We Need Compassion, Not Fearmongering

Fear is incompatible with compassion. Recent national and local events show us that this is so.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis, for example.  The State Department and mainstream media tell us that “only 2% of Syrian refugees in the U.S. are military-aged men with no family.” Why is this important to know? Are those who control information trying to assuage our collective fear of “young men of combat age?” Might most young men be running for their lives too? If 60% of refugees were “young men of combat age?”, does that mean that we should deny these young men entry and therefore compassion?

Values and Frames

Image: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1116&context=orpc
Image: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1116&context=orpc

The refugee fiasco – and as we’ll see in a moment, a more local debate – suffer from unhelpful and potentially dangerous frames.

As you can see in the figure above, appealing to values for security reinforces people to keep things the way they are (Conservation). Whereas appealing to benevolence values is about caring for others and the natural world (Self-Transcendence). So when we frame a debate in terms of security – whether it’s about blocking scary refugees’ entry, or as we’ll discuss, providing meals to poor people –  we suppress compassion and care for others.

It is this tension between security and benevolence that is being played out in my notoriously liberal town of Carrboro, NC.

In short, leaders of an organization called the Interfaith Council for Social Service (IFC) wish to set up a community kitchen at their downtown Carrboro location. The purpose is to “provide meals without cost to community members who are hungry, at risk for hunger or food insecure.” The kitchen consolidates IFC’s offices and its existing food pantry to create a place where people’s food-related needs can be met in one place. In order to establish the kitchen, the IFC is asking the town to “conditionally rezone” the town’s land use ordinance to allow the provision of dining services.

Clever Sidestepping

What would seem a matter of procedure in a compassionate community, has been anything but straightforward. Two persons who serve on Carrboro’s Board of Aldermen and a few dozen business owners expressed ambivalence toward having a downtown community kitchen:

  • One elected official spoke about how feeding people is “a county and state responsibility”, how Carrboro and the IFC are “not legislatively designed to handle all of that.” We were told that the problems “we’re facing are county-wide and region-wide and are ending up on Carrboro’s doorstep.”
  • Similarly, we heard the area’s Chamber of Commerce say “we and other businesses would like to ask the IFC to reopen that search for an appropriate site for a combined kitchen and food pantry.”

One can imagine Republican Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio uttering similar words. Recently responding to a question about the resettlement of Syrian refugees, he said, “It’s not that we don’t want to—it’s that we can’t.” 

Fear of Fear

Fear seems to have driven much of the sidestepping.  Curiously, many of the existing “disruptive” and “inappropriate” behaviors that speakers mentioned hadn’t previously inspired an outcry from business owners. Instead, what people brought forth that night was a fear of today’s unruly behavior worsening and spreading across town after the opening of a downtown community kitchen. A sort of fear of potential fear: 

  • One business owner used hyperbole to paint a picture of nightmarish traffic:  “that location, all of the traffic that will have to come in and deliver what? 91,000 meals a day? We can’t hold that kind of traffic on that street.”
  • Two others shared that they were “concerned about how the pedestrian experience in our walkable community will be impacted with an increase in  the number of idle adults in the afternoon periods.” Idle adults in the afternoon periods? What are we talking about? Downtown Barcelona? London? Vienna? Paris? Bueno Aires?

Human Dignity

Certainly, acting as though hungry people are someone else’s responsibility and considering them part an “out-group”  of unsavory vagabonds is troubling. But something else seems more damaging than sidestepping and fear.

In the hours of conversation among town leaders, business and property owners, and the IFC, not once did anyone speak about including people receiving services in the conversation.

Instead, they spoke about forming “task forces”, encouraging conversations among IFC – a service provider, not receiver -, the evidently monolithic “business community”, the towns of Carrboro and Chapel Hill, the Chamber of Commerce, the police, and other social service providers. Not once did we hear that the disenfranchised people who will use the community kitchen should be involved in the conversation. This amounted to a systematic exclusion of “the other.”  

Just as parents decide what’s best for their children, elected officials and members of the “local living economy” decided what was best for the helpless people who will – years from now – receive meals. And in a way, this makes sense. When we frame discussion by appealing to a sense of security, including those people who make us feel insecure can be uncomfortable.

To be fair, some who spoke that evening expressed compassion and benevolence. For instance. one local business owner stated “I’d like to think that the community truly is all of us, from the poorest to the richest, and that we can include these people as part of our community because they’re part of us.”

Ideally, we supporters of the community kitchen would evoke care for others, not mistrust. And we wouldn’t talk about providing meals as though “we’re here to save the day.” No, we would work with people receiving meals to satiate their hunger.

We humans need to feel dignified, like we have some say in what happens in our lives. We need humanity, not fearmongering. The frame that borders our conversation should include what Carrboro stands to gain with a downtown community kitchen. As my friend suggested, how about feeding hungry people? How about helping people satisfy a basic need?

We can then begin using a community kitchen as a place where people can learn how to prepare meals themselves. After that, we could start talking about how the kitchen could become part of a broader network of places that provide food, like community gardens and orchards. Together, we should foster dignity in everyone: people being provided for and providing for themselves and others in turn.

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