Love Thy Neighbor: Why Have We Become So Suspicious Of Kindness?
January 3, 2009 12:54 PM   Subscribe

Love Thy Neighbor: Why Have We Become So Suspicious Of Kindness? Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers. But agreeing to talk about winners and losers is part and parcel of the phobic avoidance, the contemporary terror, of kindness. Because one of the things the enemies of kindness never ask themselves - and this is now an enemy within all of us - is why we feel it at all. Why are we ever, in any way, moved to be kind to other people, not to mention to ourselves? Why does kindness matter to us?
posted by jason's_planet (71 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Probably going to be flamed but

...i noticed this myself somewhat in the UK, relative to the States. This is completely anecdotal, but there seemed to be a sort of public coarsening, not necessarily in the behavior of the individuals I knew, but in the expectations of behavior in the public space. It was a mix of littering, language, volume of voice, and treatment of other people in public. It was as if I were watching a society slowly devolving in its expectations of behavior. I hate the term 'chav', but it felt as if those stereotypes of behavior were slowly percolating up the food chain and invading the public space. ...and no one had the gumption to tell folks to behave themselves and to be polite.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:04 PM on January 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

You need genuine kindness, not the self-serving variety. Some people confuse kindness with stupidity and politness with kindness.

If you have kind words and are supportive of someone's self-destructve behavior -- that's not kindness. That's telling people what they want to hear and you are enabling their toxic behavior so you can avoid confrontation or keep the image of being "the nice guy". If you tell them the truth -- they may think you're rude, but if you pull them out of their own dysfunctions, that's kindness. Cowardice and convenience isn't kindness, it's cruelty...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

Because telesales, direct marketers and grifters took advantage of looser social networks to be able to exploit the trust and kindness of those unused to exploitation, ironically atomising society further?

See also chuggers. If you exploit people's politeness enough times they will learn to be impolite to protect themselves. Tragedy of the commons, maybe. When the social stigma is removed, more people will be willing to exploit others (even with deception - I have heard a pitch started with ") and there is be a rational reaction of more closedness, or a price to be paid for not closing oneself.
posted by jaduncan at 1:05 PM on January 3, 2009 [8 favorites]

Why would jason's_planet just share this link with us? What the fuck are you trying to pull jason? Is this some kind of a trap?
posted by fuq at 1:06 PM on January 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Alexandra: The problem is that people sometimes just use that as a justification for rude behavior. I've heard the "I'm just trying to be honest / kind" schtick used by the 'telling it like it is' folks when they're really just being assholes
posted by leotrotsky at 1:12 PM on January 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I try to be kind, if for no other reason than that I have experienced kindness from others. Sometimes it's very little things, like helping an old woman get her luggage off the turning thing at the airport. Sometimes it's a bit bigger, like loaning a few thousand dollars to a friend so he could move, get a new job, and last until the paychecks began arriving. Or helping some of the flood victims along the Mississippi this past spring/summer.

I think it makes you a happier person, to be kind to others. Especially when you're kind to strangers. I have noticed that as the decades have drifted by, a spontaneous random act of kindness more often generates at least an initial look of suspicion now than it did in the past. It's as if the 'default setting' for people these days, when experiencing kindness from a stranger, is to question why you're being kind, what you're trying to get out of it, because of course you aren't just being genuinely kind, because nobody does that unless they want something. That mindset is really a rather sad thing to contemplate.
posted by jamstigator at 1:17 PM on January 3, 2009 [4 favorites]

Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.

Because that's exactly what we've been teaching them. Greed is good. Take what you can grab. Cheat on your taxes, because they'll just give it to "those people." Charity doesn't help, it just enables the bums.

And so forth. The scammers haven't helped any, because too often when someone does soften their heart, they get screwed, and then, suddenly, they're out of the kindness game as well.

For basically my entire life, this is what we've been taught to do, and who've we been taught to be. Why do you think they teach you about winners and losers so young?

Because you don't want to be a loser, right? Like those people?
posted by eriko at 1:20 PM on January 3, 2009 [15 favorites]

A: I don't believe people are innately anything. People have the capacity to be kind in varying amounts. Some are saints, some are sociopaths. The problem is that it takes very few people who lack empathy to screw up a system. They may be in the minority, but their effect is much greater than the rest.

B: Article is extremely wishy-washy. Author rails against a culture of unkindness without providing any real modern concrete examples. Then says we need to support a culture of kindness without providing any real ideas on how to do this. "People need to be nice" duuuh, but the question is how?
posted by zabuni at 1:25 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

On the first, I was moving back down to New York from Montreal, in a big UHaul. My brother was helping me, and we were moving the essentials from the truck to his apartment on West 158th at around 9 pm. I was carrying a packed duffel bag and a guitar case, and a pair of boots slung over the duffel strap kept kicking me in the knee every three steps. I stop to readjust and this guy appears, literally out of nowhere. Sort of a short gentleman, bushy mustache and beard, late 50's, wearing an old fashioned hat.
"Aren't your hands cold?", he asked me.
I actually had gloves, but I had left them in the truck. But I was so taken aback by his appearance that I only replied, "Um..."
"Here", he says, pulling off his gloves, "try these on, see if they fit."
I began to protest, telling him that I was fine, and he said, "No, no, look, you're carrying all that stuff. Go ahead, take them.", and then he walked off, leaving me with a pair of really nice leather gloves. My brother turned to me and said, "You know what that shit is? That shit is an omen. Things have to turn out right now."
I think what struck me most about this really random, amazing act of kindness was how I just didn't understand it at first. When he offered me the gloves, I assumed that he wanted MONEY for them, and when I realized what was actually going on I was ashamed that I was so cynical. I don't believe I've EVER noticed that someone was missing gloves, much less thought about giving them mine. When I was moving out of Montreal, I gave a bunch of my stuff to the Goodwill, but I don't think I'd ever just approach someone and offer something- it's actually a lot easier to just drop your shit in a box because you don't have to put yourself out there for possible humiliation, you don't have to worry about offending anyone.
My brother and (at least, for the time being) I live in a neighborhood where we are visible minorities, a sign of upcoming gentrification that I can't deny is helped along by me simply being here. I've worried a lot about this, and read a bunch of MeFi threads where people talk about how you need to become a part of your neighborhood, and I always wondered what that meant. I didn't really get it until the other night- at the very least, you need to be available, friendly and kind to the people around you. I think that my biggest resolution for 2009 (coming a day late) is to try to be more of a part of the city around me.
Sorry this is so long, it just touches on a lot of stuff I've been thinking about.
posted by 235w103 at 1:31 PM on January 3, 2009 [27 favorites]

Primate researcher Frans de Waal observed altruism among primates. He wondered how altruism can be explained given the prediction of the 'selfish gene' according to evolutionary theory. Apparently altruism is either directed towards family members. As such it's altruism on the level of organisms but selfishness on the level of genes. Or it's directed towards people who are part of an 'us' group and are expected to return favours. As such it's also some form of selfishness. The last form of course is much more likely to cause deception, break down of trust and similar mechanisms.
So some forms of altruism are not incompatible with the drive to survive and win.
posted by jouke at 1:33 PM on January 3, 2009

I am in love with this post and the conversation thus far.
posted by batmonkey at 1:42 PM on January 3, 2009

Why have I become so suspicious of overly generalized sentimentality?

