Danger: Compassion for Sale – May 1997

by Camille Harper

A New Visions Commentary paper published May 1997 by The National Center
for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Court, N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002,
202/543-4110, Fax (202) 543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web
https://nationalcenter.org. Reprints permitted provided source
is credited.

A recent publication of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) offers “…help in applying advertising, marketing and public relations strategies to create more effective programs…” The use of these strategies, according to the publication, results in a community which “absorbs the information, understands the supporting resources available, and is motivated to act.”

This particular publication deals with child abuse prevention, but what it really explains is how to market the bureaucracy’s programs for that initiative.

In a phrase, DHHS is announcing, “This compassion is for sale, and here’s how to sell it.” A handy guide for working with the media is included, with a sidebar on how to generate news.

Conveniently, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention published a bulletin of its own, entitled, “Child Development-Community Policing: Partnership in a Climate of Violence.” Included in this publication are indications of the advisability of linking law enforcement to mental health efforts and, presumably, child care.

Both publications are compassion at its marketable worst, and both are more propoganda for promoting government programs than they are real compassion.

To use an analogy by the columnist Thomas Sowell, both publications are designed to convince people that a wooden spoon is, indeed, a surgical scalpel. Unfortunately, the difference between the two is not understood by most people until they have brain surgery. Only then do people learn the difference between reality and perception, and why compassion, when applied to perceptions for marketing purposes, is a dangerous practice.

There has been far too much of this approach to solving problems. This approach presumes that if only people would perceive the wooden spoon as a surgical scalpel, it will become a surgical scalpel. It also presumes that if steps are taken to raise the self-esteem of the untrained person using the wooden spoon as a scalpel, that person will become a brain surgeon. Such a scenario is unlikely to occur.

Believing that successful marketing and effective programming are one and the same cheapens compassion and destroys its goals. There is no better example of this than the public school system.

The real agenda in these two publications is to allow politicians and bureaucrats to be perceived as compassionate and helpful so that they can not only keep their votes and jobs, but increase them. That perception will pay off in votes, in appointments, and in expanded bureaucracies. But the initiatives are propoganda, not compassion. That is always true when compassion is marketed as results.

In the case of these two publications, the marketing is almost immoral, because it uses children to promote a political agenda. One publication is devoted entirely to marketing more government; the other implies that if police do social work rather than enforce the law, crime rates will drop. Significantly, neither publication deals with the possibility that public opinion, which has turned against favoring the criminal over the victim, which has demanded judicial reform, which has targeted such agencies as the Legal Services Corporation, and which has focused on truth in sentencing as well as the immorality of leaving children in abusive situations, might have done just as much, if not more, than these publications to lower crime rates.

Real compassion lives in the hearts of those who have focused on changing public opinion by presenting the realities. Real danger lies in the agendas of those who believe marketing perceptions is more important than conveying the truth.

This point is summarized very well in Allen Drury’s Cold War novel “Come Ninevah, Come Tyre.” Speaking of the fictional president, one character observes, “He was a man in love with his own good intentions…”

Replies another character, “…adored by a majority of his people… who love a handsome face, the statement of high ideals, and the glamor of high position…”

That has become applicable to too many people: they are in love with their own good intentions and their own perceptions of compassion.

For those who must live with both the good intentions and the compassion, there should be signs that read:

“Danger: Compassion for Sale!”

(Camille Harper, a member of the national Advisory Committee of the African-American leadership group Project 21, is editor of the Chicago-based newsletter The Strobe.)


The National Center for Public Policy Research is a communications and research foundation supportive of a strong national defense and dedicated to providing free market solutions to today’s public policy problems. We believe that the principles of a free market, individual liberty and personal responsibility provide the greatest hope for meeting the challenges facing America in the 21st century.