to engage in a dialog, your assumptions will never be tested….The value of dialog is that it helps us affirm that heart connection to one another, with the understanding that it’s always possible to reach another person so they can acknowledge and value our personal truth.”

Uh, no.

See, here’s the thing about internet dialog. There are many platforms for transphobic junk talk. You do not need to supply yet another of these platforms. Disseminating hateful writing (be it cheeky or fulminatory in mood) doesn’t make you more open-minded; it makes you someone with lousy publishing standards. You can do better!

Yes, there is a place for dialog across thorny differences in this world. Would I disown a friend of mine just because they have transphobic attitudes or beliefs? Not necessarily; depends on the situation. Maybe this person shows signs of learning and growing. But I sure as hell wouldn’t publish any transphobic writing of theirs — not unless I was pulling a Russell Brand v. Westboro Baptist Church, mocking the crap out of their views in order to undermine their influence. And something tells me that’s outside the style bounds of the Reality Sandwich spiritualists.

To ask someone to publicly defend their humanity through “dialog,” and then chastize them for refusing to do so, completely ignores and obscures the additional burden of oppressed people participating in “dialogs” that evaluate their own humanity.

[T]he reason that people may respond in a “harsh” manner to oppression: Living in a world that reminds you daily of your lesser worth as a human being can make a person very tired and emotional. When someone says something oppressive — that can be a racist slur, an ableist stereotype, a misogynist dismissal, an invalidation of identity/experiences, being asked invasive and entitled questions, and so on – it feels like being slapped in the face, to the person on the receiving end. The automatic response is emotion and pain. It’s quite exhausting and difficult to restrain the resulting anger. And, frankly, it’s cruel and ridiculous to expect a person to be calm and polite in response to an act of oppression. Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences.

Bottom line, my friend: just because someone refuses to engage with oppressive bullsh*t on your platform does not mean they are lacking in compassion or patience. It might mean they’re trying to increase the safety and well being of oppressed people.

To the editors of Reality Sandwich: I hope you’ll rethink your decision!

4. It Prioritizes Politeness Over Justice

if feminist tone argument

Meme via.

Is there a difference between being compassionate and being polite? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

Buddhist ethics advise us that Wise Speech, a.k.a. Right Speech, tends to lead to peace and well being. In a meticulous and moving account of her struggles exploring Right Speech with her adolescent son, Beth Roth writes for Tricycle:

The Buddha was precise in his description of Right Speech.  He defined it as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”  In the vernacular this means not lying, not using speech in ways that create discord among people, not using swear words or a cynical, hostile or raised tone of voice, and not engaging in gossip.  Re-framed in the positive, these guidelines urge us to say only what is true, to speak in ways that promote harmony among people, to use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, and gentle, and to speak mindfully in order that our speech is useful and purposeful.

Roth also makes the crucial observation that Right Speech by itself don’t cut it:

[W]e had to more consciously create the conditions for Right Listening, for without the capacity to listen deeply, all the Right Speech in the world was of little use.

Do wholesome speech and deep listening support peace and well being?

I believe it. You probably do, too. Like me, you’ve probably experienced tastes of this practical wisdom — flashes of the Buddhist superpowers helping you navigate fraught communication. It’s a deep and joyful thing.

At the same time, there’s a shadow side. I’ve seen no small amount of compassion-baiting that uses the kindness or non-harshness element of Right Speech to shut down valid criticisms and dismiss demands for justice. And that can be incredibly frustrating.

One resource I found illuminating for this riddle is The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good

Social justice is about destroying systematic marginalisation and privilege. Wishing to live in a more just, more equal world is simply not the same thing as wishing to live in a “nicer” world. I am not suggesting niceness is bad or that we should not behave in a nice way towards others if we want to! I also do not equate niceness with cooperation or collaboration with others. Here’s all I am saying: the conflation of ethical or just conduct (goodness), and polite conduct (niceness) is a big problem.

Plenty of oppressive bullshit goes down under the guise of nice. Every day, nice, caring, friendly people try to take our bodily autonomy away from us (women, queers, trans people, nonbinaries, fat people, POC…you name it, they just don’t think we know what’s good for us!). These people would hold a door for us if they saw us coming. Our enemies are not only the people holding “Fags Die God Laughs” signs, they are the nice people who just feel like marriage should be between a man and a woman, no offense, it’s just how they feel!

To be clear, I’m not big on casting people as forever-enemies. Who knows — they may change their ways. But if we allow niceness to carry more weight than goodness or wholesomeness, we may have difficulty identifying people whose actions are causing major harm.

On the flip side, if we close our ears, minds, and hearts to people who seem angry, who seem enraged, who seem less than compassionate, we risk closing ourselves off from key information about the ways in which a system hurts people. About the ways in which we may be hurting people.

