Kindness, Or, What is a Radical Act?

A somewhat different kind of column today, riffing off some thoughts inspired by an article in Times Higher Education. 


I read a great column today by Rachel Moss about the necessity of kindness as a human, a societal quality, in Britain post-Brexit, and the necessity of kindness in higher education. It reflects my own conclusions on life: we must be kind, at the very least. To be so requires cultivating, deliberately in my experience, certain qualities of character, mentality, emotion, and being that aren’t always apparent. Too often we commit the sin of Parzival, when he failed to inquire of his host the Fisher King what ailed him–he was so wrapped up in himself, that he had no thought for anyone else. Conversely, kindness can also sometimes consist in refraining from speaking or acting in certain ways.

What stood out as a bit of an odd note to me in the essay was how kindness was described as a “radical act” and that “our activism begins with an outstretched hand.” Why radical? Why does kindness have to be “activism”? (Out of curiosity, I googled “what is a radical act,” and the results were quite diverse.)

I’ve always seen kindness–caritas, charity–as a spiritual quality, a state of being, which transcends the particularizing labels “radical” or “activism,” because it does not answer to man or any particular cause, but only to that supreme spiritual power, energy, call it what you will, in which I still believe.  If caritas is radical or activism, it is so only in the context of the spiritual contest of good versus evil, which, at least according to my Catholic background, one does not particularize to an individual, because that is playing God with people’s hearts and minds. It is also, again to my mind, an intensely private thing–let not the left hand know what the right hand does, and so forth. To call kindness radical sui generis is to make it an explicitly public act, when, as I’ve told people, that’s between me and the good Lord. Why should one particularly care whether others disapprove of your action? (I’m aware of the counter-argument that Christianity itself was founded on such radical caritas, but there’s more to it than that.)

Of course, this is all well and good for “normal” times–what could be defined as when the public sphere, people’s personal beliefs, and political culture are in alignment. Whether or not individuals harbor hateful, harmful resentment against their neighbors, as long as the public sphere is policed in a humanistic manner and a nation’s political culture confines campaigns to issues and not ad hominems, kindness is not likely to be remarkable.

But when this alignment slips or worse spirals out of control, to be kind does become radical. I was just reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship yesterday, and Nazi Germany would be one extreme example where to show kindness could and in many cases did end up being a death sentence.

When I arrived in the UK the Saturday after the Brexit vote, everyone was rather shocked (or disgusted, or so disgusted they were over it). It took a few days for all the stories of racist and xenophobic incidents to accumulate, and the noteworthy thing was that the “leave” leadership didn’t speak out against them or condemn them. Like, at all (someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I was pretty well connected to the news during that entire time). It was a disturbing feeling to walk down the multi-cultural and multi-racial streets of London and think that there were likely people walking next to each other, one of whom really didn’t want the other there.

In that sense, Rachel Moss is right: with public order out of alignment, being kind to someone who doesn’t look white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant can be a radical act.

Or not, because the authorities have made clear that that kind of behavior will not be tolerated (and also the make-up of the “leave” voters has been caricatured, in my opinion, but that’s another topic). By practicing caritas toward others, you are in fact standing with, not against, civic leaders such as Mayor Sadiq Khan. Even Theresa May isn’t espousing xenophobic behavior, quite the opposite at the moment. So, against what norms does an act have to stand for it to be radical–societal, governmental, political, national? Or only against a nucleus of individuals in a given instance?

I’m of the opinion that not everything in life is activism, although it’s fashionable these days to say that everything is activism and one’s daily life choices cannot be separated from the public sphere. That’s a reductio ad absurdum: if everything is activism, then nothing is. I wouldn’t put kindness in that category, sui generis.

And I wonder what is lost when we transfer the validation of caritas to the public sphere. Kindness needs no justification beyond the transcendent religious or philosophical conviction that it is right, that it is universal, and that it is a matter of conscience. If that is to be a radical activist, then I fear for the state of the world.