Each morning the encounter is the same. The fridge magnet regards me with equal measures of emollience and accusation:
Everyone is fighting a battle
you know nothing about.
To be kind means to be gentle, benevolent and friendly. What could be wrong with being kind? If I can support you, then surely I should. Kindness is seemingly needed by everyone; and should be provided by … everyone.
There is a softness—a yielding—to this kindness that might struggle to fit with the reality of a world of hard edges bumping together. How far ought this kindness extend? Beyond the home and the friendship group, corporate training courses abound that urge the creation of a kind work environment that will be friendly, supportive, understanding, inspiring and happy.
The modern embrace by Western youth of seemingly never-quite-dead socialism may be sheeted home to concepts of kindness. Surely in abundance it is better to share (irrespective of how that abundance was accrued): “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is the warm, compassionate and palatable face of the socialist ideal which dovetails with the current embrace of “equity”. (The toxic legacy of socialism—mandated equity—is of millions of dead, slain in pursuit of an idea; with its failed economies and consequent poverty constituting a history unknown to the young, now more than three decades since the emblematic fall of the Berlin Wall.)
This essay appeared in a recent Quadrant.
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In The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt emphasise the pervasive drive to be kind on university campuses too, even (ironically) to the point of physically hostile rejection of speakers and ideas that might hurt students’ feelings. They are at pains to stress that this is not simply disingenuous manipulation in a quest for power, but that current students may be genuinely emotionally distressed by encounters with such ideas, tutored as they have been to believe that words represent actual violence. Haidt showcases the contrast between Nietzsche—“what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”—and the current debilitating campus belief that “what doesn’t kill me makes me weaker”.
Perhaps, therefore, being kind means not being argumentative. Or not contesting the other person’s point of view or version of events. Kindness might mean that we agree it is probably better that you don’t speak lest you be insensitive or cause hurt feelings.
It seems resilience is missing in action. J.S. Mill’s idea of opinions honed in the forge of vigorous debate is now too confronting. The reality of life as it is—that sometimes there are bitter pills that have to be swallowed—must be remade as “life as one would like it to be”. Yet the evanescent kindness of, for example, allowing your child to avoid regular visits to the dentist may reap much greater unpleasantness later. The older exhortations were: “no challenge; no growth” or “tough love”. Achievement and forbearance were earned through sweat, toil and pain. One might even venture the word stoicism.
The writings of the Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson carry such exhortations, informed as they are by the background of suffering that may pervade existence. His work is heavily influenced by his detailed study of totalitarianism and its horrors: for the teachers who have forgotten and the youth who have never known, such suffering seems foreign, as if our “kind” societies have been inoculated against it. Yet Peterson asserts that societies that are successful “educate themselves out of simple compassion”.
The scenario which most starkly confronts the kindness imperative is, of course, war. An obvious kindness would be to be able to say, for example, to Ukrainian mothers and wives that their husbands and sons do not have to go off to confront and kill an invading enemy. But such a kindness would likely beget much greater cruelty as a later consequence, and not just for Ukraine.
The drive for kindness seems particularly to be a feature in the current West (whose armed forces now even embrace kindness and inclusiveness in their recruiting drives), as if the West is the irredeemably nastiest of modern societies; the most in need of atoning for past sins. Or is the West just going soft?
Who now would dare to mention—let alone cite approvingly—Niall Ferguson’s book Civilization: The West and The Rest. Published in 2011—a mere decade ago—it charts the progress of the West over the last half-millennium, distilling the key features (for the sake of modernity characterised as the six “killer apps”) that led the West to accelerate ahead of the rest of the world. We are now told in contrast that those achievements are tainted by the guilt of colonialism, imperialism and racism.
In his most recent book, The War on the West, author and commentator Douglas Murray enumerates the ways in which the reputation, guiding principles and ethical ethos of the West are under assault: from identity politics, from militant and aggrieved minorities or perceived victims, but also from within the universities, professions and senior corporate echelons.
Based on an informed history of the West’s development and advance over the last several centuries, Murray accepts—as a book-keeping exercise—the common short-hand of characterising “The West” as “White”. But Murray stresses that this means that the criticisms of the West—imperialism, nationalism, hegemonic power, environmental despoliation—are sheeted home to “white people”. And white people are, by and large, accepting of the critique, motivated in large measure, it seems, by the desire to be “kind”.
Perhaps kindness means absorbing blame even if misdirected, maybe because you are perceived to be big enough or wealthy enough or guilty enough that you should be contrite. You should perhaps make an apology, or make reparation, even for your ancestors’ missteps.
That this torturous guilt seems most keenly felt in the Anglophone West may relate to the recent imperial pre-eminence of the British Empire; the prominence of slavery (whilst not a uniquely American phenomenon) in the narrative of the history of the United States; or the fact that these ideas mostly arise on American campuses and, given their density and occasional impenetrability, do not perhaps translate well from English.
Fulsome apologias from the academy and from the professions in support of such redemption might be unsurprising given their typically liberal-social-democratic credentials. The oleaginous hand-wringing of corporate entities—for which Western free-market capitalism would habitually have been thought to be the lodestar—is harder to explain. Cynics would assert that some very public displays of virtue and contrition simply serve to get activists off their backs. Yet the price-earnings ratio of a face of corporate kindness presently seems quite high (as Gillette, Nike and Anheuser-Busch might attest).