Which leads to the fifth fail of compassion-baiting:

5. It Disconnects Us From The Pain of Others

i trust a heart awakening

I love Susan Piver’s recent description, in the Huffington Post, of the purpose of mindfulness — a practice constantly being sexed up these days in popular advertisements.

To practice mindfulness, neither scientific proof nor magnetizing boobage will help you to meet the joys and sorrows of your life. The truth is, the point of mindfulness is not peace, nor is it bliss or transcendence. It does not make you permanently calm or inure you to pain and it does not even give you perky breasts, much to my dissatisfaction. Rather, it shows you where your heart is hard. It reminds you of your dreams. It shows you where you are afraid. It unlocks all the tears you have been holding back and in so doing breaks your heart to the preciousness of your life, the uniqueness of your genius, the unending grief of your losses, and your immeasurable capacity to love. It goes one better than to make you into a supermodel CEO — it shows you how to be who you really are and you discover gentleness, authenticity, and fearlessness.

I think when we engage in compassion-baiting, we re-harden our hearts. Maybe it’s because we fear being touched by the raw pain of others, so we ask them to temper it for us.

I hope and truly believe that dharma can help us respond to harm and hurt without demanding that everyone conform to our own ideas of enlightened manner. While taking responsibility for our own actions, for our own aspirations to inner freedom, can we also soften and make room for the outcry of others?

What a beautiful expression of compassion that would be.


katie headshotKatie Loncke is a Co-Director of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Born in Sacramento, California, and now living in Oakland, she is the curly granddaughter of Negros and Jewish refugees. She believes in the possibility of enough food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, and education for everyone. She started organizing in high school as a straight ally with a Lesbian Gay Straight Alliance, and currently organizes around social and economic issues with a group led by Latin American immigrant socialists. Following her graduation from Harvard, the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center offered Katie a warm, life-altering introduction to Buddhism. Her writing on Buddhism and politics has appeared in The Jizo Chronicles, The Buddhist Channel, make/shift magazine, Flip Flopping Joy, and Feministe, as well as here on Turning Wheel Media.

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Comments (51)

  • Judith Lipton

    Katie, I LOVE this post. You really captured something that has troubled me for decades about our practice. For me, the most crucial issue had to do with Thich Nhat Hanh’s directive, in Being Peace, to have compassion for the Sea Pirate who had just raped a little girl who subsequently committed suicide. OK, I get that the Sea Pirate had a hard life, and maybe he had Sea Pirate parents, bad schools, abuse or whatnot. I can look deeply and have sorrow for the Sea Pirate nature. But I will never support Sea Pirates! I will not give him my daughter to rape, nor send money to the Sea Pirate Fund, nor loan him a boat or a rope. I think Sea Pirates must be stopped from inflicting further harm, just as rabid dogs must be stopped from spreading rabies. The Buddha was clear, rabid dogs must be stopped. But what, then, are we to do about Sea Pirates and their Avatars? I will not sit quietly with compassion for Sea Pirates. The First Precept says, “I will not kill. I will not allow others to killl.” Does this not imply that we must act to stop the bullies, the oppressors, the Sea Pirates? Calmly, perhaps, but insistently. Thanks so much for this post, the topic has troubled me for many years.

  • David P. Barash

    Brilliant piece, Katie! It speaks with wonderful clarity to one of the deep problems with living compassionately: how to practice metta without being a wimp. Thank you!

  • Kogen 古 元


    Thank you for naming that un-nameable sensation of, “That’s not right!”

    Deep bow,

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you, Judith, David, Kogen! I’m glad it’s resonating…

    Judith, your Sea Pirate example is so on point. Yes, we strive to have compassion for all beings, and to believe in the possibility of transformation. AND, can we be real about the fact that our society culturally and structurally enables and supports Sea Pirate harmful behavior??? And that we have a responsibility to use the minimum force necessary to stop Sea Pirate rapists (or any rapists) from harming people?

    One recent real-life example that just makes my blood boil is that in the aftermath of the Steubenville rape scandal (where high school football players were convicted of raping a young woman, and school officials have been convicted of obstructing justice by covering it up), one of the hackers who brought the story to light faces the possibility of more jail time than the convicted rapists.

    Now, I don’t necessarily think that more jail time = more justice. But the whole idea of justice in this case just seems horribly skewed to me. Our compassion for the football players should not contradict, let alone outweigh, our *support* for people who confront rape culture.

  • michelle

    esp the line about marginalized people…Thank U so much!!! for decades now when someone mocks or makes light of my disability, i am told to ‘get over it’ and have been forced to harbor a toxic amount of “tolerance” about being treated this way’.
    once i realized Buddhism was about being able to stand up for what was happening in an ‘unideal’ situation, it was a huge relief~i, too, cld at least say something about de-humanizing “compassion” standards!!
    Bless U, Katie

  • Katie Loncke

    michelle, what a great story about naming the dehumanizing compassion-baiting! yesss!!! You’re an inspiration. :)

  • Joseph Chinnock

    I think its funny when people list things like, “Latin American Immigrant Socialists” and “Jewish and Negro refugees” like race, ethnicity, and progressive politics are some kind of fashion accessories.

