The Null Device

Whither kindness?

There's an essay in the Graun about the fall from grace of the idea of kindness. Far from being a virtue to be embraced, conspicuously kind behaviour is now seen as a bad thing; it either signifies that the individual is a loser of low status (and best avoided; loserdom's contagious, you know, and you don't want to associate with losers), or up to something predatory or dishonest. Even if they're not, they're being kind for some sort of psychological payoff, and thus are really just as selfish and corrupt as the rest of us grasping predators in the urban jungle:
Kindness - not sexuality, not violence, not money - has become our forbidden pleasure. In one sense kindness is always hazardous because it is based on a susceptibility to others, a capacity to identify with their pleasures and sufferings. Putting oneself in someone else's shoes, as the saying goes, can be very uncomfortable. But if the pleasures of kindness - like all the greatest human pleasures - are inherently perilous, they are none the less some of the most satisfying we possess.
All compassion is self-pity, DH Lawrence remarked, and this usefully formulates the widespread modern suspicion of kindness: that it is either a higher form of selfishness (the kind that is morally triumphant and secretly exploitative) or the lowest form of weakness (kindness is the way the weak control the strong, the kind are kind only because they haven't got the guts to be anything else). If we think of humans as essentially competitive, and therefore triumphalist by inclination, as we are encouraged to do, then kindness looks distinctly old-fashioned, indeed nostalgic, a vestige from a time when we could recognise ourselves in each other, and feel sympathetic because of our kindness - if such a time ever existed. And what, after all, can kindness help us win, except moral approval; or possibly not even that, in a society where "respect" for personal status has become a leading value.
Margaret Thatcher's 1979 electoral victory marked the defeat in Britain of the Beveridge/Tawney/Titmuss vision of a kindly society, while the rise of Reaganism in 80s America saw a similar erosion of welfare values there. Kindness was downgraded into a minority motivation, suitable only for parents (especially mothers), "care professionals" and assorted sandal-wearing do-gooders. The "caring, sharing" 90s proclaimed a return to community values, but this proved to be rhetorical flimflam as Thatcher and Reagan's children came of age, steeped in free-market ideology and with barely a folk memory of the mid-century welfare vision. With the 1997 triumph of New Labour in Britain, and George W Bush's election to the American presidency in 2000, competitive individualism became the ruling consensus. The taboo surrounding "dependency" became even stronger, as politicians, employers and a motley array of well-fed moralists harangued the poor and vulnerable on the virtues of self-reliance. Tony Blair called for "compassion with a hard edge" to replace the softening variety advocated by his predecessors. "The new welfare state must encourage work, not dependency," he declared, as a plague of cost-cutting managers chomped away at Britain's social services.
So kindness is not just camouflaged egoism. To this old suspicion, modern post-Freudian society has added two more: that kindness is a disguised form of sexuality, and that kindness is a disguised form of aggression - both of which again reduce kindness to a covert selfishness. Insofar as kindness is a sexual act it is seen as a seduction (I am being very nice to you so I can get to have sex and/or babies), or as a defence against the sexual event (I'll be so kind to you that you will forget about sex and we can do something else together), or as a way of repairing the supposed damage done by sex (I'll be nice to you to make up for all my harmful desires). Insofar as kindness is an aggressive act it is seen as a placation (I feel so aggressive towards you that I can only protect both of us by being very kind), or a refuge (my kindness will keep you at arm's length). "One can always, for safety, be kind," as Maggie Verver says to her father in Henry James's The Golden Bowl.
Of course, kindness is socially corrosive as it makes people less self-reliant and prevents the weak from being weeded out as Nature intended; to wit, there are formal systems for discouraging, or even punishing, acts of kindness, as described in the MetaFilter thread; for example, the old practice of passing unwanted all-day rail tickets on to strangers after using them is now a prosecutable offence in much of the UK. (Then again, in a world where business models are sacrosanct, this is just as criminal an act of theft as copying a MP3 for a friend or getting up during the ad break on TV.) It's as if the philosophy of Ayn Rand has assimilated itself into the unwritten cultural assumptions of society.

Meanwhile, if you encounter what looks like unwarranted kindness or friendliness from a stranger in a big city, your first reaction is wondering whether they're trying to con or scam you in some fashion. Though I suspect this is not an invention of Reaganism-Thatcherism or even of Ayn Rand, but just the way that things have been in big cities full of strangers since time immemorial. While the article makes some interesting points about the social consequences of the drive for free-market competitiveness as the primary principle of social organisation, of social planning on the assumption of individuals as gold-seeking individualists, the idea that there ever was a glden age of widespread kindness does seem somewhat implausible. (A time of widespread hypocritical lip service to the virtue of kindness seems more plausible.)

There are 1 comments on "Whither kindness?":

Posted by: datakid Wed Jan 7 02:27:34 2009

Your comment on train tickets makes me think of the recent water debacle in Melbourne. Australia has water capacity and sovereignty (from corps) issues, and is in the middle of a drought. The Govt encourages water saving mechanisms. The people can see their plants and parks dying, they respond by actually doing better than Govt set targets (155 Megalitres a year or something, I think the ave was 149).

The Water companies, how do they respond?

"We will have to raise the price of water to make up for reduced usage and continue being able to pay a return to shareholders"

WTF? demand abates, prices increase? that's not market capitalism...

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