I'm not surprised to see people echoing this idea in this, the most Grinch grows two heart sizes time of year, but I'm not particularly buying it. I suspect that over all, human nature does not change very much and that, pound for pound, our actions are relatively the same on a general level as they've always been. I can't think of a non-anecdotal way to do a thorough study of person to person interactions, but on a societal scale, I think you can prove that we have a more noble version of humanity than ever before and that in general we are more kind to our neighbors than ever before.

If you start in ancient times: well, given what Alexander the Great did when he invaded Persia, the fact that the US hasn't burned Iraq to the ground and sold the survivors as slaves, but instead, mostly just half-assed its ill conceived plans for infrastructure reconstruction, is a moral step forward. If you start in early modern times, the fact that we in the first world no longer deems child labor, sweat shops, open sewage or massive fire hazard tenements as acceptable but instead debates how to improve our (unwieldy and problematic) universal schooling and how to improve access to our (expensive but generally available) health care is another step forward. If Prop 8 is the largest form of massive public discrimination we face now, we're doing better than we were in World War One, when the President was openly friendly with the Klan, who had far more in mind than just denying licenses to the fraction of gay people who want to get legally married.

I'm not a scholar on the subject, so I don't know that our rhetoric is as inspired and noble, but the fact is that there was a time not too long ago when most of the articles of the Geneva convention would have been deemed sure lunacy, and while we don't live in a time where we always see them upheld, we at least live in a time when most people acknowledge that they should be and there is a (sometimes small) outcry when they aren't. That, my friends, is progress, even if it is often ineffectual progress.

Consider this: my taxes pay for schools, though I have no children, and my taxes pay for social security even though I've barely started my work career, and my taxes pay for food stamps even though I have enough bread of my own. Through the government, I have become my own brother's keeper. Yes, there are people that dislike that, and who would change that, but I suspect that they are in the minority, and that the average American does believe in social security and schools and roads. Kindness, in short, has been institutionalized, which has the drawback of not providing individuals a face to put on their charity and which denies them the moral satisfaction of knowing that they did the right thing; but it also widens the net, because left to their own, some would give and some wouldn't, whereas now all must give and in many ways all are welcome to receive.

Is it perfect? No. But it's progress, and with something as large as Western Civilization, that takes time. Check back in 500 years and we'll see if kindness is still endangered...
posted by Kiablokirk at 1:44 PM on January 3, 2009 [21 favorites]

Klablokirk: I really like your post.

But don't you think that institutionalized kindness has a greater impact than the absence of moral satisfaction? Doesn't it create, in the minds of people, an unwillingness to extend themselves to engage in personal acts kindness ...a kind of moral disempowerment stemming from the expectation that its someone else's job, or that someone else will handle it?

I'm all for widening the net, I'm just concerned that it isn't an unalloyed good.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:55 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hypothesis on the middle class: if you live at the ends of your means (i.e. on credit and debt), inherently you are assuming a massive risk in sharing, moreso than someone at either extreme poverty or extreme wealth.

Hypothesis on the price of services: the price of servic based industry jobs go up to allow the owners of those jobs to afford fun toys like snowmobiles, ipods, Wiis, and golf lessons for their 3 month old. Employees looking to shmooz their way to the top are/have been encouraged to particpate and fall under the Hypothesis on the middle class. Ultimately though the difference between the middle class that make it and the middle class that fail is wether or not the dual income lifestyle is forced into hardship through sickness, death, and/or loss of employment.

Hypothesis on the upper class: altruism fades as the cheapening of non-essential goods allows the poorer (including the middle class) to have visibly more. Why give to someone who has maxxed out their credit cards on Snowmobiles, XBoxes money? Moreso, can you even tell that they are in need if they're capable of that.

Result: Kindness is an option people forget.

(Bad) Advice: Smash your TV, rip out your cable box, drop your computer out the window, stop going to Borders and start going to your Library. Invite your neighbor over to play cards.

Please note: there are plenty of exceptions, your mileage may vary, swallowing and choking hazzard, breakable parts, this product may contain lead, peanuts, soy, or milk bi-products, offer valid in all states except Utah, Kansass and New Hampshire
posted by Nanukthedog at 2:16 PM on January 3, 2009

the price of servic based industry jobs go up

posted by synaesthetichaze at 2:24 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers."

If this is a secret belief, then how do the authors know? I lost my goodwill towards the authors after this tendentious assertion.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:27 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Okay, so it looks like they wrote a book on this, and so maybe in there things are better laid out. As it is though, this article is absurdly breathless.

I'll buy that we live in a more individualistic age. But we're not living Atlas Shrugged. Last time I checked, many people still fall in love, are loyal to their friends and family, and hope for better times.

And lest anyone romanticize the past, our age and culture is one which has institutionalized civil rights, illegalized slavery, and one which has a growing distaste for war. Our grandparents were involved in conflicts where governments saw it fit to force all the young men in a country to die for principles which had nothing to do with them. And politically, it wasn't even that difficult. Our generation is one in which people are beginning to understand what it is for millions of people of die.

My friends and family are all fundamentally kind people. I know I'm extremely lucky in this regard - but not that lucky. Goodness is still out there, and in many ways, we have a lot more understanding of the consequences of our actions than we used to.
posted by Alex404 at 2:34 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

"Kindness" because you want other people to like you is a virtue of losers, loaded with insecurity and hidden agendas. Kindness because you simply want other people to be happy is pretty amazing.
posted by LordSludge at 2:37 PM on January 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

Or what kiablokirk said.
posted by Alex404 at 2:40 PM on January 3, 2009

Gosh its an interesting article but it does seem questionable on many levels.

I'm American who has lived in London for the past twelve years, and has resided outside The United States for about one third of my adult life. I've lived and worked all over Africa and Europe, with significant amounts of time spent on the ground The Middle East as well.

I don't have any empirical data to back up this very, very subjective view, but at the outset I'd suggest that English society is far more caring - kind if you will - than American. But this isn't a crack at the people of either nation, rather it's the observation of a banker taking measured views of the system of capitalism as practiced by each nation.

I'd go so far as to suggest if we accept the author's premise that "free markets erode the societies that harbour them" then this must be true, that English society is far more caring than American. After all, financial and employment markets (to name but two) in The United States, are, on so many levels, much, much less regulated than in the UK.

Curiously, it would seem nobody accuses the US of being an unkind nation. No quite the reverse, we see American "kindness" celebrated and revered in the national media, especially so at Christmas or other significant holidays. And this suits the American stereotype, the self image that many of my countrymen not only carry close to their hearts, but also willingly project onto anyone unfortunate to broach the topic.

However I'd suggest the existence of an alternative world view; that this image of American altruism is more legacy than a current or even forward looking view. Everytime I return to America (an infrequent event to be sure), I'm struck by the decline in living standards, the all around shabbiness of daily life compared to European norms.