    Oh. And that guy in the example? He’s an asshole. Simple as that. You don’t need a 1,000 word article to deconstruct that. There is actual injustice in the world beyond having someone grope you so focus on that perhaps. There’s 100,000 children in sex trafficking in this country and they don’t have Harvard degrees so perhaps get out of your own little world and pain and victimhood and help them.

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi Joseph,

    I’m sorry that most of what you got from the post revolves around the bio and the anecdote… if you follow the link underneath the sexual harassment illustration, you’ll see one well-written example of how the problem of focusing on outraged response rather than the harassment itself extends into professional settings, too. Do you really think that sexual harassment is just a random problem of personalities?

    As for the fashion accessory descriptors, I mean, I generally find it useful and positive when people try to name some of our ancestry and influences. Obviously it’s not a comprehensive description of my political position, but hey. That’s what my essays are for.

    Not sure why you think I’m in my own little world of pain and victimhood, not helping people with real problems? Can you clarify?

    Thanks, hope you’re well.

  • Andrew Cooper

    Great essay. Thanks, Katie.

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you, Andrew! Means a lot. :)

  • Judith Lipton

    I walked today along the Pacific Ocean, and watched the Frigate Birds and Pelicans. Frigate Birds are often called “Pirate Birds” because they harass other smaller birds, forcing them to either drop their prey or even regurgitate their stomach contents. The Frigate Birds can make a living snatching prey like baby turtles off the surface of the ocean, but they cannot swim or even get their feathers wet. Thus – they are Sea Pirates! And they make life miserable for the little terns who are good fishers, but cannot outfly the Pirates.
    Meanwhile, the Pelicans are dive-bombers. They are fish killers. No doubt about it.
    I neither blame the Frigate Bird for stealing, nor the Pelican for fishing. I can feel compassion for all of them – the terns, the fish, the Pirates and the Pelicans. But Frigate Birds and Pelicans live in complex ecosystems, where stealing and killing and eating are part of their natural evolution.
    I do not believe that human Sea Pirates – people who hurt others – are “born that way.” I do not think we should look aside, or fail to intervene because “sea pirates are natural.” Rather – we must intervene. But how? This is what confuses and mystifies me.

  • Katie Loncke

    Beautiful question, Judith, and wonderful imagery as I’m sitting at my computer for the day (smile).

    One of our BPF Board members, Michaela O’Connor-Bono, is a young Zen priest doing reconciliation and transformative justice work inside New Orleans prisons… I have a feeling she might have some helpful stories. She’s not online often but let me see if she might want to join this convo.

    joining you in confusion and mystification, and also the possibility for positive change,


  • michelle

    (would like to have my post removed~Thanks! didn’t know it would appear in a Tagging in public.)

  • Katie Loncke

    hi michelle, i gotchu. so sorry about the tagging! <3

  • Laurence Cox

    Brilliant post. Sadhu! And thanks.

    On #4 in the article: I think the Beth Roth piece smooths over Buddhist recommendations on speech (which is not to suggest that her point on right listening is a bad one). Not that the Pali canon always gets it right, but it is good on this: the Buddha is said to say things which are “unendearing and disagreeable to others” if they are not only true but also beneficial; and “he has a sense of the proper time for saying them”. (MN 58).

    In other words there is no suggestion that the Buddha only says what people want to hear. Conversely there is no particular value to saying things for the sake of saying them (so much for Internet polemic): if something will not make a difference to the person we are speaking to, or if saying them now will mean they aren’t heard, why do it?

    Of course sometimes we have to say things out of metta for ourselves (to be true to who we are): but it is sound activist advice to say the disruptive things strategically, when they will make a difference – which of course implies the kind of listening that Roth talks about (noticing the people we are talking with, and the other people who are following the conversation).

    #2 on forgiveness: often emotionally effective forgiveness is impossible before the action, and the harm done, have been acknowledged by the perpetrator: it is a relationship (or a process like you say), not a unilateral act of Being Holy. I’m thinking not only of the individual level but also of collective (historical / political) actions.

    Maybe particularly at the collective level, forgiving people who do not recognise the damage caused by their actions is often neither very meaningful nor particularly constructive. I think too “premature forgiveness” (ie not only without justice but without acknowledgement) is often about infantilising the perpetrator, making them into something less than a moral agent or our emotional equal. Sometimes that can work (eg in the case of the very elderly) but rarely in the political sphere – it does not build different relationships.

