One of Flannery O’Connor’s most famous quotes is “tenderness leads to the gas chambers”. It was borrowed by Walker Percy in his novel The Thanatos Syndrome, but what did O’Connor mean by the thought and why did Percy pick up on it?
Percy’s novel could well be interpreted as a commentary on O’Connor’s quote. The plot of the novel involves a group of well meaning scientists who discover a drug that, when put into the water supply, will make everyone happy. It calms people down, eradicates their stress and guilt and functions as a contraceptive. The results are terrifying and hilarious. The local community begins to disintegrate into crimes of passion, but no one really cares because everyone is “happy.”
Where does O’Connor’s disturbing thought come in? Both O’Connor and Percy are not opposed to well meaning tenderness per se. They are opposed to tenderness or compassion as the only virtue. This is important in our decaying society because the one virtue that seems paramount is tenderness, kindness and tolerance in all its forms. Should anyone dare to make a statement that is critical of anyone else–especially those who have assumed the costume of victimhood–then the person who has made the observation, stated an opinion or even simply stated facts–will be excoriated, vilified, cancelled and censored by the thought police.
In other words, “You WILL exhibit tenderness at all times to all the people we tell you to.” If you claim to be a Christian then the standard will be even higher because Jesus wants you to be tender to everyone. All the time. If you somehow or other offend against the tyranny of tenderness, then you will be blamed as a person unworthy of your dearly held faith.
How does tenderness lead to the gas chambers? I have already used the phrase the “tyranny of tenderness” because the tenderness police will eventually not only censor and cancel those they deem to be not tender enough, history shows that they will take the ultimate steps of cancellation– exclusion, isolation, persecution and the final step of cancellation–elimination.
When the tenderness tyrants take these steps they do so with a terrifying self righteousness. The gas chambers are operated by people who believe they are doing something good. They are ridding the earth of the unworthy–those who dare to not be tender enough. If you think this is an exaggeration ask yourself about the attitude of those who already censor, use emotional blackmail and attempt to silence and exclude those who are deemed politically incorrect. Do they not go about their campaign with their heads held high–confident in the righteousness of their cause and confident also in their own superior virtue?
The tenderness that is evidenced when this scenario unfolds is a kind of counterfeit compassion–a false tenderness. It is a counterfeit because it is founded on pride and self righteousness. The falsely tender get more boosts to their own self esteem through their exercise of “compassion” than any good they might do in the world, and because that self righteousness is like a drug they will, like all addicts, go back for more, and like all drugs, the dosage needs to be increased in order to get the high.
In saying this, there is of course, the question of balance. It is not a bad thing to have other people correct us when we step out of line. Even if we do not mean to, and even if the others have misinterpreted us, their corrective is beneficial and we should pay attention. This need for balance, however, does not negate my basic point.
The answer to this problem is two fold. First the development of true compassion for others that is properly informed by the natural law and the divine law. Who is worthy of our tenderness and compassion? In the light of the gospel, all who are in any way wounded, outcast, downtrodden and locked in their sinful condition. That is to say–everyone–because all of us in one way or another to a greater or lesser extent–are wounded. What’s that old saying? “Be patient, everyone is carrying a heavy burden.” With this in mind we ought to not only be patient and compassionate to others, but also to ourselves.
The second part of the answer is humility. I cannot say much about humility, except to refer you to the Rule of St Benedict chapter seven I cannot say much about humility because I am not a humble person, and therefore I cannot be a teacher on this virtue–but I do know enough to say that we can only learn true compassion rather than false compassion as we learn humility. Humility is a grace. Humility is endless.