Tenderness Without Tyranny

By Dwight Longenecker Published on February 8, 2023

The author of many short stories and two novels, Flannery O’Connor was a bright, witty and controversial writer. One of her most famous and shocking quotes is “tenderness leads to the gas chambers.” The quip was borrowed by fellow Southern novelist 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 whole novel is 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 also functions as a contraceptive. The results are terrifying and hilarious. The local community begins to disintegrate into crimes of passion — adultery, child abuse and eventually violence, but no one really cares because everyone is zoned out and “happy.”

The Tenderness Tyrants

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 being nice 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. We should remember that Truth is not hate speech. Niceness as the only virtue leads not only to lies, but social bullying.

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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, the thought police dictate, 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.

Confident in Their Own Righteousness

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 self-defined “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.

While Truth is not hate speech, it is sometimes spoken harshly and in a spirit of judgmental condemnation. Truth without charity is harsh. Charity without Truth is fake. If we speak the truth in harshness, it is not a bad thing to have other people correct us. Even if we do not mean to, and even if the others have misinterpreted us, their corrective is beneficial and we should pay attention.

We’re All Wounded

The answer to this problem is twofold. 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.”

The second part of the answer is humility. The humble person sees themselves under judgment. The humble person is a penitent person, and from that place of true humility comes genuine compassion for others.

How do we attain humility? Through a lifetime of listening and learning and remembering that humility is a gift. Humility is a grace. Humility is endless.


Dwight Longenecker’s latest book, The Way of the Wilderness Warrior, is a map for the spiritual journey. Read Fr. Longenecker’s blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.

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