Kindness has had a makeover. Instrumentalised and monetised, it has been reimagined to align with the dominant cultural narrative of the feeling, individuated self. The internet’s focus on the performative self has turned kindness from a private act into a tool for fashioning identity: advertise your kindness by posting a selfie in a t-shirt emblazoned with your favourite kindness hashtag.
Along with mindfulness, kindness is the buzzword of our time, spawning its own day (World Kindness Day), a publishing genre (‘up lit’), a wildly successful Broadway musical (Come From Away), and myriad hashtags for you to curate your own kindness. Performing random acts of kindness for two minutes a day apparently makes you happier, more intelligent, creative and productive, leading to wealth and job success. While love hearts and schmalz and self-boosterism feature prominently on many kindness hashtags, so too does the characterisation of kindness as making the world a better place.
Within days of The New York Times posting on its website a transcript of George Saunders’s commencement speech delivered at Syracuse University, it was shared more than one million times. The gist of his address was that we should try to be kinder. So, why did it go viral? After all, kindness is the cornerstone of most spiritual traditions. Philosophers have been thinking about kindness for thousands of years, and it is a foundational principle of elementary pedagogy.
Tradition requires that a commencement address should incline towards emotional uplift, offering its audience of graduands an inspirational parable, a take-away nugget of wisdom to deflect attention from the fact that debt-burdened students are graduating into an inhospitable world of precarious employment. So: dream large, be the change in the world, pull down the walls that divide humanity – prescriptions resembling the slogans propagated by the departments of corporate spin that took up residence in universities after they metamorphosed from educational institutions serving the public good to competitive businesses selling a product to consumers in a global market.
Unlike the million readers who shared the piece, I was underwhelmed by it, and not just because of its pat, pop-psychology tone. ‘Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you,’ said the writer, ‘and go after those things as if nothing else matters. Because, actually, nothing else does.’ While the world is in deep shit with its gross inequality, precarity and human-induced climate change, as long as you are your kindest best self, nothing else matters.
But many other things do matter.
Being on the progressive side of politics, perhaps Saunders intended to imply that being an exemplar of compassion and kindness leads to political or social change. While being kind should be part of our individual ethical code, and striving to be kinder is indubitably a worthwhile aspiration, to believe that one’s personal acts of kindness have a socio-political impact – that they change the world – borders on self-regarding fantasy. An understandable consolatory fantasy, perhaps, given the erosion of trust in politics and politicians and our anxiety in a rapidly changing, atomised world seemingly out of our control.
Kindness as a personal project promotes the false narrative that individual acts of kindness are all that is required to achieve change. As I have written elsewhere (‘A new mindset’, New Philosopher, Issue 26, #4/2019), the depredations inflicted by neoliberalism, globalisation, deregulation and technological change (including insecure work with minimal labour protections and entitlements, enforced mobility, managerialist monitoring and the ever-accelerating pace of work) are symptoms of a toxic system. While alienation and anxiety are natural responses to insecurity, the market-friendly self-help industry exhorts us to cope with a precarious existence by being positive and resilient – compliant rather than resistant. Like the self-help industry, personal acts of kindness provide a palliative without challenging a rapacious system that casts us as expendable units of competitive human capital and repositories of data to be surveilled and mined for private profit. They seduce us into feeling that we are making a difference while avoiding the frustrations of collective political action and the sustained, long-term commitment required for real political, social, and economic change to occur.
As political theorist Jodi Dean observes in her book Crowds and Party, when those of us on the left assume the individualism of the dominant neoliberal ideology by cultivating a politics out of individuated decisions, we undermine our impulses to solidarity. Rather than changing the world, a reflexive turn inwards to the subjective realm of DIY self-transformation (following the instruction to be ‘the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you’) is no threat to the status quo, functioning instead as a substitute for collective action aimed at political change and social justice.
Viewing the world through the prism of the personal narrows our focus. As Jia Tolentino observes in her essay ‘Trick Mirror’ (included in her eponymous 2019 essay collection), the internet can make it seem that solidarity is a matter of identity. Because so much of life is lived online, performative solidarity via sharing of personal experiences and feverish enthusiasms — liking and retweeting and hashtagging — seems like real political action instead of a surrogate for action.
Looking for solutions in the private sphere of demonstrations of affect and the registration of opinion instead of the public sphere of political processes and participatory action, drains political energies and fractures political will and collective strength. Ignoring the bigger picture, it adopts the atomising dynamic of neoliberalism, mimicking the neoliberal credo that makes all of life a matter of individual responsibility and choice to achieve personal goals. A retreat from solidarity to a privatised pseudo-politics of personal kindness is an ineffectual path to political and societal change and egalitarian progress. It deflects us from directing our collective energies to calling governments to account, pressuring them to take the necessary action to make our world more equitable, liveable and sustainable.