Oh, what I want to know is are you kind?

by Rob Horning

6 January 2009


Via 3QD comes a link to a Guardian article by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor, lamenting the lost art of kindness. The gist is that the rise of rational self-interest under capitalism has made the inherent impulse to be kind seem suspect. Of course, this is hardly a new question; it was a dilemma that greatly exercised 18th century moral philosophers. The authors cite Hume (somewhat misleadingly) and attribute to him this rather maudlin commonsense view: “Any person foolish enough to deny the existence of human kindness had simply lost touch with emotional reality, Hume insisted: ‘He has forgotten the movements of his heart.’ ” But the question of whether we have a moral sense that compels us to varying degrees to be benevolent stretches through much of the English philosophical tradition, most notably in Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, an influence on Adam Smith, whose Theory of Moral Sentiments has a great deal to say about human motive and instinctual sympathy.

The moral sense was a kind of mental organ that conveyed the rightness or wrongness of a deed without our having to make recourse to logic or reasoning or upbringing. People of better quality were presumed to have a more strongly developed moral sense as a given, though it could be sharpened through exercise—this is one of the early excuses for sentimental fiction; it trained readers when to cry as if on cue. Thanks in large part to sentimental fiction—one of the first forms of entertainment to reach a broad audience—the issue of the moral sense became the crux of the sensibility fad, one of the earliest examples of a commercially manufactured zeitgeist. Typically sentimental heroes and heroines are depicted as emotional sounding boards, passively responding to tragic events and modeling the reaction readers are supposed to have. Meanwhile, rational calculators pursing their interest are demonized as heartless and cruel, eradicating kindness of altruism and the rest of it. Luckily, God generally steps in to resolve the impracticalities of ignoring the realities of incipient capitalism. (Outside of fiction, we don’t have that leisure.) The appeal to innate kindness was invariably a method for building up class distinction, whether to preserve aristocratic prestige from vulgar upstarts or to give the vulgar upstarts a way to compete with aristocrats on a level playing field. The moral sense, which anyone can claim, supplants the bloodline as the preferred mode of innate justification for class privilege. Sensibility also serves as a way of redeeming the cruelty of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation”—the various methods of dispossession and immiseration and proletarianization necessary to launch capitalism in earnest. If you assert the durability of the human heart under siege, and furthermore imply that the heart’s glory is revealed only under duress, you do much to justify that siege and embrace that duress as a necessary if not fortunate evil.

Also, by associating kindness with extraordinary heroism, it makes it into a kind of abnormality, as the authors of the Guardian piece point out. “Kindness is seen either as a cover story or as a failure of nerve. Popular icons of kindness - Princess Diana, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa - are either worshipped as saints or gleefully unmasked as self-serving hypocrites. Prioritising the needs of others may be praiseworthy, we think, but it is certainly not normal.” But I don’t think it follows that kindness is now universally regarded “with suspicion” as the authors assert—that seems like a purely polemical proposition intended to evoke the possibility of some revolution in friendliness after which everyone will smile on everyone, no polite nicety will go unperformed, we’ll all ride on unicorns, sing and dance with peace and love, and anger will be an altogether forgotten emotion, a distant memory, like racism and sexism and all those other forms of discrimination we have defeated. Maybe if we solved some of society’s obvious injustices, kindness would take care of itself. The authors assert that “Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.” That is wrong; I think that they openly know that it is the condescension of the entitled.

There’s a good chance that I am precisely the curmudgeonly sort of independence-loving troll the authors would like to gulag, but I found this utterly false:

There is nothing we feel more consistently deprived of than kindness; the unkindness of others has become our contemporary complaint. Kindness consistently preoccupies us, and yet most of us are unable to live a life guided by it.

Is there really such a deficit of kindness? I live in a reputedly unkind place, New York City, but I experience quotidian kindness from strangers on a near daily basis, whether it’s someone reminding me that I’ve dropped my scarf, or someone slowing down in a revolving door so I don’t get smashed, or someone exchanging a look with me about something odd going on, or what have you. It’s hardly the “forbidden pleasure” the authors make it out to be. I get the sense of humdrum human solidarity so routinely that I only realize how much I take it for granted when I experience the false pleasantry in the suburbs from salespeople, who are virtually the only strangers I have occasion to interact with. Usually I have no need to be preoccupied by it and am not afflicted with the absence of opportunities to express it. That doesn’t mean there are not also routine expressions of callousness either—every time someone stops at the top of the subway steps to continue their cell-phone conversation, I am reminded of how easy it is to slip into a private world of blithe inconsiderateness. And when I am approached for spare change and fail to break my stride, my own callousness is brought home to me. But I’m hardly preoccupied by it and rarely complain of it.

I wanted to sympathize with the authors’ concern with the dearth of kindness, which seems closely related to my cardinal complaint about society, its celebration of convenience as an end in itself. But the authors’ nannyish tone about the subject, I must admit, made me increasingly annoyed. Probably because I am desperately rationalizing my meanness:

Kindness - that is, the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself - has become a sign of weakness (except of course among saintly people, in whom it is a sign of their exceptionality). No one yet says parents should stop being kind to their children. None the less, we have become phobic of kindness in our societies, avoiding obvious acts of kindness and producing, as we do with phobias, endless rationalizations to justify our avoidance.

But a concern with kindness seems like a fundamental evasion of more substantial problems; kindness itself is the rationalization, the way to short-circuit arguments about the institutional change we should be seeking. Alas, I am one of those “radicals and socialists determined to replace charity with justice, elite kindness with universal rights.” I should recognize that instead, we just ought to worry about being nicer and less competitive. The authors recognize the “bullying” of kindness welded to power, but seemingly fail to recognize that they are inseparable. Kindness only becomes salient, becomes worthy of note, as a dimension of power. Outside of power, it’s just an expression of the species’ inherent activity (as the authors’ reference to Darwin supports). It’s nice to be nice, but something is not nice about noticing it and advertising it. At that point, kindness is being offered as justification for something unkind we are doing elsewhere.

A theory: When kindness is performed out of social necessity by those without the privilege of inward-looking selfishness and individualist isolation, it doesn’t register as “kindness.”  When one finds they must make a conscious effort to be kind and must trumpet their efforts to have it recognized as such, it’s probably already too late for them to be worrying about kindness—they have already become the beneficiary of an unequal society to the degree that they are conscious of being or not being kind. If you think, “how kind of me,” how kind have you really been? Being kind has already become an expression of class privilege, not human fellow feeling.

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