Many European nations, The UK included, practice a form of capitalism known colloquially as "capitalism with a conscience", or social capitalism. Its a variant that I hope someday will reign dominant over the less restrained, more bare knuckles form of winner takes all that we've historically seen practiced in America.

In fact recent market events have shown us the downside of totally unrestrained capitalism, the types of market excesses that the American, rules based regulatory systems inevitably give rise to. Principles based approaches to market regulation do indeed have their place in the evolution of global capitalism, and its this pragmatic approach that I believe spills over into or perhaps was influenced by social approaches to healthcare or housing or education.

But lest one think my opinion of the relative inferiority of American capitalism - and hence an unkind culture - has been forged solely in Europe, I started to form these conclusions based on experiences in Africa.

Africa. I spent a lot of time working in Africa, mostly the Sub Saharan nations, a combination of cities and remote (at times hot) border regions. I was almost killed twice in Africa but even so I miss it like no other place on earth. Its not so much any one country, although the continent is indeed breathtakingly beautiful. No, what I miss is the people. And what I learned from being so honoured to live amoung the people and experience first hand how they treated one another.

After all, each other is all most Africans got.

Living side by side with African people for extended periods of time, seeing the sun rise and set, feeling warm rain, smelling the passage of seasons, for months I wouldn't see another white person. You learn so much about a culture by participating in everyday life, seeing how people, especially people who don't know each other, treat one another.

I have so many beautiful memories about about Africa, the countryside, the sounds, the food, the music, the animals, the textures, the colours, the smells, but what I value most of all my time there was how ordinary people cared about and looked out for one another.

I would see people wearing ragged clothes and walking barefoot, folks who were thin even by European standards of weight, individuals who walked down the street with an indescribable dignity, who would smilingly drop coins into a beggar's cup.

These folks living in Africa can teach people in many other parts of the world, the United States and to a smaller extent Europe, things about community that we've long ago forgotten and I'm not sure we'll ever regain.

The longer I live outside the United States the more I fear our best days of kindness and self sacrifice are long behind us.

But who knows? Maybe Obama can change things for the better.

Perhaps that moment when he's sworn in will be magical not in word but in actual reality. Maybe from that infetesimal instant onwards he will single handedly alter the national psyche, a single spot of hope metastisizing outwards from Obama, passing from person to person and infecting us all in a good way, a true morning in America, driving the nation forward into another halcyon period of expanding our scope of understanding and hope.

After all, hope is all most Americans got.

But I'm deathly afraid that America is perhaps too far gone.
posted by Mutant at 2:40 PM on January 3, 2009 [19 favorites]

Why have I become so suspicious of overly generalized sentimentality?

I know I've become more suspicious over the past 10 years as "old-fashioned values" have been used to promote unbelievable levels of hate. In 1999 the words "family-oriented" or "small town life" didn't carry the overtones of racism, homophobia and religious frenzy that they do now. I realized this when I was watching some older movies where small town and rural life was portrayed in a way that I hadn't seen in a while: with educated, wise and kind characters who actually benefited from being nice to each other.

It seems that kindness and being part of a community have been co-opted as a marketing scheme for ultra-right wing nutjobs. To me anyway. I think a lot of people my age just don't want to be a part of some small minded grouping and they throw the baby out with the bathwater.
posted by fshgrl at 2:40 PM on January 3, 2009 [9 favorites]

Some of the sharpest memories I have from long past are unexpected kindnesses from strangers. I'm talking decades on. I think it's possible for people to learn generosity by rebelling against only having been shown selfishness and greed, but far more often kindness instructs kindness. I carry it around with me and when there's an opportunity to do good for no reason other than because I can, it's part of the reason why I don't just think about it, but do.

I'd suggest that English society is far more caring - kind if you will - than American.

I've mostly spent time with Scandinavians, Dutch, and the English as far as Europeans go, but I found that, despite individual differences in temperament, they were all more concerned about "doing the right thing" than I was used to, and were all far more automatically kind and generous not because that was the right thing, but because that's what people do. I don't know how N.A. ended up with such a deficit in this way -- I always thought that short of an accent, we weren't much different than the English, for example, but I'd completely back you on that observation.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:59 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.

What the hell is this guy talking about? How could you possibly know what "most" people "secretly" believe. It would be impossible. Sounds like some asshole is projecting his assholish nature on the rest of the world rather then any keen insight.
posted by delmoi at 3:04 PM on January 3, 2009

Then, without realizing it, you try to improve yourself at the start of each new day; of course, you achieve quite a lot in the course of time. Anyone can do this, it costs nothing and is certainly very helpful. Whoever doesn’t know it must learn and find by experience that a quiet conscience makes one strong.
~ Anne Frank via
posted by Restless Day at 3:11 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

American unfettered capitalism and rugged individualism and many aspects of the self-help movement, marinated in reagan/clinton/bushian deregulation, basically.

Codependence-- aka helping other people to the extent of harming self, formerly called being a saint-- is a disease. "The Secret" is that if you don't look at fat people, you won't be fat and that if you want it, you can have it and deserve it.

The American dream itself is cruel: you will make it if you really try your best (so if you don't make it, it's your fault and no one else's). If you get laid off, it's not that the global economy sucks-- it's that you didn't think positive enough.

[i'm suspecting those self-help gurus are going to have a bit of a harder time now though ;-)]

Universal health care is wrong because it rewards losers and might ration care. Welfare is bad because it's for wimps: suck it up, starving person! Tough love! More!

Europe recognizes social forces-- America sees them as excuses.

I am currently writing a book on empathy: and unfortunately, we are not raising our children to have much of it (though to be fair, there were times in the past when it was much, much worse but I believe we have slipped in last decades pretty perilously). I will be interested to read Phillip's book.
posted by Maias at 3:16 PM on January 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

I think you can sum up many of these lovely thoughtful posts here by saying: kindness is complicated. Sometimes it's a mistake (scams, enabling) sometimes it's self-serving (expecting gratitude or payback) and other times, it is various degrees of sheer charity, ranging from holding a door for an old person to laying down your life for a stranger.

The word itself does not seem big enough for all that we put on it, and I would guess that most people define it differently depending on experience and circumstance.

It's possible that "institutional kindness" breeds less personal kindness, but, if you're talking about your average homeless person, institutional kindness would do far more for them than your random dollar in their cup; I can't really feel too worried about that. If we get to a world where there is actually provision for every person in need, we can then focus on improving how we personally treat each other if that's a problem meanwhile...
posted by emjaybee at 3:21 PM on January 3, 2009

Mutant: Quentin Crisp once said, "There is a strange relationship between the system of a country and its people. In England, the people are hostile to a man but the system is compassionate. The very old, the very young, and the ill-equipped-to-live will always be looked after. In America everyone is friendly -- almost doggie-like -- but the system is ruthless. Once you can be pronounced unproductive, you’ve had it."

