Are we being unkind?

We are naturally kind. Or are we?

Few questions are as guaranteed to raise the hackles as this old chestnut. The debate has been raging for centuries – conducted, as often as not, in a manner sufficiently unkind as to suggest the answer all by itself.

In one sense, though, before you even start weighing playground cruelty against samaritan compassion, the very term "kindness" itself provides its own, affirmative, response. For it is natural not only to women and men, but also to birds, bees and, for all I know, vegetables, not only to be of a kind but to recognise kinship where it appears within their sphere of awareness. And through this perception of kinship, though again the vegetable point shall have to remain moot, it is natural to feel that what is in one's own interest is also in theirs. To the extent that kinship is natural – something which is beyond debate – kindness is also natural.

So what has gone wrong?

This is the question posed by the historian Barbara Taylor and the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in their new book, On Kindness. Promoted as a "defence of kindness in a selfish age", the admirably short volume argues that our instinctual kindness has been eroded by the exclusively competitive spirit of modern society. Competitiveness has become enshrined as the master value, extending its control over not only our economic and political sphere, but over our moral sphere as well. Kindness, in consequence, argue the authors, has come to be perceived as a sign of weakness, "a virtue for losers".

It struck me as an amusing instance of the way competition can eat away at our better instincts that you would never have guessed from the high-profile discussion of the book on Start the Week this month that it had two authors. From Phillips's discussion of "my intention" and "my book", not once did he credit his co-author, despite the fact that it was clear that the larger part of the interest of his fellow guests was directed toward the historical sections of the book – penned, presumably, in greater part by the absent Taylor. How kind is that? Still, in the cut-throat world of literary promotion and broadcasting, who could be surprised?

One question, however, that the book does not address is whether changes to the sphere in which kindness can operate may have contributed to this decline of the virtue. Might the internet, and the increasing extent to which communication is becoming tele-communication, have made us less kind? Does the fact that physical presence forms a less and less significant part of many people's daily lives suggest that the impulse to kindness, too, is increasingly rare?

On the one hand, it has never been easier to be generous. We can satisfy, temporarily, our guilt about suffering both near and far at the touch of a button – for instance by joining a Facebook group to show some kind of diluted solidarity, or, for the really generous, by filling out another indistinct direct-debit agreement to some charity or other.

On the other hand, with communications having effectively shrunk the world (or shrinking that part of it that can fit down a fibre-optic cable, at any rate), the sphere in which kindness can operate has grown enormously, with the result that the competition for our sympathies has never been more vigorous. Inflation, unsurprisingly, is rife. After all, what is the mere distress of our neighbour compared to the unimaginable suffering of the tsunami victims? Why would we continue to help the homeless in Wandsworth when we can more easily help the much more recently homeless in Gaza?

As the cost of kindness – in terms of psychological effort at any rate – has come down, the cost of unkindness has fallen with it. With our kinship so expanded and dissipated, our bodies effectively shielded from the consequences of our actions by the virtual realm in which interaction increasingly takes place, we can easily choose to ignore any suffering we cause. After all, however interactive our computers and televisions, they're never going to jump off the desk and kick us in the shins when we click "remove friend" from the profile of a no longer desirable acquaintance.

So it's a difficult one to call, and perhaps no surprise that Phillips and Taylor don't really broach the topic in their book. But if anyone is going to research the subject properly, the comments on Cif will no doubt provide a worthwhile resource. Shrouded in virtual anonymity, we're all kin here really, aren't we?

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