Too Often Kindness is Used as a Call for Neutrality in the Face of Injustice : How the recent trend-esq focus on being kind might be contributing to oppression
Don’t get me wrong, I am loving the focus on #kindness going on in our culture right now. T-shirts, Netflix shows, blogs, books, organizations, - everyone wants to be kind, choose kind, and Go Be Kind!
Awesome. Let’s do it. I’m in. I love it. Hooray!
And I just hate to have to do this. But, ok. Deep breath. I have to tiptoe into this really nice kindness party with a small, ahem, announcement. Here goes:
A lot of y'all are using kindness as a way to silence people who are suffering from oppression, injustice, and inequality. And some of you, I see you, are using kindness as a way to repackage and put a fluffy coating on white rich privilege.
I am sorry to have to call this out. I do not want to cancel culture you. I just need you to realize that kindness without awareness of difference, without admission of privilege, and without justice, is not actually kind.
Kindness is NOT about Erasing or Avoiding Difference
When people in kindness forums on Facebook post memes with hearts and flowers that proclaim “Kindness is the New Black” - well, I have questions. I have comments. I have concerns. But if I raise my questions, comments, concerns, then I am told I am not being kind. So, see how that works? I mean, not only does the phrase not make sense, - how is kindness the new black, what is the old black, what is actually even happening in this messaging, who gave this the green light?
So. Many. Questions.
Overall, things like this just come off as trivializing and mindless, not, -what kindness is actually supposed to be like. Kindness is supposed to make people feel seen and thought about, - it is supposed to be uplifting and thoughtful.
Kindness is NOT about making you feel Good or Comfortable
If a person is bleeding in front of you and you smile and give them a flower but totally ignore the fact that they are hurting, - tell me how that is being kind? It’s not. It’s glossing over what makes you feel uncomfortable to make you feel good about giving someone a flower that did not actually help them feel any better at all.
Yes. Read that again if it caused a twinge: Kindness is not about what makes you feel good or gives you the warm fuzzies. Kindness is not about what makes you feel safe and comfortable. Kindness is about making others feel good and have good even if, even when, it might push you out of your comfort zone. Kindness is a moral pull rooted in deep empathy. Kindness is striving for justice in every interaction.
The other thing people have been doing or saying or shouting in the name of being kind is to say that no talk of politics should happen in spaces that are focused on kindness. And this has me a bit shook. Kindness as suppression of a major area and primary source of spreading unkindness?
It’s just odd. Odd as in against the very definition and purpose of kindness. Strange, and maybe shady.
When, in any situation when the rubber meets the road, has it ever been kind to not speak out about it? When people are being thrown into prisons, camps, or detention centers, when people are being full out, full view, enthusiastically targeted for hate crimes, segregation, acts of violence, the kind thing to do is to do everything you can to make this bad stuff stop happening. I mean, ...right? The cowardly thing to do is to ignore it. The fearful and privileged thing to do is to pretend it’s not that bad. Because it is not happening to you. Right?
Kindness is NOT neutrality.
I am going to let the words of those wiser than me give you a good introduction to what happens when people use kindness as a shield or as an excuse for neutrality. Get ready, because these are good:
- “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu
- “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel
- “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral ” – Paulo Freire
- “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Standing ovation for every single one of those statements. But here we are in 2019, all of their experiences and knowledge and warnings not heeded. People are using calls for being kind, or being civil, as ways to benefit the powers that be and enable oppression. Like it or not, know it or not. Somehow some people have conflated kindness with making sure hateful, bigoted, racist, sexist, classist peoples feelings aren’t hurt. Hmmm, this sounds familiar.
When people push the idea that kindness is just flowers, hugs, and smiles and that we all need to suppress any mention of the fact that our world is full of unkind things - racism, sexism, poverty, - well, this sounds like some branches of the Kindness movement are just privilege in pretty disguise.
If we cannot join together in the name of kindness to be against things that are blatantly unkind, such as a government administration that is fundamentally consistently an affront to kindness both in word and in deed, then I don’t think I want to join arms with you and sing kumbaya.
You Can Never Be Too Kind
In some kindness spaces, I have observed people fretting and fussing over the worry that they are being too kind. About doing too much. About giving too much. Sometimes these are valid points. We certainly should have boundaries and not burn out.
But a lot of these concerns are a wild form of white privilege noblesse oblige elitism that simultaneously gives the fretter a pat on the back and an out for when they want to be done being “kind.” These conversations usually happen around helping the homeless and usually involve talk about how the homeless might get used to it, might not change their ways, might go to far in liking having food or shelter.
And no, there’s no real mention of the cause of homelessness or poverty, - it’s taken as something that magically exists and that simply requires our charity now and then. Sigh.
Commiting Not Random Acts of Purposeful Structurally Aimed Kindness
In a stratified society, one that is unequal and built upon exploitation, a smile, paying for someone’s coffee, helping a stranger cross the street, - these are all wonderful things to keep doing, - but they will not change the world.
Kindness requires more.
If the goals of kindness are, as the posters say, creating a better world or making someone’s day, we need to combine the small acts with taking aim at the structural forces of unkindness.
We can do this by, for example: joining the fight in calling out the unkindness of racism in the criminal justice system, wearing your “Be Kind” t-shirt to a massive rally in support of health care for all, or smiling as you work with others to take over vacant city land to build tiny homes for the homeless.
It is not kind to pretend that structural oppression does not exist, or to push the beautiful but misguided talking point that kindness by itself is enough to change the world. If we are serious about kindness and we actually follow it up with justice, this is what will change our world. We would end unkind systems of oppression in all of their forms at their roots: we would actually address misogyny, white supremacy, and the capitalistic exploitation of bodies and lives.
Being a kindness zombie does not help anyone. You can read the books, wear the gear, be on trend, but if you do not address your areas of privilege and actually see how pushing things under the rug in the name of not rocking the boat. Get in those kindness spaces and talk about justice.
And for good reason. Kindness is vital to our humanity. It should not be hard. It should not be “extra” or “rare.”
Kindness should be more than a trend. Kindness should be more than a fad.
It should not be random and flippant.
And it should not be seen as good enough, all by itself.
Making Kindness our Default Setting
Kindness needs to be our default setting. How we just are. Every day. With this setting turned on we would all automatically know that voting for certain politicians is against kindness, - is in fact, being unkind.
If we actually practice default setting kindness, we would know that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train.” We would know that leaning in to stop the machine that causes injustice is what kindness demands of us.
Kindness demands our focus and our attention. It requires we see with clarity and compassion exactly what is in front of us, around us, and within us. It asks us to see the pain, see the hurt, and use whatever position, power, privilege, or platform we have to address the sources of this pain and hurt, in ourselves, and in others.
Kindness without justice is an empty gesture. Let the two motivate and inspire each other and always be connected.
Let kindness be the spiritual push that moves us into justice as purposeful action.