I don't go around believing things that Crisp said, but that observation has a lot of punch to it. I was breathtaken by the rudeness of the English almost as soon as I left the airport in London, but society makes it a hell of a lot easier to be sick or to be old in the U.K. than it does here.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:22 PM on January 3, 2009 [5 favorites]

I'd say it has a lot to do with the proliferation of scam artists and, to a lesser degree, 'scammy' sort of jobs that depend on and consume kindness like telemarketing, spamming, aggressive advertising, and such. If someone were to just walk up and be nice to be (offer to help, etc.) my first thought would be "What are they trying to pull?" Are they trying to distract me while someone else runs off with my stuff? Is this the first part of some scam? Are they going to want something in return, or to be paid afterward?

Plus, I tend to feel guilty about accepting favors, even if nothing is wanted in return.

I think part of it is the sheer number of people who've tried to exploit the kindness of others over the years, and part of it is the lack of necessity. People in other countries or in the past really needed to help each other more, since survival was/is more difficult. I'm more likely to accept help or attempt to help someone else if the situation is more dire.
posted by Mitrovarr at 3:26 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Europe recognizes social forces-- America sees them as excuses.

This is a very good distillation of the dichotomy, I think. I certainly recognize it in myself; I know so many people in my personal life who are basically deadbeats and whose terrible life choices condemned them to a life of destitution. And every time someone helped them, they ruined that person's life too.

These are just anecdotal anyway, but instead of, as you said, recognizing social forces as (at least) an influence on their behavior, and instead of seeing *how* they came to that state, I more often perceive it as a personal failing on their part. It's very difficult to get out of that typical American mindset.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:38 PM on January 3, 2009

I'd suggest that English society is far more caring - kind if you will - than American.

If you think that's true of London, then you really need to get out and see the rest of the country. The thing about London is, nobody actually comes from there anymore, so the sort of ties that produce the kind of community you get in the rest of the country barely exit.

An example: up North, if you're in a car park and still have time on your ticket, or you've bought a day pass for the trains and you've finished your journey, people will wait for the next person who is about to buy one, and pass on the one that they've finished with. It isn't a big kindness as it doesn't cost you anything, but it does save the next person some money.

If you try to do this in London, people will invariably refuse to take it, assuming that you either want money for it, or that there's some kind of scam involved.

I was breathtaken by the rudeness of the English almost as soon as I left the airport in London.

People in London are rude, but that's true of many major metropolitan areas. I don't think they're any ruder than people in New York or Paris, for example.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:40 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will be interested to read Phillip's book.

Phillips is the last of the British Freudian theorists. I suspect you'll loathe it.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:50 PM on January 3, 2009

I'm honestly amazed that anyone out there thinks there's a general lack of kindness going around. That there is some kind of kindness crisis or that it's even unexpected. It's certainly not something I've noticed.
posted by delmoi at 3:57 PM on January 3, 2009

If you try to do this in London, people will invariably refuse to take it, assuming that you either want money for it, or that there's some kind of scam involved.

Well, that's the result of a successful education campaign, with signs and recorded announcements in London warning you not to give or obtain Travelcards from third parties, and criminal penalties if you are caught doing so. So this might not be a fair indicator of the kindness of Londoners.

On the other hand, I personally didn't always find the people to be so friendly in southeast England in general, not just London. I can't claim to have extensive experience elsewhere, but London and the southeast account for 30 percent of the English population. The Quentin Crisp quotation is quite apt in my opinion.
posted by grouse at 4:21 PM on January 3, 2009

Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of loosers.

See what I did there?
posted by Sparx at 4:25 PM on January 3, 2009

(if perhaps you're looking for an evo-bio explanation) it might partially be due to difficulty in transitioning to a post-scarcity society* where altruism rather than acquisitiveness becomes more prominent and we're just unused to -- borrow a cliche -- the 'new paradigm' and/or lacking the systems to deal with such...

i'm reminded of a passage from my high school econ textbook _the economic problem_:
We live in a period in which much of the conventional wisdom of the past has been tried and found wanting. Economics is in a state of self-scrutiny, dissatisfied with its established premises, not yet ready to formulate new ones. Indeed, perhaps the search for a new vision of economics, a vision that will highlight new elements of reality and suggest new modes of analysis,** is the most pressing economic task of our time...

Remember that we are talking about the kind of behavior that we find in a market society. Perhaps in a different society of the future, another hypothesis about behavior would have to serve as our starting point. People might then be driven by the desire to better the condition of others rather than of themselves.***

A story about heaven and hell is to the point. Hell has been described as a place where people sit at tables laden with sumptuous food, unable to eat because they have three-foot long forks and spoons strapped to their hands. Heaven is described as the very same place. There, people feed one another.
*perhaps one indication that we're entering such a world is we're starting to create _artificial_ scarcity (or inconvenience design) in our lives in order to function (presumably 'well') cf. when 'economic' activity is increasingly occupied with maintaining positional goods rather than material well-being per se re: maslow's hierarchy of fulfillment for example

**like lately i've been kind of wondering about 'proleptic reflexivity' -- "how people understand the present from the point of view of what we'll say about it in the future" -- in the context of (encouraging good or better) behaviour [see below!] cf. prigogine - "what we do today depends on our image of the future, rather than the future depending on what we do today"

***cf. enlightened self-interest and public goods, like from an old 'essay' (if you can call it that, see the 29th, slightly embarrassing ;) rather than the pursuit of growth i think gaining credence is the concept of the "good society"

posted by kliuless at 4:33 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

The article is not about kindness, or the supposed reduction in kindness, which it did not at all demonstrate. It is about a distaste for competition, a fear of naturalistic explanations for altruism, and the disappointment that we no longer browbeat into the children the false virtue of sacrifice.

I am not suspicious of kindness. I am suspicious of people like Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor. They're the strawmen that Ayn Rand warned us about.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:01 PM on January 3, 2009

Children who are "browbeaten" are typically *not* the ones who sacrifice-- or rather, if they sacrifice, they sacrifice *others* to their own pleasures. You can't create empathy or altruism by force.

This is the big mistake of "tough love"-- the idea that if you bully the bullies, they'll develop empathy for their victims. Nope: guess who becomes a bully most? Someone who has been bullied, usually at home. The people who are bullied who become altruists were empathetic to begin with-- in fact, they were likely targeted by the bullies *because* they are sensitive.

Tough love just makes these guys angrier and/or better at manipulating others to avoid being placed in that position in future.
posted by Maias at 5:12 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wonder what the authors think of the practice of paying for the person behind you at toll booths and fast-food drive-throughs with he expectation they will do the same, and so on. I bet they're exactly the sort of people who are delighted by such displays of pointless social conformity zero-sum charity.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 5:18 PM on January 3, 2009

The U.S. Republican party calls itself the "party of civility."

