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127 SEPTEMBER 2009
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Compassion is a Virtue

Mark Smith

Scotland, it seems, has become international news over the past month as a result of the Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill’s decision to release Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of the bombing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie in 1988 on compassionate grounds. MacAskill’s decision has raised the ire of the American President himself, of Hilary Clinton, his Secretary of State and of CIA chiefs. Not bad for a small country.

Without entering into debate about the rightness of the original conviction or the grubbiness of allegations of possible trade deals, or angels on the head of a pin debates about exactly how long Mr al-Megrahi has to live before terminal cancer claims him, it seems to me that something odd is going on here. All of a sudden compassion has become a pejorative term.

The other term that has become distorted in this whole business is that of “justice”. Justice is a warmly persuasive word that we’d all like to be seen to be in favour of. I have my own view of the just man or woman, one that incorporates wisdom, integrity, of speaking truth, to power and, yes, compassion. I am happy to live in a country where legal understandings of justice also incorporate the notion of compassion and specifically provision for prisoners to be released on compassionate grounds as they near death. Increasingly, though, I think I must have the wrong idea about what justice is. More and more, it seems, justice is taken to mean punishment, retribution, and the inviolability of rules and regulations. It is a notion of justice that is apparent and is explicitly drawn upon to legitimise the reshaping of criminal justice discourses away from rehabilitation and towards punishment. “Victims”, we are told, demand justice. This notion of justice is increasingly equated with the psychobabble of “closure”, as though the eternal punishment of some miscreant will somehow right a wrong. It is a dangerous myth that may actually prevent the kind of healing that can emerge when we allow sentiments of compassion and forgiveness to rise to the surface, however difficult that may be.

At a less extreme level similar tensions are apparent in Child and Youth Care. A justice ethic is apparent in demands to treat every child the same; it is apparent in the demand for sanctions, or “consequences” as they are increasingly repackaged; it is apparent in a belief that consequences work and that the more extreme they are the better they work, and it is apparent in the proliferation of rules and regulations that surround and constrain practice.

Now, before I’m accused of naivety or of encouraging anarchy (or, in the furore over Mr al-Megrahi’s release, of giving succour to terrorists) let me say that I could engage in stair-heid brawls with kids along with the best and could get as angry with them as anyone else. There were times, on the spur of the moment, when I wanted to string them up or worse and there were times I probably came fairly close to doing so. In those moments I didn’t want to see them again, I rehearsed all sorts of arguments in my head as to why they needed to move on from the programme, usually involving their bad influence on others rather than the fact that they had really pissed me off. But rarely was I able to sustain any belief or resolve that any sort of protracted punishment administered under the guise of justice or consequence or consistency or whatever else was going to make any of us feel any the better. And with experience, although I could still be prey to vengeful thoughts in the aftermath of difficult incidents, I realised that if things were going to get better I needed to sort things out with those I was angry at and to do so at a relational level. In this I was fortunate when I started in residential child care in having a deputy head who was sufficiently wise and just to know this. It wasn’t always easy at first. When I had had a bust-up with a particular kid he would suggest that I took him out on an outing or would arrange that I was the one to take him on home leave or clothes shopping. Initially I felt undermined, having to be with and converse with characters who had so recently given me a hard time. I wanted the higher power of the deputy head to uphold justice on my behalf by punishing the child in question. But he rarely did and gradually I came to realise that he had it right. As I became a manager I’m sure that I too drove workers mad by not being able to punish kids and by expecting them to work things out together. Hopefully they’re better workers as a result.

Working things out at this personal level, without the comfort blanket of rules and regulations is what needs to happen when you care for kids. Doing so can be one of the most powerful and touching experiences we encounter. Invariably it calls on us as workers to own up to our own part in a situation and to seek to understand what has gone on from a kid's point of view; it may require us to accept kids telling us “sorry” or at times saying “sorry” ourselves. “Sorry” was always, for me, one of those breakthrough words “when you could say or accept it then relationships were likely to emerge stronger. But it’s hard to say or to accept “sorry” when there remains hardness in our hearts. Our hearts need to be softened by compassion. Despite what the media moguls and the power-politicians might try to tell us, compassion should not be allowed to become a pejorative term; it is a virtue, not a weakness.

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