This is from my writer friend Therese Doucet. Her book, The Prisoner of the Castle of Enlightenment, is available on Amazon.
We hear a lot about the divisions in our country these days that seem to be contributing to no end of problems – racial tensions, a global pandemic, soaring unemployment, the general decline of our democracy, just to name the most recent crises. We are led to believe that these divisions stem from politics and identity, and are about whether we’re Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, pro-Sanders or pro-Biden, Trump supporters or Trump opponents, white versus people of color, rural or urban, old or young, and so on.
One thing a lot of us have in common across these visible divides is that we want to think of ourselves as kind, good people. However, there’s a deeper and far less visible divide within this common longing: two very different ideas of what kindness means.
The two different ideas of kindness are kindness based on principle, and kindness based on loyalty. Principled kindness is based on the idea that human beings have intrinsic worth and are deserving of empathy, compassion, and basic respect just because they are human beings who exist on this earth. Kindness based on loyalty, on the other hand, means we are kind to people on the condition that they agree with us, they think like us, they are part of our group, they like the things or people or ideas we like, and hate the things or people or ideas we hate. The loyalty-based view of kindness holds that if people disagree with us, we punish them or retaliate against them by withdrawing our kindness and treating them with contempt and hatred.
An example of loyalty-based kindness would be the Trump administration sending supplies of PPE during the pandemic to states like Florida that are perceived as loyal and supportive, and withholding PPE from states like Michigan that are perceived as disloyal, actions which Trump supporters view as totally fair and totally in line with what kindness means. Meanwhile, I frequently hear threats from my fellow Trump opponents that they will cut off and ostracize long-time friends and family members if the friends and family continue to support Trump, actions that these anti-Trumpers view as being for the sake of kindness, to defend all the out-group members who are harmed by Trumpian partisanship.
Those of us who urge principled kindness towards all people regardless of political loyalties are deemed weak, complicit, and disloyal to party ideals, and our refusal to embrace hatred and contempt towards “the enemy” is viewed as false allyship worthy of the same contempt as enmity. And of course, the anti-Trumpers who are steeped in this contempt fail to see that they have embraced the same notion of loyalty-conditioned kindness as the pro-Trumpers.
This is not to say that pro-Trumpers and anti-Trumpers are morally equivalent in the policies they advocate: what I am saying is that they share a notion of kindness being properly conditioned on ideological agreement and on how loyal and useful the other person is to the causes one embraces. In both cases, people are deemed worthy of kindness depending on whether they are “us” or “them.” We are good, moral, and upright, and they are bad, dumb, and degenerate. If you’re not with us you’re against us. My way or the highway. To be different, to dissent, to think independently, to differ even slightly or subtly, is to render oneself an enemy.
Of course, kindness that is conditioned on loyalty is not really kindness at all, but simply an exercise of power relations. It is part of a system of rewards and punishments that is oriented to achieving control and influence.
True kindness is based in a humanist philosophy that human beings have intrinsic worth and should be viewed as ends in themselves. The opposed idea of kindness based on loyalty is anti-humanist, based on the idea that others only have value in so far as they are useful to us. In this anti-humanist way of thinking, people should be treated as means to ends. People are useful to us if they boost our sense of self-worth by agreeing with our ideas. They are valueless and worthy of contempt if they disagree, even if in reality the disagreement is based in a principled concern with truth and compassion, rather than any lack of love for us. The anti-humanist philosophy is dehumanizing because it makes people into tools and objects to be manipulated to achieve our goals.
This anti-humanism that makes kindness into a power relation is flourishing on the Left and on the Right. And it is this division, between those who view kindness as a principle and those who view it as a mechanism of control, that is the true rift driving us further and further into our state of crisis.
You might think that a Judeo-Christian religious heritage could be the solution to this profound division, and part of the problem might be the secular rejection of theism. In Christianity there’s the principle “love thy neighbor.” And in the Jewish Talmud, there is a beautiful vision of the sacredness of human life in the saying that if anyone destroys a single person, it’s as if they destroyed an entire world. On the other hand, what basis would an atheist or an agnostic have for believing in the Golden Rule or in the intrinsic worth of the human soul, without first embracing the faith that we are all equally children of God? But in reading the work of a Nazi philosopher from Weimar Germany, Carl Schmitt, it was fascinating to me that he interpreted the Christian idea of loving one’s neighbor as, essentially, loving the fellow members of one’s in-group, not loving members of the out-group. Just as Trump is seen as a loving Jesus to his white Christian base, but a tough and protective fatherly strongman admirable in his abuse of everyone else, Schmitt viewed Jesus as a deity of partisanship. Of course, this interpretation ignores the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the point is clearly to praise kindness that extends to the outsider. But it is also fascinating how few on either the Right or the Left seem to fully understand that in embracing the idea of kindness as a power relation rather than a humanist principle, they’re literally embracing a Nazi idea of power and control being more important than principles, the idea that might makes right.
Religious faith is no guarantee of humanist ethics, since religion and the lack thereof so often get treated as just another in-group boundary in need of defending. That said, I think the vision of that Talmudic principle of each individual human containing a vast and complex world within, the vision of other people as beings filled with hidden potential for goodness and beauty, is one we can choose to embrace regardless of our religious views. We each individually have to grapple with our conscience to decide whether we will have the courage to put our faith in humanism, in each other, in love, compassion, and empathy, in our shared humanity, and in the sacred obligation to protect each other’s autonomy to be who we are as separate individuals, people who differ from one another in a multitude of ways, but who can still show each other love and kindness despite our differences.
If we choose kindness as a principle, this doesn’t mean failing to be strong advocates for the policies we believe in or failing to stand up for our rights and for equal justice for all. Martin Luther King Jr., a tireless advocate for Christian love and kindness, preached that “hate doesn’t drive out hate, only love can do that,” and at the same time rightly criticized the Northern liberals of his day for failing to commit thoroughly to the ideas of racial justice, and Southern moderates for remaining silent out of fear. What choosing kindness means is that the principle of kindness for its own sake underlies and motivates everything else we do.