Icon, inspiration, authentic, sisterhood – just a few words sucked dead by inappropriate- and over- use on social media. The accelerator effect of viral Tweets and Instagram memes has reduced the life-expectancy of compelling prose, and now it’s coming for ‘kind’.
To be clear, I think kindness is great. Receiving kindness restores our faith in humanity and turns a bad day good in a beat, although it’s not just about filling our cups with kindness from other people. Paying it forward is equally life-affirming as we bask in the reflected warmth of our own good deeds.
In the context of a relationship sucked dry by small children, kindness to each other is essential. It’s the Saturday mornings when you drag yourself out of bed with the kids because your partner-in-slime is deep into their energy overdraft; it’s the cup of tea brought to the bedside when it’s your turn to ignore shrill voices and sharp fingers.
Kindness is all kinds of wonderful when it pays attention and comes from a place of genuine concern.
Increasingly however, the concept of ‘kindness’ is being manipulated to deliver questionable ends.
Rallying cries for kindness are often heard after public figures – particularly celebrities or social media ‘influencers’ – bungle their approach to sensitive issues like race or gender. They come under attack, and while abuse, harassment and threats are indefensible, amongst the vitriol there are often kernels of truth that deserve to be heard.
Unfortunately, in these situations the nuanced viewpoints of informed voices tend to drown in a deluge of loyalty. Anyone who dares to disagree with the Queen Bee, no matter how carefully and diplomatically, is sent to the sin-bin with the spiteful. They are judged as equally unkind.
This mentality constructs a silencing false equivalence where to criticise is to be cruel, while ‘kindness’ is cool. It insists that if we are nice to each other then uncomfortable truths will dissolve in the face of our positivity.
Hello magazine’s recent #sayhellotokindness campaign demonstrated this perfectly. The magazine launched the campaign to encourage kindness online following a torrent of racist and sexist abuse towards the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex.
What Hello magazine failed to acknowledge was that this abuse doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Women receive sexist abuse because we live in a society that systematically devalues our existence; People of Colour receive racist abuse because we live in a world built on the back of White supremacy.
The campaign was further flawed as it was served with an unconscious side order of benevolent sexism. Afterall, can you imagine a group of arguing men being told to ‘be kind’ as a solution to their ill-tempered and abusive dispute?
Kindness should be encouraged, but using it to tackle gendered and racial oppression is like treating a broken neck with sellotape.
More recently, an important conversation about the roles of charity and celebrity in the developing world has been similarly undermined. After Stacey Dooley was criticised for the way she publicised her work with Comic Relief, supporters of both her and the charity were quick to claim the moral high ground as they stressed the ‘good’ that charity work does.
Forget about the child – who Dooley didn’t know – being used as a prop; forget about the harmful narratives about Africa and its peoples habitually peddled by Comic Relief and other charities; forget about the clear lines we can draw between poverty in Africa and Colonialism. What really matters is they’re trying to help and do something kind, why can’t we thank them for their kindness, why do you have to be so critical and unkind…?
But what if we’ve misunderstood what kindness even is? What if, every time we shut someone down and call for kindness, we’re actually asking for polite, don’t-rock-the-boat, nice-ness?
Robyn diAngelo, an American academic, consultant and writer on white racial identity and race relations, defines kindness as:
“compassionate and often implicates actions to support or intervene. For example, I am having car trouble and you stop and see if you can help. I appear upset after a work meeting and you check in and listen with the intent of supporting me. Niceness, by contrast, is fleeting, hollow and performative.”Robyn diAngelo, The Guardian
Those last three words would be at home in any sentence about social media and as ‘kindness’ has been harnessed as currency in the online world, the rinse and repeat has diluted its meaning.
Kindness is more than a series of random individual acts and should never be used to silence criticism; we also have to accept it might not always be comfortable or easy.
Niceness, so often mistaken for kindness, is small – it dictates what someone will receive. In contrast, ‘kindness’ is a grand and incomplete project that listens to what people really need, and then, most importantly, delivers it.