Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
It seems almost ridiculously insufficient to condemn neo-Nazi behaviour for its unkindness. Of course, criticising something on a single ground isn’t to say there aren’t other reasons to decry it. But is the unkindness of such behaviour relevant? Can it be when we could be focusing on bigger problems – prejudice, illegality, violence, evil, and on?
The OED defines “kindness” as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate”, which is nice, albeit frustrating in that it forces us to define those three other things, and then consider the extent to which kindness can be reduced to them.
More directly, in the Rhetoric, Aristotle writes that “kindness – under the influence of which a man is said to “be kind” – may be defined as helpfulness towards some one in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped”.
Is kindness really predicated on need, however? Is not part of the reason we feel it insufficient to decry appalling behaviour as simply “unkind” because kindness is not about necessity, but something more basic. Kindness – as in behaving towards someone with gentle niceness (yes, I’ve fallen into the OED trap of relying on other terms requiring definition, too) out of pure non-expediency – seems, most obviously, to stem from natural respect for shared humanity. Ok, we sometimes talk about being kind to the environment, but that’s surely a different sense of the word. We can be kind to animals, though, which implies that “shared humanity” might not be sufficiently wide.
Perhaps it is better, therefore, to say that kindness is directed at another living thing, and relates to awareness of its sentience. Often that thing will be in need – or in a position of less security than the person offering kindness – but not necessarily. Rather, kindness ministers primarily to feelings, not needs – hence why it is focused on sentient beings, and usually especially those with some awareness of how they are being treated. That is not to say that an act of kindness must be recognised as such by the creature on the receiving end, but to point out that something constituting an act of kindness towards an animal might not be so if directed at a person. (There is no time here to enter into a debate about euthanasia, but a classic example could involve putting a dog down when it is in incurable pain.)
This focus on recognising the feelings of others seems to me to be why kindness is highly relevant to discussions about neo-Nazi behaviour such as that displayed in Charlottesville last week. I ran a little Twitter poll the other week, asking which was the dumbest idea: communism, racism, sexism, or terrorism. Of course, such types of poll have practically no scientific value (let’s leave it open as to which do), yet it was reassuring to see racism come first, taking almost half of the vote. How could skin pigmentation possibly be any kind of justifiable ground for treating someone differently? For seeing them as inherently inferior?
Such unjustifiable views repudiate the awareness of humanity that kindness points up so simply. And simple criticisms based on something like the importance of kindness seem more powerful than any default recourse to legality. If we were all kind to each other, how many laws would we need?
Some lovers of free speech think they must support the idea that everyone should be able to say whatever they want all of the time. There are strong arguments for such a position – and, to my mind, even stronger ones for those exempting instances in which speech explicitly incites violence in situations where such violence could easily be provoked. Yet none of that means that we should say whatever we want whenever we want.
That is not because the law tells us not to do so, but because it is good to treat each other with kindness. The reason I don’t tell you that your favourite shirt looks ugly isn’t because I’ll be breaking the law if I do. Rather, it’s because it would be unkind – and I want to live in a society where we choose not to be. Similarly, it’s not because I might go to jail that I don’t partake in bear baiting or dog fighting.
Kindness can seem underrated these days. Too often, this is the case in the workplace, on social media, in a society where feelings of division over wealth and access to opportunity are stoked by politicians seeking to capitalise. In moments of competition, it’s all too regularly forgotten that winning by cheating – or being a bad sport – isn’t really winning. And winning in life – in terms of, say, gaining the job you want – isn’t truly winning if that success comes about through walking over others or doing them down. If we think, like Aristotle, that we should be striving to have a good life – and that part of that is recognising that it is good to help others to try to achieve the same – then our society must need simple kindness.
Of course it is not sufficient to condemn violent racism because it is unkind. It seems unnecessary to say that the behaviour represented by those marching with torches is unspeakably worse than that. But history teaches us that we must watch out for the early signs of a loss of respect and empathy for others. Without recognition of the importance of basic acts of humanity, we spiral into devastation.