    I think both from a political point of view and a Buddhist one “compassion-baiting” is plain wrong: it reduces social change, or spiritual change, to the performance of a particular “saintly” way of being to display to others (or for others to try and catch us out on). Glad to read someone saying all this!

  • Rick Heller

    Yes, among Buddhists there can perhaps be too much of a social expectation to be nice and not enough willingness to be confrontational and engaged with social problems.

    However, in American society as a whole, and on the Internet in particular, I see the opposite problem at work. There is an “outrage industry” that seeks to find something new each day to be angry about and to bait clicks and TV viewing. This outrage industry makes money by escalating molehills into mountains.

    What we should be trying to do is to de-escalate without giving up entirely. When a wrong is done, not to hit back harder, and not to let it go, but to confront it in a way that is less wrong, and that signals to the other person that if they also pursue the path of de-escalation, a resolution can be reached.

    Right now, we’re becoming increasingly polarized in this country, and we need more Compassionate Speech, not less in general. But if you’re being ignored, sometimes you do have to shout a bit to get people’s attention.

  • Mushim

    Fantastic essay, Katie! Thank you.

    I am a survivor (and I have also benefited from) hardcore, old school Zen training. There were many teachings on “wisdom and compassion,” and it was always understood that compassion did not mean niceness, did not mean always being soft, gentle, polite, and pleasing others, unless those were effective liberatory strategies according to specific situations.

    I am firm in my belief that it’s not good to deliberately humiliate or demean others, which was one tactic in my original Zen teacher’s toolbox. He could also be kind, gentle and loving, or stern or annoying. He was a Korean monk, so cultural elements were present. (Another, different, Korean Zen master who was a Korean national said, after some years in California, “I have discovered that if I shout at Zen students here in America, they go away and never come back. So I have had to change.”) That having been said, I think it’s too bad if we lose the transmission of Dharma teachings about fierce compassion or a motherly sort of very tough love. If we look at traditional Buddhist iconography, there are many wrathful looking Buddhist deities. In fact, I’d say that the Chinese Kwan Yin type of image of a gentle-looking, slender, stereotypically feminine looking figure pouring divine nectar from a little vase, is probably in the minority — but has gotten good press in the West and has therefore received disproportionate fan mail, so to speak.

    I’ve been doing some reading in translations of the Pali suttas, and in my understanding, the historical Buddha was not a nicey nice person. He lived in a tough world and he could be as hardass as was needed — not cruel, but direct, unvarnished, and forceful in his delivery of the Dharma. I feel a very strong need for the word “compassion” in Buddhist contexts to be reclaimed and healed in order to incorporate the breadth and depth of its original meanings.

  • Katie Loncke

    Kind of in awe of all the wisdom and great writing on this thread. :) A few quick thoughts:

    Laurence, there are so many gems in what you’re saying!

    –saying the disruptive things strategically

    –the perils of premature forgiveness

    –forgiveness politically and socially as well as individually

    –infantilizing others with premature forgiveness

    thank you for these very helpful articulations. sadhu, sadhu. :)

    Hi Rick, I completely agree that the middle way of de-escalation without giving up, or what i like to call “compassionate confrontation,” is sadly rare in our society, partly because the fireworks of flamewars and click bait feed into our craving and aversion so effectively. From where I sit in both political and spiritual communities, it is definitely a restorative balancing process depending on what a situation or community culture calls for. If the culture is super polemical and attack oriented, maybe some more gentleness. If the culture is passive-aggressive and conflict avoidant, maybe some fire and loud talk. All middle way, though, I agree with you (if I’m understanding you correctly).

    Mushim, as usual, your insights and stories are gold. Your description of the Korean Zen master who found he couldn’t shout at Californians and expect them to say had me literally LOL’ing, as did the take on Kwan Yin’s disproportionate fan mail. I find different cultural expectations on what compassion can look like between West Coast and East Coast styles, too. (Midwest and South U.S. I know less about…)

    Thank you for supporting the healing and reclaiming of compassion, toward realizing its greatest potential to benefit all beings!



  • Marianna Tubman

    thanks for this very clear explanation (and reminder of how this is used against women and girls who are more often expected to be “nice”).

    It seems to me that one aspect is to keep in mind, whether the person who is baiting you is using “right speech”, and that you don’t have to go along with it.

    Another thought on the matter I have considering lately is the matter of when right speech might be a question, or raising an issue that others don’t want to raise. “Would you like it if someone talked to you that way?” “Do you think all blacks have the same desires, interests, views?” “Is there another way you could phrase that comment which would be less offensive?” “Did you bring condoms?” “I don’t mean to offend, but before I get intimate with you, I need to ask – have you had unprotected sex in the last 2 months with anyone?”

  • bezi

    true dat. I don’t suspect that “candor is the ‘only’ kindness” (like that terrible quote from X), but with the Leviathan levels of falsehood in circulation now, I think we need massive and repetitive doses of the real… preferably with a coating of authentic compassion.

