What is kindness and why is it vital?
This time on the podcast we discussed kindness. Here on our free feed you can listen to our overview of what kindness is and why it’s so important. Then please check out our Patreon to listen to the rest of our conversation about how to be kind.
Listen here in the embedded player, or go here, or download the soundcloud app, or simply find us in your podcast app on your phone.
Our jumping off point for the conversation was these two quotes.
Kate Bornstein: ‘Your dreams are not dangerous. Your desires are not damned. Do whatever it takes to make your life more worth living. Anything at all. There’s only one rule to follow to make that kind of blanket permission work. Don’t. Be. Mean.’
Michael Brooks: ‘Be ruthless against institutions but be kind and forgiving towards individuals.’
In the podcast we wanted to reflect on what being kind – or not being mean – actually looks like in practice, and also on how we can be kind with individuals while being ruthless with unkind systems.
We see starkly the degree of meanness and cruelty in our wider world right now: the hatred and fear of difference, the desire to keep safe by policing and building walls against the most marginalised people – excluding them or imprisoning them. The pandemic and the #BlackLivesMatter uprising have both shocked people into greater awareness of all of our complicity in the current state: our histories steeped in colonisation, genocide, slavery, and exploitation, and the long shadows these cast over our current situation.
The question becomes ever more urgent of how we can find kindness for each other in our own communities, networks, and close relationships. This could provide some buffer against a wider world which feels mean and cruel. If we can find some different ways of being we might be able to invite others into this, or offer it outwards: another way of being where one person’s safety and comfort doesn’t rely on another person’s pain and alienation. Where people of all bodies, lives and labours can really be equally valued.
Kindness as praxis
Capitalist systems – particularly neoliberal capitalism rather than social democratic capitalism – are built on the idea that humans are fundamentally unkind and need regulation. The philosopher Hobbes’s model of the Leviathan was the idea that humans needed a monster to keep them behaving well. This is echoed in the popular book Lord of the Flies.
This can be juxtaposed with Rousseau’s idea that humans are fundamentally decent, cooperative, and friendly. Rutger Bregman’s recent book Humankind considers the evidence to support this idea that humans have capacity for kindness and it is the systems we’re in which make it very hard for us to be kind with ourselves and others. One part of the book involves finding the ‘real’ Lord of the Flies and noting that the shipwrecked boys actually developed practices and systems of kindness.
To act kindly and expect kindness in return (even if we don’t get it) is radical. It’s anti-capitalist. As philosophies from Buddhism to intersectional feminism have emphasised, kindness is essential because we’re fundamentally all interconnected.
Niceness or kindness?
Kindness can’t just be a veneer of ‘niceness’ or ‘harmony’ which covers over people’s pain, fear and rage, tone-policing all the difficult feelings away.
We distinguished between niceness and kindness on the podcast. Niceness responses often come from wanting to appear kind, but may not actually involve acting in the kindest way in a situation.
Author of Fucking Law, Victoria Brooks, talks about how real kindness requires work and effort. She distinguishes between talk about ethics (in research, law, medicine, etc.) which is often really about avoiding complaints or protecting ourselves or our institutions, and real ethics which is about asking what’s best or kindest for everyone involved.
Sarah Ahmed talks about how institutions often hire an individual – or bring in a trainer – to address diversity or sexual harassment as a way of looking like they are tackling racism or sexual violence, but actually leaving the systems and structures which enable those unaddressed.
Niceness could be seen as something like these examples: the veneer of kindness which actually enables cruelty to continue – on whatever level.
We finished this part of the podcast reflecting on how this happens in much sex and relationship advice. ‘Nice’ sex and relationships advice imagines we could tweak our current way of doing sex and relationship to be kinder, more consensual, and better for people. ‘Kind’ sex and relationships advice – in our view – recognises the impossibility of kind, consensual, fulfilling sex and relationship under the current – normative – cultural system, and endeavours to offer alternatives to that system and its way of doing sex and relationships. This is both why our sex advice book is so good, and why it doesn’t sell very well!
Sign up to our Patreon to listen to the rest of this conversation about kindness. There is gold! There may or may not be blow-job tips at the end.
© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020