It's obvious that this means only "civility for people like us," or Rush Limbaugh and his like wouldn't exist.
posted by bad grammar at 5:23 PM on January 3, 2009

re: 'family' - peter singer has written about the 'expanding circle' of william lecky: "At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal* world**..."

kumbaya :P


*or consider the oyster - "life has altered the chemistry of the oceans and the air. It has even enriched the variety of minerals found here. Of the 4,300 or so different minerals on the planet, perhaps 2,800 exist only because of the activities of living beings. A planet that has never been home to life would have simpler rocks, less interesting geology. The beings of the past have built the Earth as we know it today," for example: "A few decades ago, the Chesapeake had enough oysters to filter the entire bay every week: that same task would take its existing population a full year..." [chart]

**or even the non-animal world as dick would have it:
For Dick, whose Exegesis notes that, thanks to the experience of 2-3-74, he'd finally started living the satori he experienced as a child torturing a beetle, the answer to the question "What is Human?" is: kindness, empathy. That's why it doesn't matter, to Dick, that those mechanical systems in his stories and novels that display kindness-like the automated taxicab that counsels the protagonist of The Game-Players of Titan not to leave his wife-are programmed to act human; if they act human, they are human. The converse is also true: A sly and cruel human being without empathy, without caritas, who "stands detached, a spectator," is-Dick insists-no kind of a human at all.

posted by kliuless at 5:35 PM on January 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

i got as far as For most of western history the dominant tradition of kindness has been Christianity, and almost spit out my fake beer onto my cheap-o gateway. i guess that somewhere in my fascist catholic upbringing i missed that tradition.

if you want to know why i'm suspicious of kindness, take a look at any major charity. or reverend/preacher. or politician. or businessman. we live in a world that is increasingly dominated by lies & half truths, and where parents & teachers & bosses & elected officials like to tell us how to behave & what to believe, but somehow find themselves above the same ideals they peddle. that is the biggest killer of trust in the universe. trust is replaced by fear, which manifests itself in 'if i lose x then bad thing y will happen. i am a good person & i deserve x, and you are a not-so-good person because you're muslim or republican or you dress funny or your haircut looks like it was done by a crazed squirrel, and therefore i am superior and you don't deserve basic human decency so it's alright for me to lie, bully, steal, and/or kill.' hell. half the time we're just happy that people DON'T lie, bully, steal, and/or kill. us.

then when we're all so busy justifying cheating to get a better grade, jiggering our resumes to get a better job, or donning jumpsuits and shouting MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, we tend to overlook others' self-destructve behaviors because we don't want them to point out our own.

there's a lot of suckitude in the world, and it most certainly isn't the guarded domain of any one person or groups of people. thank goodness people can still recognize true kindness the story about the gloves is lovely, by the way in a world where we blithely accept the faux kindness as the gold standard.
posted by msconduct at 5:35 PM on January 3, 2009

"Kindness" because you want other people to like you is a virtue of losers, loaded with insecurity and hidden agendas. Kindness because you simply want other people to be happy is pretty amazing.

posted by LordSludge at 2:37 PM on January 3

Yes, but it's tricky to determine one's own motives and drives... and I wrestle with this dilemma a lot. It's not either/or: it's and. As a child of parents with NPD/BPD, I definitely have a strong desire for approval and a want to be liked, as well as a very strong desire to avoid actions that would bring about shame or embarrassment. I also try act out of empathy and kindness because of concern for others. (not try... it feels instinctual). These desires are co-mingled and it's very, very difficult, if not impossible, to separate them and apportion shares to each motivation. We are complex beings.
posted by Auden at 5:42 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

>I'd say it has a lot to do with the proliferation of scam artists and, to a lesser degree, 'scammy' sort of jobs that depend on and consume kindness like telemarketing, spamming, aggressive advertising, and such.

>If we get to a world where there is actually provision for every person in need, we can then focus on improving how we personally treat each other if that's a problem meanwhile...

About a week ago, I left a bar in Manhattan and got into a taxi to go home. Just as I sat down and grabbed the handle to shut the door, a man came up and unloaded a desperate jumble of words as fast as he could. I could only make out something about his daughter in a car and an offer to let me hold his wallet and wedding band as collateral for doing something for him. Nearly drunk and very tired, I declined to help him and went home.

Even if I had been in a better state at the time, I probably would not have gotten out to help the man. On one hand, he might have been talking quickly in order to get his story out before I took off in the cab and trying to calm my suspicions with the security of collateral. On the other, he might have been talking quickly so that I would agree to help without really understanding what was happening and offering false collateral to give me a false sense of security.

The issue was that he had to break through my wall of suspicion first. I find that, when dealing with people in certain situations, I think of them as trying to sell me something before I think of them as human beings in need. I find the effect of viral advertising, hidden fees, inadvertent opt-ins, and other sneaky tactics is to have made me very suspicious when strangers ask something of me. I even feel a pang of reluctance to buy things in retail stores, simply because it is the employees' job to sell an item to me, regardless of whether it is the best value for the money or even whether it performs up to the standards promised on the box.

When it is so easy for a few bad apples to put most people on their guard, when you hear constant stories about things like Nigerian phishing scams and Madoff's ponzi scheme (and his clients were supposed to be savvy!), personal kindness is difficult. In large cities, it's likely to be even easier for the bad apples to win, since the residents don't know each other as well as they would in a small town. We can either choose to make people more easily identifiable and knowable in big cities, sacrificing privacy, or we can favor institutional kindness and simply do our best to balance kindness with the need to protect ourselves from those who would take advantage.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 6:09 PM on January 3, 2009 [3 favorites]

In 1999 the words "family-oriented" or "small town life" didn't carry the overtones of racism, homophobia and religious frenzy that they do now.

Having grown up in small towns, I can assure you that both phrases have pretty much never had any other meaning to me.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:24 PM on January 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

This reminds me of an undergraduate philosophy class I took by accident. The only thing I got out of the course was a very interesting debate on whether people are altruistic because they get personal enjoyment out of helping others, or because they feel they will be rewarded for doing so, through karma or otherwise.
posted by bondgirl53001 at 7:01 PM on January 3, 2009

it's a great article, glad i read it to the end

it's interesting that they describe and contrast individuality in terms of dependence, the individuality we all aspire to is self sufficient and independent, its 'enemy' is dependence, to be weak and parasitic. kindness in these terms seems to be about big acts involving self sacrifice, or at the least pre-meditated, but the type of kindness which we (if we are lucky) miss more are the small acts that seem to embody our traditional notions of civility and politeness.

the article offers the positive definition of dependence as empathy and compassion, some degree of fellow identification, which we can imagine on the scale of certain social groups, families, streets, neighbourhoods, but have increasing trouble with at the political or even spiritual level of nations or humanity respectively. our embeddedness and familiarity are the guarantee against the creep of maudlin sentimentality which always follows invocations of mankind (you know you're either being screwed, following some web 2.0 guff, or reading something from the 19th century), the concrete fact of simply being there with other people rather than a strained construction of unity.

but i think for a long time, people's belief in political unities came from faith in the commonality of people, that we shared more in common than were separated by differences and this faith in our commonality preceded our empathy and compassion, was its necessary background. today it seems a lot harder to believe in that, we're all taught that each of is unique and individually special, requiring intensive and complete self creation whilst the things we have in common hold us back rather than hold us up.
posted by doobiedoo at 7:12 PM on January 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Americans are often cited by foreign visitors as being unusually friendly. Having lived in Scandanavia and Japan for some time, I can understand that feeling. (Although my treatment in Scandanvia and especially Japan was exceedingly polite, much more so than in the USA.)

Kindness is a slightly different issue. The etymology indicates "kin" or kindred; AKA blood relations, something we in the USA are not as concerned about as other countries, as so may of us are multiracial.

