The bomb that killed Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991, blew his face off. India’s former prime minister, and scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, was identified by his sneakers as he lay spread-eagled on the ground. Some Indian newspapers, refusing dignity to the dead and his survivors, published a picture of Gandhi’s half-dismembered body. I remembered the image recently when I read about the reaction of Rajiv’s son, Rahul Gandhi, which he related earlier this year, to a similar image of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the mastermind behind his father’s assassination.
In 2009, Sri Lankan ultra-nationalists had exulted in photographs of the lifeless Prabhakaran, the much-hated terrorist chief of the Tamil Tigers, who pioneered suicide bombings; he was allegedly tortured by the Sri Lankan military before being executed (his twelve-year-old son was certainly murdered in cold blood). But watching Sri Lankans parade Prabhakaran’s mutilated corpse, Gandhi wondered, “Why they are humiliating this man in this way?” He recalled feeling “really bad for him and for his kids and I did that because I understood deeply what it meant to be on the other side of that thing.”
Such generosity of heart could not have come easily to Gandhi. He grew up playing badminton with the Sikh bodyguards of his grandmother, Indira. These same men would, in 1984, empty their guns into her frail body at her home in Delhi. Gandhi says that he was angry for years over the cruel killings of his father and his grandmother, but he now understands that these events take place in a history, where individuals get caught in the collision of “ideas” and “forces.” He and his sister, Gandhi added, had also “completely forgiven” the people convicted of his father’s assassination. And he did not even mention that his mother, Sonia Gandhi, had successfully appealed to the Indian president to commute the death sentence of one of those convicted to life imprisonment after the condemned woman gave birth to a girl in prison.
Gandhi’s expression of forgiveness was barely noticed amid the roll call of atrocities that constitutes news these days. But it illustrates perfectly the essential condition for compassion that Jean-Jacques Rousseau defined in Emile, or On Education: an awareness that we are as vulnerable as those who suffer. “Why are the rich so hard toward the poor?” Rousseau considered. “It is because they have no fear of becoming poor.” Socio-economic and cultural hierarchies make it harder for the powerful and wealthy to empathize with the weak and poor. Nevertheless, a conscientious student of life ought, he wrote, to “understand well that the fate of these unhappy people can be his, that all their ills are there in the ground beneath his feet, that countless unforeseen and inevitable events can plunge him into them from one moment to the next.”
It is easy to question Gandhi’s understanding of what Rousseau called “the vicissitudes of fortune.” His notion that “in politics, when you mess with the wrong forces, and if you stand for something, you will die” simplifies the historical record. In fact, his grandmother stoked Sikh militancy and trained Prabhakaran’s guerrillas—cynical political choices that contributed to her and her son’s violent deaths. Terrible things can happen to people through no fault of their own, but victims are also agents. Rahul Gandhi himself has chosen to exercise his dynastic prerogative—following his great-grandfather, grandmother, father, and mother—and lead the Congress party, which ruled India for much of its seventy-one years before Congress became stigmatized as a bastion of hereditary privilege and was electorally humiliated by the Hindu nationalist demagogue Narendra Modi.
Furthermore, Gandhi gives no sign of breaking with the Hindu majoritarianism that his own party expediently forged. Discouragingly, victimhood rarely makes for wisdom or humility among South Asian dynasts; like their counterparts elsewhere, such as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Mohammed bin Salman, and Ivanka Trump, they unabashedly pursue their claim to unentitled power, wealth, and celebrity. Before her assassination in 2007, Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of Pakistan’s murdered prime minister, had acquired a tawdry fortune in real estate stretching from Surrey, England, to Florida in the US at the expense of the destitute masses she claimed to represent. Since 1991, Sheikh Hasina, the daughter of Bangladesh’s assassinated founding father, has taken turns to plunder her poor country with her fierce rival, Khaleda Zia, the widow of another murdered leader. Forcibly sterilizing millions of poor men in the 1970s, Sanjay Gandhi, Rahul’s uncle, incarnated a ruthlessness that is endemic among pampered political scions. And yet, Gandhi’s willed renunciation of animosity today is significant in a public culture convulsed by hatred and rancor.