Why would regular citizens, on the other hand, who were not yet born—and who therefore had no responsibility—accept such a burden of self-flagellation? Grounded not in Foucault, Delgado and Critical Social Justice theory but in the certainties with which they have grown up, they ought surely to recoil from this denigration of their birthplace; of their chosen destination for emigration; of their society that experience tells them is not despicable. Many decent and well-meaning people nevertheless seem to accept—or even embrace—policies and fads to the point of denial of reality, and in so doing allow their empathy to be weaponised against them to advance agendas that are antithetical to their own.
They seem to be motivated by the imperative to be kind. Which is no explanation at all unless we can in turn identify its source, and ask, “Why these people, and why now?”
In the pop psychophysiology of the corporate kindness trainers, where nurture of self is as important as kindness to others, we may simply be chasing the oxytocin hit—our fix of the “love drug”—that our own act of kindness apparently elicits in us.
Those who will allow for a difference in any nurturing tendency between men and women might suggest that a kinder society is a positive consequence of the increasing feminisation of professions such as teaching, and of politics. The timorousness of our young may reflect in microcosm a more generalised state of fragility such that everyone craves coddling now that it’s OK not to be OK. Or maybe the West’s emergence from the era of “cafeteria Christianity” has left us with nothing on our tray save for “love thy neighbour”.
A supposed awakening of whites to their allegedly inborn racism impels an acceptance of historic guilt, explains Robin Di Angelo in her book White Fragility. Their drive to be kind can thus be dismissed as merely a penance for the immutable racism inherent in their whiteness.
Is Di Angelo perhaps right but for the wrong reason: is there indeed a tinge of racism at the heart of the white response? That the outward display of kindness is a faux empathy, affordable given the historic resilience and hegemony of the well-to-do West, and that a patronising noblesse oblige cushions the self-abnegation required to express such kindness to the “less fortunate”? In pretending a morsel of guilt, interminable welcomes-to-country and other sundry humiliations can be tolerated with an indulgent smile as a small reparation for white society’s own ongoing abundance and success.
In the Spectator, Brendan O’Neill is scathing of such “altruism”, characterising this condescension as “a moral boast disguised as racial remorse … white shame is the new white pride”, with, he adds, a touch of the saviour complex.
The West seemingly alone can be expected to pay the price required to manifest such kindness and generosity. The grievance inventory of pet peeves and accusations may start with avoiding hurt feelings, but eventually broadens to requiring the indulgence of historical revisionism or frank invention; of slurs and slanders on motivations shorn of their original context; of, for example, debilitating climate response policies adhered to only by the West; requiring even denials of biological reality to be accommodated in the name of kindness.
Such sacrifices and adaptations are not expected of any of the groups supposedly exploited by the West through history, whose alleged mistreatment constitutes a “get out of jail free” card. Any group that can fashion a victimhood narrative has the expectation that from the West sympathy and kindness will follow.
In lurid, conservative nightmares, a youthful Rudi Dutschke—he of the “long march through the institutions”—still guides the playing pieces in the Gramscian conspiracy undermining the Western liberal establishment and canon. Even the power play that this was intended (and has proven) to be is cloaked in a veneer of kindness: the denigration of the West in order to elevate the Other.
Receptiveness to such revisionism is not universal. It is perfectly possible, by way of contrast, to enumerate contemporary nations with politics not at all motivated by kindness, but steered by leaderships very certain that their people’s place in the world will only be assured by hard-nosed Realpolitik; by a preparedness to be abrasive in international relations; and to reject outright any soft-headedness that is not grounded firmly in reality. There are countries whose historic guilt is couched in terms of an inward shame and national dishonour as much as it is in the lack of humanity shown to victims. Many countries whose over-arching motivation is not kindness do not feel particularly sheepish about their colonial or imperial pasts. (We would judge harshly their lack of contrition, except where their more recent exploitation by the West means that their atonement is not then required.) A trade in slaves continues in some regions of the world even today.
The kindness imperative is, it seems, not embedded in the human genome, but is instead a peculiarity manifested prominently at present in the West.
Much as social Darwinism has a sullied name, kindness is not a natural motivation in nature. Darwinian evolution posits the predominance of pro-adaptive mutations and behaviours, with social co-operation only in as much as it enhances survival. In contrast, we mark it as a hallmark of civilisation that modern medicine keeps alive—an archetype of kindness—those who would otherwise fall to illness, even as that medical progress may undermine raw evolutionary imperatives. Our other acts of kindness might similarly be cast as features of our civilising influence in overcoming the elemental brutality of survival of the fittest.
Or is our kindness instead—like the decline and fall of the Roman empire—a sign of an effete civilisation; its decadence, degeneracy and disinclination to fight to defend its heritage and values an indicator of the twilight of the West? The rest of the world—that part still occupying the hard-edged reality—certainly looks on with some glee at the prospect of a permanently supine and compassionate West.
If the kindness imperative falls short of providing a grand unifying theory on the aetiology of the impotence, diffidence and ennui of the West, it may nevertheless go some way to explaining why the governance of Western institutions and corporations has fallen prey to the victimhood narratives of identity politics; and the kindness imperative also underpins the vulnerability and susceptibility of a general populace for whom these institutions influence ideas and make rules.
So: that battle that you are fighting that I know nothing about? If I can truly help you, I will. I will strive to be polite: there is no necessity for bad manners. There is no need for deliberate belligerence: courtesy has self-evident merit. I will empathise with your suffering where I can, and extend to you viable solutions if I can.
But kindness that pretends the world is other than it is; kindness that undermines individual resilience; kindness that weakens defences; kindness that defies scientific reality or validates delusional thinking: these are in the end no kindnesses at all.
Sometimes one does indeed have to be cruel to be kind. If we don’t do it, someone else will.
Mark Walland lives in Melbourne.