Here in the USA, I think most of us are kind. Yeah, I had a checkbook stolen and it took a year to iron out the difficulties. But most people, if they find a dropped wallet, contact the owner.

Studies on the "altruistic gene" indicate that we tend to help, not hurt, others in our tribe.
posted by kozad at 7:14 PM on January 3, 2009

"Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers."

I just lost my Macbook to a swindler because I was being kind, I wanted to help him get up from the mire by helping out with a "business presentation" he needed to give. (he "used" to be a missionary, his kid used to be my friend whom I now believe to be delusional, and he gave me a book "Growing deep in the Christian Faith" for my birthday. Now my own dad reminds me in less kind terms that I used to chide him for being antisocial.

I suppose that sentence literally applies to me, as a loser. Really, I've been taken advantage of too many times, and I hope this nightmare is the last time I'll ever have to learn my lesson.
posted by drea at 8:46 PM on January 3, 2009

Studies on the "altruistic gene" indicate that we tend to help, not hurt, others in our tribe.

Except -- what qualifications merit being labeled as "in our tribe"? More importantly, who's liable to be labeled as not part of the tribe? Is someone who falls into a commonly despised or outcast social category part of the tribe?

One American's perception of who belongs to the tribe is likely to differ from another's based on all kinds of things, whether it's ideology, geography, ethnicity, religion ..... (The list goes on.) Xenophobia is as much a part of American history as altruism.

A good book about kindness, altruism, and disconnection in American society -- one that's been menioned on mefi many times before -- is Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.
posted by blucevalo at 10:39 PM on January 3, 2009

"After the master left, Zengzi said, “The Master’s Way is nothing but doing-one’s-best-for-others (zhong 忠) and likening-to-oneself (shu 恕)”
posted by Abiezer at 10:56 PM on January 3, 2009

From the effect-of-environment perspective: I long-ago served in the U.S. Air Force. The environments, at a base in Calif., and in England, were striking. The people were a hugely diverse mix of races and backgrounds--small-town upbringings, urban upbringings, level and type of spirituality, political leanings, level of political awareness, simple things like hobbies, etc.

For all the diversity and differing views, I was struck by how kind darn near everyone was. Big favors, like rides to the airport... when the airport is 150 miles away, help fixing cars, 40-mile r/t rides to get the car from the repair shop, babysitting, petsitting, married people having single people over for good, home-cooked dinner, etc. Beyond that, when people had cars, furniture and such to sell, it was mighty rare that someone would lie about the condition of the car, try to get a higher-than-market price for stuff.

Felt like however much one might have come to that environment with that sort of inclination, being in it fostered kindness. People seem to get more comfortable with the idea that they're not gonna get shafted or that people won't take advantage. Also had a sense that maybe people took that approach because they realized (consciously or otherwise) that they would stand out in a bad way if they didn't.

I know this much: Much as a lot of us didn't have much in common with the people around us, in terms of basic decency, genuine friendliness and real kindness, those two environments were easily the best I've encountered in about 25 years of adult life.
posted by ambient2 at 1:12 AM on January 4, 2009

One example (though by no means unique) of sustained kindness that's stuck with me is from back when I worked in rural development in south-west China. One of the most isolated mountain hamlets we were looking to do projects in had basically a subsistence economy; any cash people earned came from going (often far away) from home and putting up with crappy conditions as a migrant labourer.
One of the villagers was a blind widower, but the small vegetable garden patch around his house was very neatly kept and churning out lots of lovely fresh produce. On inquiry, it turned out all the other households were taking turns to do the farm work for him he was no longer able to manage himself, although there were no close kinship ties; they did the same for his small arable land allocation from the village collective too. The entire attitude of the people who did it was very matter-of-fact; anyone I spoke to about it always left you with the impression that they could hardly imagine approaching the matter any other way.
posted by Abiezer at 1:37 AM on January 4, 2009

Americans are often cited by foreign visitors as being unusually friendly.

I've worked in Vietnam, South Africa, Canada, and the United States. I find that American customer service is generally off the charts: retail clerks, servers... always smiling, eager to chat, and seem interested in the people they are dealing with. and are generally much more communicative than most other nationalities. In Canada for example (where I live and work), there is a lot less attempt made to personalize these kind of commerical transactions: they are generally quick, efficient, and fairly impersonal -- even though US parent companies try to export the customer service culture it never really works.

When the tides have been reversed and I have been the one providing the service, I found Americans to be demanding, blunt, unaccomodating, and quick to make threats but normally reasonable. The American worker gets a shit number of holidays, poor maternity leave, and has a really high expectation to do things like work overtime, so he lets loose a lot easier... An American will yell and make threats in a fairly normal business communication and if satisfied will take it no further - by comparison a Canadian yelling and making threats would likely be thought of as a loose cannon - but the Canadian (who is slightly easier to please) will send the message they are very unsatisifed through some other channel (normally a formal escalation to a boss or something) and after spending years working primarily with Americans and American firms, I found the Canadian way quite underhanded. I bring in the Canadian American comparision only to point out that when we talk about "polite" or "friendly" we bring in a lot of cultural bias. Asian business is a set of relationship rituals, African business is slow unsteady and meandering, and European business is similar to business in NA, but moves at a much slower pace than the US or Canada. I take polite and friendly to mean "respects basic human dignity", and I have never been able to really figure out who the most polite and friendly people are because we are always dealing with trade-offs.

But yeah, in general a tourist who avoids hassles with Homeland Security (who are a bunch of brutes) and is dealing with waitresses, tour guides, hotel clerks, and shopkeeps - America is one hell of a friendly place.
posted by Deep Dish at 2:09 AM on January 4, 2009

So it's not just me. I have been noticing a general lack of consideration and antipathy even, a feeling that people really don't give a damn. I often even find myself, to my dismay, not having patience with kindness, if you will, in large part I think because people have gotten good at putting on the minimum pretence of civility, a veneer covering a kind of sneering self absorption, and I find it very hard to play that game. Another factor is the pace of life right now, trying to keep up with technology, everyone so focused on their own little world they have no time or interest left to give. Add to that cynicism from hyper media exposure and the neo-darwinian neocon philosophy that has been running rampant over everything and this is the logical end result. I also wonder what effect reality tv is having, whether refelcting or feeding or probably both. I guess in a way every one is starting to act like they're on Survivor (except for the roughing it part).

However, I don't have any time for the biological-explanation-for-everything crowd. If there is no real kindness then there is no such thing as kindness at all, so what are we even talking about? I find that thoroughly dehumanizing.
posted by blue shadows at 3:07 AM on January 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Actually, another cause of the decline in kindness could well be that as we become less kind we also don't won't to see others being kinder than we are - the old pulling others down to your level. As well, the other side of being kind is receiving kindness, something which can be difficult, and something in which seem to be losing practice.

I fear for how reductionist we are becoming.
posted by blue shadows at 3:34 AM on January 4, 2009

The overwhelming majority of swindlers want money, or some item easily convertible to money. So wherever possible, avoid giving money. Instead buy them a meal, or give them a lift, or some clothes, or a hand moving a heavy item, or something. This also lets you say "I'll help you out, but I don't give out money. There are too many swindlers in the world." with a clear conscience.