    I don’t know that I could add much original to what’s already said ~ outside of making the point that I wonder about the soul-state of one who could use such scandalizing language about other human beings and then hella defend it…

    but I’m also now wondering enough about Reality Sandwich to make an inquiry of it. I dig that site. Lot of useful, engaging, provocative stuff on there. But as of late I’ve been feeling like I sense… something not unlike the same kind of, I don’t know – elitism? Unexamined privilege? – that I’ve been experiencing so far in the sangha scene. I’m not 100% but… does RS seem a little biased toward rosy, gauzy spirituality devoid of sufficient social (and spiritual) critique? Be interested to hear opinions from others who are familiar with the site.

    I mean it may be me. I could be, I suppose, a bit – not “Angry Guy” but… umm, mildly exasperated guy (i.e. walking stiffly past the ballpark)?

  • Katie Loncke

    Marianna, I love your Right Speech questions! What great examples… There is a fearlessness (or courage despite fear) that helps us ask such questions, I think… Thanks for the reminder.

    bezi, this was the first I heard of Reality Sandwich, so I’d be interested in other people’s thoughts, too…

    and “candor is the only kindness” may be a misleading proverb, but it sound nice, don’t it?! that’s some good writing. :)

  • michelle

    great tips, Marianna!!

  • charles

    hot damn. great piece, katie!

  • Karen

    Katie, thank you so much for your honesty and direct intelligent responses….I too struggle with right view and “unconditional compassion’. I put someone in jail for 25 yrs after I was raped at 23 yrs…it still haunts me to this day at 63 yrs old…he told me would kill the next person…….

    Thank you for your great article…..

  • Katie Loncke

    Oh, Karen. I’m so sorry you had to go through that…

    And yes, I think that’s exactly the crux. What does unconditional compassion actually mean in the complex, no-easy-answers realm of life in which we live?

    All I can say is I hope we do not have to feel alone in these struggles. By sharing your story I think you’re helping others feel less alone, and I really thank you for that.

    so much warmth and gratitude to you…

    and charles, thanks much! i saw you working at a cafe not too long ago and wanted to say hi but you looked single-pointed in your laptop focus and i didn’t want to interrupt! so, belated hi and hugs. :)

  • Breeze Harper

    Thanks Katie for posting. I appreciate what you have said and hope you don’t spend too much time responding to people who just come online to be hateful, mean trolls, telling you that you shouldn’t be writing about this.

  • cesar

    Wow, great article Katie.

    Thank you for these wonderful reminders. I found myself getting caught up in this web recently. I was very grateful that, very instinctively now, the Dharma came to mind in the form of a Lojong, Mind-training slogan.

    Don’t make Gods into a Demon.

    Basically telling me not to turn something virtuous into something for my selfish needs. Thank you Katie. :)

  • Nargess

    Thank you for a great post! As a novice seeker, I appreciate you sharing these warning signs of likely “mirages” along the path. Namaste!

  • Constant Illumination

    Thanks, Katie.
    Learning not to be a victim helps not to be an oppressor.
    (Two sides of the same problem).
    Dealing with conflict, with clashing desires, we need bravery to be open.
    Victim or oppressor is someone who has a barrier around self.
    Clinging at something to defend makes us to be against, instead of working over the solution together.

  • Breeze Harper


    Some people will come onto here and make comments that reflect deep issues of fear, resentment, and anger. For example, some people have already displayed envy because you went to Harvard and they did not. So, instead of reflecting on that for themselves, they project this outwardly. They may also be upset that highly educated women such as yourself, who went to Harvard, are still complaining about people like them who want to get away with sexually assaulting and harassing them. They may detract from their own anger, fear, and envy by making statements that tell you that “real” sexual harassment and violence is child sex trafficking and NOT an Ivy league peer touching your body in the way you did not invite. Really sad…

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you Breeze, cesar, Nargess, and Constant Illumination — always relieving to feel less alone in these concerns. Breeze, I know you’ve dealt with dismissive or critical commentary on your online work, and I appreciate the support from someone who’s been through it.

    Hope you’re all well!

    deep bows,


  • Susmita

    Hi Katie, I liked your essay a great deal, but I was a bit taken aback with the provocative image, not something you expect in a Buddhist Circle ;-)

    There is a saying in Christianity (if I am not wrong) like, hate the sin, not the sinner. So I too was puzzled when I read about having compassion for the ‘Pirate’. Then I reflected on it, now I see that compassion for the Pirate is to protect our own heart and bodhicitta from solidifying deep hatred and anger and the realization how the pirate is impacting his own karma and bodhicitta. But our first action need to be to protect the injured and prevent injury. We can do that best without anger/hatred consuming us in that moment.

