Saturday 22 October 2016

The Imperative for Kindness, the Duty to Retreat

Kindness is all.

Kindness is the single most important factor in human interaction. It moderates us, fosters connections. It is near-synonymous with compassion, and with the older definitions of charity and mercy; kindness is a sister to sympathy and a companion of respect. It never patronises.

Kindness is an action; conscious, it flows between us, and its flow is marked by the gravity of social interaction, its trajectory like water, flowing horizontally and down, from a situation of power to a place of powerlessness.

I'm pretty tall. I've got long arms. I live with people who are short. Yes, if they want to get something from a shelf they can go get the step-stool but if I'm standing next to the shelf what effort is it to reach up and get a jar? And that's basically it, isn't it? You shut up and let someone talk if they don't always have the chance to talk that you do. You open your door to people outside of your tribe. You share your food. You hold open a door.

Except holding open a door is sort of poisoned these days, because kindness isn't chivalry; chivalry is a transaction that confirms the structures of power that kindness ignores. Sometimes someone holds open a door and expects something, a smile, a thank you even, a conversation and maybe you will open up, but that's up to you. True kindness doesn't require reciprocation and never expects it.

And this means that what it should never do is try to mollify anger without fixing anything. Because all that does is remove legitimacy. And it twists your kindness into a vehicle for passive aggression.

And yes, sometimes someone with less power than you is going to behave like an asshole, and even people who suffer can be assholes, and sure, call them on that, an asshole is an asshole is an asshole after all – but behave with honour. You're in an advantaged place. You don't have to put the boot in. You have a duty to retreat. Most of the time no one's reputation is really at stake, no one cares if you look weak, or if you look like a loser, or even if you look like you're in the wrong. Sometimes it doesn't matter. You know who ends an argument? It's not the person who has the last word who ends an argument. It's the one who ceases to reply.

Don't expect people who are poorer than you, or from a country bombed by yours, or who have suffered because of their gender or their race or their religion to be OK because you're nice to them, don't expect them to stop being angry, don't even expect that they have an obligation to like you. They don't owe you anything.

But at the same time, just because you're getting nothing out of it, it doesn't remove the obligation upon you to be kind.

This isn't to say you don't get anything out of it. We all benefit from these things. Opening the dam of human connection makes a tiny step towards creating a precious balance.

Kindness is underrated. We're in a place where expressing basic human compassion gets you accused of being some sort of political extremist, where suggesting that children deserve to be treated with respect gets you vilified, called a liar for suggesting they're in need, that they're worthy of a home, a place of safety.

It doesn't make you a saint. There are no medals for it. Recognising our common humanity just makes you humane, and thus human. It brings you to the baseline. It marks you as a functioning person.

Kindness is all. It's everything. It's necessary to continue in the society of people. It's out of fashion and we need to remember its value more than ever.