Or just give them a fiver, if that's all they want. It doesn't matter if they spend it on drugs or alcohol or whatever. You were probably going to do that too.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:41 AM on January 4, 2009

drea I hope this nightmare is the last time I'll ever have to learn my lesson.

You know who that guy is and where he lives. What are you doing to get your MacBook back? Have you reported the theft? Letting him get away with it isn't kind to anyone, especially not yourself.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:48 AM on January 4, 2009

You know who that guy is and where he lives.

No I don't; they move around due to a "precarious family situation" which just turned out to be him running away from people.

But I've reported it, and I'm hoping that the authorities take it seriously. It's hard to be hunting him down all by myself. I should be fighting low grades, not crime.
posted by drea at 5:37 AM on January 4, 2009

I believe kindness is the outward display of empathy. The problem is, you gain empathy for those who are in need or who are suffering mainly by having been in need or having suffered yourself. And there isn't that much suffering in America, so those who haven't suffered much (which is most Americans) don't have much empathy for those who do suffer, because they just can't comprehend it other than vaguely.

When I see a family living out of a car, I have a gut-wrenching desire to help, because I have been there; I know, in some detail, what that life is like: the hunger pangs, the fear each night, the unrelenting cold, the inability to get comfortable or to sleep deeply, the shame and humiliation, the toll all that takes on you physically and emotionally. I endured that as a child, more than 30 years ago, but the memories will never fade.

But kindness can be dangerous too, because there definitely are people out there who will take advantage of kindness. I'll relate one story like that.

In 1985 I was sent to Izmir, Turkey. I was in the Army, but attached to an Air Force unit. I got an apartment on the first floor in downtown Izmir. Well, one day after work I was sitting in my apartment having a rum and coke. I had my windows open so I could take in the sunlight while relaxing.

Well, a scruffy guy walked by and I waved in friendly American fashion, and gestured to the guy that he could have a drink if he liked. So he came in and I mixed him a rum and coke. He didn't speak English and I didn't speak Turkish yet, but we communicated okay with gestures and whatnot. I offered him chance to use my shower, and he did that. Then I mixed us a couple of stiff drinks.

After a couple of drinks I needed to pee, so I went to take a leak. When I got back, I took a sip of my drink and noticed that it was fuller than it was before I went to the bathroom, and *significantly* stronger. Suspicious, the next time I mixed us a couple of drinks, I made the Turk's drink really strong and mine quite weak, and I also surreptitiously slid a steak knife under my pants behind my back, out of sight under my shirt, just out of paranoia, thinking this guy was trying to get me drunker than I perhaps wanted to get.

I was a pretty big drinker back in those days and, despite being rail-thin, I could do some serious drinking before becoming incapacitated. Not to mention, unlike the Turkish guy, I was also well-fed and healthy. The Turk was getting wasted though, and I could sense a bit of aggravation/impatience that I wasn't drunk under the table.

Eventually I needed to pee again, so I hit the john again. When I opened the door to exit the bathroom, the Turk was right there and he took a swing at me, hit me right between the eyes with a punch and tore a gash in my forehead with a ring he had on. But even as he was swinging, I was reaching behind me and pulling out the steak knife. As he pulled back for another punch, I stuck him in the belly with the steak knife, deep. His eyes went wide and he looked down at the blood that started pouring out, then he panicked and ran out of my apartment.

I was shaken, but I was also pretty damn drunk (though not falling-down drunk), so after locking the door, I fell on the bed and crashed hard. In the morning, I wasn't sure if I'd imagined the whole thing, and rather hoped I had. But there was a trail of blood from the bathroom to my door, so I was forced to concede that my initial act of attempted kindness had in fact turned into a stabbing. I never heard from the cops, military or Turkish, and never saw that dude again, so I assume he didn't die from the wound.

Moral of the story: be kind, but don't be stupidly kind.
posted by jamstigator at 6:05 AM on January 4, 2009 [6 favorites]

Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers.

Dude needs to get out the city for awhile.
posted by 3.2.3 at 6:39 AM on January 4, 2009

Americans are open and friendly, especially compared to western Europeans (can't speak for eastern Europeans). That is not kindness. They are also increasingly inconsiderate. That isn't really a lack of kindness. It is a lack of manners. Did your mother admonish you, as a child, to "get out of people's way!"? Mine did. I think mothers stopped doing that. Why? Maybe simply because there are too many people. Maybe the pressures of life have gotten such that this no longer occurs to people.

Swiss are especially considerate, and some of that is written right into their laws. Loose a glove on the ground, and someone will pick it up and place it where it won't be trampled, and where you can see it easily, to find it. That's kind. Loose a wallet with some serious money inside, and the finder may very well seek you out. However, by law, you owe them a percentage of what you get back. I've noticed also, especially the Swiss and Germans, if you're taking a photo, people will actually avoid walking in front of you (they may get a bit impatient if you are slow). Other places, people will ignore what you're doing.

What is kindness, really? I'd suggest it need be nothing more than having your head out of your ass so you see when a moment of your time can lend a helping hand, simply because you're there, and someone needs it. Like helping someone get their stroller off a bus. Maybe giving up your seat to someone who needs it worse (or is that just being considerate?). Stopping to help someone pick up the spilled contents of a shopping bag or briefcase is kind. Giving some change to the person in front of you at the cash register, who discovers they are slightly short to pay, is kind. It doesn't matter if you do it to speed things up.

Kindness is letting an old lady, or man, hang on to you while walking across a slippery patch of side walk. But you have to have your head out of your ass to realize the situation calls for it. People have their heads up their asses a lot. Whether it's the headphones/earplugs in their ears, or the stress of planning their day's work, who can say. But really, some of the lack of kindness is a lack of awareness.

Giving away money, in some amount greater than whatever passes for "small change" these days (someone mentioned a fiver above. I'm old, that sounds like a lot to me) is not kindness, it is 'charity'. All these things, consideration, kindness, and charity, are related, but not equal. Some folks are essentially inconsiderate assholes, but very charitable. Other folks are considerate and kind, but charity is beyond their ability.

Civilization means the "art of living in cities". To be civil, is to be considerate. If you want a reasonable existence, it pays to be considerate, and encourage that in others. This is something I think is lost on many people. It makes us tolerate each other's presence. Being kind to each other turns that which is tolerable into a net positive.
posted by Goofyy at 6:51 AM on January 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I just lost my Macbook to a swindler because I was being kind

in the post on confidence games:
Why did this con work? Let's do some neuroscience. While the primary motivator from my perspective was greed, the pigeon drop cleverly engages THOMAS (The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System). If you've been reading The Moral Molecule, you will remember THOMAS from earlier posts on robot brides, couchsurfing, and why we touch each other. THOMAS is a powerful brain circuit that releases the neurochemical oxytocin when we are trusted and induces a desire to reciprocate the trust we have been shown--even with strangers.

