Monday, October 21, 2013

Compassion and Quality

The problem with typical news stories is that they present a problem without any attempt to analyze or question underlying causes.  They introduce a problem, e.g., the government shutdown.  Then they try to make it personal by telling the story of one or two people who are affected by it.  Later they talk about how no one is working to solve the problem, leaving us feeling sad for the victim and personally helpless.  In the case of the government shutdown, an underlying intention seemed to be to get us even angrier at whomever we blamed for the situation.  This approach never solves anything.  The only way to get to a workable solution is to apply critical thinking, but reporters let us down, instead getting us emotionally involved, playing on our pity, our fear, or our morbid curiosity,  just to sell us their news along with their personal biases.

Sometimes we are expected to feel compassion for a victim based on a brief description of the situation.  We then feel duty-bound to demand action that relieves the victim of the pain, sorrow or inconvenience.  Compassion is defined as a “feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering” (  The focus on merely bailing out victims is what I referred to last time as dealing with the symptoms; without analysis problems don’t get fixed.

An example of such analysis would be the five whys technique used in industrial quality programs.  The process involves asking why multiple times instead of accepting the problem at face value.  Asking why “helps you to get to the root of a problem quickly. Made popular in the 1970s by the Toyota Production System, the 5 Whys strategy involves looking at any problem and asking: 'Why?' and 'What caused this problem?'"  In society we must also ask questions before reacting.

During the government shutdown, no one asked the furloughed workers, why they were not prepared, given the recent track record of the government and the doom-and-gloom news coverage leading up to it.  Haven’t we been badgered by self-help books and financial planners for years about the need to have six-months savings for just such emergencies?  Yet news articles portrayed them as being one step away from financial ruin when a single check was delayed.  In a related story we hear of a young mother, whose access to baby formula for a 4-month-old may be cut off.  They don’t ask why she is not breastfeeding her baby.  Later we find out that she is an unemployed single mother of three.  This leads to a whole host of other “whys” having nothing to do with government funding, but with individual choices.  One is more of a “where,” as in, where is the father’s financial contribution?

In another story unrelated to the shutdown but similarly lacking details, we learn that Chase Bank is discontinuing their Payment Protector plan.  One of the people affected will be a 95-year-old woman who signed up for the plan “around 2007 and paid less than one percent of her credit card balance as a monthly fee.”  The program provides a benefit similar to term life insurance that would pay up to $25,000 of her $38,000 credit card debt upon her death.  She is portrayed as a victim because when the plan expires at the end of May 2014 (after a 12-month notice), she and her estate will become responsible for her debt.  Is there something wrong with a person of any age accumulating a debt and then being responsible for the payment of that debt?  Has she become a victim because a program she freely signed up for is being (legally) discontinued leaving her once again responsible for her full debt?  Why do she and her son think she should not have to pay her credit card debts?  It seems the LA Times and ABC chose this most extreme example purely to stir up an emotional response, to muster sympathy for yet another victim without ever asking these simple questions.  But why consider personal responsibility, when we can blame the big, bad bank for victimizing a 95-year-old?

When called upon to show knee-jerk compassion, I think we must step back and wonder about circumstances.  Were the so-called victims “stricken by misfortune,” as the definition says, or are they experiencing the consequences of earlier, unwise behavior?  Don’t ask me to walk a mile in your shoes, if you have spent your time filling them with pebbles.  In other words, is it compassionate to temporarily alleviate the suffering of others if the suffering was caused by their own bad habits or poor decisions?  Does that ever fix the problem?  How long will we allow ourselves to be emotionally manipulated by the media and politicians in the name of compassion? 

 In some cases the real motive may not be compassion at all, but a disguised sense of superiority, a feeling that we are OK and can take care of ourselves while others can’t make it without our assistance.  We are urged to consider the plight of the weak, the poor, the elderly, without analysis, then expected to demand that someone step in to relieve their symptoms while the underlying problems continue to worsen.

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