i have always relied on the kindness of strangers…

February 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm Leave a comment

There’s nothing like a global recession to bring out the Blanche DuBois in me.

As someone who doesn’t really get money, figuratively or literally, the main excitement of the last eighteen months has been seeing our relationship with finance unravel like a tired old jumper. Unfortunately, it’s been closely followed by our relationships with one another unravelling too. Accusations of greed and selfishness have been lobbed about like grenades.

It leaves us with a conundrum though: capitalism is a system built on self-interest. We live in a society that accepts this as the fundamental driver of all human interactions. So why the hell are we so upset by that self-interest all of a sudden? There’s a renewed interest in the idea of looking out for one another, but we’re not very comfortable with actually doing it all the same.

As if on cue, Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor have stepped forward with a celebration of fellow-feeling. On Kindness is a little book, and a simple book. Anyone looking for revolutionary thinking or grand philosophical contortions will be disappointed: if you’ve done a degree in an arts or humanities subject, you’ll have met most of the cast of philosophers, psychoanalysts and divines before.

The book really just trots through the history of the idea of kindness, from the Ancients to modern psychology and psychoanalysis, and gives a psychoanalytical description of where we’re at in the modern world. Needless to say, it’s not an upbeat diagnosis. We are a society terrified of our own dependencies and, by extension, those of others. In adopting a rationalist, human-centred view of the world we have shouldered extreme cynicism about compassion and altruism. As Phillips and Taylor write: ‘Whatever else it is, psychoanalysis is an account of how and why modern people are so frightened of each other’.

The book’s simplicity is its power, though. I was personally horrified to discover how little time I had given to the subject matter of this book.

We covered War, Injustice, Human Nature and Cognition and other forms of blah blah at uni, but never made an enquiry into positive social behaviours. I was required to know what Seneca thought about duty to the state, but no-one has ever urged me to read up on what he liked about friendship.

This, Phillips and Taylor argue, is absolutely symptomatic of what’s going on in our communities and wider society. Kindness has come to be seen as a manipulative technique, or an egotistical self-indulgence. It has been first disastrously confused with self-sacrifice by the early Christians and then “feminised”, domesticated (and fetishised) by the modern world. It is an intellectual and practical weakness that we are terrified of acknowledging in ourselves, and quick to recoil from in others.

They cite all sorts of good examples of this process, but I’ll offer one that’s rather closer to home. Why have we, the RSA, come to describe concern for the welfare of others as being “other-regarding”? On reflection it’s perhaps a chilly, rather inhuman word, probably the only way of describing concern for other people without actually implying there’s any other real people involved. It’s a telling choice, but imagine the hoots of derision if we declared we wanted to nurture Humean “sympathy”…

Clearly if any of this is half-accurate, it goes a long way to explaining why we’ve seen a decline in trust, volunteerism and social capital in many Western societies in recent decades. The worry that these trends cause us shows that we haven’t given up on kindness; we still have an unthinking connection to it.

What can we do to treat this alleged epidemic of indifference and suspicion? Phillips and Taylor aren’t policy wonks, but they suggest a good place to start is by recognising that, in the words of philosopher Alan Ryan, ‘we mutually belong to each other’.

For those who regard that as fluff, chew on this: even Adam Smith, whose “invisible hand” has become a shibboleth for the modern world, was totally preoccupied by our sympathy for one another. Indeed, he regarded himself primarily as a moral philosopher. Self-interest to him was never confused with narrow selfishness. Rather being a healthy human involved seeing oneself reflected in the society one creates. 

My own observation is that if Phillips and Taylor are right, it partly explains why we are so tortured by the failure of the global banking system. We have never been so aware that we haven’t got human nature sussed. We have also never been so aware of our interdependencies, though they’re everywhere to see. Our fate is tied to everyone else’s, but we are terrified to recognise ourselves in one another’s needs.

And so, yes, I acknowledge my inner Blanche: I relied on the kindness of strangers in banks, in boardrooms and in government. And though they will never meet me, they came  in turn to rely on mine.

NB: We’ll be hosting a debate with Barbara Taylor about kindness here at the RSA on Thursday at 1pm. It’s fully booked, but you can catch it afterwards on RSA Vision.

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Entry filed under: book reviews.

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