On Being Kind
Our blaming and shaming culture is a threat to society
True kindness has been lacking in this pandemic.
Fear and lack of trust are driving this misbehavior.
We can restore our social bonds by respecting each other.
“The naturall state of men, before they entr’d into Society, was a meer War, and that not simply, but a War of all men, against all men.”
Thomas Hobbes, De Cive, 1651.
“Yet it was with those who had recovered from the disease that the sick and the dying found most compassion. These knew what it was from experience, and had now no fear for themselves.”
Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BC
It is perhaps the first of the three injunctions to “be kind, be calm, and be safe” during this pandemic that has been most misused and abused.
Remaining calm is the easiest to follow, since the viral fear is one of dread and not imminent threat. Very few people are having nervous breakdowns or panicking in the streets. The real danger is crafty and approaches too softly for that.
Safety, by contrast, is mostly out of our control. Entirely natural processes are spreading the contagion and there is seemingly little we can do about it.
The evidence for that is everywhere on the planet, in the form of ineffectual lockdowns, distancing, and masking that have perhaps delayed transmission, but have definitely not brought the pandemic to an end.
Being kind should have been the one injunction that most people followed. It’s a “no effort” decision. It doesn’t require a smile or even a good deed; simply not abusing others is all that is required.
And yet, harsh stares, blunt rudeness, hectoring demands, public accusations, and open conflict have been common occurrences this year.
I have lost count of the number of awkward or angry interactions that I have seen in past months, and I can attest to not having experienced such behavior in such numbers in my entire life.
It is as if people had decided en masse to speak their poisonous truth, unfiltered by formerly unassailable social customs, common sense, or just plain decency.
Strangers are not siblings, and yet so many people have decided to treat others as something out of a broken family episode of Jerry Springer, employing an overly familiar tone of condescension and condemnation.
Why do people act this way when it is so clear that everyone is suffering?
No one is immune to the anxiety and uncertainties of this pandemic, and so many have actually suffered illness, loss of income and jobs, and even death.
There seems to be an undercurrent of fear, anger, and frustration that is driving the bad manners.
The complete upending of our lives is a likely culprit, as is the severing of close personal contact with those we like and love. Disrupt peoples’ lives and they understandably (but regretfully) strike out.
There is something deeper at work, though, to explain why so many have decided to turn on others this year.
Perhaps we can see it in the litany of alleged root causes behind the pandemic:
· First bats, then pangolins; followed by
· Wet markets, China, and the WHO;
· The media, Donald Trump, and other politicians;
· Bigger groups like businesses and religious communities;
· Street protesters, including anti-racists and anti-maskers;
· Smaller groups like teen gangs and family gatherings; and finally
· Just you and me.
There is a definite pattern in this progression of blame.
It starts far away from each of us with other species, and then circles closer and closer to condemn other nations, other places, other groups, other people, and then finally those we know and love. The indictment becomes all of us.
Seen this way, we can easily recognize the misanthropist (or anti-human) attitudes that have been building for decades in the “climate crisis” movement and, well before that, in mainstream Christianity and socialist political movements.
Humanity is fallen, we have all sinned, we must pay for our foul deeds. Few can be trusted but some enlightened souls know the way forward. “We” know better and you need to obey. After all, it’s all your fault.
This is not to dismiss the positives of these social creeds. We are actually all flawed and in need of personal improvement, and notions of Christian charity, and the political left’s passion for equality and justice, are laudable.
But there is no doubt that shaming and blaming come from a cultural norm that is as selfish as it gets: “I am right and you are wrong and I will do what I can to get you to comply with my will”.
And let’s face it, at one level we are all to blame. That is literally true because the virus’ raison d’etre is to jump from one human to another, using our cells as replication machines. There are no other hosts than us.
By the same token, though, none of us is really to blame.
This entire pandemic is nothing more than a natural occurrence and an in-your-face reminder that we are still very much an integral part of Gaia. We are constantly immersed in viral and bacterial pathogens and have faced recurring epidemic cycles for eons. There is really nothing new here.
Since nature has the upper hand with this unstoppable contagion, we should therefore find some humility and stop pointing a crooked finger at those we choose to accuse.
We have built an open and generally tolerant society in the West, and that incredible achievement is entirely at risk with the current set of popular attitudes and public policies.
Staying at home, operating in a virtual world, and refusing to interact with others are promoted as pro-social tactics against the virus, but they are actually unintentional acts of selfishness that destroy our social bonds.
We never know strangers by face or name, but we must live closely with each other because we are intimately connected. That has always been the fate of humanity.
Our mental health, our good natures, our empathy and compassion, our material well-being, our ideas and our innovation, and our children’s futures: all are bound up in a tightly knit community that is currently coming undone.
The more we pretend that we can beat this contagion by being alone under public order, the more we will realize from failure that the true strength of our society comes from freely mingling with each other.
And this is even more important in the realm of public policy, where we have shifted this year from a traditional governance model of accountability, minority rights, and limits to compulsion to straight out executive fiat, legislative compliance, mandatory orders, moral suasion, and censorship.
There has been little nuance in universal one-size-fits-all lockdowns, in mandatory mask usage, in prohibitions on movement and assembly, in endless micro-management of private and public places, and in the emergence of required health passports and pressures for mass vaccination.
We are not strengthening our social bonds by ceding control to the top and forcing everyone to behave the same way.
Our diversity is our fundamental strength and that is only preserved through widely dispersed power, inclusive decision-making, multiple points of view, acceptance of dissent and criticism, and hands-off regulation of thought and behavior.
In other words, a civil society that exists for more than simply preventing viral contagion.
That single-minded objective of defeating Nature’s pandemic is perhaps what has gone most wrong in this year of considerable unkindness.
We have sacrificed everything else of value to a quixotic quest that has so far paid out nothing in return.
It is time to make a change for the better by adhering to a deeper definition of “being kind”: treating others as you would have them treat you, with respect, intelligence, trust, and compassion.
It starts with a personal commitment to these principles, but can only succeed by ending today’s coercive attitudes and policies.
We are being anything but kind on our present misguided course.