Kindness as it is currently understood is not a virtue, which may explain why we are hammered with it everywhere these days. “Everywhere” includes the main street of the small courthouse-and-college town where I have kept an office for twenty-five years. Ensconced in the provinces, far from the metropolis, with the children grown, and with no formal engagement in the vast corporate world, I am prone to fall behind the fashions. By the time things filter down this far, one can be pretty sure that something is afoot and it’s time to get worried.
The main street was once a busy place filled with useful trade. In addition to bankers, lawyers, accountants, and other courthouse hangers-on, it boasted retail stores purveying the needed things of life: books and a newspaper, a tube of toothpaste, hammer and nails, a necktie, shoes and socks, a ribbon for your typewriter, a bottle of ink, coffee and a donut. That’s all gone now, to the big boxes on the outskirts. Instead, there are swish (and not-so-swish) restaurants, a high-end mattress store, an olive oil emporium, home-decor shops with five-dollar greeting cards, and a “vintage” store with secondhand clothes.
Humdrum commerce imparts bustle to any locale. In its absence, a different atmosphere creeps in. The old business liveliness has surrendered to the busybody-ness of ideological advertising. Shop windows bid us not merely to buy, but to believe. In restaurant windows, little rainbow “pride” stickers admonish patrons to celebrate transgressiveness or self-segregate elsewhere. Occupying one side of a whole building, a garish mural with swooping birds and blue mountains bellows: “You have a place here!” Up the street, a banner affixed to the iron fence around the Episcopal church proclaims that all are welcome—“No Exceptions.”
In shop windows, placards promote “The Staunton Kindness Challenge,” a creation of the local public school system. It began with a letter to parents announcing a “powerful and positive initiative that will lead to more kindness, unity and respect at school and beyond,” and laying out a weeklong schedule. On Monday, Kindness Matters Day, students and teachers would receive Kindness Matters T-shirts and wristbands. Tuesday would find middle- and high-schoolers busy writing kindness messages and making paper chains with which to festoon classrooms and corridors; the varsity boys’ basketball game would have a kindness theme, counteracting all that less-than-kind competitiveness. Wednesday was to be Dreaming of a Kinder World Day: Wear your pajamas or comfy clothes. On Thursday, everyone would dress like a superhero, wear kindness wristbands, and write thank-you notes to the National Guard. On Friday, I Spy Kindness Day, things would get truly cool, with secret agents in ties and sunglasses performing random acts of kindness. Everyone was invited to participate in a collection to “support local families” (presumably the poor, though that word was not used): an excellent way for students to “expand their compassion.” Reading materials included two pages of kindness quotes from Einstein, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Anne Frank, Harriet Tubman, Mother Teresa, the Buddha, and the Dalai Lama. There was nothing biblical, in this still relatively churchgoing community.
Kindness is in the air school administrators breathe. Backing it up is scholarly literature in social psychology and other behavioral science fields. This literature defines kindness simply enough, as actions intended to benefit others, and generally proceeds to argue that natural selection has favored the development of psychological mechanisms that allow us to take advantage of opportunities for cooperative behavior. Behavioral science proffers several theories of the nature and origins of kindness. Kin altruism describes kindness as care, sympathy, and compassion within families. Mutualism focuses on communities such as teams, gangs, and sects, wherein kindness takes the form of solidarity, loyalty, or civic-mindedness. Reciprocal altruism is the idea that evolution favors kindness toward others who might sometime return the favor; kindness is manifested as sympathy, trust, and friendship. Competitive altruism posits kindness as behavior that imagines and benefits an audience, in the form of generosity, public service, bravery, or chivalry: Being kind can make you look good.
Behavioral science, then, understands kindness in terms of interlocked motivational systems with biological foundations. Such capacities are so pervasive among humans as to suggest to some researchers that kindness not only benefits the object but boosts subjective wellbeing—it makes the kind person happy. Thus conceived, kindness combines academic fashion with a cottage industry colored with progressive sensibilities: Changing the world is imperative; collective acts of will can accomplish it; kindness overcomes differences and bridges divides. An outfit called kindness.org acts as a clearinghouse for the cause of a kinder, better world, with a digital “Kindlab” that investigates the causes and consequences of kindness through “pure and applied research methods, drawing on the best of the social, behavioral, and life sciences.” Everything is shared with the world; everything is global. Under the heading “Civic Acts of Kindness,” Kindlab’s “Kindbase” offers resources for applying kindness right here, right now. In response to “the murder of George Floyd, and many others,” those who would be kind are advised on “how to help solve the problems of policing and racism.” There is the whiff of an ultimatum: Be kind, or else.
The social-scientific treatment of what is properly a topic in philosophy or religion trivializes serious moral issues. All of the “evolution-selects-for” science of kindness amounts to no more (and in my view a good deal less) than “Do unto others as you would be done by.” The kindness scientist might agree to this prescription, but not on the source of its authority—which C. S. Lewis observed decades ago is the centuries-old and universal natural law tradition. The mere Christian approach bids us look upward to moral grandeur and behold true charity. The Kindness Challenge keeps us looking down into ourselves, for therapy.
Everything either “selects-for,” or everything is given—through nature by nature’s creator, for men to fashion wisely or foolishly. Kindness is a grace that acts in and on nature and is a tool for the good. I read nothing of this in the kindness literature. And looking again around my town, with its ideological decor and kindness propaganda, I feel a sad declension from a time when life’s daily energies went to making a living and doing business, raising a family, tending to the neighbors. All of which called for kindness, too, but of an older sort that had less to do with virtue declared than with duty done. Inside that old Episcopal church with the unfortunate “No Exceptions” banner outside exists a quiet society of Christian ladies who make it their duty to send greetings each month to those of the parish (or late of the parish, or others made known to them) who suffer from some dire affliction or other. Their notes are handwritten and come in the post. They bring recipients good cheer and Christian hope. I try to answer each and every one.
Timothy Jacobson writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.
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Image by Ivan Radic via Creative Commons. Image cropped.