    I do agree though there are a lot of ‘idiot compassion’ that uses different kinds of emotional hooks based on unspoken social customs and cultural acceptance of violence, misconduct and injustice, particularly towards women and minorities. Wouldn’t it be compassionate to rock the boat and throw the Pirates off the boat this time?

  • FoaF

    What do you make of concern bullies? People who adopt a position by personal affinity, and then proceed to go after people who are “bad” and who somehow “violate” a given community’s standards?

    Considering this happens pretty much non-stop in the Bay, among the beautiful, wealthy, enlightened, ostensibly compassionate, maybe it’s worth discussing.

    Using real problems in the world to justify personally abusive behavior is endemic. If I am poor, and living in the Bay constantly have to serve the rich, quite literally, while they talk about how they (in their wealth!) are “oppressed” — because they aren’t a white christian male that means they are entitled to dump on women. Or dump on any given white person.

    I’ve seen plenty of awfulness dressed up in politics. When it’s pretty much just entitled assholes using social justice language and finger pointing to get over. It works like a charm.

    If that’s what you are about, good luck to whatever “lifestyle” you have adopted. The judgmental activist who never has to actually work is where the action is at here. So forgive me while I go back to “oppressing” the Bay Area elite by pouring their coffee.

  • Katie Loncke

    Susmita, yep, can be such a tough balance between practicing compassion for our own sake, and giving in to cultural conditioning that tells us we don’t deserve to stand up for ourselves – to insist on respect. Rocking the boat can be so necessary, yes!

    FoaF, I definitely hear you that the experience of being oppressed or discriminated against doesn’t mean we can’t turn around and abuse others. (Though that abuse may be interpersonal, structural, or some of both, depending on the situation.) And I also agree that in the SF Bay Area there can be a certain holier-than-thou political culture among some activists, where it’s more important to be seen as “down” than to be materially contributing to social justice struggles… Seems like this happens in many social justice communities, far as I can tell. (I’ve appreciated Andrea Smith and Catherine Jones as resources on this line of thinking…)

    I guess I’m not sure what’s bringing up these frustrations within this particular post? Maybe you’re drawing from different but related experiences you’ve had? Would like to know more if you’d care to share.

  • McKay Savage

    To add to many of the others, thanks Katie for such clarity on all 5 points. I’ve noticed and experienced all 5 at various points and have been building this sense of something not always on with how compassion or forgiveness or “namaste” can be thrown as daggers or raised as walls, but have never managed to put voice internally or externally to them so well. I’m saving this to my re-read often list. It is a conversation any of us in the broad spiritual-progressive circles need to have.

    You’ve a gift of clarity, thanks for offering it!

  • resa

    Great article! This issue comes up again and again. I think that your article only reinforces the fact that compassion begins at home, with ourselves.

    So does forgiveness. It’s my opinion that people misunderstand forgiveness – it’s not about doing something for someone else, it’s about doing something for yourself..letting go of your resentments for your own sake…in other words, being compassionate to yourself because. Frequently (not always) our inability to forgive is rooted in anger towards ourselves for being treated badly.

  • raine

    thank you for this post, for putting into words the myriad complexities ~being nice~ carries with it. i am definitely sharing this.

  • Joule Psyche

    Fantastic observation x

  • John Brodie

    Great post.

  • John Brodie

    (Just ticked the notify me of new posts box, forgot to do that)

  • Ellen

    Really nice piece. I’m so tired of being told that I’m not being treated well because I didn’t ask nicely, a brilliant deflection that completely ignores the ludicrousness of my being required to ask at all, as if I’m the one behaving badly.

  • John Allan

    Excellent bit of writing, more power to your pen in unveiling this and other areas of hypocrisy and bad behavior. ‘Compassion baiting’ is a great term and perhaps ‘equanimity –baiting ‘ is even more prevalent as a ‘put you in your place” strategy in most ‘spiritual’ groups. So much feeble piety and defense of the personal, and social, status quo – including various defense mechanisms and outright denial gets dressed up in ‘off the rack’ pseudo ‘forgiveness’, “love’, ‘non-attachment and, as here, “compassion” rhetoric. Karuna – weakly translated as ‘compassion’ is literally “action to end suffering’ – of course well developed empathy or even a gut sick sense of enough is enough is a prerequisite for the Action to end the suffering/dukkha. ‘Compassion’ lit means something like ‘to tremble with’ – feel the others suffering as one’s own. Karuna goes further to ACT. In English we would have to use a compound like “compassionate action.” To be strictly correct Karuna comes from pre Buddhist Vedic Sanskrit and means “holy action’ meaning the action of a sage or holy person. As the Buddha said “This only do I teach Dukkha and its ending.” It’s fair to say that acting to end dukkha /suffering/affliction/oppression, is the Buddha’s ‘holy’ action. He’s not called Mahakarunioko “one of great karuna. because he just felt for people.. He’s called this because he walked all over north India for 40 years doing his best to help people end the suffering they were enmeshed in. And of course he spoke out and acted on big social issues including putting himself between people wanting to go to war and in front of an army bent on genocide.