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable. Because of THOMAS, the human brain makes us feel good when we help others--this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. "I need your help" is a potent stimulus for action.
When it is so easy for a few bad apples to put most people on their guard

that's what gladwell was getting at in his essay -- million-dollar murray -- on how (much) society employs its resources dealing with 'exceptions' ('power law' problems, cf. corner solutions) i.e. there are effective ways of dealing with "a few bad apples" that cause the bulk of societal ills, but they may not necessarily be moral or 'satisfying' as comes out in the (social) justice thread [retribution, restoration, both?] when having to weigh the 'needs of the many' etc. as is gladwell's wont he suggests there are 'smart' ways (outliers!) to deal with the seemingly intractable :P

anyway, point (hypothesis) is if bad apples can be efficiently sorted and 'taken care of' then that leaves people less on guard and frees up the mental reserves for 'kindness' i guess, instead of cycling misleading vividness fallacies :P like as einstein sez! -- "The significant problems we face today cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

what qualifications merit being labeled as "in our tribe"?

well there are the genetic markers that we all know and love but of course (societal) "diversity is not explicable genetically," memes for lack of a better word change (altho genes are trying to catch up ;) so while gellner would argue that industrialisation gave rise to the (geographic) nation-state, abetted by an educational system designed to breed conformity to some standard of nationalist myth-making, i'm not sure what 'imagined communities' can substitute or complement it if indeed one can characterise 'advanced economies' as having entered a post-industrial uh virtual milieu (post-american anyway, if not quite post-human, yet!)

some have speculated on transnational organisation (whether anti/corporate or government or religious), maybe some other 'communities of interest' will take on the trappings of political units -- like stephenson's burbclaves or phyles, or like 4chan and mefi -- i dunno...

whether people are altruistic because they get personal enjoyment out of helping others, or because they feel they will be rewarded for doing so, through karma or otherwise

this reminded me of a discussion on the fine line between acting and pretending vs. being and becoming (kinda like the dick quote above)...
Lewis observes that "all mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be." In Lewis's view, pretension represents not some ugly deformation or attenuation of a primordial and irrefragable character, but rather the practice by which individuals aim themselves, as it were, at who they want to become.
kinda like where vonnegut got his line from? or the practise effect :P
In other words, in a society with some voting feedback (I will avoid the word "democracy" since this implies a level of control by the people that is, of course, only a fantasy), the government does not have to be good, but it has to avoid violating the norms of our society to the point that it becomes obvious that the official story (for example, the story that we're a "free" country) is a sham. In other words, our leaders do not have to really be fighting for justice and freedom, they just have to appear to be doing so.
posted by kliuless at 8:54 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

i read this thread and three thoughts came to me, impulsively,

1. mutant, you've hit the nail on the head, in subsaharan africa especially, the only insurance you have is the community, to turn to in times of need

2. why are there only 62 comments on this thread? I would have expected at least 200 plus

3. we need to start being open hearted and open minded a lot more, trust and confidence and faith in humanity's innate good nature needs to become a must have once more...
posted by infini at 9:59 AM on January 4, 2009

I believe kindness is the outward display of empathy. The problem is, you gain empathy for those who are in need or who are suffering mainly by having been in need or having suffered yourself

This is a myth. You get empathy in part from genetics, but in larger part from having been raised in a nurturing, loving, empathic way.

If it were true that suffering was the best way to produce empathy, child abuse and trauma would reliably yield the most empathetic people in the world.

we all know people who have been through that and are empathetic, some especially so. But What makes many them empathetic is not their suffering: it is having received love from somewhere and/or having a genetically sensitive temperament, not the abuse and trauma.

Suffering and trauma in the absence of genetic sensitivity and environmental love far more reliably yield depression, anger, social withdrawal and even sociopathy.
posted by Maias at 10:13 AM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

we all know people who have been through that and are empathetic, some especially so. But What makes many them empathetic is not their suffering: it is having received love from somewhere and/or having a genetically sensitive temperament, not the abuse and trauma.

Or, just maybe, some of them have seen the effects of abuse and the effects of acting out of empathy and kindness and chosen the latter for themselves.
posted by notashroom at 12:05 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

2. why are there only 62 comments on this thread? I would have expected at least 200 plus

I'm much happier with 62 authentic and thoughtful comments than 500+ drive-by one-liners or repetitive, personality-driven pissing matches.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:23 PM on January 4, 2009

I'm much happier with 62 authentic and thoughtful comments than 500+ drive-by one-liners

That's what she said.
posted by grouse at 8:49 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

A comment to the thought that we've become a kinder, gentler society through the centuries. I'd agree, as a whole, but I would argue that this particular arc of progress is not a noble one, but rather one of practicality. I don't believe it's a coincidence that the fall of slavery coincided with the rise of the industrial revolution. Slavery became impractical and uneconomic - the popular moral certainty that slavery was wrong may have progressed with that, but it did not come first.

Similarly, politeness and kindness. We don't spit on the floor because we've largely banished TB. We negotiate foreign policy with other great powers without war (aside from wars-by-proxy and saber-rattling) because each side has weapons that could obliterate the other ten times over. We don't fight duels in the streets or pursue blood vendettas because modern cities of millions of people wouldn't survive that way. We don't nail burning cats to boards or bear-bait for entertainment because we have television, movies, general literacy, and PS3's that we can use to virtually snipe the head off a person 10,000 miles away.

We've negotiated a way of modern way of living that is practical for citizens of the modern era - being "kinder" may or may not have a part in it.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 9:41 PM on January 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

"We don't spit on the floor because we've largely banished TB."

Um, isn't this 100% the wrong way around? I am sure spitting in public was banned in the British Commonwealth as an anti-TB measure, once the germ theory of disease was accepted.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:38 PM on January 4, 2009

One source, to me, seemed to stem from the values being taught to children at a young age and throughout school. From a U.S. perspective, I remember noticing a trend in public schools that started in the early to mid 90's that I really believe has had an effect on the younger generation currently in their college years. Essentially, the message was the re-enforcement of "you're special." or unique in a way that deserved special treatment. This message seemed to create a sense of entitlement, and a lot of rudeness that comes along with it when things don't go the way one expects. (I've also heard that this has been generally coined as the "me generation," though I'd rather not stereotype an entire generation, there are many exceptions)

I graduated right around the time this trend appeared to begin which sparked a lot of interesting conversations with people similar in age to me on how the new kids were "being spoiled." But now, after working 10 years at a college, its interesting to see a gradual shift in that sense of entitlement...while not becoming entirely altruistic, a lot more of the incoming students are much more considerate than their predecessors. I think the trend is actually returning towards a more kind society from my very narrow sampling here. To me there's hope, especially at a time in history where many egos have also been humbled due to the economic troubles we face (obviously another big factor at work here...hard to pinpoint...kindness just happens).
posted by samsara at 6:30 AM on January 5, 2009

i_am_joe's_spleen: I'd argue that, like slavery, the development went hand-in-hand: understanding the disease helped, of course, but contracting TB still built up phlegm - as less people had the disease, there was less spitting. I've never seen any statistics on the effectiveness of "anti-expectoration" laws, but I suspect it was the availability of treatment that decreased TB, not the thought of "oh, I should keep my spit in my gob, it's the law" on the part of citizens.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:47 AM on January 5, 2009

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