There is a song I’ve been listening to lately. I hear the words when silence fills my head. Although the message is quite crude, I must confess I like the tune. The song’s thoughts may be foolish, but they prompt what I write next.
That song is Be More Kind by Frank Turner. The lilting melody evokes Ralph McTell’s Streets of London, and the message is not so different. According to Turner, the world has decided it’s going to lose its mind. The answer is that people should try to be more kind.
Sarah Ditum has just written a fine takedown of kindness – an unkindness in itself, I suppose. The concept makes more demands on women than men, she says. Besides, everyone thinks their own politics are kind. Unsurprisingly, most of kindness’s advocates also turn out to be selective psychopaths.
I applaud UnHerd’s long and potentially doomed crusade to re-establish political tolerance. But my main objection to kindness is cruder than Ditum’s. I just think the request is patronising.
The difficulty in objecting to kindness is that you immediately come off as a contrarian shit. What’s wrong with being kind, after all? Manners maketh man, as the motto of William of Wykeham goes. Or as my mum would say, “Politeness costs you nothing.”
Ditum makes some good points about the ambiguous limits of ‘be kind’. It would be kind of me to donate a quid to a homeless man, and kinder still to hand him my wallet. So perhaps it would be the kindest to give him everything I own and take his place on the street? ‘Be kind’ has no limiting principle, and is therefore of limited use.
Even if we are only obliged to provide small kindnesses, is this universal? Do I need to be kind to the arsehole who cut me up in traffic this morning? Should I be kind to the employer who expects me to travel to the office during the height of a global pandemic? Must I be kind to tyrants, serial killers or war criminals? Probably not.
It is possible I’m overthinking it. But fundamentally ‘be kind’ is an instruction for a child. One of the many things that separates adults from children is the need to navigate complex moral problems, many of which cannot be solved with more kindness.
Better principles might be to take a more rounded view of human wellbeing, recognise that some of our differences are irreconcilable, and build systems that enable us to effectively manage such conflicts.
Alas, that doesn’t make for such a snappy folk song. But it will keep people like me writing. A form of kindness, I suppose.