If, as Edmund Burke wrote, the “most important of all revolutions” is “a revolution in sentiments, in manners, and moral opinions,” then it has erupted with vicious force in an India ruled by Hindu supremacists. The country “is sliding toward a collapse of humanity and ethics in political and civic life,” the Indian writer Mitali Saran wrote in The New York Times last month. Her phrasing did not seem melodramatic to those who have seen pictures of demonstrations, led by women, in support of the eight alleged Hindu rapists and murderers of an eight-year-old Muslim girl. Faith in humanity is unlikely to survive contact with the politicians, police officials, and lawyers who ideologically justify the rape of a child; and reason and logic will seem the slave of vile passions when manifested in the whataboutism, driven by fake news, of social media “influencers,” who include a pioneering feminist publisher and an information technology tycoon.
India is undergoing a process of dehumanization—organized disgust for the religious/ethnic/civilizational “alien,” a retreat into grandiose fantasies of omnipotence, followed by intellectual rationalization of murder—not unlike what the world witnessed in Europe in the middle of the last century. More ominously, this moral calamity in the world’s largest democracy is part of a global rout of such basic human emotions as empathy, compassion, and pity. In Israel, another much-garlanded democracy, public opinion emphatically endorses the massacres of young protesters in Gaza. President Trump’s zero-tolerance policy of separating migrant families at the US border (“The children will be taken care of—put into foster care or whatever,” according to his chief of staff) and British Prime Minister Theresa May’s “hostile environment” campaigns against elderly black citizens are merely explicit expressions of a widely sanctioned ruthlessness. W.H. Auden’s words from In Memory of W.B. Yeats, written during Europe’s “low dishonest decade,” resonate more widely today.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Liberal detractors of Trump, Modi, and other elected demagogues set great store by democracy’s impersonal institutions, and their checks and balances. But political and culture wars among groups sequestered in their hate have reached a new peak of ferocity; and faith in the rules, norms, and laws of liberal democracy seems too complacent. In any case, as Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “political societies are not what their laws make them, but what sentiments, beliefs, ideas, habits of the heart, and the spirit of the men who form them.” In other words, our political and intellectual gridlock is largely caused by an extensive moral, imaginative and emotional failure—the many frozen seas of pity.
Tocqueville believed that compassion could mitigate the effects of the individualist way of life pioneered in the United States. It could counter the self-centered acquisitiveness and isolation of Homo democraticus (his term), bringing together people that the imperatives of life in a competitive society of supposed equals—envy, vanity, insecurity—tended to divide. In this pragmatic view, compassion was more than just a private virtue—one enjoined by traditional religions and classical philosophies. Indeed, the greatest thinkers of the modern democratic revolution identified compassion as its essential ingredient: close emotional identification with fellow citizens, even in their misfortune, and a reflexive repugnance at the sight of their suffering. Rousseau was convinced that compassion for one’s fellow citizens rather than individual reason or self-interest was the strongest basis for a decent society of equals. Identifying amour-propre as the central pathology of modern commercial society, he knew that its psychic wounds could only be healed by renouncing omnipotence and acknowledging that all human beings are vulnerable. “Thus from our weakness,” he concluded, “our fragile happiness is born.”
The puzzle of our age is how this essential foundation of civic life went missing from our public conversation, invisibly replaced by the presumed rationality of individual self-interest, market mechanisms, and democratic institutions. It may be hard to remember this today, amid the continuous explosions of anger and vengefulness in public life, but the compassionate imagination was indispensable to the political movements that emerged in the nineteenth century to address the mass suffering caused by radical social and economic shifts. As the experiences of dislocation and exploitation intensified, a variety of socialists, democrats, and reformers upheld fellow-feeling and solidarity, inciting the contempt of, among others, Friedrich Nietzsche, who claimed that the demand for social justice concealed the envy and resentment of the weak against their naturally aristocratic superiors. Our own deeply unequal and bitterly polarized societies, however, have fully validated Rousseau’s fear that people divided by extreme disparities would cease to feel compassion for another.
