Because of the events of last weekend, a lot people online have been saying that the biggest thing we need is a commitment to kindness. Those people have tended to get the piss taken out of them. Partly because logging onto Twitter to say ‘Be kind, guys!’ and collecting the likes feels like a pretty ineffective way to change the world, and partly because as soon #BeKind became a popular hashtag it was destined to look as disposable and faddish as all of Twitter’s brief obsessions do. But also because ‘kindness’, like a lot of life’s most valuable things, sounds as if it belongs on a fridge magnet. Part of the problem of this age, with its free and endless flow of information/ideas, is that important truths become over-familiar and end up seeming meaningless.
Treating other people as you’d like to be treated is one of the most important rules you can live your life by; ‘being’ the change you want to see in the world is a potentially life-transforming idea. Once you’ve seen these things on Facebook a dozen times, though, in a font that looks like it would be used in a health food shop and coupled with a Google Image of footprints on a sandy beach or Gandhi or something, your brain stops engaging with them. Some of the simplest and most crucial notions, things that ought to be motivating every step we take on this earth, have successfully disguised themselves as cliches.
Like the low-rent Alain de Botton I am, I would therefore like to say a few words about the way we could be treating one another differently.
Not long before Christmas, I tweeted this: Kindness and gentleness are often taken as an absence of personality. They’re actually qualities to be treasured. TREASURE A FUCKING KIND PERSON TODAY! I stand by this. I just wish I’d used the words ’empathy’ and ‘compassion’. Part of the problem with ‘kindness’ is that it sounds like some sort of cute hobby for a person who’s got a retro 80s pencil-case and has a Spotify playlist that is purely songs with acoustic guitars in. In reality, striving to understand and help your fellow humans is one of the most radical things you can do. Exercising empathy means digging deep into your humanity to grasp what it’s like in someone else’s brain. You don’t have to agree with anything they think, or support any of their opinions; you have to treat them as well as you can in spite of what you feel about those opinions. You can oppose them vehemently, in fact. If I meet a person who strongly supports Donald Trump or who rides everywhere on a zebra even though zebras are famously resistant to that, the exercise of empathising with them (‘what would make that person believe these wrong-headed things about society?’) and then applying compassion to them (‘I can see why he clings so strongly to the idea that he should be allowed the zebra’), is *NOT THE SAME* as giving them a free pass to do what they want. It just puts me on a footing where I am able to engage with their behaviour as what it is: a set of actions by a person not enormously genetically distant from myself, a person with needs and desires, who can be understood as such.
This flexing of key human muscles is a much braver act than digging your little trench, staying in it and screaming at anyone who doesn’t agree with everything you say. Yes, of course you have to stand up for what’s right. But we pretty much all think that our worldview is ‘what’s right’, don’t we. Almost by definition – or it wouldn’t be your worldview. However sure you are that you occupy the perfect position on every single issue, you need to understand that you don’t have a moral monopoly unless you actually are God, in which case it really would be great if you’d come forward sooner rather than later, because it’s been a fair old while since the last set of instructions and it’s fair to say we’ve drifted a bit in those millennia.
And even if you don’t agree with any of this – if you think this is the time to entrench even harder, turn your guns even harder on the people you don’t agree with – kindness is still something you can still change the world with every day, in a way that you cannot with angry rhetoric. Like it or not, it is unlikely there’ll be some sort of sea-change in the way the media are allowed to treat celebrities (if you’re as old as me, you will remember people calling for this since, at least, the time of Diana). It’s also reasonably unlikely that enough people will stop clicking on these articles to materially damage the papers who publish them (although it’s well, well worth a try). But what you can do every day of your life is improve something for someone who’s been left vulnerable by the toxicity of the air we’re all breathing. You can improve somebody’s mood, offer a favour, listen a bit. I’ve been trying to do this periodically on Twitter, these past few months, by offering an unofficial listening service (among other things). The good it does is tiny but it’s still more good than firing off 24 angry tweets about ‘the state of the world’ and then stewing for the rest of the day while others, maybe very close at hand, suffer.
#BeKind might not be a very helpful label to put on what we need to do better, but – again – clichés are often really good ideas in bland boxes. What ‘kindness’ means at its core is the opposite of a cop-out or a liberal whine. It’s one of the things we exist for. This would be a good time for us all to start looking into it more.
Thanks for this Mark. As politics becomes ever more entrenched and tribal you call for empathy is much needed. If our leaders and media whole game plan is to name call and demonise, split into us and them, may be it’s time for a bottom up approach so that we can smother those in charge with kindness, metaphorically of course.
Kindness should be the strongest word we all cherish and live by. Have you watched the “Kindness Diaries on Netflix’s “?