    If we truly engage the teachings, or even the courtesy of common humanity, there is nowhere to hide our hard heartedness and the using of Buddhist and other terms as a ‘hit man’ to keep others in their ‘place’ which, of course, is inferior. Therefor calling (superior) me on my crap is not something you can do! From a broard- view Christian perspective there is the excellent little book by a US Mennonite, David Augsberger ‘Caring Enough to Forgive/not Forgive.” Touches on some of the issues. The whole “Caring Enough” Series ‘caring enough to confront’ through to “when caring is not enough a guide to fair fighting” Etc. has plenty of little gems too.

    John Allan

  • Jennifer Hawkins

    I agree that being compassionate (etc) does not mean that you should be quiet about injustices (like sexual harassment) and should ignore the harm they cause you instead of dealing with it properly (for example, by rushing forgiveness).

    However, I’ve seen more “social justice warriors” than I would have ever cared to just be angry. Angry to the point where they refuse to see their opponents as people who deserve basic respect and empathy just as they do. Angry to the point where they are acting in a similar way to the people they are trying to oppose. Angry because “I have the right to be angry” – even when you are just saying harmful things with no intention of working towards actually addressing the situation in a way to rectify it (for example, by working with your opponents to change some behavior instead of telling them how angry you are).

    On a personal level, it turns me off to them. They yell so overwhelmingly loudly with no room to find ways to fix the anger that I just don’t want to hear what they are saying anymore. I think that there’s a difference between acknowledging anger so that it can be dealt with and a kind of unskillful screaming that has no end in sight. Any attempt to ask the person why they can’t see the humanity in the people they are opposing or to ask how they plan on actually fixing the issue besides saying harmful things is met with yet more venom.

    I often am made to feel that I am a bad person for rejecting this type of anger. It’s a struggle for me to remind myself that 1) Being skillful is important and 2) Some people just aren’t in a place to be convinced or to do something skillful.

    It just disappoints me so deeply when I see it. Here are these people who are supposed to be the “good guys” and they are being hypocritical and angry for the joy of being able to scream and have people back you up in your hurtful words.

    It’s not about “tone policing” or valuing politeness over justice – it’s about recognizing the difference between skillful and unskillful uses of anger. And I am against the unskillful.

    Thanks for posting this. It makes me feel better to put these thoughts in perspective.

  • Charmi Neely

    Katie, A good article. The role of Equanimity — one of the 7 Factors of Enlightenment– however, is often misunderstood. Equanimity is not about indifference to human, or any other form of suffering in this world. As Bhikkhu Bodhi writes, it is “indifference only to the demands of the ego-self, with its craving for pleasure and position, not to the well-being of one’s fellow human beings.” It is also not a fast-track to forgiveness or prescription for passivity. It is the “crown jewel of Buddhist practice,” as the “unshakeable” wise-heart’s “center,” where we can hold the ten thousand sorrows and the ten thousand joys, to show up and stay present — to our own and other’s suffering — where we can act with clarity, to shape an ethical, wise and compassionate response. Equanimity is what makes a fierce and compassionate response possible — and skillful. It is the foundation of wisdom and compassion, and the self-less, unwavering heart of the Bodhisattva, nothing less.

  • Sage Mahosadha

    I liked this article. Not only did I like it, I also appreciated it quite a bit. The way I was able to most appreciate the article and also understand it was by viewing what is termed “compassion baiting” largely through the prism of basically being a very specific form of spiritual bypassing behavior. And heaven knows plenty of real, tangible, generational, and historic emotional damage as well as genocide, oppression, and enslavement have essentially found their excuses and power of execution in all kinds and forms and multivariate expressions of spiritual bypassing behavior. So I believe I get what is being put forth and expressed here. I believe it is important, makes sense, and contains the necessary seeds of wisdom to improve countless lives.

    This article also includes something I often do not find in many similarly presented perspectives—an admission that the author herself is aware of times in her own life where such behavior has been employed either consciously or unconsciously. How refreshing. Seriously, I really cannot say enough about how refreshing this is because the source of perhaps my biggest disillusionment with progressive social justice activists in general is what I see as a huge tendency to be extremely allergic to looking within and seeking out not to mention even acknowledging the oppressor, the monster, the victimizer that lies there within—real, present, often expressed yet mock self-servingly disowned.

    For me however, this piece also had some tangible elements or maybe energy of what I call “the tyranny of the external locus of control” focused perspective.