Human personality itself has been reorganized by the pressures of intensified competition. Narcissistic traits of self-preservation are heightened in individuals thrown into “a war of all against all, in which even the most intimate encounters become a form of mutual exploitation” as Christopher Lasch pointed out four decades ago. One result of mainstreaming a bleak survivalist ethic is that “most people, as they grow up now,” the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor wrote in On Kindness, “secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” It may be that in societies reorganized according to the principles of a marketplace, where men and women find themselves newly defined as individual entrepreneurs, locked into competition with each other, frantically polishing their brands, while a tiny minority monopolizes political, financial, and cultural capital, the seas of pity can only ice over. We have certainly become too accustomed to hearing beneficiaries of the status quo deride compassion, despite its awful scarcity, as a “vice”—to use Jordan Peterson’s pejorative—and loudly execrate “social justice warriors” while presenting as immutable scientific fact the socially constructed hierarchy in which they are on top. Pseudo-Nietzschean dictates to toughen up, discard the language of victimhood, leave the injustices of history behind, and assume individual responsibility emerge from self-declared classical liberals, Enlightenment-mongers, free-speech ideologues, and celebrity-addled rappers alike.
Such a society—individual project-driven and achievement-oriented—already enforces a numbing social isolation; it is aggravated today by the compulsion to constantly produce and transmit, as well as consume, opinion on digital media. The vying for attention and advantage amid storms of scandal and outrage further undermines the possibility of acknowledging our common vulnerability. With this prerequisite for compassion gone, what often prevails is the impulse to denounce and to ostracize, which, however justified, does not make for an understanding of the tangled roots of human suffering. It was hard, for instance, to read Junot Díaz’s account of being raped as an eight-year-old boy and not think of him as a victim, especially at the same time as being confronted with images of the eight-year-old girl who had been gang-raped and murdered in India. It then turned out that in his damaged life Díaz made some terrible choices, and that his confession of victimhood scants the experiences of those he victimized—among the innumerable many for whom sexual humiliation has been a commonplace and unspoken experience. But to abruptly turn him into an object of scorn on the grounds that he is an agent rather than a victim is to assume, wrongly, that human beings can only be one or the other.
Having internalized a proud American notion of agency, Monica Lewinsky held herself fully responsible for her actions in her affair with Bill Clinton, and some prominent feminists unkindly blamed her back in 1998. Today, she recognizes, after a long struggle with questions of agency and victimhood, Clinton’s “inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege,” as well as her own responsibility. Our understanding of these matters is often shaped by prevailing moral prejudices; but it always helps to consider that, as Martha Nussbaum points out in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, “Agency and victimhood are not incompatible: indeed, only the capacity for agency makes victimhood tragic.” The vicissitudes of fortune—illness, accident, personal tragedy, political and economic shocks—can overwhelm anyone. They can damage character, yet not completely destroy it. And a true sense of tragedy “asks us,” Nussbaum writes, “to walk a delicate line. We are to acknowledge that life’s miseries strike deep, striking to the heart of human agency itself. And yet we are also to insist that they do not remove humanity, that the capacity for goodness remains when all else has been removed.”
Such a compassionate imagination does not refuse to assess individual culpability; it does not absolve offenders. Rather, it shows them mercy—an attitude that presupposes they have done wrong and must face the consequences, while acknowledging that their capacity for goodness has been diminished by the circumstances of life. It was this merciful vision, derived from a recognition of our common vulnerability, that Rahul Gandhi, after years of grief and righteous rage, expressed as he forgave his father’s killers. He may turn out to be another self-seeking dynast. But there is dignity in his dissent today from a worldwide culture of cruelty; and it is a rare reminder that many frozen seas of pity will have to melt before we regain a semblance of civil society.
This article first appeared in the New York Review of Books