What Happened to Kindness?

Ainsi certains jours paraît
Une flamme à nos yeux
A l’église où j’allais
On l’appelait le Bon Dieu
L’amoureux l’appelle l’amour
Le mendiant la charité
Le soleil l’appelle le jour
Et le brave homme la bonté

So some days seem
A flame in our eyes
At the church where I was going
It was called the Good Lord
The lovers called it love
The beggar charity
The sun called it the day
And the good man kindness

Jacques Brel -”Sur la place”

 People have occasionally called me kind. They say it as if this were an attribute I was born with, a fundamental part of who I am. I do not think this is true; indeed I don’t think it’s true of anyone. As I have watched various children grow, I see them learning to be kind to other–don’t hurt his feelings, don’t take away her toys, be nice.

I decided at a rather early age to cultivate kindness in myself. This was sparked by someone whose sense of humor was based strictly upon making other people feel stupid. I was tired of the bullying, for such it was, and diagnosed it as a lack of kindness. I was ten when I resolved to be kind.

It’s now more than forty years later and it strikes me that people no longer expect kindness of themselves or others.

Bear in mind that I am not speaking of charity. In the epigraph above, there is delineation between charity and kindness. Kindness is not the easy giving of money to help those in difficulties or the sympathy card to the bereft. Real kindness takes an effort. It is pausing for a moment before speaking and imagining the effect of the words on the listener. It is giving up the easy joke at another’s expense, when the laugh would feel so good. It is also putting other people’s needs on a par with my own.  Not above my own or even exactly equal to my own. Just on the same level.

Library books are a case in point. Hey! I heard that snicker!

Yes, library books. When I was in college, living in a dorm, my boyfriend’s roommate a boy of the same background as mine and from my neighborhood, gleefully showed me an extremely expensive medical text he had stolen from the library. He was very pleased with himself. He was pre-med and happy that he had sabotaged other pre-meds’ chances to make better grades. To all of my comments, pointing out that we would all pay for it, it wasn’t fair to others, etc., his reply was “So what?” There was, of course, no answer to that.

After my boyfriend and I split up, this same boy was part of an unspeakably cruel and nasty “joke” on me. I’m grateful there were no webcams at the time. He bullied others as well. Ironically, he became a lawyer. [Insert cheap lawyer joke here.] His sabotage of the other pre-meds didn’t quite work out. We’ve have opportunities to meet again, but he has declined.

Shelving that example, I turn to the Internet. I could use the horrific example in New Jersey, the college student who streamed live his roommate’s sexual encounter, which triggered the roommate’s suicide. But I’d rather use a smaller example, closer to home. Since the advent of the Internet, blessed be its name, I’ve been on forums and listservs and have noticed the phenomenon of the adopted persona, that is, someone who is willing to say (and do) things online that he or she would never say in person. I’ve known several. This would be a person who, no matter how serious or how sad the post, feels obliged to reply with something funny, crude, and/or hurtful.

I’ve heard others, who have met these people in real life, speak of how nice they are, how they have all the “right” opinions, and so forth, and how they are completely different from how they are online, suggesting that the online behavior is just a “persona.” Really? Could it be that the nice, good-opinioned persona is the false one? It’s a lot harder to be unkind in person, although many do manage it.

There is actually a reason I am posting this on a blog rather than my usual venue, the JREF Forum, where I hang out. I know that as soon as I post it, the snide remarks will appear. It might not occur to them that this is a way to discourage thoughtful posting, hence frustrating the purpose of the forum itself. I might get equally unfavorable and unkind comments here, but since I don’t think of this as my community, it’s easier not to take it personally.

And, of course, there’s mass media aside from the Internet. A few years ago, I was wildly out of step with my peers, and got into some long discussions about…nothing. Well, actually about the show Seinfeld. I hated that show. I watched about a dozen episodes total. It wasn’t that I just disliked it or chose not to watch it because I didn’t find it funny. I had a visceral reaction to it. I watched a number of episodes because I became curious as to why I hated it so. When I thought about it and analyzed what I was seeing, I realized that this was the personification of unkindness. This was not a show about nothing; this was a show about people who were unable to care one iota about other people.

I didn’t find it so amazing that one of the actors, Michael Richards, found it possible to be harsh and disgusting when heckled or interrupted during a stand-up routine by some African American audience members. I just checked the video to make sure I got this right. He said, among other things, “Fifty years ago we’d’ve had you upside down with a fucking fork up your ass.”

There is also a video of an interview with David Letterman, where Richards looks shocked and confesses that he did not know where that vitriol came from. I don’t pretend to know either, but I do think that after nine years of being admired and laughed with for acting as if he didn’t care about others, it wouldn’t be that big a leap.

I was at The Amazing Meeting 8, when Phil Plait made his plea for us not to be dicks. I’d like to go a step further than that. Wil Wheaton and Phil suggest that refraining from unkind behavior will improve the quality of our discourse. I suggest that being actively kind will improve it even more. Not running around agreeing with everything everyone else says to prevent disharmony, but disagreeing in a polite way.

We need to disagree, not shame. It is not necessary, when we disagree with others to stomp them into the ground, set them on fire, and spit on them to put the flames out. A polite disagreement based upon facts goes a long way further. It takes the disagreement out of the realm of emotion and inserts reality instead. Giving the person who, in our opinion, is wrong, a way to back out gracefully will win more arguments than the aforementioned treatment. As an extra bonus, if it turns out we are wrong, we can save face as well.

We need to take others seriously. Discuss things with them as if they are real people. Point out the errors in their thinking in a way that will make them, um, think. Taking other people seriously might boost their willingness to think seriously and question things around them.  If they refuse to reciprocate, we have the choice to leave the discussion and move one to someone who might listen. This has the added benefit of depriving them of an audience.

Remember the last time you were humiliated, the last time someone really hurt you? If it’s never happened, I fear for you. You don’t have to share the moment, just remember it, remember the pain. Do you want to inflict that on others? If you do, I fear you. If you don’t, bear it in mind. Keeping that kind of pain away from discourse makes it more constructive and more able to actually convey ideas. And for skeptics, isn’t that the idea?

I do not claim that kindness with bring about world peace. It will not guarantee us eternity in Paradise, nor will it make us internationally famous. It might open discourse and open minds.

Thank you for reading this.



Categories: James Randi Educational Foundatioin - JREF, Skeptic

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. I’m not sure how I missed this when it first came out. Months later, it’s obvious that those in the “freethought community” didn’t take the message to heart.

  2. Hey, Ellie! I’m just reading this now. Great, thoughtful post 😀 I agree 100%.

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