    The external locus of control perspective, in my belief, is often put to use when we experience the pain, powerlessness, frustrations, disappointments, and such that are inevitably to be experienced in life. It is used when focusing, often focusing exclusively, on “the other” and going even further by making the other either “bad” or “wrong” even if it is mostly done implicitly and/or done in order to presumably assuage ones pain and/or frustration. I believe that when this is employed it is only a partially effective tactic. I believe it is often far more helpful and beneficial and empowering to also “Know thyself,” from the Greek gnōthi seauton and translated into the Latin as nosce te ipsum or temet nosce (two languages I had to learn as part of my Catholic seminary training and so they still pop up randomly in my consciousness from time to time—forgive me).

    So here, with the perspective this article seems to have has taken, I somewhat experienced what is being termed “compassion baiting” as primarily placing the focus of attention exclusively on “the other” person and perhaps a story of the other “doing something to” you, me, or anyone and not enough emphasis being placed on self-knowledge or the process of knowing oneself—Gnõthi seautón.

    So here is what I would say about this part of the equation. My words below are not meant as a refuting of what is contained in the article. I simply view it as an important additional narrative.

    Here is my simple truth about such things. No one has come into this life to say and do things toward us exactly in the way we would desire. I know that is a hard truth to swallow and accept at times and for some of us. And it is a truth nonetheless, no matter how much we may wish that it were not so. However, I suppose, it is a nice fantasy. So here is my perspective, to some degree: So what if someone “compassion baits” you or us? So what? I say that with only moderate tongue planted in cheek and with clear cognition and acceptance of the five “big fails” expressed in the article. My point is that we know our own personal truth, our reality, our own life history. It is our J.O.B. to know these things and to act from wisdom, consciousness, and awareness based on this knowledge. It is not the other person’s job to know such things about us. So if someone “compassion baits” you, me, or anyone, why not also explore the option of simply standing in our power and knowledge of your/our history and self-knowledge and simply (silently) acknowledge that this person simply doesn’t know what he/she is talking about (in this specific instance) given what we know about ourselves. Does it all ways have to become another “thing” in our lives? Does it all ways have to become another point of separation between people (See sistafriend, here’s yet another way people disrespect and oppress me/us/other people/women/black women/women of color, etc.) Does such an experience all ways have to become yet another opportunity for potential conflict in the world? Does such an experience all ways have to be held as an experience where someone is doing something to us and concurrently an opportunity for us to reaffirm in our minds how much more conscientious, smart, oppression aware we are? Do we all ways have to attend every argument we are invited to, even if that invitation is sprinkled with 14 carat gold leaf flecks and written in gold ink? Yes, such an interaction (compassion baiting) can also become an opportunity for us to educate the other in how to treat us, approach us, come at us, and a whole host of other wonderful possibilities. However, with this approach I would sometimes rely on a piece of wisdom my grandparents taught me when I was a very young boy. It has endured all these years later—you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And yes, sometimes the sweetest wines necessarily transform, in time, into the most useful vinegar’s too. I am also keenly aware of this as well.

    A Bow.

  • Vaughn L. Baker


    This article resonated with me in a big way. I have had all these behaviors, of “compassion-bating”, as part of my experiences at one time or another. Most recently over the passed few months here at work. Not having the right language to express what I was experiencing left me feeling even more angry and invalidated. Not just with others but myself as well. This article is going to help me as I move forward with addressing the unfairness in the systems that have such a large role in the out comes for all of us. I learned a lot from the comments and your responses to some of them as well. For example, I truly understand the feelings and emotions of Judith as she referenced about the pirates. I have no contradictions to what see writes. I have and do feel the same about many issues. However, as past of my job, I provide counseling for people who have committed domestic violence. Initially I did volunteer work with a women and children’s shelter. This work lead me to finding ways to help stop the abuse before it happened. When I first started working with people who abuse others I felt very angry and had no compassion for them. My approach was very firm and unconscious. Completely unmoved by the excuses of pain they had. All I cared about was them not hurting any more women and children. At some point, I can not say when, a shift happened. I started feeling compassion and love for the people I was working with. I was able to hold that space where their pain and hurt caused them to act violently towards others. I could see beyond their actions and connect with the humanity we all share. I have improved in my work, over the years. When clients first come in I have to set limits and expectations. I challenge them and hold them accountable. They do not get a pass at any point. sometime I express anger with them. Now when I do it, it’s for them and not me. Using my anger and feelings of judgement to help resolve the thoughts and actions that course so much pain for others. I am a much better therapist and see more people learn to self reflect and take responsibility for their choices and the results of them. Although there are some I am not able to work with or hold that space of compassion for, working with and having compassion for those that I can, continually opens me to more and more. Your article is stating the same for me when addressing my own hurt and pain. I can have the emotional reactions to the unjust actions of others based on circumstances. I can grow and evolve in my own consciousness with out excepting the behaviors of others which invalidate or blame me for the actions they have.

    Thank you for this time to self reflect!

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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