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6 January 2010 Issue

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Commentary: Are We Becoming More Hardhearted?

I commend Rev. Frank and Mary Hoffman, who have been working tirelessly to make the world a more compassionate place. Despite their efforts, and the efforts of many other compassionate people, I have to agree with Rev. Frank’s recent observation that, in general, people today seem to be more hard-hearted than in the recent past.

A perennial reason for hard-heartedness is the pursuit of well-being. Over and above our basic biological needs, many of us seek a good “lifestyle,” which includes tasty food, comfortable accommodations, entertainment, and possessions that others admire. Obtaining these objects of desire often directly or indirectly harms others, but humans have proven very inventive at finding justifications for their selfishness. Most commonly, they argue that the victims “don’t really suffer” or that the suffering “doesn’t really matter.” Such willful blindness to the truth has another name: hardness of heart.

There are surely other factors that contribute to hardness of heart. I think another is that, in times of anxiety, people tend to revert to rigid laws and codes of behavior they believe have provided security and well-being in the past. Concurrently, they tend to become suspicious of general principles that can sometimes be misrepresented or abused. However, rigidity often results in harm to innocent individuals, and the only way to countenance the resulting suffering is, with a hardened heart, turning a blind eye. For example, if people believe that “freeloaders” contribute heavily to economic malaise and that the solution is to do away with welfare, there are many people whose unemployment is not their fault who will be left unprotected. Indeed, a hallmark of scapegoating is rigid application of “the law” or notions of “purity” and contempt for those who encourage broader compassion and mercy for despised individuals.

Contemporary hardness of heart is most obvious when it comes to animal issues. No country has harmed more animals more egregiously than the United States today. Though many, perhaps most, Americans describe themselves as “animal lovers,” their daily food, clothing, entertaining, and other choices belie their true disregard for animal welfare. We cannot become a compassionate nation – and cannot find peace in our souls or in our communities – as long as we endorse cruelty. Hard-heartedness is incompatible with righteousness and justice.

Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

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