The problem with kindness
Kindness is a buzzword we hear a lot nowadays. It takes its place alongside mindfulness, the search for happiness, and other misappropriated concepts that have been borrowed from spiritual traditions and co-opted, reduced and repackaged by the self-improvement industry. Hang on though, what sort of cynical or heartless sub-human would have a pop at kindness when our world seems to be so tragically unkind? The kindness agenda does indeed seem attractive when acts of kindness can be used to counterbalance the efforts of some individuals who spend time cyber-bullying, tormenting, racially abusing and parading their cruelties to others so openly on social media for example.
The glaring flaw of the kindness agenda seems to be that acts of kindness are in danger of being selective, almost transactional and certainly fleeting moments meted out to people we deem worthy of our attention at a given time. Furthermore, they seem to be more about us than the recipients of the kind acts. The feeling of warmth we gain from acting kindly somehow doesn’t equate to the same level of relief from hardship or misfortune that can be gained from someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness. In fact it has been proven that being kind makes us healthier, but doesn’t have the same impact on those subjected to our kindness.
In fact, what I am driving at is not even about the act of kindness in itself. What I am trying to get to is deepening the motivation, and the impact, behind it. Even shifting the agenda from kindness to compassion is a step closer to something that has much more impactful value than kindness can ever have. Let’s take a closer look:
the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate
sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others
Even through putting these two definitions side by side, you should be able to see a shift from something that is more performative to something that contains a further step of ‘putting oneself in another’s shoes’. You are moving from a way of acting to a way of thinking about others.
Collective social responsibility
There is, to my mind, a stage beyond either of these two, which we seem to have lost sight of and which should really guide all human interaction, especially in these strange times we find ourselves in recently. This is known as collective social responsibility.
Collective social responsibility is not just a way of acting; or even just a way of thinking – it is a way of being which includes a depth of thinking we can’t take for granted from kindness or compassion alone. Through collective social responsibility, we see our relationship with society and the environment as an opportunity to create shared value and we act upon that shared value in a way which is inclusive and promotes the wellbeing of all as collectively valued. It is something that requires broad knowledge and specific interest. It is ever evolving and iterative. It doesn’t set people on a continuum based on value judgements and a meritocratic hierarchy of the deserving and the undeserving.
I am an adult who grew up during the selfish era of Thatcherism. Since 2010 we have seen the rise of policy that seems to be aimed at benefiting the few and not the many. On this backdrop, I am keenly aware of how much the agenda of individualism, self-efficacy and so-called meritocracy guides many people of my generation’s world view. Kindness fits into this, and is a moment of performative softening, from time to time, of what could be seen as a ruthless focus on individual needs and goals.
Let me illustrate how being kind can be differentiated from collective social responsibility and how an act of kindness can be contextualised within a wider collective social responsibility agenda. It could be seen as a kind act to stand and give up your seat for someone else on a bus, because they are elderly or struggling with heavy shopping and have asked you to, either verbally or non-verbally. It is compassionate to be able to see that someone standing near you seems to be uncomfortable and could use your seat and for you to beckon them into your seat. For me, collective social responsibility would be, as an able-bodied person to make sure I sit upstairs ensuring that the seats on the bus downstairs are free for those that need them most. It is for me to explain this rationale to my children as many times as is needed, so that they understand their collective social responsibility to get out of the way, to climb the stairs of the bus even if they would rather stand by the door for the five stops they need to travel than suffer the faff of climbing the stairs. It is not enough for me to instruct them to give up their seat, I must contextualise this and frame it as collective social responsibility. It is that same collective social responsibility that is lacking when we enact a first-come, first-served attitude to the accessible area on the bus, or when a parent sits their child on a seat that could be taken by a vulnerable or frail person instead of putting that child on their lap.
It goes deeper still for me. Kindness could be perceived as a blanket of niceness, that can be delivered in the guise of treating people politely. Collective social responsibility can be about redressing imbalance of resources, power and privilege in simple ways that come from a place of consciousness and conscience. Which is why I become agitated when people divert discussions around social activism, anti-racism and so on, with the suggestion that we just all need to be kinder to one another.
In the context of being a parent of school-aged children, I was sometimes really struck by other parents’ lack of kindness or compassion towards each other, and certainly of the complete lack of collective social responsibility. They were not pointedly unkind as such, just completely unimaginative about other parents’ experiences, needs and life situations. As a parent governor, for example, it is important to try to see the perspective of all families and to try to champion the needs of those who might be least heard or seen, not just to protect and champion the needs of your own child. I would assert that as parents (regardless of whether we are on the governing board or not) that are part of a school community, we should all push ourselves to operate in this way and to enact our collective social responsibility to others in the school community wherever we can.
As the child of a single-parent family myself, I was very aware of the lack of collective social responsibility enacted by others towards my mum. She was so isolated coping with even some of the seemingly simple parts of the parenting malarky that after a while she just gave up trying to do it all alone. So with this in mind, when my children were at primary school, my partner and I talked about how we could enact our collective social responsibility towards those that don’t have our privilege and level of stability, and those that could use a practical additional pair of hands now and again. We had our struggles with stress, money, and as renters suffered some injustices and difficulties around feeling insecure as tenants. Not everything was smooth, stable or safe in our own lives, but we knew that there were compassionate acts we could easily undertake, rooted in our deep sense of collective social responsibility, that made us both want to extend ourselves a little in support of other parents that could benefit from that. I’m sure there were also many times when I was as ignorant and indifferent to opportunities where I could have been kind, compassionate or acted as a socially responsible person to other parents. This isn’t about judgement but about training oneself to see more clearly when possible.
So, how does that manifest itself? Tapping a parent on the shoulder in the playground and offering to collect their child on the way to school some mornings so they could get off to work sometimes a little earlier or a little calmer – we all know how fraught those school runs can be at times. (And aren’t these moments all the more difficult when you don’t have a partner or another adult to confess your anxiety to about being shouty or terse on the school run?) Or maybe offering to have their child overnight at the weekend so they can get out and not have to think about what time they get in and the expense of a babysitter. A small shift in our routine for us can make a huge difference for someone else, for their child, and even in the long run for the community as a whole. Imagine the power if this was hard-wired into all of us in a school community. Think of the impact on school lateness and absence for example if all parents took it upon themselves to see that all children got to school on time and if we found ways to share the school run as our collective social responsibility…
So, next time you think of something kind or compassionate to do for someone else, please don’t think I am trying to stop you from reaching out and being kind. I’m not. However, if we can find a way to contextualise another person’s experience within the social, societal, and collective, imagine to what extent our actions may lead to something closer to social justice than a feel-good act that has more benefit for the giver than its impact on the wider social good.